How Are Fathers Being Portrayed In Movies? [VIDEO]

A couple things I didn't know until recently:
  • Pope Francis gives a speech every Wednesday morning. He devoted a few recent talks to the topic of fatherhood. 
  • There's an Internet news show for Catholics called EWTN News Nightly. EWTN stands for Eternal World Television Network.
  • The producers of this show will email a Jewish-raised, atheist non-expert to be interviewed on the show, if said non-expert has been filmed giving a speech with the word "TED" on a sign behind him in which he mentioned being a dad.
Hence, I have now offered my views on recent portrayals of fathers in movies to folks who want their news to connect back to their church affiliation.

Of course the first thing I did was tell them to read what the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has published.

Then I tried to bring it back to what I think is the big issue in storytelling: patriarchal values. Figuring that that wouldn't be a great phrase to drop at the beginning of a Catholic news show, I spelled it out a little differently.

If, as I've argued in my talks (and many others have argued more vividly), the standard story of a Hollywood film is of a guy who fights other guys, then it's not surprising that fatherhood is rarely central. Fatherhood, after all, requires connection and intimacy with other people (quite frequently women, and always children).

As long as the Hollywood Hero Journey template is focused on individual conquest and achievement, parenthood and family and community will all be pushed to the side.

When protagonists are dads, writers use that status to motivate the competitive heroism that the Hero's Journey requires. Sometimes it seems nice, like the way Ben Stiller needs to earn the title of dad by winning some kind of adventure/job in Night at the Museum. 

Sometimes it's a justification for extravagant violence, like the dad of vengeance that is Liam Neeson.

More frequently, fathers are parts of the plot architecture, much as love interests or sidekicks are. Dads are goofballs who offer simple wisdom, or symbols of unconditional love who die, or antagonists--men whose love is the prize that the hero needs to win, or whose disapproval is an obstacle that needs to be overcome.

Goofballs with simple wisdom
Symbols of unconditional love lost
Disapproval as obstacle
This last trope had a big influence on me, actually. Seeing how many times writers created vivid, grief-stricken portraits of the damage done by failed fathers made me want to avoid being that guy to my children.

This year's Oscar front-runners both show fatherhood as central to their stories. Birdman uses the "fathers must earn their child's respect through professional achievement" trope. Emma Stone gets to articulate the "dad, you ruined my life" point of view, but it is her adoring gaze after his artistic triumph that redeems the hero at the end.

A better observed movie would show the truth: a child does not love her dad more for achieving success. That's the patriarchy talking. She loves her dad more when he loves her more.

Boyhood, meanwhile, has one of my favorite portrayals of fatherhood in years. (Since, maybe, The Fantastic Mr. Fox?) I loved seeing Ethan Hawke draw more and more fulfillment and joy from spending time with his children.

He goes from thinking he owe his children "success" to understanding he owes them himself--his interest, his support, his advice (with a grain of salt), his respect. And thus fatherhood becomes for him not a competition but an investment that pays back, a source of renewable energy. His character's arc climaxes when he thanks his ex-wife for her selfless parenting.

In some circles, the Pope talking about fatherhood is big. It happened to coincide with something big in my circles: the stories told by advertisers in their most visible forum. If the trends that emerged from the Super Bowl commercials are suggestive, then the idea that fatherhood is a central part of masculinity may be moving into the mainstream.

Dadvertising on Madison Avenue may point the way for Hollywood to recalibrate the Hero's Journey. Include some more arcs beyond competition, and some more characters beyond dudes frowning and making fists.

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