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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Emotionally Distant Dads Are Still Trending In TV And Film

Much has been said about the variety of our big and small screen male antiheroes--from their complexities, to their sometimes frustrating duplicity, and their ability to make us love them and hate them at the same time. But less has been discussed about the emotional distance certain male characters have put between their children. In fact, I think the issue has been fairly dismissed as something that doesn't warrant a discussion; it's accepted as a rather trivial addition to their already layered characters.

I was thinking about this last weekend when I was watching Brokeback Mountain (2005). There's a scene in the film when 19-year-old Alma (Kate Mara) timidly asks her father Ennis (Heath Ledger) whether she can come live with him after her mother's new marriage adds a baby to their already cramped home. Ennis, who over the years has settled into an unfulfilled solitude, flatly rejects the notion citing that he simply isn't wired for that. Just like that, the idea of a more present fatherhood falls off the table is never brought up again.

Granted, fatherhood isn't the focus of Brokeback, but it is an aspect of Ennis's character and deserves exploration. The same can be said about Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) on TV's Justified, which just aired its season 5 finale last Tuesday. Sure, as Deputy U.S. Marshal he's the big man around the tumbleweed county of Harlan in Kentucky. If he doesn't annihilate all the crooks and gangsters in town (or turn them against each other), who else will? He's respected as much as he is feared and knows how to do his job well. His professional life, with the exception of a few loose ends I reckon will be tied up next season, is flourishing. On the other hand, his personal life has been all but shelved, swatted away like an pesky gnat. After a teary goodbye from his ex-wife and baby mama Winona (Natalie Zea), who opted to move out of Harlan and away from danger-magnet Raylan (with the intention of him eventually joining her), we rarely even saw Raylan so much as send Winona a text message to check in with her and their infant daughter.
How are they doing? Does she have enough diapers, enough money?

Instead we see Raylan chasing after bad guys and falling deeper into the confines of complicated scheme to take down some of the biggest thugs in his district--which has admittedly made for some great TV this season. But in the midst of all that, he's completely forgotten that he's a dad. In fact, it's only when Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Art Mullen (Nick Searcy) nudges him about it is the audience even reminded. The presumption has always been that Raylan has unfinished business in Harlan, which has clearly taken priority. The crime plot is undoubtedly more compelling to watch, but his distance toward his family has added a dark shadow to his heroic character. Has he left his family behind to protect them, or is he too just not wired for parenthood? Watching him roll around the sheets with a pretty blonde (Amy Smart) this season may signal either a collapse in judgment or an intentional shift away from his role as a father.

One could certainly argue that Raylan's tepid relationship with his own father likely contributed to his own portrayal of fatherhood. But the sink-or-swim approach might have been more appropriate between a father and son growing up in the backwoods than between a man, who claims to embody the better half of his no-good dad, and his impressionable baby girl.

But while Raylan Givens compartmentalizes his crime-stopper and father roles, Mad Men's Don Draper (Jon Hamm) seems to discard being a father altogether. Though mother and father roles presented their distinct differences in the 50s and 60s with the mother providing the childcare and the father funding it, when it comes to any drama with his three kids, Don immediately defers it to their mother and his ex-wife Betty (January Jones). But to add insult to injury, he's conveniently always there to lend an ear whenever one of his kids (usually the oldest and brattiest one, Sally) complains about their mother's shortcomings as a parent.

I've written before about the unfair backlash against Betty (while she's not going to win any mother of the year awards, many can cut her some slack considering she's stuck in a dream deferred after her once sweetheart predictably left her with his three kids for his secretary), so I won't go into that further in this post. But I find it interesting that Don is often exempt of certain criticism even after he's shown himself to be an awful father, husband, and as we saw in season six, business partner. I get it; he's got movie star good looks, can bring all the ladies to his yard, and offers a fascinating portrait of a powerful white man of his era, there's something to be said about a gentleman who can't even be bothered to shield his daughter from his philandering recreational activities.

As we welcome Mad Men's seventh and final season on Sunday, I will be paying particular attention to how Don's complicated story comes full circle and his inevitable confrontation with Sally. That may be our best bet to see him finally face his own mistakes as a father. Will he repent, or will he skirt away from the issue as he has in the past?

None of this is to say that these characters' portrayal of fatherhood should be left out of storytelling; these types of dads exist in the real world and deserve to be represented on the big and small screens. But I wonder how accepted it would be if a female character disregarded her maternal duties as often as we see a man do so onscreen. Would she be met with the same acceptance?

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