On Father's Day: Mr. Popper & Hollywood Depictions of Dad

I took my son to see the film Mr. Popper's Penguins yesterday. He loved the book and was anxious to see it brought to life on the big screen. He laughed plenty at the penguins, but was less enthralled by the story. His final assessment? He liked the book better.

And why wouldn't he?  I have not yet finished the book (despite my good intentions), but I have read enough to glean what kind of man Mr. Popper is: a house painter and dreamer who is often distracted from his work by thoughts of adventure at the globe's north and south poles. He was not unhappy, "He had a nice little house of his own, a wife whom he loved dearly, and two children, named Janie and Bill." Adescription of the book notes further that "Mr. Popper resigns himself to quiet evenings at home with his family and his travel books..."

Contrast this image of a quiet family man to the character in the film. The 2011 version of Mr. Popper is a manipulative real estate developer, obsessed with his work, filthy rich, and divorced. As with most of pop culture's divorced dads, he has a fractured relationship with his children. His shortcomings as a parent are shown repeatedly and met with mild exasperation by his ex-wife, who, to underline his failings, is depicted as perfect. Not only does she have all the answers where the children are concerned, she also has a more altruistic nature: she appears to work with some sort of NGO and is planning a trip to Ghana with her new partner.

Of course, the film has a happy (and rather treacly) ending. Through the penguins that Mr. Popper inherits from his father, who was also separated from his family by his career, he finds his nurturing side, rebuilds his relationship with his children, and reunites his family.

While some might be placated by the theme of a father redeeming himself and becoming the parent his children need, I am not. Rather, I am frustrated that Hollywood had a chance to show a kind and gentle father but decided instead to perpetuate the stereotype of the clueless, incompetent, and distant dad.

Mr. Popper joins a rather long list of bad fathers in kids' pop culture. Their negative traits vary by degree from the uncommunicative Tim in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs to Stoick the Vast, who disowns his son with the words "You are not my son" in the film How to Train Your Dragon.

There are many others: the father of Arthur in Shrek the Third who dumps his son at boarding school and never contacts him again; the deadbeat, divorced dad in Up; Mr. Fox in Fantastic Mr. Fox who tells his son he is too little and uncoordinated to participate in the elder fox's schemes; Memphis, the father who is ashamed of his dancing son in Happy Feet; and the father in The Tale of Despereaux who, also ashamed of his son, turns him over to the authorities to be banished from the community.

As I say in the book:

What impact does the Y-chromosome have on a man’s ability to parent? Apparently, it makes him uncommunicative, emotionally and sometimes physically distant, and too career-oriented to build a proper relationship with his children.

It is no coincidence that the traits shared by the far-from-perfect fictional fathers I described here align exactly with the characteristics of the ideal man: stoic, independent from emotional attachments, and focused on status and success. Fathers in children’s pop culture are, after all, men first and parents second.

As such, they further entrench conventional ideas about manhood while reinforcing traditional gender roles, teaching young boys to view fathers as incompetent or uncaring parents, and perpetuating the notion that child care and domestic chores are best left to the woman of the house.

In its depiction of fathers, Hollywood is far removed from the reality that I see every day, one in which dads: volunteer at school; change their work schedule to drop kids off or pick them up from school or extracurricular activities; leave work early to celebrate a child's birthday; take a day off when a child is sick; give their time to coach baseball, soccer and other sports while setting an example of sportsmanship and fair play; take their kids to the playground; comfort a child who's fallen and scraped a knee; and manage all kinds of household chores, like making dinner, packing lunches, doing laundry, and going grocery shopping with kids in tow. (Pop culture portrayals also ignore the statistics that show ever higher numbers of fathers taking parental leave when a child is born, a number that has, in Canada at least,increased from 3% of new fathers to 20% between 2000 and 2006.)

In the face of yet another poor on-screen portrayal of fathers, I would like to say "Happy Father's Day" to all the great dads out there. You are far more numerous than Hollywood would have us believe.


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