The Postfeminist Widower Becomes Heroic Father
Chicken Little plays on ‘postfeminist paternal melancholia’ (Hamad 2014, 24) in its representation of the widowed father, using it to create sympathy for the father, giving him an alibi for his initial failings as a parent, and also to present him as a hero when he moves beyond his grief to care for his son. The film, which is a reimagining of the folk tale also variously known as Chicken Licken, and Henny Penny (Aarne-Thompson type 20C, Thompson 1961), concerns the widowed rooster Buck Cluck and his son Chicken. The boy entangles himself into a number of difficult situations. Buck feels embarrassed by his son’s behaviour, causing Chicken to feel betrayed by his father’s lack of emotional support. The conflict is resolved by a full-scale space invasion instigated by an alien couple, Tina and Melvin, searching for their lost young son, who has wandered off whilst holidaying. In order to stop the invasion, Buck and Chicken must lay aside their differences and work together.
Buck’s wife Chloe has disappeared before the film starts. It is not explained what has happened, and Chicken does not appear to miss her; indeed, he never mentions her. Buck, however, invokes her twice. In the first instance, her absence is used to create sympathy for Buck. Chicken has caused a disturbance at school and Buck has been called in to pick him up. Father and son are both upset, but unable to talk about the incident. Buck does not know what to do. He turns to a family photo of the three of them and sighs: ‘Oh Chloe. If only you were here. You’d know what to do’. As Helena Wahlstrom has noted, US culture constructs the father as ‘paradoxically both authoritative and secondary parent’ (2010, 13). Buck is ostensibly a successful breadwinner and guardian, but he is at the same time not a competent caretaker. It appears that Buck has never had to deal with the more taxing side of fathering, and he is now finding it difficult to take up this responsibility. This moment of sadness is directly followed by a scene where Chicken sits on the roof watching a neighbouring father and son playing football. The message appears to be that while Buck is grieving for his wife, Chicken needs and wants, not his mother, but his father. The paternal melancholia thus simultaneously creates sympathy for the widowed father and shows that he needs to stop hiding behind the absent mother, in order to care for his son.
The next reference to Chloe is at the turning point of the film, when Chicken accuses his father of not being supportive: ‘You’re never there for me’. In this scene, Buck acknowledges Chicken’s emotions for the first time, and explains the situation: ‘Your mom - she was always good with stuff like this. Me, I’m gonna need a lotta work. But you need to know that I love you. No matter what’. Again, Chloe is used as an alibi for Buck’s failure to engage with his son’s emotions, but this time Buck moves from secondary to primary parent, and takes up the responsibility of being a postfeminist father, becoming ‘emotionally articulate’ in Hamad’s words (2014, 2). The grieving widower becomes a father and a hero.