Modern Family: Mr. Mom and Fatherhood in the 21st Century


“My brain is like oatmeal,” jobless auto worker Jack Butler (Michael Keaton) tells his newly employed wife Caroline (Teri Garr) in 1983’s Mr. Mom.  “I yelled at Kenny today for coloring outside the lines!”  Having lost his management position at a local Detroit auto manufacturer, Butler found himself adrift, watching over his two boys and infant daughter Megan while Caroline climbed the advertising industry ladder rising to executive as sort of comedic proto-Don Draper.  With a faux Grizzly Adams look replete with faded flannel shirt, scruffy beard, and an expanding waistline, Butler admits that his time as a stay at home dad had not gone smoothly. “Megan and I are starting to watch the same TV shows, and I’m liking them! I’m losing it.”

While hardly Oscar material – Roger Ebert called the movie a “great idea” that didn’t follow through and other critics described it as “sitcom-like”– Mr. Mom doesn’t receive enough credit for the manner in which it explores and, in many ways, sends up traditional ideas about masculinity.  Still, the movie, which turns 30 later this month, ranked ninth in domestic gross for 1983 and made a very healthy $64,800,000.  Sure, the inevitable jokes about his failed first attempts at housekeeping are a bit hacky – a vacuum named “Jaws,” letting his infant Megan eat chili, or his disastrous attempt at laundry – but the movie treats his role as parent seriously as it does his wife’s new career.

Today sensitive hipster fathers and stay at home dads have their own magazine. If one wanders around the Brooklyn neighborhood Dumbo you’ll be sure to bump into a fedora wearing father with young daughter or son strapped to his chest while shopping at the Flea. In 1983, however, the idea of the stay at home father depended more on a husband’s employment or more accurately lack thereof, rather than the personal or lifestyle choice it sometimes seems in the current context. Certainly at the time, there weren’t any periodicals targeting this particular demographic.  Keaton’s Butler worries about his masculinity in moments, such as when his wife’s silver spoon, playboy boss (Martin Mull) show’s up at the house in a limo to ferry her to work, but on the whole, he seems more worried about maintaining his sanity running errands and caring for his kids than losing any sense of himself as a man.  Even when his new gaggle of housewife friends ambush him by treating him to dinner then absconding to a Detroit area male strip club, Jack never falls into homophobia or real discomfort, but rather rolls with the punches; he scores one of the strippers’ numbers which he passes on to wanna be seductress Joan (Ann Jillian).  As the three male “exotic dancers” appear on stage in 1980s space suits, Jack leans over to one of his companions noting, “I’m guessing these aren’t the same guys on the space shuttle.”

Mr Mom 1
The Don Draper of Detroit based ad agencies ….

Jack’s layoff comes off as a complete surprise.  When his boss Jinx (played by modern day Bluth family patriarch Jeffrey Tambor) informs him he no longer has a job, Jack, who moments before attempted to inspire assembly line factory workers with a garbled story about Rocky, physically assaults his boss. Yet, once the doom of unemployment sets in, even forays into temp agency work appear tainted with failure.  Overhearing two men sharing recipe tips for a beef wellington, Jack leans in to sneak a few pointers only to be interrupted by the secretary informing the two gentlemen of their appointment.  The two men swapping cooking insights defer, telling Jack to go ahead; after all, “there aren’t any jobs in this town anyway,” they cackle fatalistically.  Jack takes the appointment but also asks for a copy of the recipe.

“It’s a different generation of working men,” treasurer of Local 1112 J.D. Smith noted during labor conflicts at the Chevy Vega plant in 1972 Lordstown, Ohio. “None of these guys come from the old country poor and starving, grateful for any job they could get.  None of them have been through a depression  They’ve been exposed to all the youth movements of the last ten years and they don’t see disgrace in being unemployed.”[1] Smith spoke of the Lordstown assembly line workers whose conflicts with management came to be viewed as an iconic representation of 1970s working class alienation and decline.  “’[T]he most dramatic instance of worker resistance since the 1937 Flint sit down,’” noted one newspaper at the time.[2]  In contrast, Mr. Mom, made more than a decade after Lordstown, eschewed any sense of worker solidarity or unionism, though Jack does get his two best friends jobs back along with his own when the opportunity arises.  Amazingly for a movie that revolves a great deal around the machinations of the 1980s car industry, unions are never mentioned. Apparently, Jack Butler was no Norma Rae.

“Fat Couch” indeed …

How does Butler bounce back from his layoff? Well, as noted, initially he struggles. During a comically heated exchange between Caroline and Butler his wife makes a dig at his weight leading to Jack storming off to sleep on the “fat couch.” “Well, you should take pride with some of that FAT, Porky,” screams an exasperated Caroline.  While funny and perhaps a role reversal at the time, Jack does shape up. He shaves, throws out his flannel, and even begins to work out to the theme of Rocky the same movie he referenced (and lied about seeing) unsuccessfully earlier in the film. The house hums with military like organization.

When Ron passive aggressively challenges Jack’s masculinity at the firm’s annual cookout, Butler responds predictably, but the movie treats the provocation like the example of male stupidity that it is. During the agency’s annual and ridiculous obstacle race – complete with 100 yard dashes in flippers, downhill tricycle slaloms, and trampoline obstacles to name only a few – the Chariots of Fire theme song plays in the background, as paunchy men struggle to compete on the smallest of stages. Perhaps the idiocy of middle aged men competing for a meaningless prize in some insane summer-camp-on-steroids obstacle course makes Butler’s decision to throw the race easier, but he still ultimately protects his wife’s future at the ad agency while Ron pops champagne as he continues his rigged dominance of, well, life.

The brood just before the big race

Of course, Caroline, professional woman and mother, proves no slouch herself.  While excelling at the agency, she also fends off Ron’s advances, eventually breaking his nose in the process. Nor does the movie treat her like a novice. In the wake of Ron’s harassment, she renegotiates her contract to continue working at the firm but only 3 days a week, the other two from home: a very 1990s working arrangement in 1983 Detroit.  Some observers might argue such a resolution reasserted old patriarchal archetypes with Keaton returning to employment.  However, his wife’s continuance in the labor force – juggling home with work – did reset the normal tropes about American domesticity on new ground.  Today, Caroline would be a very common vision, the kind Yahoo executive and working mother Sheryl Sandberg recently told to “lean in,” by asserting themselves in the workplace and adopting an up by the boot straps mentality.   So while there is no denying Mr. Mom’s sitcom conclusion, it still points to future issues afflicting working mothers.


Whether the movie realized it at the time or cared, it depicted the increasing feminization of the professional classes as more and more women put their college degrees and advanced education to use in a work force increasingly dependent on skills derived from such backgrounds. The male dominated union life and white collar positions of the 1970s begin giving way to a more gender diverse employment reality.

While it might not be at the level of marriage complexity demonstrated between Friday Night Lights’ Tami and Eric Taylor (Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler respectively) , Jack and Caroline Butler act like two mature adults who care for their kids and marriage. He understands the necessity of her work and she knows the difficulty of his situation.  Do they have conflict? Yes, but in the end they talk to each other like people.  Even Tami Taylor would endorse this coupling.

Needless to say, women not given big roles in Gung Ho

Keaton’s foray into American industry and masculinity continued. Three years after Mr. Mom he starred in Gung Ho, a now somewhat racist movie about Japanese automakers who come to small town Ohio. Granted, the great Roger Ebert cared little for this piece of celluloid magic as well. “What I got was a disappointment,” he noted at the time, “a movie in which the Japanese are mostly used for the mechanical requirements of the plot, and the Americans are constructed from durable but boring stereotypes.”  No unions in this film, as the American workers hard up from structural economic changes willingly sacrifice their own for another shot at employment. Ebert took aim at this portrayal: “The movie feels more like an attack on labor unions than a clash of alien cultures, and the message seems to be that the American car industry would be as successful as the Japanese if our workers were willing to work for $8 an hour, seven days a week, with unpaid overtime, just because of their patriotic pride.”

Speaking of unions in the waning days of the twentieth century, from the New Left to union shop floor representatives, the radicalism of the 1970s and early 1980s remained gender bound, which in some ways distinguishes Mr. Mom even further. As pointed out recently by Jefferson Cowie in Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (2010) even the most radical union leaders of the period tended to promote masculinity as key part of their identity, which predictably marginalized women.

Take a peek ten years prior to Mr. Mom’s release in another Midwestern metropolis for evidence. Eddie Sadlowski, leader of a labor insurgency for Steel Workers Local 65 South Chicago 1973, could promote racial and ethnic solidarity with ease. “You can’t be a union man and be a redneck,” he told fellow workers, “there’s no way you can be a union man and racist.” Yet, the minute gender came to play, like the New Left radicals who alienated the union establishment but maintained similar ideas about women, Sadlowski adopted the gendered accoutrements of radicalism.   Within this context, the “college leftist” promoted masculinity as much as the stereotypical “working class hero persona.” As journalist Judith Coburn recounted after interviewing Sadlowski, the union firebrand engaged in the same “’sexist tricks’” as his superiors, a blown kiss here and inappropriate groping there.[3] Granted, one could accuse Mr. Mom director, Stan Dragoti (or even screenwriter the late John Hughes, the great chronicler of the 1980s American middle class) of class bias by implying that such men adapted to domesticity and unemployment better than their working class counterparts.  Not that the movie depicts much in the way of actual working class people—assembly line workers make only the briefest of appearances in the film. Perhaps this serves as evidence of class bias or Hollywood marketing; after all with a declining union movement, safer to depict a non-union middle class middle manager every guy, than “radical” labor advocates.

Eddie Sadlowski

By 1996, Keaton found his way into starring roles as Batman (remember those Batman movies??!! That’s an entirely different post) and as the lead in then-new film Multiplicity, in which Pasadena contractor Doug Kinney (Keaton) clones himself several times in order to meet all his professional and familial obligations. “Keaton’s Kinney begins, like many other modern middle-class family men, with too many roles and expectations and not enough time,” observed Chicago Tribune critic Michael Wilmington. Indeed, Multiplicity’s comedy underscored what Susan Faludi (Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, 2000) and others began pointing out at the decade’s end: masculinity was shifting.   “Be successful! Be sensitive! Be hard! Be nurturing! Be rich! Be generous! Be tough! Be nice,” noted Wilmington, were demands that warped middle class male psyches.  American men torn apart by the numerous and conflicting demands placed on them by work, loved ones, culture and libido, grasped for straws. The American man by the mid-1990s puzzled at his identity: “a confusion men have themselves about the way they want to be perceived by the women they marry or live with,” pointed out the Tribune critic.

In the end, Mr. Mom’s thirtieth anniversary reminds us that the sands of gender shift right under our feet.  While the film privileges middle class men as somehow more open minded regarding gender roles, a dubious conceit undoubtedly, it also subtly sends up these tropes and when placed in dialogue with Keaton’s other starring roles on the subject, provides a cultural arc of the modern male psyche and its connection to employment. Is it an idealized version of middle class masculinity that, with the exception of Mr. Mom, nudges women to the margins? Yes, but it remains a useful point of departure for society’s perceptions of where we’ve been and where we’re going in defining 20th and 21st century masculinity.

[1] Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, New York: New Press, 2010, pg 46.

[2] Ibid, pg. 42.

[3] Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, New York: New Press, 2010, pg. 41-42.