While I ended my last post by snarkily suggesting that pop culture’s fascination with fathers might give way to an interest in motherhood, the truth is a lot of messages about moms are already encoded in these male-centric narratives.
Some of the most consistent (and contradictory) that I’ve noticed are that nurturing comes more naturally to women, but when men take on childcare they will usually excel — although that doesn’t make them women or gay, because ew. (Gay men are allowed to have babies, as long as one of them is the “mom” — and it’s preferable if they don’t show too much affection.) Women who leave their kids are terrible people, as are single mothers (although you should still turn to them for advice). Having a baby is simultaneously the most fulfilling thing you can do and also the most brain-deadening (if you’re a man, at least; that’s either not the case or it doesn’t matter when it comes to women). And finally, although men are brilliant at childcare once they get the hang of it, it’s ultimately a woman’s responsibility and should revert back to them where possible.
Reinforcing traditional gender roles is the entire point of 1983’s Mr Mom, which finds Jack (Michael Keaton) forced to stay home after he loses his job and his wife Caroline (Teri Garr) swaps being a SAHM for a return to advertising. Despite Caroline telling him his new role will be “easy”, Jack struggles. He drops his kids off at school incorrectly, can’t make his way around the supermarket without knocking stuff over, and lets their baby eat chilli (with some intense gastrointestinal consequences). Even worse, he’s treated with disrespect by his kid’s teacher and his wife’s boss, who hurt his pride by implying he’s a woman.
Meanwhile, Caroline struggles to assert herself in her new smoke- and testosterone-filled environment, but her boss likes her moxie (and her looks) and starts taking her on high-powered business trips. Still, she can’t help acting like a mom, cutting up her boss’s steak when they share a meal and winning a huge account thanks to her understanding of what housewives want. One day, Caroline comes home and finds Jack flirting with an over-friendly single mom (you can’t trust those bidges) and tells him she’s disgusted, not only with his behavior but because his new lifestyle has made him grow a beard and a gut. He says that he doesn’t care and that his brain has turned to oatmeal from being at home with the kids. Caroline responds that she felt the same way but was comforted by the fact that she was raising good children. (Who needs personal fulfillment?) “And I had pride in being Mrs Jack Butler!” She adds, erasing her own identity.
This little pep talk inspires Jack to pull his socks up, albeit in a stereotypically masculine way: he takes charge of domestic duties like painting the fence, making a remote control for the vacuum cleaner, and making his son give up his comfort blanket so he isn’t such a wuss. (Important!) Before he gets too comfortable, though, his old boss changes his mind and begs Jack to return to work. Handily, Caroline has just quit her job because she misses her kids (and that comforting oatmeal brain feeling, presumably). The movie ends with order restored to the family and the universe: Jack will return to being the main wage earner, and Caroline will consider part-time work, because you know how ladies like a hobby.
It doesn’t always take place in the space of a single film, but when society’s ideas about gender roles are challenged, there does tend to be a corresponding backlash. As far back as the ’50s, widowers on TV were hurriedly remarrying to ensure they weren’t cast as some kind of progressive weirdo. And Three Men and a Baby’s sequel, Three Men and a Little Lady, was an exercise in backtracking.
In contrast to the original movie’s insistence that happy families can be found outside traditional social structures, Little Lady starts with the characters discussing what a shame it is that their co-habitating, co-parenting set-up has prevented them all from getting married. We then see Mary’s preschool teachers advise her parents that their unusual family will make Mary a target: the implication being that it should be changed, not that the prejudices of Mary’s classmates and their parents should be challenged. A boy in her new class even tells her, “You can’t have more than one father living with you at a time. That’s the law.” Although Sylvia defends her co-parents, telling the principal: “No three men support a child the way these men do Mary,” the writing is on the wall for their wacky experiment.
Dad-centric pop culture may seem to be about challenging stereotypical gender roles but too often it’s about reaffirming them — by portraying childcare as something that women are inherently better at and as something that can seriously damage a man’s self-respect. At the heart of this is sexism, of course: the idea that doing something traditionally associated with woman will turn a man into one, which is unacceptable as women are inferior. As long as this belief continues to pervade our society, women will continue to play a secondary role to men in pop culture, even when it’s ostensibly about them.