Monday, November 28, 2011

Mr. Mom

“Women and children can be careless but not men.” – Don Vito Corleone

The image of what a father should be as espoused by Hollywood is certainly interesting. By their reckoning, a father should be a mother as well. He should be willing to cheerlead for his kids, kiss their bandages when they have scrapes, and blow off important business meetings so he can attend school plays. It is also implied in the movies that if you don’t do all the above, you’re a bad father.

I was watching Kramer vs. Kramer the other day, and I was struck by how Mr Kramer, on being abandoned by his wife, struggled to combine the duties of father, mother, provider and carer for his son. Of course, being America, when the child behaved like a total jackass, Mr Kramer was not allowed to give him the backhand he so richly deserved.

His work performance began to suffer; he began missing deadlines, and was soon fired. His boss was portrayed as an unfeeling, uncaring son-of-a-bitch who refused to understand that raising a child was more important than keeping clients happy. The movie made it clear that Kramer was putting his child’s demands ahead of his career, and implied that you were meant to applaud him.

Gradually, Kramer became his son’s mother and movie audiences oohed and aahed. Career is not important, family is. Never mind that the career is what allowed him to afford the nice apartment and toys and clothes and food and that at one point he was faced with the very real prospect of being unable to do so anymore. We are meant to watch such movies and say, “Yes, this is what fatherhood is about.”

And what about Mrs Kramer? She walked out on her husband because she felt misunderstood. He wasn’t abusive, wasn’t failing to provide for her and his son, wasn’t running around with other women, wasn’t an alcoholic. The movie never explored the fact that her reasons for walking out on her husband AND her son were superfluous at best, and at worst extremely stupid. Had it been Mr Kramer who walked out on his wife in those circumstances, the movie would have gone out of its way to pillory him as the worst possible father and held him up as what not to be.

In her case, the movie expects you to understand her reasons and even sympathise with her. And, naturally, despite her walking out on her family without so much as a by your leave and disappearing for 18 months, the judge awards her custody of the child and orders Mr Kramer (who has at this point sacrificed his career for his son) to pay child support and maintenance. The movie ends with her acknowledging that she can’t really take care of the boy, but puts her refusal to take him down to her realisation that he is already home.

Anyone remember the episode of The Fresh Prince where Will’s father unexpectedly shows up, promises to take Will on a road trip and then bails at the last minute? That episode never explores why Will’s father left his mother in the first place, never tells us if he realised he wasn’t capable of doing right by his boy and so decided to let the capable parent handle the job. Instead, it conveys that this man is a deadbeat dad for not being around his son and for coming up with some “flimsy” excuse for not taking Will on that road trip like he promised. (The man said he had a job, but it’s made pretty clear that we are not supposed to believe him.)

I’m not saying deadbeat dads don’t exist, but you can contrast the treatment men who walk out on their families get against women who do the same. The man is always a bum, and the woman is always some tragic figure and it’s her husband’s fault that she left. If he had been more understanding, she would have stayed with him and they would have been one big happy family. In simpler terms, no matter what happens, it is always the man’s fault that his marriage broke up. If he cheated on her, he’s a bastard, but if she cheated on him it’s his fault for not having a good enough sex game. In Ray, Ray Charles’ mother watches her blind son stumbling around and refuses to step in and help him, forcing him to adapt to the situation by using his ears. We applaud her for teaching him how to cope, but had it been a man, they would have found some way to make the act appear callous.

Movies tell us that a father should be there for all the little moments, even if it means putting his career on the line. He should be willing to say, “Fuck the job and the salary, I’m going to be at that kindergarten recital.” How then does this father figure teach his son how to be a man? To take care of his family, and see that they are provided for? How does the Hollywood dad teach his son to take his career seriously when his own example is of blowing off his career so he can hold up a camcorder at a Thanksgiving pageant? The simple answer is that he can’t.

I read online that the current generation of women is outstripping men in terms of career achievement, and women are now complaining that the current generation of men, well, don’t know how to be men. How could they when the examples they saw growing up told them that things like careers and job responsibilities don’t matter? Kramer took a lower paying and less stressful job so he could spend more time with his son and this was very noble, to be sure, but what happens when the kid wants to go to college in 8 years?

I am not yet a father, but I don’t subscribe to the view that blowing off an important meeting so I can grab a pair of pom-poms and cheerlead at football practice means I’m a good dad. What does doing that teach my son about being a man? Wouldn’t he be better served by me teaching him self-reliance? Showing him that he has to be strong for his own family? In fact, jeopardising my career would be the very height of irresponsibility. It would mean that I am abandoning my responsibility to my family, and jeopardising the futures of my children.

The only movie dads who teach their kids about strength, responsibility, and the importance of family tend to be criminals. There’s something terribly wrong with this picture.

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I love my country, enjoy a cold beer once in a while, rabidly support Arsenal FC, but I don't get Diet Coke...