Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Dolores Abernathy on Westworld, has been taking a bit of flack on Twitter for this:
You should never date a guy like the cop from #strangerthings Extreme jealousy and violent rages are not flattering or sexy like TV would have you believe.
That is all.
— #EvanRachelWould (@evanrachelwood) July 5, 2019
(Because I don’t trust Twitter embeds, she wrote: “You should never date a guy like the cop from #strangerthings Extreme jealousy and violent rages are not flattering or sexy like TV would have you believe. That is all.”)
Some of her critics have been tediously pointing out that Sheriff Jim Hopper is a fictional character, as if we don’t discuss the ethics of of fictional characters all the time. (Also, as I’ll explain in a minute, part of Wood’s point is that real people aren’t like Hopper.)
Many other critics make a somewhat better point, which is that Hopper never hits Joyce Byers or any of the kids. He may be filled with rage, but he doesn’t actually hurt anyone — except the show’s bad guys, of course. That’s not a completely satisfying response, however, because angry men don’t have to actually hit women to scare the crap out of them, and scaring the crap out of someone is certainly abusive.
All of which brings me to the point that I think Wood was trying to make with her tweet: Fictional people like Hopper and real people like Hopper are not the same thing.
Fictional Sheriff Hopper is a guy with issues. He gets angry a lot. However, no matter how pissed-off he gets, Hopper would never actually hit Joyce or any of the children. We know this, because we recognize him as a well-known fictional archetype: The Violent Male Who Only Hurts Bad People.
That guy is everywhere in our fiction, from James Bond to Dominic Toretto to John Wick. Many comic superheros fit the mold — Batman, Wolverine, Deadpool, the Punisher, the Hulk, Hellboy — as do many of the love interests in romance novels. Actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Dwayne Johnson have spent half their careers playing some variation of that character. When we see this guy, we all know him, and we all know he’s not going to hurt the innocent people in his life.
The objection that abusive men don’t have to hit women to abuse them doesn’t really apply either because, by the rules of the genre, the fictional women and fictional children in his fictional life are quite aware that he won’t hurt them. In Stranger Things, Joyce Byers is startled and confused by Hopper’s rage at times, but she never reacts like she’s really afraid of him.
(I didn’t re-watch the entire show, but I can’t remember any real fear of him. If I got that wrong, I’ll have to walk this back.)
Another example of this is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in Kindergarden Cop. He’s tough police detective who goes undercover as a school teacher. Much of the humor in the movie comes from the fact that no one is afraid of him — not the women teachers, not the lady principle, and not any of the children.
In the real world, violent people don’t follow genre rules. People with impulse control problems aren’t always able to draw the lines so carefully. They don’t just get violent with criminals and terrorists. They hurt people who are close to them, either because they can’t tell the difference, or because they just don’t care. In real life, guys who act like Hopper can be dangerous to have in your life.
We put up with a lot in fictional characters that we shouldn’t in real life. Fictional TV cops like Walt Longmire or Steve McGarrett beat the crap out of suspects, and we’re more or less okay with it, because Cop Who Breaks All The Rules For Justice is another well-known archetype. This cop may break the rules, but he always only does it to keep really bad people from getting away. This is unlike real-life rule-breaking cops, who are more likely to beat the crap out of 15-year-old turnstile jumpers who mouth off.
Another example is the character of Leroy Jethro Gibbs on NCIS. As a fictional character, he comes across as a stern teacher and charmingly gruff boss. But a real-life boss who bullies his employees, sometimes even hitting them, is an HR nightmare who drags down everyone on his team.
Or, getting back to Stranger Things, let’s think about the character of Eleven for a minute. This is a child who was isolated and emotionally abused all her life, and who was subjected to unethical science experiments. And at every moment she is carrying a weapon — her dangerous psychic ability — with which she has already killed at least a dozen people. Knowing all this about her, would you really let her anywhere near your children?
It’s the nature of our relationship to fiction that we empathize with the protagonists of a story, even when they are objectively bad people. The move Bonnie and Clyde from 1967 is a notorious example that made a couple of murderous bank robbers into romantic protagonists. More recently, the writers on Breaking Bad used this effect with Walter White, intentionally making him into a self-absorbed violent jerk…who we still wanted to see win.
The effect doesn’t always work, however, because sometimes viewers have trouble getting past real life. I liked the Major Crimes police procedural stories, but every now and then I found myself yelling at the screen because they did something I had read about in one of Radley Balko’s gut-punching stories of police misconduct. I also had trouble enjoying the 1991 comedy Nothing But Trouble, about a bunch of big-city travelers who get in trouble in a small town ruled by a sadistic judge who likes to use a special machine called “Mr. Bonestripper” to execute people without a proper trial. It’s supposed to be a dark comedy, but I couldn’t get it out of my head that there are real places in the world where sadistic rulers find amusing ways to kill people who anger them.
For Evan Rachel Wood watching Stranger Things, it was Hopper’s out-of-control anger that was too close to reality. She knows a thing or two about sexual assault and domestic violence, and Hopper set off some warnings. He’s an entertaining character, but she wouldn’t want the real-world version of him in her life.