The idea that fatherhood redeems men, turning them into proper grown-ups (and thus acceptable members of society) is an enduring pop cultural preoccupation.
In Three Men and A Baby, the lead characters are living in New York, having fun while still (more or less) covering their bills — but it takes raising a baby and giving up parties to validate their existence. Jack, baby Mary’s biological father, is the most irresponsible at the start of the film, and the one who is most changed by the experience. In case we missed this subtle lesson, Jack’s mom makes it explicit, informing him: “You used to be a screw-up. Now you’re a father.”
Conveniently for writers, a man doesn’t need to have spilled some sperm to have his formerly worthless life transformed like this. For Charlie Salinger in Party of Five, it just took his parents dying in a car crash. Suddenly, this 24-year old slacker who made his living from odd jobs and had a different girlfriend each week was in charge of his four siblings, who ranged in age from one to sixteen. In Full House on the other hand, Danny Tanner’s BFF and brother-in-law moved in to help bring up his three daughters after his wife died, because as single guys, it’s not like they had anything better to do.
I’ve experienced the stigma that comes with not being married or having children, especially as I refuse to buy into any “pathetic spinster” narratives. It’s a cliché because it’s true: When doing what you want means having kids, that’s apparently OK, but when it means not having them, you risk being labeled “selfish”. While in real life, this type of criticism seems to be most commonly aimed at women, in pop culture men get the chance to be judged for having failed to procreate, too; being painted as jackasses until they’ve laid eyes on their own bundle(s) of joy. Perhaps this is a sign that men now face some of the social pressure that used to be reserved for women; if so, it’s hard to see it as a positive change.
These shows and movies often act like they’re showing us something fresh and edgy but their ideology is actually hugely conventional: everyone should settle down and have kids because family is the key to fulfillment (or if it isn’t, shut up and act like it is). They also present an idealized version of parenthood as something inherently fulfilling and transformative. In reality, it’s probably more likely to feel stressful and barely managable, especially if you didn’t sign up for it in the first place.
Still, the idea of fatherhood as a redeeming quality persists. In the short-lived CW show Life Unexpected, teenager Lux grew up in foster homes and is tracking down her bio-parents as part of the legal emancipation process. She finds them in Portland: uptight radio host Cate, and laid back, kinda-douchey Baze, a former high school quarterback who manages a bar his dad owns, struggles to pay rent, and takes his laundry home to mom. But not to worry: a kid doesn’t have to be a baby to be a magical life-fixer, and he rapidly becomes a devoted, surprisingly traditional dad, keen to get an office job and become a custodial parent. Early on, he blames his inability to make progress in his life on his emotionally distant father, who responds with a similar message to Jack’s mom, albeit in a more mocking tone: “That’s the story you tell yourself, to keep from thinking that you’re a screw-up?”
No-one in Parenthood’s more forgiving Berkeley-based clan, the Bravermans, would put things in such harsh terms, but when the series starts, 32-year old Crosby’s siblings nag him about the fact that he lives on a houseboat, lacks a stable income and also takes his laundry home. He’s soon forced to grow up when he’s introduced to Jabbar, the five-year old son he never knew he had (and a serious contender for the cutest kid on TV). Because Parenthood is a more intelligent and nuanced show, Crosby struggles with this change to some extent and even reverts to his terrible decision-making ways at the end of season two. But soon after, he tries to draw a line under all that, selling his boat and buying a house to prove that he’s a “real man” at last.
When I wrote about My Two Dads, a commenter on Bitch’s Facebook page (who I won’t name check just in case they wouldn’t want me to) astutely remarked: “Yet another example of a prime time show that writes women only to further the men’s narratives.” That’s true of many of the examples here, too (although not Three Men and a Baby, whose writers neglected to create any substantial female characters in the first place.) Storylines where men are redeemed by single parenthood (often of a girl child) are just another way to tell a male-dominated hero’s journey in which our protagonist is ultimately revered. Most of all, these stories betray a profound lack of imagination: I’d like to see some other sources of transformation for both male and female characters.
And speaking of the ladies, the way single moms are portrayed in TV and films (as well as in real life) makes quite the contrast to how men in a similar situation are presented. But more about that in my next post…