Monday, August 8, 2016
August 8, 2016: American Fathers: Mr. Mom
[August 11th marks the birthday of AmericanStudier pére, as well as one of the very best digital humanists, scholarly writers, and grandfathers I know, Steve Railton. In his honor, a series on some noteworthy cultural and historical American fathers! Share your paternal responses and reflections for the father of all crowd-sourced posts!]
On the ways in which we’ve come pretty far in the last few decades—and the ways in which we haven’t.
As representative cultural documents go, I’m not sure you can find a more embarrassingly telling one than the Michael Keaton comic film Mr. Mom (1983; written by John Hughes). Fired from his job and forced to stay home while his wife becomes the family’s sole breadwinner (returning to a promising career in advertising she had abandoned once they had children), Keaton’s character proves entirely, comically inept at—as just that hyperlinked minute and a half long trailer illustrates—vacuuming, cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, child care, and even disposing of diapers in the trash, among other things. Even the film’s title alone makes clear that the very idea of a married man performing “Mom’s” roles is a source of comedy, a nonsensical paradox that can be solved only by Keaton’s manic eyebrow wiggling. While of course the film could be read as part of the decade’s backlash against feminism, or as symbolizing cultural fears about what the presence of more women in the workforce might mean, it also clearly reveals that the simple idea of a dad performing household activities was nothing short of ludicrous to many Americans in the early 1980s.
Much has changed in America in the three-plus decades since that film’s 1983 release, of course, and one of the most striking such social changes has been the rise in the number of fathers who are identified as their children’s primary caregiver. Recent statistics for that trend can’t entirely be separated from the 2008 recession, and thus from accidental and temporary situations and employment and role changes not unlike those in the movie. Yet I believe that the trend is also more long-term and intentional than that—my evidence is primarily anecdotal, but I can most definitely say that within the families of many friends and colleagues, and indeed across a high percentage of the families in my own generation with which I’m familiar, fathers are choosing to (at the very least) share evenly in the duties of home and childraising. And indeed in many cases, including my own prior to my divorce, dads are, whether because of circumstance, profession, inclination, or (often) a combination of all those factors, taking on the majority of such duties. Call us Mr. Mom if you want—the title no longer carries the same humorous sting.
And yet. In a variety of ways, cultural narratives seem not to have changed nearly so much. To cite one small but telling example, virtually every page of Parents magazine is directed specifically at moms; there will usually be one article per issue by a dad for dads or the like, but otherwise, this ostensibly gender-neutral publication remains overtly and overwhelmingly focused on moms. The same is true for almost every TV commercial featuring products for kids: “Mom, if you’re looking to feed your kids healthier…,” and so on. And while I know that such media and marketing choices are at least partly based on business and basic statistics—if as this 2012 article argues 35% of dads are the primary caregiver, that still means the majority of primary caregivers and thus readers/customers are moms—there are other cultural signs as well. One of the much-hyped (if ultimately unsuccessful) recent TV comedies, for example, was called Guys with Kids, a title and set of marketing images that seem to suggest that the very idea of a man with kids remains a source of comic ridiculousness. But at least the guys are plural, so maybe Mr. Mom is evolving a bit. If so, I’d say it’s time.
Next father tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Fatherly texts or figures you’d highlight?