DADS IN MOVIES NOT TREATED AS EQUALS TO MOMS

By Jerry A. Boggs                                                   A Link to the Source Article

WOMEN THINKING about moving into "male" occupations have for decades found plenty of encouragement in movies. Females on screen are physicists, astronauts, politicians, CEOs - virtually anything men are. Even in the ultra-macho "James Bond" world of spying, Bonds' boss is a woman.

But what about the divorcing dad looking for encouragement to move into the "female" domain of trying to get sole custody of his children? Movies are exactly where he shouldn't look for that encouragement. In the countless films depicting a divorced couple with kids, the ex-husband almost never is in the traditional female domain of custodial parent. Instead, he is often emotionally distant, if not abusive, and is so parentally challenged that he couldn't possibly be seen as deserving to raise his kids by himself.

Some movies do show dad caring for his kids alone. Oddly, though, they don't do anything close to encouraging fathers to even think about trying for custody. The huge majority of these movies have dad rearing his children alone not because he deserved them and obtained custody in his own right, as divorced moms are readily presumed to have done, but because of one particular, rather bizarre condition that has been met.

Consider the following films. They are, according to VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever 2000, which synopsizes the last century's American movies that are available on video, most of the few films from the 1990s depicting a dad as the sole caretaker of his brood: "She's All That", "Contact", "Billboard Dad", "Fly Away Home", "Casper", "Clueless", "Johnny's Girl", "Sleepless In Seattle", "The American President", "Imaginary Crimes", "Jack the Bear", "Fathers and Sons", "Hidden in America", "Eyes of An Angel", "My Girl", and "Ghost Dad."

Watching these movies, you soon recognize the bizarre condition under which dad has custody. In every single one of these films, the children's mom is dead. In fact, she is dead in almost all of the 34 movies that the VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever 2000 lists as produced in the 20th century and showing dad raising his kids by himself.

A handful of the 34 "father with custody" movies, such as "Slums of Beverly Hills", "Milk Money", and "Commando" makes no mention of mom. But for the moviegoer accustomed to nearly always discovering that mom is dead when the father has custody, the impulse is to think she's dead in these also.

What gives? After all, in the far more numerous movies in which mom is raising the kids alone, dad is almost always alive and in at least a peripheral role. Is this a sneaky way, as some feminists might charge, of limiting actresses' roles in movies?

Believing it to be instead an effort to limit fathers, I sent a list of the films and my opinion on the matter to Dr. Warren Farrell, expert on gender issues and author of the riveting
"Father and Child Reunion".

He emailed back a confirmation of my hunch: "Any scenario other than death or an inexplicable absence would risk making mom look like she might have chosen to forfeit her maternal responsibilities. Or, heaven forbid, that she was on drugs, or in prison, or unable to handle the child. Implicit in the Hollywood formula of mom-by-option and dad-by-default is mom never at fault...to a fault. Ironically, we have rejected a world in which Rosie can only be a Riveter if Johnny is in a war, but replaced it with a world in which Johnny can only be a dad when Rosie is in a grave.

Blunt, but there it is. Why filmmakers arrange for mom to be dead in their father-custody movies seemed obvious to both Farrell and me: They don't want to offend female moviegoers by having dad trump mom in "her" domain. That possibility is hinted at when, as often happens, these movies seem to apologize for dad having the kids by showing both him and the kids longing for mom and remembering how wonderful she was. Were mom alive and not overseeing her flock, female moviegoers might wonder aghast, "Why does he have the kids," and set about bad-mouthing the movie. Filmmakers used to avoid offending men by keeping females out of "male" realms. Before, say, 1975, a woman as James Bonds' boss wouldn't have worked. Too many male viewers might have choked on their popcorn, thinking, "Why does a
woman have that job?" Today men are more accepting. "Even the macho man," says Farrell, "has become more secure with a woman as his boss than the average female moviegoer is with dad as her equal."

Whatever the reason that mom is typically dead (or implied to be) in the dad-with-custody movies, in both these movies and the mom-with-custody movies, the accumulative effect produces a clear message to divorcing dads: You won't get your children until mom dies. For the dad who needs lots of encouragement to try for custody, that could make him throw in the towel even before he starts. (P.S.: Warren Farrell credits me in
Father and Child Reunion for researching and documenting this insidious bias against fathers in movies.)