A couple things I didn't know until recently:
- Pope Francis gives a speech every Wednesday morning. He devoted a few recent talks to the topic of fatherhood.
- There's an Internet news show for Catholics called EWTN News Nightly. EWTN stands for Eternal World Television Network.
- The producers of this show will email a Jewish-raised, atheist non-expert to be interviewed on the show, if said non-expert has been filmed giving a speech with the word "TED" on a sign behind him in which he mentioned being a dad.
Of course the first thing I did was tell them to read what the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has published.
Then I tried to bring it back to what I think is the big issue in storytelling: patriarchal values. Figuring that that wouldn't be a great phrase to drop at the beginning of a Catholic news show, I spelled it out a little differently.
If, as I've argued in my talks (and many others have argued more vividly), the standard story of a Hollywood film is of a guy who fights other guys, then it's not surprising that fatherhood is rarely central. Fatherhood, after all, requires connection and intimacy with other people (quite frequently women, and always children).
As long as the Hollywood Hero Journey template is focused on individual conquest and achievement, parenthood and family and community will all be pushed to the side.
When protagonists are dads, writers use that status to motivate the competitive heroism that the Hero's Journey requires. Sometimes it seems nice, like the way Ben Stiller needs to earn the title of dad by winning some kind of adventure/job in Night at the Museum.
More frequently, fathers are parts of the plot architecture, much as love interests or sidekicks are. Dads are goofballs who offer simple wisdom, or symbols of unconditional love who die, or antagonists--men whose love is the prize that the hero needs to win, or whose disapproval is an obstacle that needs to be overcome.
|Goofballs with simple wisdom|
|Symbols of unconditional love lost|
|Disapproval as obstacle|
This year's Oscar front-runners both show fatherhood as central to their stories. Birdman uses the "fathers must earn their child's respect through professional achievement" trope. Emma Stone gets to articulate the "dad, you ruined my life" point of view, but it is her adoring gaze after his artistic triumph that redeems the hero at the end.
Boyhood, meanwhile, has one of my favorite portrayals of fatherhood in years. (Since, maybe, The Fantastic Mr. Fox?) I loved seeing Ethan Hawke draw more and more fulfillment and joy from spending time with his children.
In some circles, the Pope talking about fatherhood is big. It happened to coincide with something big in my circles: the stories told by advertisers in their most visible forum. If the trends that emerged from the Super Bowl commercials are suggestive, then the idea that fatherhood is a central part of masculinity may be moving into the mainstream.
Dadvertising on Madison Avenue may point the way for Hollywood to recalibrate the Hero's Journey. Include some more arcs beyond competition, and some more characters beyond dudes frowning and making fists.
Linked in this piece:
- On Fatherhood and On the Positive Role of Fathers by Pope Francis, Zenit.com Jan. 28 and Feb. 4 2015
- Research Informs and Empowers by Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
- Academy Awards for adults only, rated Triple S for gender stereotyping by Margot Magowan, Reel Girl Feb. 20 2015
- The Gender of Reflection by Steve McDonagh, Boston Busing/Desegregation Project Feb. 6 2015
- What Hollywood Needs Is Fewer Strong Male Characters by Noah Berlatsky, Pacific Standard Aug. 13 2014
- Dads in Ads: Are Times Changing? by Nicole Bedera, Sociological Images Feb. 19 2015