The dead-beat dad is such a common phenomenon that it is now a pop-cultural trope. Whereas two generations earlier television and movies reified the nuclear family as a fact of nature, and one generation earlier the depiction of divorced parents became normal, no longer a sin to be overcome with a Parent Trap, the patriarchal rot at the heart of the traditional family was finally demystified. Families defined by the absent father, the single mother (sometimes struggling and sometimes not) free from an abusive spouse, and a reflection of the rejection of the world of the father was slowly normalized. The dad as dead-beat became a trope that reflected a reality that previous family tropes had obscured.
Mens Rights Activists (MRAs) often latch onto this trope as evidence of misandry within the culture industry. Against feminist claims about sexist depictions of women in media, MRAs like to claim (either out of ignorance, dishonesty, or a combination of the two) that it is men who are depicted in a sexist manner, the dead-beat being a paradigm example. Since they also claim that men suffer in custody arrangements since more women end up as custodians of the children, the trope of the dead-beat is perhaps particularly offensive since it reveals the lie to their crude empiricism: while it is correct that in situations of divorce and separation most women retain custody of their children, it is also a fact that most of these men do not challenge custody because they are in reality dead-beats who resist paying child support. The trope thus reflects a reality MRAs (some of whom probably are dead-beat dads) work hard to suppress.
But the thing with the culture industry is that, while it cannot help but reflect certain truths about social reality, it is quite adept at remystifying its tropes according to common sense ideology. Hence the emergence of a pernicious variant of the dead-beat dad trope: the redeemed dead-beat whose shitty behaviour is justified by noble gravitas. Since it is true that a large number of fathers in the imperialist metropoles are absent dead-beats of one kind or other, the media trope exists as an entertainment verisimilitude: most viewers will not identify with depictions of stable nuclear families, a large population cannot even identify with loving cis-het male divorcees. But in order to maintain this verisimilitude without turning men into eternal villains, which would alienate a massive swathe of the male consumer population, the trope of the dead-beat dad as maverick hero has manifested.
The 2008 film Taken best encapsulates this turning point in the dead-beat trope, the moment where it is recaptured by patriarchal ideology. Although significant as the film that catapulted Liam Neeson’s acting career into the type-cast of the gruff/aging/world-weary action man, Taken‘s true importance is in the reactionary reclamation of the dead-beat trope. Indeed, the characterization that would become Neeson’s current type-cast is only interesting if we understand its necessity for the performance of an ennobled dead-beat.
In Taken Neeson is only a dead-beat because of his commitment as a patriot. As a violent enforcer of US imperialism he was forced to make a hard decision between his family and the nation and, as any patriot with his particular “skill set” should do, he committed to the latter. If he is a dead-beat it is only because his family cannot understand the deep man pain of having to violently commit to the imperial aegis, so as to give their life stability from the horrors of terrorism. The inner truth is that he is only a dead-beat because his family, who could not understand the depth of his commitment to a better life promised to all imperial families, is incapable of understanding his pain of sacrifice. He is only a dead-beat because he sacrificed his family on the altar of the greater nation. In this way he is an echo of the Homeric hero: Agamemnon literally sacrificed his daughter to appease Poseidon, a sacrifice justified by the fall of Troy and the victory of the Achaians.
We are meant to feel pathos for Neeson’s dead-beat dad who, upon retiring and returning home, discovered that his home life, like that of Odysseus, is in disarray. But in the contemporary world of Taken the absentee father (whose absence was also justified) cannot murder his wife’s suitors and reclaim his patriarchal seat. Instead, more noble than his Homeric counter-part, he is forced to be “cucked” by a substitute father who is depicted as weak and decadent. There is no examination about whether Neeson’s character, Bryan Mills, has paid child support, let alone the political questions regarding a dad murdering for imperialists. Bryan Mills is the victim, showing up at the birthday party of a daughter he barely knows like every dead-beat asshole ever and we are expected to root for him because he is the real father; his nobility has already been established.
Taken in fact works hard to convince the audience that there is a good reason for being a dead-beat dad. It’s a good thing that Neeson never paid child support, never did any child-care or house work, because he learned those very “masculine” skills required to be a true father. Good thing he was a violent imperialist dead-beat because, when his daughter is abducted, he can prove to his ex-wife that he is the real father by doing what his effete substitute cannot: using all of his skills earned as a dead-beat in service to Empire to save their daughter. He murders and tortures all of the terrorist sex traffickers, demonstrating that the dead-beat is a noble protector, to save his daughter from slavery. In the end the nuclear family is validated by the violent dead-beat. Hell, Bryan Mills doesn’t even give a shit about the abducted daughters of other fathers, who aren’t as masculine to save them, because he ignores hundreds of other victims in his singular goal to preserve the sanctity of his biological family. It is the noble dead-beat who swoops in to save a daughter he hadn’t given a fuck to raise or support––but he is the biological father, the authentic head of a family he saves from the skills earned in as an absent parent.
In the 2016 film Deadpool Ryan Reynolds’ character, Wade Wilson, jokes about Liam Neeson being a bad father in Taken. “They made three of those movies,” Wade Wilson quips: “At some point you have to wonder if he’s just a bad parent.” The bigger joke, though, is that the audience isn’t asked to wonder if Neeson’s Bryan Mills is a bad parent before he parachutes in to rescue a daughter he has no social right to call daughter. According to the evidence supplied but suppressed by the movie, this dead-beat dad was a bad parent from the very beginning: abandoning your daughter so you can be a Yankee murderer, leaving her to be raised by a single mother without child support, should signal the behaviour of an abusive asshole. Instead, Neeson’s father in Taken is depicted with mythic grandeur: the dead-beat who justifies his absence by using the skills gained in this absence to prove fatherly machismo.
Taken is not alone in this retrograde reclamation of the dead-beat. Take 2014’s 3 Days To Kill, co-written by Luc Besson who was also behind the screenplay of Taken. (Is Besson a dead-beat dad? This seems to be a common theme in his current work.) In this film, Kevin Costner plays a CIA killer who, for reasons similar to Bryan Mills, has been absent from his daughter’s life. Hell, Costner even tries his damnedest to sound like Neeson’s gruff portrayal of the world-weary imperialist murderer. Battling against his hyper-sexed woman handler, Costner’s character must recenter himself as a father for a daughter who would lose her way without the reestablishment of the nuclear family. This daughter’s rightful resentment at his absence in her life is off-set by the fact that she needs him for stability. The tragedy is that he was only a dead-beat insofar as he chose to serve his nation, leave the child-rearing to a wife whose prime duty is to raise children, and thus the viewer is entreated to view his awkward attempts at reunion as truly parental. To be a dead-beat dad, we are meant to believe, is a supreme act of sacrifice.
This reclamation trope must necessarily brush up against the grain of reality. For in reality, dead-beat dads are not noble figures. As a father who cares about my daughter I cannot imagine abandoning her for some greater good, especially since the good I pursue is diametrically opposed to patriarchy––I can’t imagine leaving the lion’s share of childcare to my partner. Aside from these political motivations, it is hard for me to care about a father being taken seriously as a father when he hasn’t given a fuck about his daughter’s life for most of this daughter’s life. Seriously, why would any dead-beat dad who has spent the majority of his life ignoring his child suddenly become this child’s saviour? If this mythic biological impulse wasn’t enough to stay with the child, or at least to provide child support, then it probably won’t ever manifest in a meaningful way.
When the dead-beat trope is not being reclaimed and sanitized, however, it still functions to regulate our understanding of fatherhood and valorize patriarchal ideology. Since asshole fathers are so common there is a tendency to lionize a dad who manages to be a decent parent more than his mother counter-part. That is, there tends to be over-excitement around a father who cares for his kid, who does house work, who nurtures. No such excitement is accorded to mothers for doing the same thing because they are “expected” to be nurturing. In film and television the nurturing father is celebrated in a way that the nurturing mother is not; this both reflects and reinforces the way we understand parenting in reality.
All a dad has to do to qualify for a father of the year award is to not be a dead-beat. A pretty low bar to clear if you really think about it, but because so many assholes don’t clear this bar it’s seen as a victory for humanity when fathers simply succeed at being decent, equitable parents. It’s endearing and cute, like many anomalies are, prized because of its rarity. Sometimes it generates an aura of martyrdom: the man who gave up on being “masculine” (a career, maverick autonomy, etc.) for noble reasons, like Bryan Mills’ sacrifice at the altar of national security. The trope of the tragic widower (such as Jude Law’s character in 2008’s The Holiday) expresses this kind of nobility, a nobility denied to the widow.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called a “good father” by complete strangers simply because they saw me playing with my daughter, taking her on long TTC rides, and pretty much doing what most mothers do on a regular basis. I get congratulated for being a responsible parent like I’m a hero for doing some pretty banal shit that my partner and a lot of women also do without random compliments by passersby. Being aware of this attitude, along with the fact that my partner has not received the same attention for doing identical work, prompted me to reflect on the matter a while back, so I won’t repeat myself here.
Moreover, this celebration of the father who beats the dead-beat odds is amplified for nurturing single fathers who have sole or primary custody of their children. Hell even if they have equal custody and do their part they are heroic!
Hence, even when the reality of male privilege in the context of parenting is accepted as normative, when the fact of the dead-beat dad becomes a trope, this privilege is still reinscribed. Either the dead-beat is justified with these ludicrous Taken narratives, or it becomes a low bar that, once cleared, congratulates cis dudes for being just okay. Our current understanding of the family really does need to be demolished.