The combination of being a professional analyzer of literature and being a daily reader of at least a couple children’s books means that I spend quite a bit of time—some might say way too much time, but I yam what I yam—analyzing those books. That’s especially true of the ones that I’ve read enough by this point to be able to recite them largely by heart, freeing my mind for even deeper such analyses. And near the top of that list, both because I have read it a ton and because it’s just full of mysteries awaiting—nay, demanding—my analytical attention, is The Cat in the Hat. The most striking mysteries are the most central ones: why is the Cat so thoroughly destructive a presence in the home of Sally and the unnamed narrator, and what are kids to take away from this tale of an uninvited house guest who bends rakes, tears gowns, traumatizes fish, and the like? But underlying those mysteries is an even more foundational, and (given the book’s 1957 publication date) even more striking, one: why has Mother left her two young children alone for the day, and where’s Father?
I might be reading too much into it (shockingly), but it seems to me that Mother is a single parent, and that because of that status she sometimes has to leave her kids at home alone (leaving them open in the process to the advances of strange men, or male cats at least, and their wild and destructive Things, but again I’m really not sure what to make of that). If so, that would make Cat a pretty significantly alternative vision of family in the era of Leave It to Beaver and, more relevantly, of the Little Bear books, which feature Mother Bear who stays at home and sews and cooks and Father Bear who goes off on long fishing trips in his hat and tie. Over the next few decades, of course, our pop culture images of family would become significantly more diverse and varied, and single parents thus less striking of a prospect (although in many representations, as in the 1980s TV shows Who’s the Boss? and Full House, those single parent families are due to deaths, not divorce or children born out of wedlock). But I would argue that our most dominant narratives of family identity still rely heavily on very traditional nuclear models; and relatedly, one role for many out-of-the-mainstream texts (such as independent films) has been to push back on those models and construct their own alternative visions of family.
Two of the most smart and successful indie films of the last fifteen years, Don Roos’ The Opposite of Sex (1998) and Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me (2000), are centered on precisely such alternative family units. Lonergan’s is slightly more conventional, with pitch-perfect Laura Linney’s never-married single mother trying to balance raising her son, working full-time (and beginning an affair with Matthew Broderick’s married co-worker), and mothering her wayward brother (played to equal perfection by Mark Ruffalo); but the reason for their close sibling relationship, the death of both of their parents when they were very young, makes them a fundamentally distinct kind of family. On the other hand, Roos’s vision of family is purposefully non-traditional and extreme—the film’s central family unit features a teenage runaway (Christina Ricci), her gay step-brother (Martin Donovan), his young boyfriend who then becomes Ricci’s boyfriend (Ivan Sergei), and the sister (Lisa Kudrow) of Donovan’s former boyfriend who had died of AIDS—but by the end of the film makes clear how much these characters, and the few others who have come into their circle, have become most definitely a family in the fullest senses, including the presence of two newborn babies in the mix. Similarly, both movies take very cynical and sarcastic tones toward themes like love and loyalty for much of their running time, yet by their conclusions they have become (in entirely believable and not at all clichéd ways) testaments to how much their characters and relationships emblematize those themes (if at times in spite of themselves).
Such non-traditional families are, of course, no more necessarily representative as images of the American family than were Beaver’s and Little Bear’s; it is, instead, very much the spectrum of possibilities for what family is and means that represents the variety and diversity of American experiences and models. And thanks to some of our most talented artistic voices, from Dr. Seuss up to Roos and Lonergan, our popular culture includes, and thus helps make more present and (ultimately) more fully accepted, many more of those possibilities. More tomorrow, on the soldier, priest, and community activist who asked Early Republic America to look itself in the face.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) The first ten minutes of Opposite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7anCr0K71h0
2) Just a little snippet from You Can, but any snippet with both Linney and Ruffalo is like a master class in greatness: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0peJN3hcbo
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