Boomer and Silent-Gen Fathers Sometimes Fell Short
I don’t want to be the Grinch of Father’s Day. (“Then don’t be, and shut up,” no doubt some of my always-welcome commenters might think to themselves.)
But ever since the death of my beloved grandfather in 1994, I sort of always felt that way. Whenever Father’s Day rolled around, and I’d see other guys roughly my age who had fathers they were still close to talking about their plans and paying good money to go back and visit them and buying ties and shoes out of precarious paychecks, I’d sort of feel like it was all a micro-aggression – the way that a West LA Jewish woman might feel about an in-your-face “Merry Christmas” or the way a sincere Christian man might feel seeing those Darwin-fish trunk ornaments. Without intending to, I couldn’t help but feel that life was rubbing it in my face.
As you might be able to infer, I had a very poor non-relationship with my (long deceased) father, and he made no secret of the fact that he powerfully resented my very existence as an inconvenience, as excess baggage, and completely wrote me out of his life. (This was probably a blessing, considering what he might have been capable of had he insinuated himself, and my divorced mother and grandparents wanted him to have as little to do with me as possible.) He was a brilliant and educated man in many ways, but the very embodiment of the hard leftist who “cared” about humanity, but had contempt for individual people. When John Lithgow played a patriarch on Broadway who had his cat put to sleep because it wasn’t affectionate enough (to him), I recognized my father in his character far more than I ever did in The Brady Bunch or Full House.
This is hardly unique to men (and women) of my era. They didn’t call the Baby Boomers the “Me Generation” for nothing, and their Millennial and Gen-X children certainly learned why early on. We were also somewhat of an anomaly for a different reason, in that while we were the first generation to grow up under normalized, widespread divorce, it wasn’t until the 1970s that American fathers were expected to really do anything more than bring home the bacon and keep the family safe. Like Don Draper and Ward Cleaver, the job description for mid-century men was to send an occasional beaming smile to their little Kitten, or a hearty pat-on-the-back and game of catch with their little Champ. But otherwise, pre-pubescent child-rearing was strictly women’s work.
No wonder a lot of Boomer and late-day Silent Generation dads went off the map. On the one hand, they were being asked – demanded – to give more lovey-dovey affection to their children than they had ever received growing up; on the other, they were tempted by newfound societal and sexual freedoms that earlier generations never had. And I would be remiss as a film critic in not noting how the popular culture that shaped the last half-century or so unintentionally, but all too accurately, reflected this double standard.
“There’s no sin like being a woman,” remarked the flamboyantly gay icon Quentin Crisp. Marlo Thomas echoed that when a man downsizes three people by lunchtime, he’s decisive – but when a woman refuses to return your phone call, she’s a bitch. And certainly the way fathers and mothers have been treated in our popular culture – particularly since the initial rise of second-wave feminism – illustrates that point.
No sooner had the first bras been burnt in the “women’s lib” movement than, as David Frum pointed out, there was a wave of “demon child” movies about evil children who wanted to manipulate and even kill their innocent parents – Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, The Devil Within Her, It’s Alive, and so forth. You didn’t have to be Freud to figure it out. Then, perhaps even more disturbingly, came the Monster Mom genre. There was Nurse Mildred Ratched and her cobra-like, saurian smile, overseeing her Cuckoo’s Nest. There was drunken and abusive Miss Hannigan on stage and in the movies, facing off against Little Orphan Annie, and the robotized and/or drugged out, placidly violent Stepford Wives. There was Meryl Streep walking out on her third-grader son (and then, just as he got used to it, deciding she wanted him back) in Kramer vs. Kramer. There was Mary Tyler Moore’s unforgettable Beth Jarrett, incensed that her cheerful, loving older son had died in an accident while her guilt-ridden, moody younger son had lived, in Ordinary People. There was Jane Wyman’s lovable, horrible Angela Channing treating her grown daughters like dependent-adult slaves on Falcon Crest. And for the gold standard eye-poppers, there was Martine Bartlett kicking her daughter Sybil down the staircase – “Have a nice trip – see ya next FALL!”, followed by Faye Dunaway almost attempting-to-murder her elementary school-aged daughter Christina with a wire hanger, in Mommie Dearest.
But for all of these chilling portrayals of irresponsible, grotesque, manipulative, cold-hearted, and even monstrous mothers and caregivers – where were the movies or TV shows about the men who walked out on their families and never looked back, or abused and psychologically tortured their kids?
As Church Lady might have twitched, “Could it beeee….”, that such a subject might have struck just a little too close to home for the overwhelmingly privileged and self-indulgent men who ran the studios, networks, and book publishers of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s? Many of whom were more than acquainted themselves with key parties, discos, singles bars, on-the-side mistresses, and divorce courts?
A memorable 1996 Law & Order episode (guest starring the great Patti LuPone as a fearless defense attorney) brought this dynamic into starker relief. A baby had been poisoned, and the suspect was the bitchy British teenage nanny who was actually raising the child while its birth mother, a power-suited corporate executive, went back to her true passions of hostile takeovers and leveraged buyouts. Clearly as she testified, this non-maternal mom viewed her baby as little more than a Hermes shopping bag, an accessory, to prove to herself and her other corporate gal pals that — just like Erica Kane and Murphy Brown – she could “have it all.”
But before Dear Reader accuses me (or the show) of being gendered or sexist in that assessment, it will come as no surprise that the baby’s father was even less concerned with the day-to-day life of his new child – and not at all concerned about his 14-year-old son from a first marriage, whom he had traded away for Family #2 as blithely as a contestant on Let’s Make a Deal. Spoiler alert: it was the older son who’d done it, after one too many broken promises and humiliations from dear old Dad. While nothing could excuse the young man murdering his baby stepbrother, the truest-to-life moment in the whole episode came when the father attacked his older son afterward – as totally, obliviously, uncomprehending-as-a-sheep that his own gargantuan self-centeredness had created the circumstances for his baby’s death.
It’s also been a cliché as long as Shakespeare that the “great men” of history usually have more problems than an algebra textbook with their dads. And the recent Presidents all too clearly bear this out.
Donald Trump the adult man may have no excuse for his Neanderthal attitudes towards women, penchant for domination and bullying, and racially questionable positions – but Little Donnie Trump was given the psychological equivalent of 10 rounds with Manny Pacquiao. By almost all accounts, Trump’s domineering daddy Fred (the “Old Man Trump” of the Woody Guthrie folk song) played his sons off against each other, made them compete for his affection, and sent Donald packing off to a military school at all of 13 for rebellion (as if being mouthy and snotty was totally unexpected behavior in a pubertal boy.)
Barack Obama may have had dreams (or really, more like issues) from the African father who, like my own, more-or-less totally rejected him and sent him back to his (thankfully loving) grandparents and mother. But his dreams were also given shape and substance, for better and worse, by his Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soetoro. Daddy Lolo would not hesitate to contradict or silence his “fresh” and “liberated” wife – who despite her anthropology degree, was still woefully ignorant of the realpolitik of the secret-policing, strongman-fetishizing Third World. “Not all of us can afford the luxury of acting like a stupid American – like saying whatever pops into your head!” he would angrily remind Ann Obama Soetoro, in front of her young son Barack. When little Barry asked Daddy why one of Dad’s old soldier friends got killed, his step-dad bitterly smirked, “Because he was weak!” Play it cool, boy. Don’t be a schoolboy. Never complain, and never explain. No wonder President Obama was so “aloof” and “elite” and “professorial.” He’d learned at an early age that women gab and gossip and spill the beans; real men keep their thoughts inscrutably to themselves, silently playing mental chess and even manipulating both friend and foe.
One final example d’cine: When I was a young teenager, I saw the last of the original, Anthony Perkins-starring Psycho films (made just before his death), which clearly formed the basis for the recent Bates Motel series. It starred Henry Thomas as young Norman Bates in flashbacks (an actor whom I’ve always admired, and to whom I happen to bear a strong physical resemblance), so it immediately got my attention. Of course, being the story of Norman Bates and “Mother”, the fortyish and still-beautiful (as she was still very much alive) Mrs. Bates (played by Olivia Hussey) had to be the main villainess, abusing and torturing and emasculating her son with all the relish of Mommie Dearest or the Wicked Witch of the West. But the trigger event came when Mom brought home a new bar-owning boyfriend whom she hoped would help restore the motel’s (and her own) finances.
Norman’s new de facto stepfather took one look at this introverted, glasses-wearing, book-reading, mama-obsessed, excessively polite (which is all, of course, to say GAY) teenager, and determines to “make a man out of him.” Watching young Norman getting beaten red, black, and blue by his new daddy wasn’t the creepiest part of the movie for me. It was the horrifying slow realization that this kind of thing would have been considered more-or-less completely appropriate when the movie was set (during the late ‘40s/early ‘50s). Robert Duvall’s immortal Great Santini would surely have beamed in approval.
Indeed, for Greatest and Silent Generation men and their fathers, Dad was drill sergeant, not teddy bear. Mom was there to reassure you with milk and cookies, but once a boy started getting his first whiffs of facial hair, bad breath, oily skin, and BO, it was time to burn the baby fat off of him and get him ready for his place in a dog-eat-dog world. “Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, that’s the way I came up,” approvingly reminisced turn-of-the-century-born, First World War veteran Bert Cooper, on Mad Men.
Again, no wonder our Boomer dads went all over the game board with us, from the rough-and-tough Hank Williams Jr.-listening Vietnam Vet dads, with their guns, Coors, and NASCAR, who pushed back as hard as their fathers and grandfathers did against any signs of softie metrosexualization in their boys, to the careerist yuppie dads who didn’t have a clue, to the Tiger Dad “helicopter parents” obsessed with test scores, extracurricular activities, and getting their kids into the “right” schools and colleges, to the touchy-feely New Age/hippie “Stuart Smalley” dads, who to paraphrase a Pauline Kael line, were little more than buckets of slop.
And after that hot steaming cup of cynicism, I want to say in a loud voice – there were also the many good dads who somehow managed, against humongous odds, to balance the fine line between being loving and sympathetic on one hand and no-nonsense character building on the other. The silent heroes who took the best of past and future and managed to balance and blenderize them into something that would make their sons (and daughters) better human beings because their fathers were that themselves, and who deserve all the more accolades this weekend.
The oldest cliché in the book for actors, singers, artists, and writers, is that their career dreams are a way of getting or making up for attention denied them by a selfish or uncaring parent. Like Johnny Cash’s “Boy Named Sue,” it’s very possible I might not have had the endurance to publish two books and try for a writing career had it not been for that ultimate kicking-to-the-curb from the person who was supposed to care about me more than anything else. It also underlined a healthy skepticism (which I would’ve gotten from my own family anyway – you had to be there) about other people’s motives, and to never blindly put one’s trust in anybody right off the bat.
Then again, as Joyce Carol Oates said of grief, even if it has lessons to be learned, perhaps those are lessons one might just as well do without.
Okay, enough of all that. If you happened to have a good – or even a fair – relationship with your father, whether he’s still here or whether he now lives only in the afterlife and the twilight of your memory, then celebrate his big day in good cheer! Belly up to the bar and raise up the roof, and lovingly show him that brand-new tie.
But as you celebrate your dad – or are celebrated by your own children – please spare a thought for the rest of us, too. Let’s hear it for the young ladies who lunch at the Cool Girls’ table, who manage to look and feel beautiful while respecting themselves enough not to let the first young man take advantage of them – even though they themselves never knew the joy of being Daddy’s Little Angel. Let’s hear it for the boy, who cheered himself down the football field in the fall and marched second-chair in the brass section in the spring, watching all the other kids’ dads smiling and patting them on the back, while he had only himself. And let’s even spare some emotional change for those who didn’t – or couldn’t – make it that far, all on their own.
Though a generational gulf the size of Thelma and Louise’s canyon is guaranteed to separate all fathers from their sons (and daughters), ultimately if we can all just get along, to paraphrase the old Crosby, Stills & Nash song, “each other’s hell will slowly go by.” And if you’re still lucky enough to have a good dad, or to have good kids you love and are proud of and try to be there for, then just look at them and sigh….
And know they love you.
Telly Davidson is the author of a new book on the politics and pop culture of the ’90s, Culture War. He has written on culture for FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series Pioneers of Television.