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
Updated September 25, 2014
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.
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, they don’t even come close to encouraging fathers to seek custody. The huge majority 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 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,” and “Ghost Dad.”
From the 2000s: “The Contract” (John Cusack, 2006), “The Holiday” (Jude Law, 2006), “Impact” (ABC TV mini-series, 2008), “The Descendants,” (George Clooney, 2011), the animated children’s movies “Hotel Transylvania” (2012) and “Epic” (2013), “Interstellar” (Matthew McConaughey, 2014), and “Those Who Wish Me Dead” (Angelina Jolie, 2021). (I credit most if not all of these movies for depicting good father and child relationships.)
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 “The Descendants,” the mother is comatose, dead for all intents and purposes.) In fact, the mom 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 about a movie showing an uncle raising a sibling’s child? The same theme is used. In the delightful 2017 movie “Gifted,” an uncle is raising his 7-year-old niece. The sister, of course, is dead. Before committing suicide, she told her brother to take of her daughter.
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, maybe, but there it is.
Why filmmakers script mom as 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. (In movies about male-female relationships, the fear of offending female movie-goers might also be why the filmmakers almost always show the wife or girlfriend ending a relationship, rather than showing the husband or boyfriend ending it. If either a male character or a female character could be seen as unworthy of a relationship, it will be the male.)
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 even think about being 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.
[Thanks to Warren Farrell for crediting me in his Father and Child Reunion for discovering and documenting this insidious bias against movie dads.]
Update November 8, 2013: I have discovered another subtle bias against males in the world of children.
My granddaughter is 15 months old as of this writing. I have spent a lot of time with her at her home, feeding her, burping her, rocking her to sleep (pure heaven!), and playing on the floor with her. She has more toys than I can count. Many if not most of them have speaking or singing voices. In the last month or so, I realized that all the voices are female. What message does that inculcate in baby boys starting almost at infancy? What does it tell grown men about their inclusion in the world of children — even as they are ordered to get out of the way of women’s inclusion in the world of work?
Here are some of my granddaughter’s favorite speaking and singing toys, all of which are gender neutral but feature female voices only:
- VTECH Rhyme & Discover Book
- VTECH Tiny Touch Phone
- Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn™ Love to Play Puppy™
- Fisher-Price Smart Screen Laptop
- VTECH 3-in-1 Smart Wheel
- VTECH Sit-to-Stand Learning Walker
(I have heard only one male voice: Sesame Street’s My First Story Reader.)
Now consider something else: My granddaughter spends six to eight hours almost every week-day at a daycare where the pre-school children range in ages from a few months to five years. All the daycare’s employees are female. This reinforces the message that men don’t belong in the world of children.
A Male Matters explanation:
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.