How were parents portrayed on screens of various sizes this year?
Does that tell us anything about our expectations for parents out in the real world? (Disclaimer: I don't really think any of us get our role models from TV parents. Still, in the aggregate, film and TV are mirrors of what we want to see. And even without that academic spin, it makes for an interesting end of year lens to use, particularly when you line all these shows and movies up and see how god-awful most screen parents are...)
Thelma Adams has been thinking about this, and the former film critic for US Weekly compiled a year-end list for amc's filmcritic.com that she titled "Top 10 Most Memorable Movie Moms of 2011." Scanning them I found myself squirming at what passes for motherhood in Hollywood.
On her list are those (white southern) mothers in The Help, abusing their maids and ignoring their children; and Judi Dench's character in J. Edgar, delivering her "castrating cautionary tale about what happens to boys who become 'daffodils.'" In The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep portrays a Margaret Thatcher who ignores her children, and in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Tilda Swinton plays a mother who wonders if her ambivalence toward her son is the reason he mowed down his classmates at school. Elizabeth King's comatose character has had a pre-coma affair in The Descendants. Charlotte Rampling's devastates her daughter while theoretically toasting at her wedding in Melancholia.
In fact, of Adam's top ten (you can read the entire list here) only one, Molly Weasley (played by Julie Walters in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) hasn't screwed anyone up or over.
Do Dads get the same treatment?
I did a quick scan of the Golden Globe nominations when they came out last week, and the result is a mixed bag.
Of the Best Drama nominees, there really aren't any fathers to speak of in The Help or The Ides of March.
Hugo seems to have had a loving father, but he is dead by the time the movie starts (his mother, like most good fairytale Moms, is long gone, too.) I haven't seen the film version of War Horse, but in the stage version, Albert's father is a bit of a jerk for selling the horse to the cavalry; still, without that there would certainly be no story. On the bright side, George Clooney's character eventually finds his way in The Descendants, and Brad Pitt's clearly adores his daughter in Moneyball. Meaning more film Dads were redeemable this year than Moms.
Of the best actors in a TV drama who have children, Jeremy Irons plays a corrupt Pope who cheats on the mother of his children in The Borgias, Kelsey Grammer plays a corrupt mayor who is estranged from his daughter in Boss, Damian Lewis is a war hero Dad who may or may not be a terrorist in Homeland (though, based on last night, there isn't really any doubt...), and Bryan Cranston is a meth dealer, no maybes about it, in Breaking Bad.
The comedy nominees are not much to look up to as fathers, either. Three of them have no kids; the other two play a sex fiend (David Duchovny in Californication) and a male prostitute, (Thomas Jane in Hung.)
Depressed yet? Resigned to the fact that heck, this is just entertainment anyway, so why read anything into how being a parent seems inextricably linked to being a miserable human lately?
Wait. Don't despair. There is one small corner of the entertainment world where you can find wonderfully realistic (and admirable) examples of parenting: those in which women are nominated in the lead roles.
Julianna Margulies' character tries her best in The Good Wife, one of the growing number female-led shows to focus on the conflicts faced by real working parents (albeit ones with perfect hair and really great clothes.) Ditto to everyone in Modern Family (up for best TV Comedy series, with nominations for Sophia Vergara and Eric Stonestreet) and The Big C (and its star, Laura Linney.)
And, of course, there is Kate Winslet's Mildred Pierce, who is ever devoted to her warped, evil daughter -- a message that being TOO perfect a parent just gets you stepped on, no?
Do you recognize your life in any of this? Do you think there is a sweeping cultural commentary to be found there, or is the point that it's all way to escape from reality, not emulate it? Do you have any on-screen role models?
One last question: what is the narrator Dad in "How I Met Your Mother" thinking, telling all those stories about his old girlfriends to his children?
Follow Lisa Belkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lisabelkin