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Changing Definitions of Fatherhood

Part of the reason that the type of fatherhood Triton, Maurice and the Sultan represent lost its place, according to John R. Gillis, was that fatherhood increasingly became defined ‘exclusively in terms of how well men can provide’ (2000, 231). As jobs became more scarce from the 1970s onwards, ‘connections between fatherhood and masculinity [were] weakened’, leading to a perceived marginalization of fatherhood (2000, 230, 234). In response to feelings of uncertainty and exclusion, men began to organize themselves. Beginning in the 1990s, men who felt themselves to ‘have been marginalized in families’ and who feared the ‘“perceived feminization of parenting”, in other words, the perceived tendency of policy to equate “family” with “mother and child”’, grouped themselves together to form the Fatherhood Responsibility Movement (Gavanas 2004, 33).

Many of the men who have joined in this movement saw and see themselves as victims of the feminist movement, which ‘pushed fathers away from families’ (2004, 34). The FRM is complex and multilayered, as Anna Gavanas shows, but one particularly vociferous group consists mainly of white and middle-class men, who ‘construct the monogamous, heterosexual, and married lifestyle as the hallmark of gendered normality, maturity, and morality’ (2004, 44). These ideas of family life are the ones that have been most often reflected in animated children’s films.

The inception of the FRM may be traced to the early 1990s, but different images of fatherhood had begun to circulate in the cultural imagination earlier. situation comedies presented a new type of father: the ‘new, enlightened, participatory dad’ in for example The Cosby Show (1984-1992) (Douglas and Michaels 2005, 106). There were also ‘sensitive, nurturing, postfeminist men’ in, for example, Family Ties (1982-1989) and Growing Pains (1985-1992) (Dow 2006, 121). Another type of father was exemplified in the 1983 film Mr Mom, the stay-at-home father who retains his masculinity even though he does the housework while his wife is the breadwinner. The phrase Mr Mom came to be used in news reports about men who had been laid off, and who now took care of the children. By making a virtue of necessity, the reports ‘reinscribed significant aspects of patriarchal privilege within the domestic space’ (Vavrus 2002, 353), constructing the fathers as heroic. Earlier in the century, being too involved with one’s children would be seen as ‘unmanly’, and such behaviour impugned not only a man’s ‘masculinity but also his maturity’ (Gillis 1996, 193). Now there were news stories of fathers, almost all white and middle- class, who were supportive of their wives’ careers and at the same time manly. The stories ‘serve[d] to affirm men as primary caregivers and to legitimate nurturance as proper masculine behavior’ (Vavrus 2002, 357). As one father featured in a news story phrased it: ‘real men do diapers’ (2002, 364). These are ideas that later find articulation in animated films.

Although the FRM stresses essentialist ideas of gender differences, and privileges heterosexual marriages, in which a family requires a mother as well as a father, I would argue that it also contains the beginnings of a redefinition of the paternal role, which merges the participatory, sensitive and nurturing father with the heteronormative, masculine man to create a new type of father, one who does not need a mother to raise his children. This type of father exemplifies what Hannah Hamad has termed ‘ postfeminist fatherhood’ (2014, 1).3 Analyzing a large number of live action films from the first decade of the twenty-first century, Hamad suggests that there has been a ‘paternal turn’ (5), making fathers and fatherhood central concerns. She sees this as part of a formulation of a ‘new hegemonic masculinity’ (15). The postfeminist father is ‘emotionally articulate, domestically competent’ and ‘skilled in managing the quotidian practicalities of parenthood’ (2). In these respects, he is different from the New Father, who was never required to take part in domestic work, and who, although the ‘pal’ of his children, was not expected to deal with difficult emotional issues.

This new model of fatherhood, which seemingly fulfils the goals set up by the feminist movement, can in fact serve conservative ends, in that it calls feminism into question. As Bonnie J. Dow notes, it makes ‘the need for continued feminist critique of patriarchy even more suspect’ (2006, 129). Tania Modleski has argued that men may ‘respond to the feminist demand for their participation in childrearing in such a way as to make women more marginal than ever’ (1991, 87). This is the development Hamad sees articulated in the films she has analyzed (2014, 3). I argue that it is also reflected in the animated films under discussion in this chapter. These films carry a didactic message, aimed at fathers and children, suggesting that mothers are not only marginal, but expendable.

A prominent feature of postfeminist fatherhood films is the widower. Hamad points to a large number of films who uses this character to create ‘paternal postfeminist melancholia’, which allows the audience to sympathize with ‘melancholic fathers and their emotional trajectories, as they transcend grief and/or cement bonds with their children’ (2014, 24). The widowed fathers of animated films are rarely romantic characters, but they still invite audience investment and the focus of the films is very much the cementing of bonds, and, at least in some cases, the transcending of grief.

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