On the eve of The Sitter, we examine one of Hollywood's laziest concepts.
By Alex Heigl
This week, Jonah Hill will become The Sitter. He will somehow be duped or forced into caring for small children, and hilarity will ensue. There will probably be a diaper joke, and the F-bomb will most likely be directed at a young child. Now, I won't see this movie, mostly because I don't like laughing at the ghost of fat Jonah Hill knowing I have a sad skinny Hill to return to in real life, but also because I'm protesting. I'm protesting the fact that Hollywood, time and time again, has proved that their idea of comedy is to put men in charge of children.
The Sitter explores but one spin on the "men caring for youth" concept. There are several, ranging from Hill's "idiot puts down remote/game controller, picks up baby" to the other end of the male spectrum, best exemplified by films from The Pacifier to Mr. Nanny, which suggest Hollywood finds it unspeakably amusing to put men who are otherwise capable, handy, murder-machines in charge of small children. Apparently, their thinking is something like, "Look at how priceless it is to watch this man who has committed unspeakable atrocities in the name of his country struggle with a diaper." But, aside from the fact that it's not actually all that funny unless you've suffered a blow to the head, it speaks to an irritating conceit: that men are somehow incapable of caring for, dealing with, or otherwise raising children in any capacity that doesn't involve violence or typically "masculine" activities.
There's another, less extreme but possibly more offensive version of this, and it's that even regular, working-class joes should never, ever be left alone with their children. In these cases, it's not that the men are simply tired from a hard day fighting grizzlies and fixing Dodge Chargers. In Daddy Day Care, Eddie Murphy's titular Daddy isn't a cage fighter or Marine: he's in marketing. And yet, he's hilariously inept when it comes to child-rearing. TV Tropes has a series of cliches related to this phenomenon, but they're all just variations on a theme. Men are bad at cooking, cleaning, and caring for children.
But it's not even that men are portrayed as having skill sets that preclude them from being charged with the safety of a child: it's that they're twisted bastards if they express an interest in it. Wikipedia helpfully illuminates this with the following sentence from its synopsis of Daddy Day Care: "At first, the local moms are suspicious of men wanting to work with children (mainly because they think they're homosexual or child molesters)." Men are not only incapable of working with children, but should their urge to care for them manifest in any capacity other than pure "heterosexual" hunting/gathering, it's sick.
It's really an extension of the basic pop-culture cliche that men are slovenly pigs wallowing in their own filth, and that any basic level of hygiene or order in a man's house implies femininity or a less-than masculine character. (Seen recently in this past season's immediately cancelled attempt to make Kevin Dillon palatable, How to Be a Gentleman.) Raising children generally requires hygiene and order, after all, and neither of those is the domain of real men.
And I don't need to point out (but I will anyway) that it's an inaccurate stereotype as well as a demeaning one. "House husbands" are a very real thing. In 2004, the Census Bureau identified just over 100,000 stay-at-home-dads in the U.S. population; by 2010, that number hit 150,000. Single-father homes are the fastest-growing type of household in the U.S. My dad mended nearly every article of clothing I had as a kid at some point, either by sewing machine or needle and thread, because he was great at it. I didn't think it was weird; I just thought it was awesome that my Spider-Man sweatshirt had two sleeves again.
So why does Hollywood return to this well over and over again? Because it's easier? I suppose that has something to do with it — after all, seven of the top ten highest-grossing movies of 2011 were sequels, so I'll spare you the boilerplate ranting about the death of creativity. Because it's funny? In movies like the aforementioned Mr. Nanny, the laughs come from the juxtaposition of raw power and masculinity being applied to something as "feminine" as child care, but surely there's something primal and powerful about being able to care for your young, even if that's channeled into something as simple as keeping them from running into a busy street.
A recent study showed that testosterone levels in men drop after the birth of a child, causing them to be more caring and less aggressive. This makes it seem like evolution has hard-wired men to fall naturally into the role of caretaker — there's no skin-shedding, or painful loss of horn-like protrusions, just a gradual shift in demeanor and priorities. Suddenly, working on your abs becomes less important than making sure there's no hard edges near your child's cranium. If that's so natural, why is it constantly played for laughs?
Ultimately, I don't have any real answers, and to be fair, I'd take two sequels and a TV series based on The Sitter if it meant the death of just one of the dozens of other profoundly obnoxious (and much more harmful) stereotypes that Hollywood revels in. But to the stay-at-home dads and house husbands out there: aren't you sick of this? There are a lot of you who are absolutely raising the fuck out of your children, and don't you think it's time we all stop collectively laughing our asses off at the very idea of that situation?
Now if you'll excuse me, I have grizzlies to kill and children to hilariously endanger. Wait, who put my killin' knife right next to my huggin' knife?