Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Parents Make Bad Action Heroes

When MrsDarwin took the older kids to see Avengers 2: Age of Ultron I was parked with my laptop trying to keep up with my production schedule on The Great War, a novel, but in bits of free time I couldn't help noticing that a few fans of the Marvel franchise somehow themselves into a discussion of women's roles and mother's roles in SciFi extravaganzas.

A site called Geek Mom has a post that's been going around wondering why action movie women are divided into moms and non-moms and to the extent that women get to star in action movies they're generally locked in one of these boxes, with the non-moms as the adventurous types.

[T]he controversy about Black Widow’s role in Avengers: Age of Ultron, started me wondering about the boxes society puts women in. Because in pop culture, it often seems like a women’s primary role is either as a mom or something else—usually something dangerous or time-consuming that moms shouldn’t do because, hey, who else should watch the kids?

What if, like me, you’re two things at the same time?

Let’s take Age of Ultron. I love that Hawkeye’s a dad. I’m also completely cool with Laura Barton doing the stay-at-home mom thing. I’ve done that and I don’t regret it for a second. Women fought for equal rights to have choices. All choices are equally valid, so long as the ability remains to choose.
But it started me wondering: There are action heroes who are fathers—the Rock is all over my television screen in his new San Andreas trailer—but very few action heroes in pop culture are mothers. Hawkeye can be a dad and be a superhero, but the women are divided into mom and not-moms.

Then, I started making a list of great mothers in science fiction and fantasy, either books or movies, and realized that most of the ones on my list were known as mothers first. Even Sarah Conner is protecting her son in the Terminator movies and Elasti-Girl/Helen Parr, who is awesome, is best known as part of a family unit.

Where are the mothers who are equally moms and something else?
But the list is frustratingly short. Complex women who are something else and mothers were hard to find in science fiction and fantasy.


I suspect it comes down to that the general feeling is that once women become mothers, their adventures are over. Jack Bauer of 24 can be a super-spy and a father. The Rock can be a rescue pilot and a dad. Their action “jobs” have little to do with their being parents, though sometimes they use their skills to save their kids.

The vast majority of women in action movies who are mothers just need that simple description “wife,” “mother.” Not, “spy” or “police officer” or “soldier” for whom that role means as much as their role as mothers.

It sends the message that while men can go off and do dangerous jobs and define themselves not just as fathers but as something else, a women’s role of mom takes precedence over all. Once motherhood begins, that’s it.
It strikes me that the fact that people are even asking this question underlines both a certain lack of realism about parenthood and also a profound disconnect between the violent action spectaculars that people like to watch and the kind of actions they fictionalize.

I work in an office. It's not a high risk occupation that gives people nightmares. The most it disrupts your life is by occasionally demanding long hours or overnight business travel. And yet even so, the women around the office who are mothers generally complain about the work life balance much more than the fathers do (and the single people mostly enjoy travel and high profile projects with long hours more than married people or parents.) Now think about this a little more if your job involves traveling all over the world at a moment's notice and engaging in extreme violence in risky situations. Work life balance goes out the window. You would think that your number one priority, if you became a parent or even just got into a seriously relationship would be to get out of the action hero business.

Sometimes movie writers become conscious enough of the topics their genre deals with to realize this. In crime movies like Donnie Brasco and Heat, you see the bad effects that the action world has on the ability of characters to maintain family relationships. But in escapist epics like the Marvel movies, you gloss over those kind of things. Goofy enterprises like The Incredibles or Spy Kids play with the conventions further by imagining a sort of work-a-day super hero or super spy world in which people both drive the kids to school and engage in action spectacles, but in a sense these are entertaining as a commentary on the fact that action movies generally ignore this.

There's a strange balance that a fun action movie has to hit: lots of spectacle and yet never letting the audience think about the sort of things that are being portrayed enough to have the jarring experience of thinking about how much misery we're enjoying watching. We enjoy watching a city be destroyed as the good guys and bad guys fight it out, but we can only do so because all the costs are hidden from us. We don't have to think about the lives caught in the crossfire, and we don't have to think about what it would really be like to be these characters. Sometimes a movie does think about this too much, and as a result it ceased to be fun. To my mind, the latest James Bond reboot made this mistake with Casino Royale, where the writers tried to give half a thought to the life experiences which someone would go through on the way to becoming a secret agent with a license to kill. But as we saw Bond learn not to love the women he slept with (because they'd be killed) and saw him be tortured by enemy operatives, the movie ceased to be fun. James Bond movies were fun in previous incarnations because you never thought of the people involved as people. Turn these experiences human and they became dark rather than spectacle.

Which is why the action hero mom idea doesn't seem all that workable. Sure, in a sufficiently goofy movie a la Spy Kids you could have a mother packing her kids off to school and then heading off for a day of giant flying aircraft carriers and rappelling down ropes into impossible action scenes -- but you'd only get away with that in a movie even more fluffy than the standard Marvel epic.

Parenthood is humanizing. Whether we ourselves are parents or not, we all come from families and so seeing a fictional character in family life provides a humanizing sense. And yet, the danger with humanizing your characters too much in a genre which is only fun if you don't take it seriously is that you can throw the whole mood off.

So why do we have action hero fathers?

Well, often we don't. Perhaps part of the reason this conversation is being had is because of the cultural obsession with "have it all" feminism in which women can both be great moms and have great careers without having to sacrifice anything. But Among the Avengers there's a larger sample size of men than women and we've got Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Hulk all without children and only Hawkeye with. I haven't read the comics, but the movie incarnations of Batman, Superman and Spiderman all seem to be childless as well. Nor do the X-Men seem to be settling down to have kids. In Star Wars, the only parent among the main characters is Anakin in the second round of movies, and we know how that ended up. In Star Trek the only male lead with a kid didn't even know he had the kid until his son was grown up.

I'd tend to say that in general the action hero trope is one of the lone wolf, not the family man or woman. If the percent of female action heroes (a small number to start with) who are mothers is lower than the percent of male action heroes who are fathers, it's probably because the cultural image of father as protector fits better with running around blowing things up on a mission than does the cultural image of mother as nurturer. I'm not at all clear that's a bad thing.

In this war memoir Storm of Steel, Ernst Junger says that the ideal assault team is made up of leaders in their mid twenties who have seen enough combat to know what is dangerous, but who belong to that small percentage of men who can enjoy combat, and enlisted men who are twenty or twenty-one and still believe they are immortal. There's something to that, and I think it has to do with why parents don't really fit well in action hero roles. If we're going to have stories about parents, at least parents who we are actually seeing as parents (not just some generic person with a token seen with spouse and kids thrown in) and who we're prepared to feel at good parents who make their children and family life a significant priority, it's going to be a different sort of story.


JBT said...

That logic can also be applied to the military. I recently changed jobs from one which deployed to a more industrial job (repair/new construction). You can't help but think about your family when you are "over there"; and there is always the possibility of not coming home. Not everyone in the military has the option I chose.
Many that I know do the job they do to provide for their family and enjoy it. However, we know there is risk when we signed up, even with kids at home.

Darwin said...

Yeah, my grandfather spent the first part of his Navy career on aircraft carriers. But after getting married and having kids (and not getting to see a couple of his kids until months after they were born) he decided to switch to a training job that allowed him to stay stateside and actually see the family.

Obviously, a lot of people, whether in peace or war, end up having to be far away from family and in danger in order to protect our country.

I think maybe part of the trick with action movies, which makes non-parents more obvious action heroes, is that with a popcorn action movie you really don't want to be pulled back from the fun to think about loss and emotional pain.

So, for instance, I recently watched We Were Soldiers about the beginning of the American involvement in Vietnam. It's a pretty good movie, and has some good and spectacular (though too serious to be "fun") action sequences. But the movie is at times a tough watch because it's cutting back and forth between the action in Vietnam and the wives and families back home in the US getting news of people being killed.

I think it's the sense (even more so with a mom than with a dad) that that at-home worrying and suffering is going on that makes a parent action hero not work most of the time in a basically light hearted movie.

Andrew Kinney said...

A thought in defense of fluffy Marvel movies: Though I haven't seen the whole thing yet, they seem to have devoted the whole Daredevil series to showing the damage those wrecked buildings and hurt people. As well, the innocents-in-the-crossfire thing is the turning point in the Civil War storyline. But, that's enough of my biased apologetics.

Similar to JB's comment, any job that has to come before spouse and family seems to fit this bill. Hence, most Avengers aren't married; Jedi are forbid to marry; Western priests don't marry.

Gail Finke said...

I think you're right about the trope of most action heroes being loners. But I also think that the action movie is a metaphor for life -- in real life, for most people, the adventure IS getting married and having kids. There's adventure enough in that for a lifeteime. But the action movie symbolizes only part of that -- each person's individual struggles (maybe teaming up from time to time -- but only for the struggles, not the domesticity).

Darwin said...


To be clear: I'm not saying that it's a bad thing Marvel type movies are light. Some I've liked and some I haven't, depending on how they're done, but I don't think they'd be improved by getting all grim and serious about their subject matter, just like I thought it ruined what fun there was in James Bond movies when they decided to take his situation seriously at a human level.

The kind of fun and thrill you get from watching action spectacle for its own sake pretty much depends on not having the kind of cost such things would have in the real world called to your attention.

Darwin said...


Interesting point.

Anonymous said...

About the only movie I can think of that does this well is an old Schwarzenegger vehicle: True Lies. It manages to remain lighthearted, fun, and irreverent while bringing in the humanizing aspects of being a parent and father.

Arnie's wife and kid in that movie learn about his secret life as a superspy and come to take part in his adventures. It's still a light action comedy, but the responsibilities of parenting and marriage intrude into his lifestyle.

It's interesting because it's so hard to make that work, and that's the only movie I can think of that balances it. (Like you say: Terminator and The Incredibles are about characters who are moms first, and superheroines second.)