What about the divorcing dad looking for encouragement to enter the “female” domain of trying to get sole custody of his children? Movies are exactly where he should not look for that encouragement.
By Jerry A. Boggs
If a woman wants to move into a “male” occupation, she has for decades found encouragement from women in movies. Females on the big screen are physicists, astronauts, politicians, CEOs – virtually anything men are. Even in the ultra-macho “James Bond” world of spying, Bond’s boss is a woman.
But what about the divorcing dad looking for encouragement to move into the “female” domain of having sole custody of his children? Movies are the last place he should look for that encouragement.
In the countless films depicting a divorced couple with kids, the ex-husband almost never appears in the traditional female domain of custodial parent. Instead, he is often portrayed as emotionally distant, if not abusive, and comes across as so parentally challenged that he couldn’t possibly deserve to raise his kids by himself. Think of the wholly inept dad played by Tom Cruise in “War of the Worlds.”
Some movies do show dad raising his kids alone. Oddly, though, these movies don’t even come close to encouraging fathers to seek custody. The huge majority of them have dad rearing his children alone not because he deserved them and obtained custody in his own right, as divorced moms are readily presumed to have done, but because the movies set a condition that is quite bizarre.
Consider the following films. They are, according to VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever, which synopsizes the last century’s American movies that are available on video, most of the few films from the 1990s depicting a dad as the sole caretaker of his brood: “She’s All That,” “Contact,” “Billboard Dad,” “Fly Away Home,” “Casper,” “Clueless,” “Johnny’s Girl,” “Sleepless In Seattle,” “The American President,” “Imaginary Crimes,” “Jack the Bear,” “Fathers and Sons,” “Hidden in America,” “Eyes of An Angel,” “My Girl,” “Ghost Dad.” From the 2000s: “The Contract” (John Cusack, 2006), “The Holiday” (Jude Law as the dad, 2006), and the ABC movie “Impact” (June 21, 2009).
After watching just a few of these movies, you may recognize the bizarre condition on which dad is allowed custody. In every single one of these films, the children’s mom is dead. In fact, she is dead in almost all of the 34 movies that the VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever 2000 lists as produced in the 20th century and showing dad raising his kids by himself.
A handful of the 34 father-with-custody movies, such as “Slums of Beverly Hills,” “Milk Money,” and “Commando,” makes no mention of mom. But for the moviegoer accustomed to nearly always discovering that mom is dead when the father has custody, the impulse is to think she’s dead in these as well.
What gives? After all, in the far more numerous movies in which mom is raising the kids alone, dad is almost always alive and in at least a peripheral role. Is this a sneaky way, as some feminists might insist, of limiting the roles of actresses?
Believing it to be instead an effort to limit the rights of fathers, I sent a list of the films and my opinion on the matter to Dr. Warren Farrell, expert on gender issues and author of the riveting Father and Child Reunion.
He emailed back a confirmation of my hunch: “Any scenario other than death or an inexplicable absence would risk making mom look like she might have chosen to forfeit her maternal responsibilities. Or, heaven forbid, that she was on drugs, or in prison, or unable to handle the child. Implicit in the Hollywood formula of mom-by-option and dad-by-default is mom never at fault…to a fault. Ironically, we have rejected a world in which Rosie can only be a Riveter if Johnny is in a war, but replaced it with a world in which Johnny can only be a dad when Rosie is in a grave.”
Blunt, but there it is.
Why filmmakers arrange for mom to be dead in their father-custody movies seemed obvious to both Farrell and me: They don’t want to offend moviegoers, especially female moviegoers, by having dad trump mom in “her” domain. That possibility is hinted at when, as often happens, these movies seem to apologize for dad having the kids by showing both him and the kids longing for mom and remembering how wonderful she was. Were mom alive and the kids not in her charge, female moviegoers might wonder aghast, “Why does he have the kids,” and set about bad-mouthing the film.
Movie makers in the past avoided offending men by barring females from “male” realms. Before, say, 1975, a woman as James Bonds’ boss wouldn’t have worked. Too many viewers, especially male viewers, might have choked on their popcorn, thinking, “Why does a woman have that job?”
Today men are more accepting. “Even the macho man,” says Farrell, “has become more secure with a woman as his boss than the average female moviegoer is with dad as her equal.”
Whatever the reason mom is dead (or implied as such) in the dad-with-custody movies, in both these movies and the mom-with-custody movies, the accumulative effect carries a clear message to divorcing dads who want custody of their children: You’ll get the kids over mom’s dead body! For the dad who needs loads of encouragement to seek custody, that could make him throw in the towel before he even starts.
UPDATE: In October 2010, a similar trend continues: In Fox TV’s new sitcom “Raising Hope,” baby Hope’s mom is in jail. This is, I’m sure, intended to calm female viewers, prevent them from getting turned off and tuning out as they complain, “Why doesn’t the mom have custody of that child?” The implication would be that while women have every right to be full equals in the world of work, men should not be full equals in the world of children.
Also, note that in the new 2012 Fox TV drama series “Touch,” Keith Sutherland plays a dad who is raising his visionary son alone. The dad, naturally, is a widower.
A Male Matters comment:
I divide society into two “worlds”: the world of work (the productive world) and the world of children (the reproductive world). Each needs the other for its survival. Both obviously are needed for civilization’s survival. Thus, the two worlds are equally important. Despite this equal importance, what seems to be the result, intended or not, thus far of ideological feminism’s 35-year-old push for “gender equality”? It seems to be this: A push to end men’s dominance in the world of work and to preserve women’s dominance in the world of children. Movies, which are mostly the product of a mostly liberal and hence feminist Hollywood, certainly seem to project that.