Co-opting Mother: America's Dads

Is American fatherhood in crisis, and can it be solved by fathers becoming more like mothers? Susanne Kord takes a snarky look at how fatherhood organisations and Hollywood movies of the 1990s did away with mothers

Susanne Kord
9 August 2012

Throughout the 1990s, there was a broad consensus in the United States that paternity was in ‘crisis.’ Numerous social organisations motivating fatherhood in their titles or mission statements, were either founded during that decade, such as Promise Keepers, or scaled new heights of popularity, like the Reverend Wildmon’s militant American Family Association with its off-shoot campaign website One Million Dads. Unlike the British organisation Families Need Fathers, which is dedicated to maintaining a child’s relationship with both parents during and after family breakdown, the American organisations are either religiously motivated or social protest groups whose link with families is purely rhetorical. Promise Keepers, for example, describe themselves on their website as ‘a Christ-centered organisation dedicated to motivating men to influence their world through a relationship with Jesus Christ’ and ‘keep their promises in the context of their family, church and community.’ The group’s complete lack of programmatic support for families, in the sense of women and children, is explained in its ‘vision statement’: ‘When we reach men, we reach families.’ The optimistically entitled One Million Dads—its membership, as of August 2011, stood at 552, so perhaps one-thousand dads, as one anonymous blogger quipped, would be a more realistic goal —is dedicated to protecting the dads’ children not from poverty, drugs or violence, but from what the organisation considers ‘dirty’ TV programming. Any TV programme or advertisement that depicts gay men or emancipated women in a positive light, pokes fun at religion, or features either rough language or scantily clad women, are eligible targets. A list of these targets, proudly displayed on the organisations ‘victories’ website, sports Coca Cola, Domino’s Pizza, Burger King, McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, every single major American TV network, and dozens of TV shows and commercials that were either taken off the air or had their sponsorship withdrawn. Both the parent organisation for One Million Dads, the Reverend Wildmon’s American Family Association, and its umbrella headquarter organisation, the National Federation for Decency, engage primarily in boycotts, buycotts, lobbying, and action alerts, not tangible support, financial or otherwise, for real-life families. Like Promise Keepers, they are militant in outlook, only very tangentially concerned with families, and led and staffed virtually exclusively by men.

Conversely, social organisations that do deal with families involving actual women and children are, perhaps unsurprisingly, largely staffed and sometimes even run by women. These include Stay-at-home-Dads, the Jewish organisation Shalom Baby, the Black organisation Project Mecca, Project Fatherhood , the faith-based initiative Leading by Example; Great Beginnings, Golden Dads, First Things First, The Fathers NetworkFACT (Fathers and Children Together) an organisation for and by incarcerated fathers, DMAD (Dads make a difference), the Dads 101 Program and Boot Camp for New Dads. For a comprehensive list of Fatherhood organisations, see here. Some of these, like Boot Camp, are simply designed to enable new fathers to ‘hit the ground crawling,’ as the BCND’s mission statement puns; under the aegis of a female programme director, Susan Worsham, the organisation offers various programmes and activities run by veteran fathers to show the newbies the ropes of warming bottles and changing nappies. Other organisations directly address the potential of child abuse through the father. The Dads 101 programme, for example, identifies Shaken baby syndrome as the leading cause of death in abusive head trauma cases, and the majority of perpetrators in shaken baby cases as male, ‘usually the victim’s biological father or the mother’s boyfriend.’ Dads 101 responds to this not merely with a national awareness campaign, but with a concerted programme to ‘teach men the skills they need to be nurturing fathers’ that includes childbirth education and training for expectant fathers, instruction in caregiving skills, discussion of gender stereotypes in parenting, and concerted training in what the organisation assumes to be feminine characteristics, such as tenderness, gentleness and devotion. Numerous other organisations take a similar approach, which sometimes, as in the case of Dads make a Difference, involves the active participation of female group leaders in ‘nurturing’ classes.

As these few examples readily show, women are centrally involved in the fatherhood discourse, whether they are cast, as is the case in militant male organisations, as pushing men out of the job market or out of family life, or whether they are viewed, as in female-staffed organisations that hope to train bearable fathers, as embodying nurturing qualities that are both indispensable for children and transferable to men. This second trend has been enormously popularized in Hollywood movies of the 1990s, where the promotion of feminine or maternal qualities has not, however, lead to a new valuation of women or mothers. On the contrary, the co-optation of these qualities by fathers, exactly as advertised in Dads 101 and other social fatherhood organisations, usually results either in the sidelining or in the elimination of mothers from the film.

Movie poster for 'Junior' with a pregnant man with a doctor

A pregnant Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'Junior'The father’s co-optation of the mother’s role is not only expressed in the fact that in Hollywood movies (in stark contrast to social life) single parents are almost inevitably male. It finds its clearest articulation in films in which Father not only replaces Mother but becomes her through either cross-gendering or cross-dressing. In earlier films like Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), with its all-powerful computer ‘Mother’ (MU/TH/UR 6000) deceiving the crew with its wily feminine voice, and its graphic depiction of rape and unwilling motherhood being forced onto a man (the character played by John Hurt), such role reversal spelt  unmitigated horror. But more recent films, such as Ivan Reitman’s Junior of 1994, have tried to see the funny side of pregnant men.

Junior is a literal enactment of father co-opting mother. The egg implanted into the body of the male geneticist Alexander Hess (played by none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger) is stolen from Diana, a competing female scientist played by Emma Thompson. During pregnancy, Alexander develops a new ‘feminine’ persona, expressed rather stereotypically in maternal protectiveness; a new-found taste for cooking, pink flowers and frilly curtains; uncontrollable appetites; a sudden and unpredictable emotionality; an ability to form friendships with women; even an angry response to the university’s attempts to appropriate his pregnancy for research purposes, which he counters with the feminist classic ‘My body—my choice.’ But this process of feminization (humanization?) is triggered merely through the artificial presence of female hormones. As long as these hormones rage inside Alexander’s body, they are presented as uncontrollable. But in a neat enactment of the superiority of (masculine) science over (feminine) nature, the situation is, in the end, controlled scientifically through the Caesarian birth of Alexander’s baby. Alexander, having thus ‘experienced’ motherhood, uses this experience to select an appropriate mother for his children (in the film’s straightforward logic, the same scientist whose egg he carried to term). This allows him to revert to a ‘natural’ fatherhood whose success is assured by his presumably better understanding of both women and children.

Much of the film’s comedy is of course based on the absurd contrast between Alexander’s new-found femininity and Schwarzenegger’s star image as the embodiment of machismo. But it is precisely this type of hyper-masculinity, specifically: its reinstatement at the end of the film, that signals the availability and acceptability of ‘feminine’ parenting qualities for men in general. The fact that Alexander is momentarily reduced to a blubbering bundle of sentimentality under the influence of raging hormones (‘motherhood’) is ultimately less central to the film’s message than the fact that this does not, in the end, prevent him from reassuming his masculine authority (‘fatherhood’).

Image of older women with feather duster

Robin Williams as Mrs DoubtfireA brief look at a second example shows us what happens if the film withholds from the father figure this kind of ‘natural’ male authority. At the outset of Chris Columbus’s Mrs Doubtfire (1993), Daniel Hillard (Robin Williams) has lost both his job and his family. Having failed as a father (as both breadwinner and understanding parent), he re-enters his own house in the guise of a lovable crotchety 60-year old Scottish housekeeper and nanny. Starkly contrasted with his architect/breadwinner wife Miranda (Sally Field), who moreover assumes power over him by becoming his employer, Daniel acquires ‘feminine’ qualities, from cooking to playfulness to emotive understanding, that Miranda herself does not seem to possess. In the end, Daniel’s fatherhood, initiated by this assumption of a ‘feminine’ persona, is paradoxically undermined by his lack of masculinity, his inability to pull off Alexander Hess’s feat of reverting to his true gender. Once unmasked he is unproblematically accepted by his children as their father, but he is not allowed to re-enter his house as a father, either by his wife (who merely grants him a subordinate role as babysitter) or by the judge, who upholds the initial decision to award custody of the children to Daniel’s wife. In other words, there is an implicit statement that successful fatherhood, even as it incorporates ‘feminine’ qualities, remains an essentially male affair.

Daniel ends the film as a profoundly ambivalent figure. His professional success is tied to his feminine persona (he runs a TV show as Mrs. Doubtfire). As himself, he is allowed to care for his children, but in a role that entails all the work and care of motherhood while being completely bereft of the authority of fatherhood. Rather than validating him as a father, the film seems to show the hopelessness of Daniel shaping up and taking responsibility for the whole fatherhood caper: fatherhood itself is presented as a joke. Daniel is hardly, as he has often been read, an ideal mix of father and mother; on the contrary: he is an amalgamation of mother and child. He plays games, throws riotous parties, dons costumes, provides the voice-over for cartoons, creates little domestic disasters, and is hardly fazed when one of his children walks in on ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ urinating while standing up. The potential trauma of this scene—the child’s discovery of kindly nanny’s male member—is partly mitigated through the simultaneous discovery of Dad’s identity, but partly also through the childishness of the situation itself (catching a glimpse of another kid peeing).

Compared with the cool indifference of the film’s ‘real man’ Stu (Pierce Brosnan) towards Miranda’s children, Daniel’s childishness is positively portrayed, and it is of course expressive of the old adage that to understand children you have to become one yourself (it is worth remembering here that the childlike father is a role Williams has made a career of playing, for example in Hook, 1991, and Jumanji, 1994). But it is also, in the end, what disqualifies Daniel from fatherhood, because both woman and child, the roles he is able to play, fall woefully short of the masculine persona that is the real foundation of responsible fatherhood. Daniel’s acceptance of his subordinate role as babysitter, his willingness to settle for less than full-fledged fatherhood, endorses this rationale and makes it palatable to the viewer.

 Despite their ostentatious act of ‘crossing’ the line into the feminine realm, it is difficult to view the mother-impersonators of Junior and Mrs. Doubtfire as endorsing the feminization of men or sexual ambiguity of any kind. These only seemingly ‘androgynous’ characters do not, as Rebecca Bell-Metereau has optimistically read them in her book Hollywood Androgyny (1993), ‘convey a sense of hidden possibilities, of the potential for change and renewal.’ This potential, Bell-Metereau tells us, lies in a new-found sense of identification: ‘when we find ourselves identifying with the other sex, we learn more of what it is simply to be human.’ But neither Alexander nor Daniel come by this identification honestly; it is thrust upon them in pursuit of other goals (scientific insights in Alexander’s case, being near his children in Daniel’s). For the audience, moreover, the identification with femininity that both characters enact temporarily, as a means to a different end, is even less direct. Ultimately it is expunged completely, paradoxically by diametrically opposed solutions: Alexander’s reclamation of his masculinity in one film and Daniel’s failure to achieve his in the other.

By stealing the show of motherhood, both father figures indirectly and rather unsubtly proclaim the centrality of the father in the family. Daniel’s children are clearly less than happy in their single-parent mother-led family. Alexander as a father fulfills, in more ways than one, Diana’s fruitless pursuit of motherhood, which—otherwise why freeze an egg?—is implicitly shown as on the verge of failure. That both mothers, Diana in Junior and Miranda in Mrs. Doubtfire, are highly accomplished professionals (one a scientist, the other an architect), is surely no coincidence. The idea that a woman might successfully combine motherhood and career is still (in the 1990s!) presented as more outlandish than the idea that men could become pregnant, or that their wives of fourteen years would fail to recognize them immediately simply because they have donned a skirt, wig and make-up.

From films that seem to deal so overtly in gender-bending, we might expect a certain measure of ambiguity. In the end, though, the family unit is saved not by virtue of ambiguity but promiscuity. Ambiguous films, as Philip Green has explained in Cracks in the Pedestal (1998), leave viewers in a state of doubt about what they are being shown, making it difficult for them to accept the film’s ready-made solution. Promiscuous films, on the other hand, try to offer something for everyone, contriving the story so no potential audience feels left out, finally enabling the audience to be cheerfully satisfied with either of the interpretations that is being made available. Both Junior and Mrs. Doubtfire can be accused of this kind of promiscuity. We are offered the chance to be cheerfully satisfied with the idea that fathers need a bit of character tinkering. But we do not, in exchange, have to let go of the traditional (breadwinner, masculine, authoritative) father, or of the idea, promoted in America’s most conservative ‘family’ organisations, that a family is only saved once Father is reinstated to his rightful place at the head of the household.


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