June 20, 2011

Have there been any pro-family movies during the family values revolution?

Feeling like a movie about family for Father's Day, I watched Uncle Buck, a later John Hughes movie that while not great is still a nice experience. This one, along with Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, came after he finally dropped the preachy and angsty tone of his earlier teen comedies.

What makes it a good family flick? First, the surrogate father puts the whiny spoiled brat of a daughter in her place rather than try to play the Cool Dad or resign himself to the kids-what-are-ya-gonna-do role of the Disgruntled Dad. Eventually she figures out that he was right to get on her case about dating her loser boyfriend, Bug. At the end, she even apologizes to her mother for being such a terrible daughter. Buck also gives Bug the good old "touch her and you're dead" speech, complete with the threat of taking a hatchet to him if he does. During the course of the movie, he goes through a rite of passage from layabout to as much of a patriarch as he's capable of, and this civilizing transformation came about by being thrust into family life.

Plus there's that great scene where he deflates the ego of the authoritarian cunt of a principal at his niece's school.

This movie came out in 1989, so when helicopter parents started raising a stink about "family values" in the early-mid-1990s, you might have expected to see more like Uncle Buck. Instead what they paid to go see were top-10 box office hits like Hook, where the message is that the father should stop being a dad and become a kid again; Forrest Gump, where by the end one child must raise another, and by himself no less; and American Beauty, where married life is a nauseating hell (see Family Guy for a less emo but more kabuki version). After that, "family-friendly" movies didn't even treat family dynamics at all. Rather, parents only paid to see the kiddie movies that have dominated the box office, which keep children entertained but don't try to remind them to be more grateful.

The shallowness, as well as cynicism, of family-oriented pop culture also marked the previous era of falling crime, the mid-'30s through the late '50s, as exemplified by Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, and of course that generation's American Beauty -- Arthur Miller plays and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. When the outside world presents few challenges to the security of the household, family members take each other more for granted and undergo fewer rites of passage, in coping with problems, that would cement the bonds of kinship more strongly.

Uncle Buck came near the end of rising-crime times, where we see the opposite pattern, particularly after the halfway point, when people stop believing that some simple change will fix everything and start shifting their mindset to one of "let's figure out how we can help each other through this." Mostly this was shown on TV shows instead of movies, with All in the Family being the first truly memorable pro-family show, followed by Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Family Matters, Who's the Boss?, the early pre-snarky Simpsons, along with scores of less popular shows. Back to the Future was a notable exception to the tendency for these to be TV shows.

Beset by greater problems, these family members incurred a higher cost in helping out one another, making them more altruistic, and they were far more appreciative of their kin after having been helped out so much. Although they only had to deal with infrequent obstacles, they were common and daunting enough that the solidarity forged during their common attack lasted through their ordinary lives as well. It's hard to look back at family life during the Reagan era, whether stylized or from personal memories, and not be struck by how joyful and chummy most people were when interacting with their folks -- and during a time when the parents did not have the explicit goal of Trying to Be Your Friend. The lack of pettiness, and of bearing pointless passive-aggressive grudges, is another feature that seems to have vanished from family life, at least compared to before.

With family feelings having become more alienated or at best lukewarm over the past 20 years, it's understandable that pop culture will reflect these changes, as consumers choose the portrayals that resonate with them. Still, we shouldn't try to dignify this trend by calling it family-friendly or an example of family values, lacking as it does a spirit of camaraderie among kin. Only after recognizing that might parents encourage a greater degree of risk-taking in family activities -- for example camping (without $50,000 worth of "gear") -- that would do as much to strengthen their bonds until a more dangerous world compels them to really band together.


  1. "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" came out in 2002, which might or might not be post-revolution. But it's definitely a popular pro-family values film.

  2. John Singleton's 2001 Baby Boy states that the protagonist must grow up and accept adult responsibilities.

    Clint Eastwood's 2008 Gran Torino has a positive view of blue-collar manhood.

    Gabriele Muccino's 2006 The Pursuit of Happyness shows Will Smith as a responsible single father trying to succeed.

    James Wan's 2004 Saw shows a man trying to save his family...OK, just kidding. ;)


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