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We Keep Failing to Imagine Fatherhood Differently or, What We Could Have Learned from Sci-Fi Writers

You wouldn’t believe it by looking at him, but my dad is a sci-fi nerd. As a child of the 1950s, he read all of the “classics” and lost himself to the creative geniuses that imagined worlds far beyond the realities of his time. For my dad, he loved the exploration of new worlds, the scientific advances that were loosely tied to the science of his day, and the ambition “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” (And for him, there is only the Original Series!)

He passed this love of science and science fiction to my sister and me. Throughout middle school and high school, I read the same novels, but with the rise of the internet and other modern technologies, the stories held different meaning for me. My dad read 1984 when it was still in the future, while I read it fifteen years too late. My dad read The Martian Chronicles before any successful satellite launches took place, while I had textbooks and images to compare to Bradbury’s stories.

While my father and I share a passion for science fiction, the medium has changed. He fell in love with a future rife with potential and creative opportunities like flying cars and teleportation and living on other planets. I grew up wanting to love those things, but knowing these opportunities were still a long way off, if they were to happen at all. True, some of these sci-fi writers had ideas that materialized, like the internet, but we still don’t have humans living on Mars, let alone the moon. We don’t have flying cars or teleportation. Somewhere the creative energies got swallowed by greed and capitalism that cared more about profiting off of what we had rather than what we could become.

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Photo by Mehdi Babousan on Unsplash

Intertwined in these stories, but rarely discussed, is the lopsided gender representation. Most of the “classics” are stories written for and by white men. The protagonists, by and large, are white men and/or masculine-oriented aliens. Roddenberry challenged conceptions of race and gender in Star Trek, but the Original Series only lasted three seasons. Plus, I had to discover Ursula K LeGuin, Octavia Butler, and other powerful women writers on my own and almost by happenstance. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t rehash my frustration with this here.

Instead, I’d like to pose a question. For all the exploration of science and pushing the imagination to technological extremes, why wasn’t there a similar push for the exploration of masculinity?

To me the answer is pretty obvious, as state above, these were written by white men for white men and rarely have white men been forced to confront their race or gender. Furthermore, if these were escapist novels for young men to explore the far reaches of space and time, why muddy the waters with explorations of the emotions of protagonists? And if men were meant to be the breadwinners and corporate leaders, who would expect a novel to sell if the protagonist decided to remain at home and support his children’s development?

Unfortunately, this failure of exploration is still alive and well in the roles of men and fathers in our American society. Recently, I’ve seen many articles coming out about how this pandemic means the end of working mothers, yet I’ve seen relatively little on how men and fathers can step up and be working fathers. I’ve seen no mention of the fathers who are stay-at-home dads even though pre-COVID, the numbers were rising and more women were becoming primary breadwinners, and there is a national network to provide support and community for these men.

This reality saddens me, and if I’m being honest, it pisses me off.

In the United States today, our systems are broken. I could be kind and say they are breaking, but let’s be honest, capitalism is not saving us. It is killing us with nearly 200,000 dead and climbing, and if you study politics, our representative democracy is not quite as representative as we think it is, and let’s not mention how the west is burning and the southeast is being bombarded by hurricanes!

So, why can’t be take this unprecedented time of extreme change to imagine fathers as something more than “breadwinners?”

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Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

The idea that men are supposed to be (only) the breadwinners and leave the home every day to provide for their families is archaic. How many creative women have been shuttered away? How many girls lost role models and opportunities because they were told they should get an “Mrs” degree?

And let’s turn it around. How many boys lost the opportunity to express their emotions because they were told emotions show weakness? How many men missed out on a deeper connection to their children because they weren’t able to be there when they wanted to be?

For some, this previous paragraph feels dated and they may argue that gender norms have changed. But in the men’s groups that I’ve joined on Facebook, and even the one I run, these beliefs are still as harsh a reality as the world my dad was escaping when he read Asimov in the 1950s. Members join and express trepidation at opening up. They remain on the periphery and read other posts, maybe they comment. When they finally open up with in their own post, they are not met with scorn; members welcome them with love and compassion for showing vulnerability. Often these posts express a longing to be more emotional and to share their pain with their families, but they don’t want to appear weak. Just Sunday, I exchanged messages with a dad who didn’t want to show weakness in front of his wife and children even though he desperately wanted to cry from all the stress he was holding within him.

When I told him that his emotions make him stronger and a better role model to his children, it was as if I was speaking a foreign language.

What this tells me is that men, young and old, are still being taught, directly and indirectly, that they aren’t allowed to be fully human. Because that is what it comes down to.

Because our society does not teach men to show the full range of emotions, they cannot be fully human.

Thankfully, life blessed me with a dad who expressed himself to me throughout my adolescence. He took lessons from his favorite sci-fi stories and imagined a world that was the opposite of his father. He role modeled for my sister and I the importance of being one’s self. In turn, he gave me permission to cry when I was upset or afraid and hug him when I wanted to show my affection.

And despite all of this, at thirty-three when I held my first daughter, a small voice within me whispered, “Don’t cry! Be strong!” I pushed it aside, but I hated that it was there, because I knew the truth.

I knew, and still know, fathers are stronger because of their emotions, not despite them.

When fathers express themselves and communicate with their partners and children, their families become stronger and closer.

I’m not just saying this. Lots of research shows the impact of a father’s absence and their presence!

This research plays out in Cobra Kai, the continuation of the Karate Kid movies in a TV series. As I watched it last week, Sensei Lawrence used feminine terms to emasculate his students. He drove a muscle car and drank and attempted to dominate the women around him. He was estranged from his son, who was choosing delinquent behavior and dropping out of school. And this predictably leads him to a very low place with multiple attempts to turn his behavior around only to see everything crash and burn by the end of season 2. I imagine in Season 3 he will come to terms with his latent feminine side and become a stronger mentor and role model for those students who remain in his dojo.

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Photo by jurien huggins on Unsplash

There is much more to be said about this show and the myriad of masculinities that it presents to the viewer, but for all its attempts to explore them, it falls victim to what I see in so many other shows and movies that are streaming right now. These shows and movies hyper-focus on war, violence, and domination. All these themes existed in the classic sci-fi of my father’s youth too. But they are missing the exploration, the love of adventure and the push for truth through scientific discovery. The movies have some world building, but most is forsaken to drive the plot forward toward the ultimate showdown and overly graphic and violent fight scene or scenes that no regular human could ever survive.

There is an argument to say these are just made for entertainment. We shouldn’t read into it too much because its just a movie. But, in my facebook group and in others, I see men with such richness in their lives. They share how much they appreciate being at home with their children and even though there are countless stressors infringing on their relationships, they are present and working through the challenges unlike ever before. For me, it is rife with opportunity. It is begging for innovation.

It is begging for a science fiction writer to pose a brave new world for all of us to step into and explore the fullness of our masculinity and our fatherhood rather than slipping back into some “idyllic” narrative of yesteryear when men were men and boys will be boys. So, let’s not lose our imagination in the face of so many challenges, but rise and seek new narratives or expand on old ones to find a better way forward. Let’s not churn out stories that reinforce men as only capable of violence, but rather elevate their compassion, their ability to nurture, and so much more.

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Brian Anderson

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