A brisk, humorous collection of essays that redefines the mythos of fatherhood depicted in film, television, and video games.
What do dads tell us about the world? Not your real dad, but dads in general. Dads are everywhere. Lurking in our movies, television shows, and video games. Spouting homespun wisdom and atrocious jokes, wallowing in might-have-beens and back-in-my-days, or rigidly defending the status quo. These fictional dads fuel a myth of fatherhood. What is that myth trying to tell us? And what is it trying to sell us?
Dad Bod is a clever, riveting collection of essays about father figures in popular culture. From Gandalf to Homer Simpson, Die Hard to The Mandalorian, these essays unpack the tropes that inform our collective image of fatherhood. Follow Cian Cruise, newly minted dad, as he riffs on the stereotypes and lore of fatherhood, traces a contemporary art history of dads in popular culture, and journeys to the heart of dadness to become a better father.
A RARE MACHINES BOOK
About the author
Cian Cruise has a degree in film studies and philosophy and works as a freelance writer, strategist, and consultant. His cultural criticism has appeared in Hazlitt, Maisonneuve, Playboy, Vulture, and Little Brother Magazine. Cian lives with in Almonte, Ontario.
Excerpt: Dad Bod: Portraits of Pop Culture Papas (by (author) Cian Cruise)
404 Dad Not Found
Every dad starts with a pregnant lady. Hell, every person starts with a pregnant lady, at least until we can rig up those birthing pods. After my wife gave birth, I wandered around the city in a permanent haze of wonder. In part because of sleep deprivation, but in part because it was absolutely incredible to think about the fact that each and every person’s mother went through some variation of the incredible, epic journey of giving birth. Every mother we talked to had an incredible birth story. It’s impossible to look at folks emptying out of the subway and not be riveted in utter awe at the miraculous process through which each of their mothers carried them, nourished them in their bodies — grew them — and gave birth to them.
It’s overwhelming when it’s just your kid. Then you realize that this happened to each and every one of us, and the raw magic of reality shimmers along the surface of all humanity.
In fact, I can’t believe that there isn’t an entire genre of films about pregnancy and supporting your pregnant wife/partner. It should be bigger than rom-coms. This is easily one of the most relatable stories out there. It has literally the best happy ending you could possibly imagine, one that would flood the brains of every parent in the audience with uncontrollable joy chemicals.
I mean, heck, every time I watch some random movie that even contains babies in it, I lose my saline. My wife and I were watching a documentary about a couple who started organic farming. Ninety-nine percent of this thing is about how much of a problem coyotes and gophers and bugs and birds and grass are, right, then ten minutes from the end they’re like, “Oh yeah, by the way, we had a kid” — and BOOM there’s this little boy traipsing around the farm, making friends with their puppies and pigs in his cute overalls, and I’m balling over here because I don’t see that little kid. When they show the wife pregnantly farming, I don’t see her. When she’s in labour and they have to use a vet or something, I don’t see her childbirth.
In my heart, I see my kid. I see my wife. I see our son’s birth. I relive it all, that entire year condensed into an emotion- diamond, each facet blindingly bright.
This started happening just a few weeks after I became a dad: I transformed into a total sucker for any and all marketing efforts aimed at me via the vector of babies and parenting. You show me an ad about chocolate or cars or life insurance, and as long as there’s a baby or a little kid in there, I am emotionally engaged. My chest swells, my nose quivers, and my tear ducts assume the ready position.
I can’t help it. And I’m trained not to care about ads. My first real job out of university was writing advertisements just like this. My brain analyzes copy based on theoretical frameworks of engagement and use of visual space. And yet, that is no defence when your heart has been can-opened up by the act of becoming a parent.
I can’t imagine that this feeling goes away as my child ages. In fact, the farther away babyhood becomes, the more precious those images are. While the remembrance of my wife’s trek through the mountains of pregnancy and the gauntlet of childbirth transcends reporting and enters the echoing halls of myth.
So imagine, instead of a thirty-second ad spot about wiping up spilled juice, an entire Hollywood manifestation — engineered for perfect, efficient emotional manipulation, bearing down upon the open soul of the newly forged mothers and fathers of the world.
And yet this is a gaping hole in our media tapestry.
If you need a ready-made bite-sized indictment against the sexism interwoven into our culture like a quarter-helix of its DNA (the other bits being white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism, cosmopolitanism, and Christianity), then look no further. I mean, if I phrased this entire inquiry slightly differently — “Why isn’t pregnancy/childbirth a major dramatic genre?” — my wife and female friends give me a one-word answer: “Sexism.” And they’re right! But by playing the straight man here, we can see what this lack means, what it does, and what it tells us about ourselves as a people — in addition to the fact that our mainstream culture is straight-up sexist.
When our mainstream entertainment menu features a thousand flavours of “Muscleman punches and drives an exploding car,” but only a handful of “Solid guy grows up a bit,” and an utter dearth of “Woman has a meaningful life experience,” it does something to our culture. It spices that soup, so to speak, and we slurp it down. It establishes a criterion for what counts as “entertainment,” which in turn informs what it means to be a person, what stories are worth telling, and what life events are meaningful.
I want to explore that lack. These telling absences indicate what we’re being sold about the image of fatherhood just as much as the emphasized archetypes, albeit in relief. The fact that it starts with pregnancy is too poetic for me to resist.
1. You aren’t the main character anymore, man.
This is the big one that I really dug about being a man supporting my wife during her pregnancy and childbirth. It became very clear that my role was subsumed within hers. I, a white guy, who has mostly been told that I am the centre of my particular universe, needed to learn how to be there for someone else. Not in the way I thought they needed to be supported, but in the way that they actually needed to be supported.
A great example from our childbirth class reared its head on the big day: No Questions. Delivering a child is a very psychological experience. A mother-to-be needs to be in the zone for birth to proceed. Even thinking about answering a nervous husband’s questions takes her out of her body and into an abstract space. For that matter, asking those questions implies a re-centring of emotional attention on the father-to-be: tell me what to do, comfort my lack of understanding, provide leadership for me, guide me.
Me. Me. Me. Me. Me.
No way, man. You gotta anticipate. You gotta empathize. You gotta figure out what that mom needs, as she needs it. Before she needs it.
This is an incredibly valuable life skill, and it’s totally bonkers that it isn’t taught (generally, culturally) to men … ever. We’re barely taught to be cognizant of our own emotional needs, and instead tend to perceive emotions1 as a swirl of indistinct colours with external reasons that only become named when we dump them all over other people who are forced to put up with our bullshit.
By sublimating this trend, and learning to see how to put another person first, a new father gets to prototype a microcosm of parenting — in other words: of the rest of their life. Your kid’s needs are more important than yours. Without this essential intuition, you become one of those weird general-dads who uses kids to further their own agenda, the dark inversion of which is living vicariously through your kid’s achievements. In both, the kids aren’t people. They are mere props to your identity.
If, on the other hand, we had a genre of movies that were derived from the need to learn how to put oneself definitively second for nine months, and learn how to perceive others in a way that acknowledges their emotional reality and anticipates their needs, it would go a long way toward providing a rough framework for the kind of emotional and individual growth that most men my age are deprived of due to overwhelming cultural pressure to be “The Hero” (and the myriad manifestations that moniker demarcates) rather than a human being.
And you know what? Those could be some darn entertaining movies. I am very bad at not asking questions in moments of duress. I want a lot of clarity before I act. A guy like me learning how to support his pregnant wife (on my own, not asking my wife to “train” me, not getting hints from the midwives) was a kung-fu comedy’s worth of hijinks, and I can only imagine that if you multiply the basic archetypes of guys by the basic archetypes of gals, mix in a few LGBTQ+ couples, toss an overbearing parent or two in, and you could have all manner of plotlines that all end in the biggest gosh darn climax of a person’s life.
Now that’s cinema.
2. However, pregnancy is coded as a dramatic imposition, not a complete “story.”
Oh boy. This one really burns my bridges. Part of my research for this essay was attempting to see just what movies were out there that portrayed pregnancy as a central plot point, in the hopes that I’d be caught flat-footed by one. No such luck.
The main pregnancy plotlines are
a. high-powered executive woman has surprise baby and succumbs to natural instincts;
b. teen gets pregnant by mistake, learns to deal with it in a probably heartwarming fashion; and
c. a pair of adults have a one-night stand, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy that plays out like (a) + (b) but also love guides the way.
Heck, the biggest outliers I could find were Junior, for crying out loud, and What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which is based on a textbook.
See the common thread? When it is central to a plot, pregnancy is coded as a dramatic imposition, as a problem that gets the story going, and must be overcome, or dealt with, or embraced. It isn’t the goal. It doesn’t factor in to anyone’s plans. It’s the hoary breath of Poseidon knocking your ship asunder.
Supporting your wife throughout pregnancy doesn’t qualify as a story due to the structural elements that film scripts rely on for their very existence. Or, to be a bit less extreme: a narrative of this nature demands far more subtlety in establishing a new kind of structure than our current examples, all of which try to shoehorn pregnancy into an existing comedy sub-genre.
Let’s break it down. Drama hinges on conflict. The bigger the better. The more physical and external, the easier it is to film and the less you have to rely on subtext and multi-dimensional dialogue.
In terms of basic structure, film relies on an interruption to the status quo and the quest to right it. The only change involved is bound up in the protagonist, more or less, and it neatly coincides with the source of conflict. Everything, and I mean everything, ought to tie in to this central conflict. That’s what makes it a story.
When you try to introduce pregnancy into that framework, it gets a little weird, because having a kid is a tectonic shift that alters the landscape of two lives irrevocably. It is some Book of Genesis–level reordering. Entire worlds, selves, and perspectives explode in a cascading array of newfound senses and sensibilities.
It is a simultaneously subtle and blunt-force-trauma obvious experience. A screaming, blood-covered spawn erupts from your genitals and, like the Grinch, your heart grows three sizes.
But it isn’t the same as the “inciting event” that a script needs, because it usually isn’t a problem.
That’s why the vast majority of films about pregnancy are about unwanted pregnancies. They’re about coping with that big surprise, growing to incorporate this new need, realizing that, even though you’re a hard-as-nails corporate woman with a harem of hot executive lovers, you too can discover the milk of mother’s kindness.
In these paint-by-numbers movies, pregnancy is an imposition. It’s a disruption to the status quo. In real life, I’d like to posit that pregnancy, and supporting your pregnant wife, is a quest in and of itself. One that demands incredible growth and development to undertake in an intentional, earnest, healthy, sane way. And one that continues far after the climax.
This is perhaps obvious, but it is also not apparent in any of the successful movies about pregnancy that I trenched through with the same grim mien that accompanies four o’clock wakeups and my toddler’s near-constant demand for Saturday morning cartoons. Instead, they all focus on a sliding scale of: lost opportunities, unprepared idiots, and teenagers. At best they end on mystical platitudes where brain chemicals provide the deus ex machina and a calorie-free fairy-tale ending.
What this utter lack of dramatic attention on the pregnant experience implies is that it isn’t important. It isn’t even a story. It’s not worth investing with the needs drama asks of us: bringing our entire heart and mind to the picture.
Instead, pregnancy and childbirth are relegated to the role of mere plot devices.
3. Men aren’t “naturally” capable of parenting.
This is pernicious as all get-out. Even in an ostensibly — what’s three notches down from “woke”? Not quite progressive. Maybe paper-tiger progressive? Centrist? Wait, now I’ve got it: even in an ostensibly “modern” romantic comedy featuring pregnancy, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, the assumption is that men start from a disadvantage when it comes to child-rearing compared to women — a natural, inborn disadvantage — which is centre ring in the whole problem-circus that I’m wrangling here.
There’s an unspoken assumption riven throughout our culture that men don’t or shouldn’t care about babies, or about the act of caregiving. Plenty of men do anyway, but supposedly they’re few and far between.
So when a movie comes along like What to Expect, which you can tell is kind of trying to mildly upend some stereotypes of masculine care, but in order to do so, has to first pander to those stereotypes so as not to alienate the target audience, it gets awful weird awful fast and — even worse — I would say it gets mired in that initial assumption set and holds fast. In part that’s because of the preceding two points. The movie still has to be “about” the man’s journey, rather than the complex of a newly forming family, and the pregnancy must still be dramatically coded as an imposition.
What’s worse, the film is five vignettes about pregnancy shoved into a phone booth, giving none of them the opportunity to delve deeper than a pamphlet.
In the main plotline, instead of an executive badass lady becoming un-jaded, now the imposition is “This guy needs to be taught what fatherhood is really all about” (by Chris Rock, I guess, and some other “regular guys” from a token-filled group of market-research demography), because this pregnancy imposition is happening to him.
Throughout, we learn that it is okay to buy a lot of childrearing paraphernalia, and that you can still “be a real man” based on your previous straw-thin definition and have a baby around but not, really, take care of it in any tangible way. The idea here is that these guys are advanced because they are willing to spend time being seen in public with their babies. This is like a guy who expects a standing ovation for deigning to do the dishes. They high-five about low expectations and a lack of judgment upon one another’s fundamental discomfort and awkwardness around children, revealing that the way forward is, basically, a kind of neutered apathy that is considered a vast improvement over top of the initial starting place of emotional, logistical, and domestic incompetence.
It honestly feels like the script was written by the kind of guy who gets the heebie-jeebies by accidentally walking into the women’s section of a department store.
As always, the book is better than the movie.
Dad Bod explores pop culture papas with irrepressible verve...It shines as a cultural criticism, a memoir, and a parenting guide.
Foreword Reviews, starred review
Cian Cruise’s irreverent exploration of fatherhood in pop-culture shrouds a cosmic reverence for the teaching it contains, whether that’s in video games, television, or movies. The religious attention that the essays of Dad Bod bring to beloved media properties provide new insight not only to their subjects but also to human life and all of its deepest mysteries.
Cian Cruise is a great writer and a great father, and a never–ending source of interesting insights. Dad Bod takes those qualities and mashes them up with the dads you know from popular culture, to figure out what it means to be a father.
Misha Glouberman, co-author of The Chairs Are Where The People Go
Funny, perceptive, and thoughtful, Cian Cruise’s Dad Bod is constantly curious about the pop culture artifacts it interrogates. Plus, he extracts parenting advice from First Blood, which no book has ever done before.
Naben Ruthnum, author of A Hero of Our Time
I rarely think about the challenges of fatherhood…this book offered me a brand new perspective I have never considered.
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