Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Mr. Mom Revisited

I had never seen Mr. Mom, the 1983 film that marked the screen debut of the stay-at-home dad. Long-time readers (both of you!) might recall that I have never had a problem with the term "Mr. Mom," which many stay-at-home dads see as a knock on their masculinity. Nonetheless, the arguments against the film seemed likely to have a grain of truth: Hollywood depictions of caregiving dads tend to be problematic at best, hostile at worst.

But there I was, grinding away at my book, when I realized that I had to see Mr. Mom. I'm writing an entire book about stay-at-home dads; I couldn't not see the first movie devoted to the subject. So I went out and finally rented the thing.

Here's the premise: Jack Butler, played by Michael Keaton, is a Detroit assembly-line engineer who loses his job in a wave of corporate downsizing. His wife returns to work in the advertising industry, after eight years of taking care of their three children.

Before I go on, some historical perspective. Had this film been made in the 1930s, Mr. Mom would have been a tear-jerking melodrama: Jack would have sunk into alcoholism and domestic violence while his wife endured the humiliation of employment. Men of that period would not merely lose a job; they lost their very identity. Chronically un- or underemployed men did not turn their energies to the care and rearing of children and maintenance of a home, even as their wives took jobs; instead, they built walls around themselves.

“He loves kids and plays with them all the time, except when he’s out of work,” testified one mother in the 1920s. “Then he won’t play with them, but just says all the time, ‘Don’t bother me, don’t bother me.’ And of course the kids don’t understand why he’s different.” In his 1994 book Fatherhood in America, historian Robert L. Griswold provides example after example of early 20th century fathers who were utterly destroyed by unemployment. These fathers may as well have died or abandoned their families, as many did.

Back to Mr. Mom, which was made at the height of the Reagan recession--I actually lived in Michigan at the time, where the movie takes place, and many people there called it a depression. In real life, thousands of auto-industry employees like Jack were being thrown out of work. But unlike most men during the Great Depression, Jack turns his energies to taking care of kids and house.

The stay-at-home dads of today often resent the Mr. Mom caricature of a bumbling dad-at-home, but I found the film to be much more complex than this stereotype suggests. Jack certainly does struggle with the tasks of being a househusband--his clumsy efforts to cook, clean, and change diapers are milked for slapstick comedy. But as the film goes on, Jack and his wife both grow into their new roles--they even help each other along, trading advice and support in crucial moments, drawing on their respective experiences--and by the end, Jack is a very competent and confident homemaker and his wife is a successful advertising executive.

The real significance of Mr. Mom lies in the fact that it tries to teach guys how to behave when faced with domestic responsibilities: the film preaches that family men must embrace, not run away from, housework and childcare when those tasks fall to them. When their identities as breadwinners are destroyed by economic change, argues Mr. Mom, family men must build new identities as homemakers. Moreover, it argues that men ought to support their wives economic power and career aspiration—-especially since life-long male employment was no longer guaranteed and a middle-class lifestyle was no longer affordable on one income. In this way necessities are turned into virtues, as they almost always are.

Mr. Mom was marketed as a light comedy, but in retrospect, it marks a cultural watershed: the stay-at-home dad was now a part of the landscape—-as a real option, not just as the butt of a joke. In a 1990 Time magazine poll, 48 percent of men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four claimed that they would consider staying at home with their children. When my mother and father were born, such a question could not even have been asked. When I was born, it could only be raised in jest. By the 1980s, however, the definition of fatherhood as breadwinning, secure for a century, was suddenly on the ropes. Mr. Mom reflects that and the anxieties that come with it--but crucially, it also suggests that there might be something better around the corner, a new idea of fatherhood that embraces both breadwinning and caregiving.

I liked the movie. I don't think it's something that stay-at-home dads should feel ashamed of.


chicago pop said...

Jeremy -- great post. Gotta check out that movie. I love being with The Spot, but I've let go of everything else and the identity issues are occasionally disorienting. Always good to have some big-picture perspective. Gracias.

AMR said...

Nice post, Jeremy. As I navigate towards my third month in this new life (one that I may live for a very long time), I have emphasized a need to be "good" at what I do. I need to be a good cook, good at doing the laundry, good at cleaning, etc.. It definitely makes for a more rewarding experience here at home. Like so many of us, I wrestle w/ how my contributions at home are viewed by others (and I can't remember how Keaton's character is viewed by his friends in the movie). But I can't control that -- what I can control is the quality of my family's life at home.

It still irritates me when someone says, "How's it going, Mr. Mom?"