In Hollywood, Do Moms Have to Die for Dads to be Good?

I’ve said many times in many ways that, as important as changing family law is, changing cultural predispositions is equally or more important to achieving equal rights for fathers in family courts.  After all, there are no laws forbidding judges from granting equal parenting time.  And since few parents in divorce court are actually unfit, there’s every reason why they should.

But they don’t.  The resistance by family court judges to equal parenting is pretty uniform, not because the law requires it, but because their culturally-instilled biases against fathers and in favor of mothers don’t allow them to see the possibilities of equal parenting.

Consider the figures.  In 1993, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 84% of custodial parents were mothers.  In 2005, it was 83.8%.  In 2007 it was 82.6%.  At that rate, we’ll reach equal numbers of male and female custodial parents in 336 years.

The point being that judges don’t need a change of law to do the right thing.  They can take cognizance of not only the social science but the simple morality that require keeping both parents involved in their kids’ lives post-divorce.  The fact that they don’t reveals, not discrimination so much as a culture that overvalues mothers and undervalues fathers to the detriment of both as well as kids.

If judges are creatures of our culture at all and like the rest of us, they surely are, then they’re influenced by the constant drumbeat of messages that say that mothers are saints and fathers fall within a narrow range from uncaring to incompetent to dangerous.

I’ll never argue that all behavior is socially constructed; we all have the ability to read cultural influences and, at least to an extent, go our own ways.  Still, to a great degree, the range of action and thought we see as acceptable is provided to us by our culture.

That’s why I like this article (Huffington Post, 3/7/11).  Writer Vicki Larson takes on an interesting aspect of popular culture that I’ve seen for myself but hadn’t yet realized I’d seen.  OK no, I don’t like her lead-in that claims,

We love involved dads. We get all warm and fuzzy when we walk past fathers playing catch with their sons or pushing their giggling daughter ever higher in a swing. There’s something about a man raising his kids that seems noble.

There’s that “we” again.  Who is this “we?”  It’s surely not family courts that often seem to bend over backwards to separate fathers and children.  It’s not CPS agencies that, according to an Urban Institute study, would rather place kids in foster care than in father care.  It’s not adoption laws that are frankly designed to avoid keeping children with their dads.

So the “we” who see involved dads and get all dewy-eyed may actually exist, which of course is terribly sweet, but that “we” has a way of not being in a postion to make decisions that impact fathers and children.  That “we” stands on the sidelines and softly cheers the occasional dad with custody, but that’s about it.

But the gist of Larson’s piece is something else.  She’s noticed a whole string of movies and books whose plots exhibit a definite point of view about acceptable fathers with custody and less acceptable ones.

But there’s one thing that (Clive) Owen’s sportswriter character and (Matt) Logelin share in common. Actually, it’s something many single fathers in movies share in common — the mothers are either dead (The Holiday, Love Actually, Jersey Girl, Sleepless in Seattle, Finding Nemo, Must Love Dogs, The American President) or conveniently missing (Three Men and a Baby, The Pursuit of Happyness, Definitely, Maybe). Few are single dads because they wanted to be custodial fathers — or were able to be. 

And that makes a difference. A huge one.

As much as we may love the story of a widowed dad raising his kids, we do not seem to love the story of a divorced dad raising his kids. Because that would mean that the mom either skipped out or was unable to care for her children, and we generally don’t like those stories, either.

Zing.  She nails it.  In these stories, we’re meant to love the dads.  Just see how cute they are in their sincere, bumbling ways.  And look at how truly loving they are toward their children and how the kids love and appreciate them.  But Larson sees the catch; those dads are permitted their goodness because Mom isn’t available.

The none-too-subtle message is as Larson says, that if Mom were there and Dad had custody, there must be something terribly wrong with Mom, and we can’t have that, so let’s just write her out of the script.

What Larson doesn’t add is the possiblity of showing both Mom and Dad with custody.  That is, there’s nothing wrong with either.

But Hollywood isn’t ready for either the bad mom and the nurturing dad, or the nurturing dad and mom who are divorced.  And neither are family courts.

Larson raises one other point that’s worth mentioning.  She points to a couple of recent celebrity dads who are refusing to give up parenting time.  Her point is that in practice, people may be out in front of elite opinion-makers on the subject of fathers and children.  People may be “voting with their feet,” i.e. going for joint custody in spite of tradition, in spite of cultural dictates, in spite of the proclivities of family courts.  People may be leading progress, dragging elites kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

It wouldn’t be the first time.  Noam Chomsky and Edward Hermann persuasively argue that that’s exactly what happened during America’s involvement in the Viet Nam War.  They tracked the opinions and attitudes of everyday people and compared them to support for the war among the press and elected officials and found that Joe and Jane Sixpack led opinion-making on the war by at least a couple of years.

And so it may be here.

Thanks to Vicki Larson for a thoughtful and thought-provoking article.

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