Poor Judd Apatow. He's a marquee name in Hollywood, has a gorgeous wife and adorably precocious daughters, and recently got to guest-edit Vanity Fair's annual Comedy Issue and interview personal heroes like Albert Brooks. The one thing he can't do, it seems, is get everybody feeling the pain of a wealthy white guy's midlife crisis.
While I ended my last post by snarkily suggesting that pop culture's fascination with fathers might give way to an interest in motherhood, the truth is a lot of messages about moms are already encoded in these male-centric narratives.
I'd read conflicting accounts of What to Expect When You're Expecting: while Bitch's own Andi and Kelsey previously pointed out many of its flaws, Bitchflicks called it an "unexpected gem". Having watched it, I understand the conflicting feminist opinions: the movie's so tonally inconsistent and stuffed full of characters, it's open to a range of interpretations. There's a lot to hate about it, from its heteronormativity (gay people and single people have babies too!) to its racial troping (a minor character calls Latino couple Holly and Alex "spicy"; Vic (Chris Rock) and his wife have more children than everyone else, and they're all named after professional athletes...). A subplot pitting Wendy (Elizabeth Banks) against her younger, more glamorous stepmother Skyler (Brooklyn Decker), who is also pregnant, felt hackneyed: why not subvert the idea that women are all jealous of models by having them support each other, instead?
But the film has some surprisingly realistic moments, especially compared to traditional romantic comedies where pregnancy and labor are portrayed as a breeze. After Rosie (Anna Kendrick) becomes unexpectedly pregnant, she had Marco (Chace Crawford), who she's barely started dating, become a cozy couple. But then she miscarries, is sunk into depression, and their too-much too-soon relationship falls apart; all of which felt surprising and pretty revolutionary for a big-budget (alleged) comedy.
There are lots of films where single men act as surrogate fathers, from the John Wayne flick 3 Godfathers to Annie, Curly Sue, Fred Claus, About a Boy, Role Models, Happythankyoumoreplease [yep], Kindergarten Cop, Big Daddy, and (kinda) True Grit. It's also a common trope on TV, in shows where the non-dad "dad" is related to the children in question, like Hangin' With Mr. Cooper, Party of Five, Full House, or Gilmore Girls, and also where a lone man rescues a needy stranger (and himself in the process), as in Punky Brewster.
In the 2005 Disney movie The Pacifier, Vin Diesel plays Shane Wolfe, a Navy Seal–turned–temporary child minder. After failing to protect a government scientist working on a top-secret program that prevents other countries from deploying nuclear weapons, he's sent to protect the man's family as they've experienced some attempted break-ins, presumably in search of the secret program (which Wolfe needs to find before they do). After the scientist's widow leaves for Switzerland to open a newly discovered safety-deposit box belonging to her husband and the hopelessly negligent nanny quits, Wolfe is left in sole control of five children aged from baby to teenager. Hijinks ensue.
2006's The Pursuit of Happyness [sic] is one of a handful of movies that bucks the trend — as well as a rare example of a single dad of color. Based on the rags-to-riches story of Chris Gardner, it stars Will Smith as a down-on-his luck striver, struggling in his business selling bone density scanners to hospitals, while taking care of his five year old son following his wife's departure. He lands a prestigious stockbroker internship with a 1 in 20 chance of leading to a job, but it's six months of grueling, unpaid work (plus studying for an exam) leaving him to fit all his sales calls into the weekend, when he doesn't have childcare.
But even before he becomes a single parent, he plays an active role in his son's care, drilling Chris Jr. on spelling and math, and asking him about his day. Contrast this with 1979's Kramer vs. Kramer, where Dustin Hoffman's Ted Kramer has little insight into his son Billy's daily life before his wife leaves them. When he cooks breakfast for Billy for the first time, he doesn't know where anything is kept, and keeps saying that not only does he bring home the bacon but: "I gotta cook it, too!". (He'd clearly quite like a medal.)
Several lines in When Love is Not Enough pay lip service to feminism or to the idea of women's independence (Lois' mother tells her, "You might find your own life"; a fellow Al-Anon wife says, "I think our husbands are doing the best they can for themselves, and so should we"). But if the movie means to communicate that the partners of alcoholics—maybe particularly the female partners of alcoholics (AA and Al-Anon became more gender-inclusive over time, though that process is not portrayed in this movie)—live so much at the mercy of their loved ones' addictions that they can't have their own lives, it does a better job than it means to.