A lot of generalisations can be made about groups of people based on how they are depicted by the media. For women, their role has often been that of a prize to be won. Slay the dragon, get the girl and all that. Mary Jane from Spiderman, Princess Peach in Mario and so on. For a lot of minorities, simply being in there at all, even in the most minor capacity, is all the purpose they have served. That said, black people more than most other minorities have been relegated to the role of the actual hero’s best friend who makes jokes and occasionally helps, I guess. Think of Rhodey in Iron Man 3 who single handily saves the US President from fire breathing monster humans without any superpowers and gets none of the glory at the film’s climax. But hey, he made some jokes and helped I guess.
But I think there’s a new target on popular media’s chopping block of gross, overgeneralised depictions that’s been slowly creeping in and that is fathers. Broad, I know, but true nonetheless.
Think of Logan from the film… Logan. We see an alcoholic character at rock-bottom, entirely self-interested who meets a daughter he never knew he had and who makes him a better person so that he can make her one. Think Lee Everet from Telltale’s The Walking Dead, a convicted murderer at rock-bottom who becomes the father figure of a young girl who makes him a better person so that he can make her one. Think Din Djarin from the Mandolorian who is a merciless self-interested bounty hunter with no aspirations outside of his in-hiding clan, who becomes the father figure of a cute alien who makes him a better person so he can make him one. You also have John Marston from Red Dead Redemption who undergoes a similar arc in that game’s third act with his son, Johnny Lawrance and Miguel from the Karate Kid spin-off show Cobra Kai and, most famously, Ellie and Joel from The Last of Us.
And while there are examples of mothers/mother figures being in the protection of a child in a similar vein to these men (Clementine and AJ in The Walking Dead Final Season being my go-to example), what defines this weird trope of down-trodden fathers is their need to redeem themselves for their child. As though, without a child being in their life, they would never be anything more than the murderers, alcoholics or outlaws that they are. They’d never escape rock-bottom, never experience their life to the fullest again without the introduction of a child in their life.
And look, I’m not saying this trope is inherently bad. Just like a woman who needs rescuing isn’t always an eye-rolling moment and the fact sometimes funny, quipping side characters just happened to be played by black actors. It’s the frequency at which they pop that causes the weird negative perception of them and causes generalisations to be made.
And I’d rather raise attention about this idea that is subconsciously being set about fathers than wait until it’s as trivialised and accepted as something like the damsel in distress trope. That or, perhaps the more closely linked trope. that fathers are buffoons who often fill the roll of an additional child in the life of their female partner.
Simply put, I don’t think all these fathers need to be borderline irredeemable slobs or mysterious emotionless voids that only the love of a child can fill. It actually gives off this toxic codependent message that fathers aren’t operable as humans without the child. This is why I feel The Last of Us is one of the better uses of this down-trodden father trope, as it not only acknowledges Joel’s codependency on Ellie by the end of the story, but also the awful lengths to which he will go to maintain it. Taking it a step further, The Last of Us also condems Joel but does so in a way that isn’t entirely black and white – we can still sympathise with him, despite his monstrous actions.
What also tends to happen in these stories is the death of the father figure after he has been redeemed into a good person. Lee Everet fulfilled his purpose to teach Celmentine how to survive and then dies. Logan regained his link to humanity through his daughter and dies, but not before telling her not to repeat his own mistakes. John Marston teaches his son how to hunt, about pride and humility and how to live an honest life, only to die. It’s a message that says all of these men have to prove something before they can become the fathers they need them to be. But when what they need to prove is that they will die for their child, they can no longer be the father they spent all that time building up to be. Y’know, on account of being dead.
Even in instances where the father doesn’t die, like with Din Djarin or Johnny Lawrance there is an arc where the child must be lost so we can see how these fathers prove they care for their little ones. Din Djarin becomes desperate and does whatever he can to save his child from the bad guys, only to moments later give his child up willingly to someone he believes is better than himself. Sacrificing his relationship with the child for what he perceives to be something in the child’s best interest. Johnny Lawrance simply sees his child bonding with another father and becomes so jealous that he almost falls back into becoming the drunk slob he was prior to having the child in his life. While Din Djarin’s story might be a bit more appropriate by choosing to give his child an out from the dangerous life he leads, Johnny Lawrance’s arc is extremely toxic. While Johnny does admit and apologise for his behaviour, the idea a father figure is a husk of a character without his newfound son is not only dumb, but unrealistic. There is a fine line between depicting regret about a fading relationship, and the total regression of character which some of these father characters often cross.
There are instances where this kind of relationship can work out positively and, surprisingly, the best example I can think of is in Halo 4. Master Chief takes on the role of a caretaker for his sentient AI friend Cortana. Chief isn’t at rock-bottom. He’s actually a renowned hero and his flaw at the start of the story is that he is out of time, having been frozen for many years prior to the game’s story. But since he shares this in common with Cortana, it’s not something he has to overcome to redeem himself for her, but rather something they must address together. Chief gradually begins losing Cortana as she falls ill and becomes unpredictable and unreliable over the course of the story but his reaction is never to retreat back to his old troubled self; rather it is to move forward with her. At the end of the game, Cortana sacrifices herself for Chief and he mourns that he failed in his mission to protect her as her caretaker. It is only now, at the end of the story, Chief feels he needs to redeem himself for her. But Cortana reminds him that their mission was to take care of each other, which is seen both in gameplay and cutscenes, and this gives Chief a starting place to move on before she passes. She doesn’t need him to redeem himself. In this instance, the “father figure” survives while the would-be “child” passes on. Again, rather than retreat into a downtrodden state, Chief moves forward after being reminded of words she once said to him.
While Chief and Cortana aren’t literally “father and child” in Halo 4, their dynamic perfectly matches this trope only they progress through the story in a way that isn’t toxic, while still having drama and issues arise between them, which is why I give it a pass. Again, I also give The Last of Us a pass for addressing and acknowledging the toxicity in Ellie and Joel’s relationship too.
Let me give it to you straight; I love the Mandolorian. I love Logan. I love Red Dead Redemption. These titles are all games or films I very much enjoy. And on their own you can, as I do, enjoy all of them without the thoughts of anything toxic even remotely coming to mind. It’s the overuse of this trope specifically that brings that out. I’m just tired of grizzly, hyper-masculine beef-bodied dads struggling to convey any emotion over and over again until a kid shows up. God damn, can we get a new dynamic going on? Can we see some decent dads? Can we get something new? Or, at the very least, a fresh spin on this dynamic that isn’t so tired and questionable when you look at it deeper?
Well, the truth is that we do have something new: The “giving a man a child that is only in the film for 5 minutes, only for that man to die in the climax of the film” trope (see Avengers Endgame or No Time to Die as examples), but that’s another can of worms entirely.