Why Hollywood Can't Change a Diaper

tags: gender, masculinity, film, popular culture, family

Janet Golden is History Professor Emerita at Rutgers University, Camden.

During a year spent at home, one new father reported that he had finally learned “how to properly wash my hands—and a baby’s hands.” A parenting resource, meanwhile, let dad know he could get down on the floor and engage his baby in age-appropriate play. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, I noticed a glut of articles and interviews centered on humorous, heartwarming stories about fathers staying home with their infants and discovering the joys of parenting. I couldn’t help but think, “I’ve seen this movie before,” because, well, I had.

From the silent film era to the present day, men’s and especially fathers’ roles have remained largely unchanged when it comes to babies: they are nearly always shown as comically inept at caring for them but able to quickly fall in love with helpless infants. Now, as pandemic and post-pandemic movies are written, our workplace dynamics are changing and possible legislation to support families is debated. Perhaps the moment is here for some new stories to be told about men and babies. While we wait to see what Congress does with the American Families Plan in the proposed 3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, let’s watch some movies and consider how American culture has always seen baby care as a woman’s job.

Moviegoers know that the portrayal of mothers on the big screen shifted enormously over the past century. The treatment of single motherhood pivoted from showing it as sinful to presenting it as, if not commonplace, at least no longer shameful. The stigma of out-of-wedlock birth in the 1926 silent film The Scarlet Letter, with Lillian Gish, is in marked contrast to late twentieth-century Hollywood films in which single mothers ranged from horrible to saintly but are not sentenced to wear a literal or figurative badge of shame. Movies have always reflected cultural practices and cultural changes, and women’s acting roles have evolved along with shifts in the culture and economy, and with changes in family size. The growing labor force participation rate of women can be seen on screen, although the movies usually show working mothers parenting children, not infants. 

Family formation also entered new thematic territory. The film industry, in recent decades, turned out movies about adoption, including interracial adoption, surrogacy, and baby-selling (although television made the most of this latter narrative with police procedurals about breaking up criminal baby broker enterprises).

What about fathers? While economy, culture, and family demographics changed for men too, their household duties did not evolve at the same rate as women’s. Certainly, the numbers of fathers engaged in full-time parenting and the number of dual father households have increased in recent decades. Unfortunately, most of the available data focuses on caring for preschool children, lumping infants and 5-year-old youngsters into the category. That measures of paternal infant care are largely absent tells us something about how we think of fatherhood.

Read entire article at Public Seminar