It’s time that men and fathers wake up to the stark reality that our society, and the media in general are attempting to eradicate them from our culture.
It’s patricide. Pure and simple.
This isn’t paranoid rambling. This isn’t conspiracy theory. This is a cold, dark truth that has become so subtly ingrained into our psyche that it is truly frightening.
Exercise 1: Go to the local bookstore. Go to the children’s section. See if you can find yourself as a father represented in a contemporary children’s book. It’s as if you don’t exist.
It hit me one evening while reading to my daughter. I’d raised her to love and respect books the way that I do. She was a gifted reader, who was sent out of her own first grade classroom and up to the third and sometimes fourth grade reading groups. The rules at my house were that no matter how poorly she’d behaved, no matter what she’d done to deserve admonishment, or how angry or disappointed I might have gotten with her, she still got a bedtime story. Sometimes I read to her. Often she read to me. Her bedtime reading was an immutable constant when she had been with me. She had literally hundreds of books on her many shelves. Everything from Dr. Seuss to Shel Silverstein. As she grew, so grew her bookshelves.
As a divorced father, who harbored a great deal of anxiety about my influence on her small life, I decided on one particular evening to choose a story about a girl and her father. Something to reinforce my role in her life. I looked in earnest through the first few shelves of books. There were many, many books about children and their mothers. The books depicted mothers as everything ranging from guardian and protector, to the keepers of all wisdom relevant to their lives. But there was not a single, solitary book that depicted a father in any capacity whatsoever. I searched each and every book on her shelf. Over 320 books in all. And never found a single book that featured a father in any prominent role in a child’s life. There were mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, cousins, and even the occasional uncle or brother. But not a single father. Not one.
Concerned, I went to my local bookstore. One of those gigantic chain bookstores that a true book lover can spend hours and hours in. I searched carefully through their children’s selection. I searched for an extremely long time before I found a book that even mentioned a father in any significant role. It seems that Mercer Mayer is not only very popular, but he is one of an exceedingly rare handful of children’s authors who portray fathers as steadying, helpful influences in a child’s life. Needless to say I was flabbergasted. And more than a little angry
Exercise 2. Turn on the television set. Scan the channels. Watch carefully. Find yourself in a contemporary sitcom, or drama, or adult television show. You don’t exist there either.
Be careful here. The temptation is to point to a show like “Roseanne”, or “Home Improvement”, and say, “Well, Dan on Roseanne is a good father…” or “I can really relate to Tim on Home Improvement…”. He is? You can? I hope not. Because Dan is about as dysfunctional as they come, and for that matter so is Tim, although in different ways. Invest some time watching these shows, and you’ll see what I mean. During the shows run, Dan was chronically unemployed. He approved, more or less, of his 15-year-old daughter dating (and having sex with, as long as she uses ‘protection’) a much older mechanic friend. Dan spent large quantities of time drinking, and bowling, and in general not being around. He ain’t me. Not even close.
Tim was a more subtle representation. He was financially successful, and invested most of his time in his relationship with his boys and wife, and his home. All in all a fairly decent portrayal of a man in a father’s role, right? Wrong. Look closer. His insensitivity to his artsy, cultured wife’s needs is absolute. Although he’s a television handyman by trade, he is totally inept at his chosen profession. Nothing he fixes works. Nothing he repairs stays repaired. He’s frequently clueless, and always seems to end up turning to his more literate, and liberal, albeit faceless neighbor. In short, Tim is a well-meaning buffoon. Although more palatable than Roseanne’s Dan, he’s still a figure who is pathetically out of touch, and the object of much ridicule. That ain’t me either.
The fare just gets worse from there. One popular sitcom featuring yet another female stand-up comedian is particularly offensive. Every single male role portrayed is of the abusive, alcoholic variety, or is just plain stupid. The suggestion is not so subtle here. All men are idiots of varying degrees and none can be trusted. They are in short, absolutely useless.
Exercise 3: The Big Screen. You don’t live there either.
One of the most popular movies a few years ago was “Good Will Hunting”. Admittedly I liked this movie when I saw it in the theater. And it received many awards, and much kudos. And deservedly so. It was a well written, well scripted, well filmed, and well acted independent work. But have you really stopped to think about its messages. The two principle characters in the film were both victims of extremely abusive father figures. The psychologist, portrayed by Robin Williams, had a father who was a “mean drunk”, who he felt obligated to provoke in the hopes that he would be the one abused, and not his mother. Matt Damen’s character had a foster father who placed a wrench, a belt, and a wire coat hanger on the table and told him to “choose”. A good movie? Yes, of course. Was its portrayal of father figures unique in the industry? Hardly.
I spoke earlier of subtly that was frightening. Take the remake of “Mighty Joe Young.” My daughter loved it. I must admit it was fairly well acted, and the special effects were, in my daughter’s words, “awesome”. What little message it had was, for all practical purposes, a positive one, right? I’m not so sure. The original 1930’s version of the film contained a loving father raising a motherless girl. The remake contained no such thing. There was no father at all in the 1998 remake. The native peoples, apparently, raised the girl after the death of her mother in a heroic attempt to save the apes she was studying in the wild from poachers. Why? Why was it necessary for the updated version to erase all mention of the girl’s father? Why does it bother me? The question I think, should be: Why doesn’t it bother you, my friend. It should.
Movies like “Radio Flyer” aren’t the exception, they’re the rule. The idea that fathers are abusive, drunken things, that exist to hurt, or molest, or ignore their families is an all pervasive message in today’s pop culture. The industries that drive pop culture have insured that the only other side to the father-as-drunk-abuser/molester coin, is the father-as-lovable-but-inept-buffoon. Can you spell “Homer Simpson”? I thought you could.
Books, or television shows, or movies that portray fathers as wise, capable men, who would never trade time with their family for a buddy, or a ballgame, or a barstool simply do not exist in the our culture today. It’s as if publishers, producers, and pundits have decided that there is no such thing.
Well, here’s a newsflash: We do exist. In fact, when you get right down to it, in all probability we control much of the money that is flowing to these industries. We’re responsible for most of the children who are watching this drek. We’re responsible for the bulk of the money our children, and to some degree our wives are spending on the products that advertise on these shows, and at the box office, and at the bookstores. Men who are positive, intelligent influences on the lives of their children and spouses so far outnumber the negative stereotypes that are so often portrayed by these industries that it’s staggering. So why aren’t we fighting back.
It’s time we said “enough”.
It’s time we said “no more”.
Its time we took the time to watch carefully what our children are watching, and read carefully what are children are reading. It’s time we took the time we tell our sons and daughters, “I’m sorry Honey, but I don’t think I want you give you money to spend on that book, I don’t agree with the way it portrays me as a father.” Or perhaps “I’m sorry, but I wish you wouldn’t spend the money I give you for your allowance on a ticket to a movie that perpetuates the myth that all Dad’s are abusive drunks.” Or better yet, try this one on your wife: “I know this is difficult to ask, but here is a list of companies that sponsor shows that I find offensive. I’d like us as a family to make an effort not to buy their products.”
How much of this would it take before they got the message?
I’m not sure. A lot I think. But if every “real” father did his best, I think you might be surprised.
Mouse was very small when her mother and I were divorced, and I struggled mightily against the prejudices that the legal system and our culture have against fathers in general, and divorced fathers in particular.
Over the course of 20 years I’ve kept a journal.
It’s all here.
Moments of unbridled joy.
Moments of irreparable grief.
Moments of Stone and Light.
Moments of Shadows and Darkness.
It may be brutal. It maybe gory.
But… whatever else it is.
It’s my story.