"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Fathers and TV Fiction

In recent days National Review Online has published a couple of very good articles on the value of fathers, using cultural products as their examples and evidence. First, Kathryn Lopez wrote about Rocky Balboa, noting that the title character presents a strong image of fatherhood in his dealings with his son and with the fatherless son of a woman he meets in a tavern and eventually hires to help out in his restaurant. I would add that Rocky also acts as a surrogate father to several other characters in the film, such as his buddy played by Burt Young, and the ex-boxer he defeated in an earlier film

Lopez quotes an excellent and memorable speech from the film, in a scene where Rocky talks to his self-pitying son:

Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done. Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hit, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you are because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that and that ain’t you. You’re better than that!

Lopez then gives some real-life facts about fatherhood:

That’s notable because, as Dr. Meg Meeker writes in her recent book Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, pop culture isn’t exactly overflowing with messages encouraging men to be manly and to take pride in knowing they have something their families need. In what is a bit of a motivational seminar, Meeker writes to dads: “You were made a man for a reason, and your daughter is looking to you for guidance that she cannot get from her mother.”

Meeker, focusing on girls, goes on to contend that girls with a dad in their lives have higher self-esteem, are less likely to get pregnant as a teen (are less likely to lose their virginity before they turn 16), and find themselves with fewer learning and behavioral problems. And the list goes on. The National Fatherhood Initiative has its own long scary-stat list. Kids without dads are more likely to be poor, to wind up in jail. Absent fathers can affect weight, dropout rates, smoking, and drug and alcohol abuse.

Looking at Sweden, where big government (Hillary’s village) steps in to take over where a dad isn’t providing, a 2006 Institute for American Values study finds that “boys reared in single-parent homes were more than 50 percent more likely to die from a range of cause — such as suicide, accidents, or addiction — than were boys reared in two-parent homes.” How’s that for a dire dadless picture?

I have long thought that a strong and loving father is a critical element in ensuring that a girl does not grow up to be promiscuous and easily abused emotionally and physically by romantic partners—which are characteristics very much to the detriment of any individual of either sex but especially to women (as one should hardly have to point out)—and the statistics certainly confirm this.

Hence it's good when the Omniculture offers up positive figures such as Rocky Balboa. Of course, everything happens in the Omniculture, so there are plenty of alternative examples, of bad fathers, but even these can provide valid lessons if seen correctly, as Rebecca Cusey points out in today's issue of NRO. Citing prominently featured laudable fathers in Friday Night Lights, Ugly Betty, and Everybody Hates Chris, Cusey identifies what is good about these fathers:

These three dads have one thing in common: They’re there and they care. In the real world, study after study confirms what humanity has always known: Dads matter. Kids who grow up in homes with dads who are there and who care are less likely to do drugs, drop out of school, become sexually active, and engage in criminal behavior. TV has come a long way since Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, or The Cosby Show, but TV still reflects society’s view of dads. Fathers on TV can be broken into three basic categories: The good, the bad, and the bumbling.

These men are a strong contrast to the many bad dads on TV. Cusey writes:

But some TV fathers are just plain bad. This often comes, as in real life, when parents put their own desires above the welfare of their children. Bimbo after bimbo parades through Two and a Half Men. Uncle Charlie (Charlie Sheen) instructs young Jake to manipulate, ogle women, and swear despite the bleating protestations of dad Alan (Jon Cryer). In The New Adventures of Old Christine both parents are more interested in bedding new people than in their son. Scrubs, often a thought-provoking show, has reached a post-modern low with a story line in which star Dr. Dorian (Zach Braf) impregnates casual date Kim. In a series of scenes that is intended to be lighthearted, but is more sickening, they whimsically try to decide: parenthood or abortion? Usually intended to be shockingly funny, these dads’ indifference to their children comes off as just mean. In The War at Home, parents wage a losing battle against kids’ behavior, refusing to set any standards higher than emerging from adolescence without a police record. Melodramatic dramas, such as Desperate Housewives and The OC portray parents as selfish and poorly behaved as their children. Sometimes more so. These are the postmodern dads, who figure kids will be kids, teens will party and sleep around, and character is not worth molding. They reflect real-life parents whose biggest fear is to be seen as judgmental or hypocritical.

Given the prevalence of bad fathers in real life, the variety of rotten ones found on TV is realistic and a source of good moral lessons for all of us. As Cusey notes, however, "Happily, good fathers aren’t as hard to find on TV as one might think."

Conservative critics tend to look at the surfaces of things and complain that the media send bad messages to the society as a whole. As Cusey's article exemplifies, and as I've pointed out on frequent occasions, surface events are not what is really important in cultural products. What really counts is what the events mean. These articles show a good trend in right-of-center media criticism: a desire actually to understand things before pontificating on them.

From Karnick on Culture.

2 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Very nice, STK, that the Omniculture might actually include what's left of our actual culture.

People are asking questions about our confused society, about what is good and what is best (our theme of the week); if what we consider our baseline culture has any answers, they must be put to the test, and TV and the movies are as proper a place as any.

Perhaps the best place. Drama and comedy are older than philosophy, after all. Older than religion, too.

That the questions are being asked, that mythical dads like Rocky Balboa are still being proffered to some success, and that the coitally liberated but parentally emasculated modern man is put up for clear examination, these are good things. Necessary things.

The conservative cultural critic should object when fictions are offered as truth, as in when sexual gratification carries no consequences, or at the trivialization of knocking a gal up and playing abortion for laughs.

At the devil's table, all things are for sale, it is said. I suppose a conservative or even a classical liberal should be content to serve as a Consumer Reports then, and trust in the marketplace of ideas: some items will move, some will gather dust, according to their merits.

Just gotta flag down that occasional Pinto, y'know?

Anonymous said...

I miss The Cosby Show. A functional, encouraging family that was funny just because of the stuff that happened in daily life. So good.