Last week, as I was sitting in my local hair salon awaiting a trim, I noticed an US magazine on the table next to me. It's cover story was about celebrity dads with an emphasis on how cool these daddy's are. I perused the pages and there were a bunch of pics of different movie stars on parade with their kids. Brad Pitt. Heath Ledger. You get the idea. It was hard to tell who was really involved with their kids and who was opting for a little friendly PR. There was an image specialist who was quoted as saying that things have changed in Hollywood with dads no longer shy about showing off being involved dads for the camera compared to prior generations of celebrity men.
I asked the salon owner if I could have the magazine copy, thinking that while of course this isn't a film about celebrity dads, the face they had been emphasized as cool dads reflects upon the acceptance of our culture regarding the image of involved dads in general.
Cut to a week later and my phone conversation with Dr. Ralph LaRossa, who has been studying fatherhood for the past twenty-five years. I mentioned this article to him and his reaction was quite intriguing. In sum, his perspective is that while we'd like to think that dads of today are more involved than ever before (and there is some evidence to support this - witness the larger number of SAHD's than ever before) the idea that we think one's generation of dads is so much more involved than previous ones is a recurring cultural narrative that occurs with nearly every new generation. In other words, every generation likes to separate themselves as being special and more improved than the previous one. (Pepsi's "The Choice of a New Generation" slogan keeps reverberating in my ears.) Dr. LaRossa shared how he can find a 1950's article that promotes the same kind of celebrity dad as the one I read in US magazine. He also said there were similar findings about the cultural view of dads in general in the 1920's and even as far back as 1900!
So, going back to the US magazine article, from this line of thinking, the celebrity dads story is just another recurring cultural narrative designed to make us feel better about ourselves and, frankly, to sell magazines.
Unlike US Magazine, I have every intention of digging deep into the real issues and narrative thread of the American Dad, and yet, to emphasize LaRossa's findings too much - that we are overplaying our specialness, our generational identity, in all of this...I'm not sure how many people would want to watch that version of this movie. It's not fun being told one isn't so special or unique.
My mind keeps jumping to Howard Beal in "Network" and how, after becoming a populist hero by expressing his "Mad as hell!" anthem, then succumbed to the influence of the corporate philosophy and told his audience that they were all just a bunch of "transistors."
Nobody wants to hear they aren't special.
There's a balance between sharing the complexity of the truth and trying to paint a picture that is inspiring, entertaining and thought provoking. Ultimately, a little pepper in the stew is a good thing.
More food for thought...
I've certainly read about how there was a movement for dads to be more involved in the 30's, but Dr. LaRossa gave an intriguing perspective on why it occurred then: he cited how the primary defining identity of fathers is completely connected to the socio/economic factors of the time; and so in the 1930's, when so many people were financially not faring so well, the primary dad characteristic was more about 'being a buddy' to one's kids, whereas in the '50's, the cultural emphasis was mainly on being the breadwinner - partly due to a period of economic growth, where more men were able to bring home a better paycheck. Interesting!