Why were the nineties so preoccupied with fatherhood?
Some decades are summed up easily, the accretion of cliché and cultural narrative having reached such a point that we hardly need say anything at all. The sixties: hippies, drugs, revolution, rock-and-roll. The eighties: Young Republicans, greed is good, massive perms, Ronald Reagan. This is reductive, obviously, but it’s also helpful cultural shorthand. The nineties, like the seventies, have a less unified narrative: there’s gangster rap, Monica Lewinsky, Columbine, Kurt Cobain, O.J., MTV, white slackers on skateboards, and the LA riots, but they’re all disparate, disconnected. There was no counterculture powerful enough to write the narrative from below, no one mass-cultural or political trend hegemonic enough to make itself the truth. Some enjoy calling this diffusion postmodernism, though most everyone else agrees those people are assholes.
But there was, I contend, a current that ran through the culture of the nineties, a theme that has not to my knowledge been recognized as such. That theme is the heroic dad.
The nineties have sometimes been framed as an assault on family values, what with the Culture Wars and the president’s penis’s interchangeability with a cigar and all, but it was the nineties that saw the dad ascendant in popular culture. By 1990, even the youngest baby boomer was twenty-six, and most of them were solidly in their thirties and forties. They were losing their grip on cool. And they were having kids. It was only natural that they’d want to dramatize the experience. Granted, Bill Cosby, arguably the most quintessential dad in TV history, reached his peak popularity in the mideighties—but the early nineties saw an explosion of hit dad-based sitcoms: Coach, Married … with Children, The Simpsons, Home Improvement, Major Dad. These continued to proliferate throughout the decade; witness Full House and Everybody Loves Raymond, among many others. Many of these were just trying to get a piece of the megasuccess of The Cosby Show and Roseanne. But when those sitcoms are discussed, they’re often applauded for their working-class heroes, while the recentering of dad is less often highlighted. (This is exactly how Reaganite politics worked, too: use lip service to the working class to retrench economic power.)
The trend is more obvious in Hollywood, where the dadventure—don’t look for that term elsewhere; I’m making it up right here—found greater traction than ever in the nineties. You’ll recognize the dadventure if you give it some thought; it’s a subgenre in which the protagonist is a capital-F Father, one whose fatherhood defines both his relationship to the film’s other characters and supplies the film’s central drama. In a dadventure, the stability of the family is threatened—whether by violence or drama, it’s almost always because of some negligence around the dadly duties—and only dad can save the family by coming face to face with his fatherly responsibilities. In the end, he learns just how much fun being a dad can be.
Between 1978 and 1988, there were a total of three dadventures that made the box-office top-ten for their respective years: Mr. Mom, Back to School, and Three Men and a Baby. But then came the nineties: between 1989 and 1999, ten dadventures hit the box-office top ten, and they’re worth listing in full:
- Look Who’s Talking
- Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
- Father of the Bride
- Mrs. Doubtfire
- The Santa Clause
- The Flintstones
- Big Daddy
Since then, from 2000 through 2013, there have been only four: Cheaper By the Dozen, The Pursuit of Happyness, Despicable Me, and Despicable Me 2. (Of course, this tally probably ignores a whole range of films wherein dadliness is defined on Freudian, structural, or mythic levels—where the drama of fatherhood undergirds the film’s meaning without banging you over the head with it. But those are way harder to count, and anyway, shush.)
We all know that culture is aimed, predominantly, at the young: they’re the ones who spend all their disposable income on beer, who don’t have major financial commitments, whose brand loyalty is still up in the air. So why in the nineties, a decade where the counterculture was definitively subsumed by marketing and “selling out” was the major cultural no-no, did dad worship become a profitable trend? Didn’t Gen X just roll its eyes, tell dad to shut up, and move to Austin?
The boomers, the first “generation” constituted as a mass cultural, economic, and political force, were accustomed to being talked about, and it was hard to let go of their cultural centrality. The only problem is that they were the ones who, in their youth, used mass culture to unseat mom and dad, who believed that intergenerational antagonism was a sign of political seriousness. What to do now that they were the squares? And how to face their looming mortality?
If only they could convince their kids they were cool, maybe they could convince themselves.
* * *
One of the most charming dadventures ever made, and the film that most blatantly reveals the belief structure and form of the genre, is 1991’s Hook, a kind of dadly Peter Pan fan fiction turned into a major Hollywood hit by Steven Spielberg.
In it, Robin Williams, history’s number one dadventure star, plays an all-grown-up Peter Pan: he’s left Neverland and is now a successful corporate lawyer (not a joke) who goes by the name Peter Banning. His family life is a mess—he works too many hours to see the wife and kids. But when his two young children are kidnapped by none other than Captain Hook, Peter, who has completely forgotten his eterna-boy identity, has to return to Neverland and remember how to think lovely, wonderful, youthful thoughts in order to restore his powers and save them.
That’s right: Peter Pan, perhaps the most #nodads male figure in the history of English literature, has become a corporate lawyer, but his innate fatherly love for his kids is enough to restore him as an eternal child. Meanwhile, Captain Hook’s evil plan centers, for some reason, on convincing the kids that dad’s a dick. In what is meant to be a climactic evil-might-just-win scene, Hook gets Peter’s son to smash clocks while screaming every instance of neglect and cruelty his dad put him through. That should be evidence enough that Hook is an act of boomer self-assurance intended mainly for the dads in the audience. But it’s the sad tale of the orphan Rufio, who took leadership of the Lost Boys in Peter’s absence, that really perfects the narrative.
No eternal boy-gang can go without a leader, and Rufio—the triple-mohawked Mad-Max punk who runs the Lost Boys as if they’re a queer postapocalyptic skater gang—is way cooler than Pan ever was. Rufio, as you may be able to tell by my enthusiasm for him even twenty years later, is the only point of identification for the kids this film is ostensibly for. He’s the film’s heart, its real hero. Rufio inevitably beefs with Peter, because here’s Pan, as square as square comes, a dad in a boy’s world, claiming to be the mythical departed leader of the gang. It’s only when Rufio is brutally murdered by Hook that our lust for vengeance accommodates us to Robin Williams—i.e., dad—as an actual hero, and even then we accept him only grudgingly.
It’s a sneaky but hardly subtle move. Rufio’s last words are “I wish I had a dad like you,” thus framing all of the punk, skater, and boy-gang impulses within one of the decade’s most common political lines: societal problems are caused by poor fathering or the absence of fathers. (This is an accusation leveled most often against communities of color—and it’s no coincidence that the actor who plays Rufio, Dante Basco, is Filipino American.) The kids, it seems, just need to accept that growing up is cool and being a dad is cooler: cooler, at any rate, than being a postapocalyptic punk forever-boy. It’s a nice try, but in 2014, you never see anyone dressing up as Robin Williams’s Banker Pan—come Halloween, everyone’s going as Rufio.
Hook is hardly an atypical dadventure; it’s just particularly barefaced. There’s a whole wealth of nineties culture positioning fatherhood as the real adventure, the really cool thing to do. This is, let’s hope, reflected male boomer horror: the horror of having found oneself in the very position one has spent one’s whole cultural life posing against.
But the nineties was also a decade in which the United States projected itself as a global father. As the only superpower after the collapse of the USSR, all its actions, military and economic, were always framed as beneficial for the people they affected, even when it was exercising “tough love.” NAFTA? Good for Mexican exports. Invading Kuwait? Bombing Kosovo? Humanitarian intervention. Everything was justified by dad logic: the U.S. was only doing it for the other countries’ own good, even if those other countries didn’t like it.
The point is not to claim that Warren Christopher was basing foreign policy on Mrs. Doubtfire. But is it not possible to see the nineties, beneath its postmodern mashup of clashing countercultures and co-option, as a period of return to the fifties cult of the dad, a reentrenchment of the patriarch brought on by the very generation who tried to dethrone him in the first place?
The eighties, at least, were drenched in cocaine and neon, slick cars and yacht parties, a real debauched reaction. But nineties white culture was all earnest yearning: the sorrow of Kurt Cobain and handwringing over selling out, crooning boy-bands and innocent pop starlets, the Contract With America and the Starr Report. It was all so self-serious, so dadly.
Today, by some accounts, the nineties dad is cool again, at least if you think normcore is a thing beyond a couple NYC fashionistas and a series of think pieces. Still, that’s shiftless hipsters dressed like dads, not dads as unironic heroes and subjects of our culture. If the hipster cultural turn in the following decades has been to ironize things to the point of meaninglessness, so be it. At least they don’t pretend it’s a goddamn cultural revolution when they have a kid: they just let their babies play with their beards and push their strollers into the coffee shop. In the nineties, Dad was sometimes the coolest guy in the room. He was sometimes the butt of the joke. He was sometimes the absence that made all the difference. But he was always, insistently, at the center of the story.
Willie Osterweil is a writer and editor at The New Inquiry.