For some time I’ve been fascinated, and increasingly frustrated, by Hollywood’s love affair with fathers. From the start, the film industry has been heavily invested in the assertion of patriarchal authority, generally by portraying fathers as the ultimate source of benevolence, wisdom, and social cohesion. Since the eighties, though, the theme has shifted somewhat: fathers are frequently portrayed as two-bit bums, scoundrels, even monsters who ultimately, through some life-transforming experience usually involving time spent with annoying young children, become icons of fatherliness. It’s as if all the contemporary concerns about “deadbeat dads,” the degradation of the male role in minority communities, and other indications of patriarchal fault lines in the culture are being enacted and then wished away through the magic of the movies.
I was thinking about this when I watched the latest movie on our Blockbuster queue, “The Game Plan.” It’s about a self-centered quarterback who discovers he has an insufferably cute eight-year-old daughter by a previous marriage; inevitably, this egomaniac (played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) becomes a model parent, the kind of guy who’d give up a $25 million endorsement to spend an afternoon with his little girl. It’s the same plot, all else being equal, of half the films on my bookshelf: “A Night at the Museum,” “Shrek 4,” “Jurassic Park” (parts 1 and 2), “War of the Worlds,” “Big Daddy,” “Tron: Legacy,” “Despicable Me,” even, for God’s sake, “The Simpsons Movie.” Granted, that last one plays some riffs on the theme, but unless my DVD collection is wildly out of step with the rest of the nation, this appears to be a trend.
I’m a dad. I’m a pretty good dad, if I do say so myself. I spend tons of time with my kids, read to them, play with them, support them, encourage them, hug them, tell them I love them; I don’t ignore them, abuse them, demean them, deny them. But I’m also human, and I do have to balance my own needs with theirs; I can’t always put aside everything for them or find complete and total fulfillment in them. This makes me, according to Hollywood, a Bad Dad. So I’ve got to be whipped into shape, subjected to an endless barrage of reminders that Dads are the rock (“The Rock”) upon which civilization rests and without which it would crumble. I’ve got to be treated to the Hollywood obsession with simultaneously glorifying and demonizing Dads, fingering them as failures unless they live up to an unrealistic ideal every moment of their lives.
Maybe I’m just watching the wrong movies. But then, there is no film of which I’m aware called “Mother Knows Best.”