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 film Mr. Mom (1983). Fired from his job and forced to stay home while his wife becomes the family’s sole breadwinner, Keaton’s character proves entirely, comically inept at—as just that 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 decades since that film’s 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 current recession, and thus from accidental 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 least) share evenly the duties of home and childraising and (in many cases, including my own) are because of circumstance, profession, and inclination 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. 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 for products for kids: “Mom, if you’re looking to feed your kids healthier…,” and so on. And while I know that such choices are at least partly based on business and basic statistics—if as the above 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 new fall TV shows, for example, is 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-focused post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses, ideas, or suggestions about fatherhood in America?
8/13 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two very different but equally interesting and influential 19th century women, Lucy Stone and Annie Oakley.
Thanks Ben, as always, for the insights. It's so true...the jokes of that Mr. Mom and its ilk are so rooted in one's ability to relate to being inept at "womanly" things. I remember thinking the movie was funny as a kid, but I can't see myself finding it funny to see a man unable to run a washing machine or change a diaper in this day and age, although I'm sure Michael Keaton brings the charm:)ReplyDelete
BTW...Have you managed to read "Manhood for Amateurs" by Michael Chabon? It's a series of short essays on being a man, dad, husband, brother, etc. in the modern day. I'm really enjoying the truth and wit. You might want to check it out if you haven't already.