Once up on a time it was high praise indeed to say of a man that he was “a good family man.” Television and movies celebrated fathers who cared about, and took care of, their families. Today, if you say that people look at you like you’re from another planet.
This is underscored in media representations of fathers. Once, fathers presented as positive models in shows like Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, and Father Knows Best. Dated those shows may be and yes, sometimes the father was the butt of the joke (they were, after all, comedies), but that did not take away from the fact that these were loving families that cared about each other with fathers that were devoted to their families.
Contrast that with more recent fare where you have shows like Married with Children where the point of the show appeared to be how much these people hated each other. Or perhaps Home Improvement where the father was the incompetent moron who caused all the problems.
In older shows, when you had a single father (Ben Cartwright in Bonanza, Lucas McCain in The Rifleman, Steve Douglas in My Three Sons, and so on) it was usually a widower. (And before you get started, there were shows about single mothers who are widows as well–Victoria Barkley in The Big Valley.) Of course, even in modern ones, when you do have a single dad it’s often a widower because, well, over the years 1993-2007 (a range for which I happen to have found figures), the mother gets custody 83-85% of the time. More often these days the shows are about single moms. These are rarely widows. Either they left (for entirely justifiable reasons, of course), or were left by the fathers.
Oh, one particularly interesting example of “single fathers” was My Two Dads. The mother was sleeping with two men, had no idea who the father was, so both came to take care of the child. While kudos to the characters for rising to the occasion in the end, getting to that point relies on remarkably poor decisions on all three of the adults’ parts.
So where are the good fathers in recent years (for which I’ll say mid 80s or later–yes, that’s not so recent, but then, I’m not so young).
A surprising one is John Matrix in Commando. He’s a single father, who appears to have a great relationship with his daughter. No mention is made of what happened to the mother but given the totality of the film I’d guess he’s probably a widower. And Matrix’s entire motivation throughout the film is to get his little girl back safe.
Another one is Adam Gibson in The 6th Day. Gibson, a devoted family man, sees an “imposter” taking his place in his home and attempts to overcome tremendous obstacles put in place by the bad guys in his effort to return to his home and family.
Roger Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon. A major part of his character is his devotion to his family (and the stress of dealing with a daughter reaching an age where her becoming sexually active is a possibility) and, indeed, that family and its devotion to each other is a large part of what brings Riggs back from the brink of his own personal Hell.
Gomez Addams in the Addams Family movies (okay, I prefer the 60’s TV show, but the movies are great too). His utter devotion to his family is unquestionable. (Okay, there’s the modern portrayal of Wednesday, which is part of why I prefer John Astin’s version.)
Then there’s the single dad with kids who need to “rescue” him by trying to get him a girl. (Sleepless in Seatle would be the archetype of this.) Kind of a reversal of the parent/child role where the child “takes care of” the parent instead of the other way around.
One movie deserves special mention: “The Family Man” staring Nicolas Cage. During the “glimpse” Jack Campbell gets to see what life would be like as a devoted family man–considerably less wealthy than he was, but surrounded by people he loves, and who love him. The glimpse ends, the “angel” (I can argue that it’s actually a demon straight out of Hell) takes it away from him and, although they try to graft on a “happy ending” by showing a possible reconciliation between Jack and the woman who was his wife in the “glimpse”, he can never have that life. Even if they do get together they are older. Her father in this reality is dead. The house they had is owned by somebody else. And neither of them is the person they were in the “glimpse”. So that life is closed to them. Will they make a decent one from where they are “now”? We’ll never know.
Frankly, you have to look far and wide to find strong, loving, caring fathers dedicated to their families in movies and TV these days. They’ve fallen out of favor. And whether this is art imitating life, or life being influenced by art, we’re seeing a lot of disparagement of the family, and the roll of strong, caring, involved fathers in it in society. I suspect it’s a little of both in a kind of feedback loop.
As it stands, my personal goal is to be the kind, caring, compassionate father seen in many of those early sitcoms (and if you say “Patriarchy”, you just prove that you haven’t paid close attention to those programs. Yes, the division of labor between inside and outside the home was different from what is common today, but if you look at the division of power and who generally got there way, you’d see something quite different). One could do worse than choose John Astin’s Gomez Addams or Fred Gwynn’s Herman Munster as a role model.
One could do a lot worse.
One might, for instance, choose Al Bundy (Shudder).