Father’s Day has come and gone but it’s sentiment still resounds in me. A long time ago I wrote about the concept of paternity in Batman (which you can read here) but I feel that many of essays points were once placed in the realm of fiction. So let’s dive a little deeper into the subject and problematize aspects of paternity and fatherhood in real life with some pop culture examples thrown in for good measure.
At first glance, masculinity and paternity are incredibly interlaced. There is a primitive instinct that compels men to find a suitable mate and to spread genetic material across the land. But going around having multiple children with possibly multiple partners doesn’t mean that the man will be a responsible father for all offspring. In fact, one of the most chauvinistic/machismo things that a guy can say when asked if he has any kids is “none, that I know of…” with a cocky grin. This form of douchyness should never be accepted and further cements the notion that motherhood involves an immediate bond with the child that fatherhood has as optional. One of the non-economic reasons for early marriage was as a legal standpoint to ensure that paternity was accepted and that the kid and mother would be taken care of.
Motherhood is also incredibly innate. A lot of current feminist rhetoric revolves around the fact that if a women does not want a child or that she would not desire take care of one that she isn’t a monster. Paternity on the other hand needs to be proven. A guy that can take care of children is considered uncommon or maybe rare. I worked with kids for a long time and enjoy hanging out with the tiny humans in my family and have been considered a bit of an anomaly for it. But no matter how good that empathy can be the possibility of actually being a father is pretty scary. It’s why pop culture will have it so that even in the most committed of faithful relationships, being told by your partner that a baby is on the way the guy still wonders if it is really his. This doubt has kept The Maury Povich running for years. The guys will go and deny paternity and if they are proven right they show a happiness that one rarely witnesses.
[This dance for example]
But just in case things don’t go their way, they add that they will “man up” and be there for the kid. So masculinity at a base level is about having kids but not supporting them unless they are proven to be yours.
Of course there are different levels to what “parental support” actually means. Back in the old days, being a father and a husband meant that you had to provide financial stability to the household. If you had a good job, didn’t sleep around, kept vices to a minimum, played some catch, and used belt style discipline only when necessary you were father of the year. As feminism rose in the 80’s to fight for a woman’s job in the workplace, that meant that dad’s had to step up in the emotional support. As many of the glass ceilings that held back women gave way, the concept of the stay-at-home dad shifted from completely alien to still being weird.
This leads to an interesting supposition, paternity and fatherhood takes on more of an emotional spectrum only if a maternal figure is absent in part or in whole. It gets even stranger once you consider that the average Disney movie only has caring dads because they are widowers. Ariel, Belle, Nemo all have dads trying to figure things out when they are ill equipped to do so. The figure of the wicked step mother in a way is one of a failure of paternity because your choice in a spouse does not bode well for your daughter. Fun fact: a quick survey of Disney movies (ie the ones I remember off hand) show that the only single dad to a male character is Aladdin’s dad and he only shows up in the maybe maybe not canon Aladdin 3: Prince of Thieves. (FYI, there’s a cool fan theory that says that Aladdin’s wish to become a Prince makes it so that his dad became King of Thieves). Even action movies are rife with the trope of the absent but caring father suddenly becoming a badass to save a daughter in distress. Strangely enough, this means that parenthood genderification becomes more complicated depending on having sons or daughters.
A father’s job tends to be summed up as follows: make sure your sons become men and protect daughters as if they were little girls for as long as possible. As a dad, you teach your kid sports and how to fight or you treat them like princesses. This is the dichotomy within gender roles. On one side you foster growth (often through absence) and on the other you maintain being a child for as long as possible by serving as a guardian to the outside world. I have often thought of how I would act if I were to be a dad and speculation is often based on having a son. As I have become more and more of a feminist I began wondering just how much my possible preparations of parenthood would change if I had a daughter instead. And if those changes took place, why? Kids are kids, sure things get weirder as the teenage years come forth but being a parent boils down to one thing: keep them safe while preparing them to take on the world on their own all while feeling loved.
One more thing about paternity that I want to discuss is how it apparently needs maternity for it to be kept in check. Consider this, if a 40ish year old single man goes to an orphanage to adopt a child of either gender red flags will rise instantly. Masculinity has a deviance within it that makes it so that the intention of paternity should be doubted. When it comes to your own kids, well there are a lot of things that limit the imaginative squick factor. But when you choose to become a father without a wife or even a woman society casts a glare to shut you down. Just look at Batman and you can see why in the old days it wasn’t far-fetched to think that he was bringing in wards for not the most noble of reasons. Hell, people look at The Dark Knight Returns where Batman in his mid 50s picks up 13 year old Carrie Kelly to become a sidekick and fans look at their relationship as possibly sexual rather than paternal. If Alfred wasn’t there as surrogate father (though his role is far more maternal than anything else) we might have trouble believing that these 13 year olds being trained to fight crime are actually safe. Wait a second…
With the recent decision of the Supreme Court to make gay marriage legal in all 50 states, one of the fallouts was that kids was that gay partners should now have less trouble adopting. Still, even when in a committed relationship it seems that one has more ease trusting two women to take care of a child than for two men. Shows like Modern Family are helping to change that mentality of gender roles in all ways and what we can expect. In Cam and Mitchell we see different sides of masculinity and also of paternity as they both struggle over the years to raise Lily and be part of each other’s extended family.
In short, paternity is complex and is more a choice than a genetically tailored trait. Then again, there is that famous moment when a father lays eyes on their child and realized that all things have changed. For all the things that the HIMYM finale got wrong it showed that moment when even a serial womanizer like barney Stinson can have a metamorphosis when becoming
not a father. Perhaps there is a dormant nature of fatherhood revealed upon its own acknowledgment. Maybe we need to eschew old gender roles and change the patriarchal structure for something where dads, father figures, and just about all people can help in giving kids a better life.
Now, if only we can make it so that the dumb dad wasn’t such a common trope…