Mrs Doubtfire is Patriarchy in Action.

I have always hated the film Mrs Doubtfire as I thought it was creepy. As a teenager, I never understood how a useless father who lost custody of his children in the divorce due to his useless, incompetent and lazy parenting. Hell, even the editors at Wikipedia – who are not known for their feminist analysis – get that this a film about a pathetic man:

His wife, Miranda (Sally Field), considers him irresponsible and immature, and their marriage is on the rocks. When Daniel throws Chris a birthday party despite his bad report card, Miranda loses her temper and asks for a divorce. At their first custody hearing, the judge provisionally grants Miranda custody of the children, as Daniel has neither a suitable residence nor a steady job.

The entire premise of the film is that the character of Daniel Hillard, played by Robin Williams, is a dickhead. This isn’t a loveable film about a man supporting his ex-partner and children. This is a man who had a temper tantrum at being held accountable for his piss-poor fathering and instead of taking responsibility for the consequences of his behaviour, he chose to lie to his children and ex-partner by dressing up as a female housekeeper. The idea that his ex-partner Miranda is too stupid to notice that her new “housekeeper” is, in fact, her ex-husband in drag demonstrates a remarkable lack of belief in women’s intelligence.

My analysis as a teenager wasn’t feminist. It was just disbelief that a useless father could miraculously become a better one overnight. You don’t need to be a feminist to look at the fathers of all your friends – who have little to no contact and commit financial abuse of their children by their refusal to pay maintenance – to understand that whitewashing a man’s laziness helps no one. The ending of the film is all about evil women and nasty judges punishing men for being useless and the children being devastated at their father being removed from their lives. Miranda got full custody of the children because the father REPEATEDLY lied to her, the children and the judge. Having a steady job and a permanent address does not undo years of piss-poor parenting and lies. The premise of the film is that children are men’s possessions and it doesn’t matter how shit a parent they are, the children will be harmed by being parented properly by their mother. The fact that evidence points out the exact opposite of this is always ignored, even with an abusive father, because father’s rights are always more important than the health and wellbeing of the children involved.

I haven’t seen Mrs Doubtfire in years  and it wasn’t until I saw this shared on Facebook that I realized the subtext of the film that I had been missing for years:

Angela LeeI was just telling Jitana that Mrs. Doubtfire was a tribute to domestic violence and stalking. Yup, one of the most famous comedies in fact romanticizes IPV stalking. Women are always the joke.

I hadn’t even realized that this film was about stalking and intimate partner violence. I had always focused on the relationship with the children. The stalking of the mother and the wearing down of her boundaries is classic abusive behaviour. Being “jealous” of Miranda’s relationship with a new man isn’t the behaviour of a good man – it’s the behaviour of an abusive man who believes his ex-wife is also his possession. Daniel has no right to interfere with his ex-wife’s new relationships. He has no right to stalk her and he has no right to manipulate her. Lying to Miranda and the children about who he is isn’t a funny movie plot. It’s the creepy behaviour of a classically abusive man.

We need to stop pretending these kinds of films are just a bit of fun. They reinforce male ownership of children, stalking as appropriate behaviour for men and rewarding men for not being assholes. Children aren’t rewards. And, a lifetime of piss-poor parenting and irresponsible behaviour cannot be overcome by lying to your children.

6 thoughts on “Mrs Doubtfire is Patriarchy in Action.”

  1. I recommend considering a rewatch. Mrs Doubtfire is quite remarkable for its time, because it’s one of the very first films where two sympathetic characters break up and don’t get back together by the end of the film – even today, Hollywood is desperate for couples, especially parents, to get back together (like kids often do). This usually involves a woman being broken down by grovelling and romantic gestures – this is not that kind of film at all.

    Meawhile, there is an almighty blow-up when the deception is revealed – everyone, especially the children, are really very upset. Because what he did was wrong and creepy, as you say – and I can understand that this element could have made you so uncomfortable than you weren’t able to enjoy the film. Unlike many movies, especially comedies, about family break-up, it doesn’t shy away from the sheer distress and desperation of the whole situation, even though a compromise is finally met.

    And what is achieved is a compromise. Daniel is not useless or lazy, but childish and an actor (necessarily unreliable work). By embodying Mrs Doubtfire, he uses the thing he’s good at (acting) to become better at parenting. He’s impractical, but he can act practical by being Mrs Doubtfire and thus becomes a more practical, sensible person. Meanwhile, he is patronised and subject to sexual harassment, as all women are.

    The film involves deception and thus intrusion, but I really struggle to see elements that resemble domestic abuse here. Daniel does not attempt to control his children or his ex-wife’s new life – all he does is apply for and perform the job of housekeeper in disguise. He doesn’t pry into or attempt to sabotage (more than a few catty remarks) his ex-wife’s new relationship. It is about a flawed man trying to be a better parent, and along the way explores gender roles around child-rearing, work and housework (which, of course, men can do as well as anyone else).

    Goodness – I didn’t know I had such strong views about Mrs Doubtfire! I can understand it pressing buttons, but I’ve always regarded as a feminist film at heart.

    1. Daniel is useless and lazy. Being “childish” means he’s useless and lazy. Parenting isn’t about indulging your whims. It’s bloody hard work – that he left to the children’s mother. He only became “practical” because he was forced too. He could have done it at any point but chose not to.

      Gaining entrance to your ex-partners house by deception is absolutely stalking and a form of domestic violence. Suggesting that this is “all he does” is erasing perpetrator responsibility

      He also repeatedly tries to sabotage his ex-wife’s new relationship. Jealousy is a characteristic of many domestic violent men. A “few catty remarks” is shitty behaviour and unacceptable in an adult.

  2. I totally agree with Louise on this. There is no need to re watch the film to see that Daniel is a self-indulgent immature man with severe arrested development and like many of his ilk believes that parenting is the role of women whilst he pisses about behaving like a brat of the highest order and exercising his enormous sense of male entitlement. He is not a sympathetic character and the slapstick element is adopted to disguise his aggressive nature and wholly inappropriate comments he makes to his ex in his attempt to destroy her new relationship – the hallmark of abuse is “if I can’t have her no one else can.”

    He has no respect for boundaries and implants himself in his ex’s and children’s lives by gross deception, dispensing search pearls of wisdom “a flawed husband is better than no husband at all” and how his ex should be celibate.

    On top of this the other premise that by assuming the role of a woman, he is somehow as you imply, a better parent! This is utterly offensive to say the least and I am surprised that men are not outraged by this concept. Not only does it legitimise abuse, harassment, stalking and deception under the guise of “comedy” it also reinforces rigid gender roles and uses appalling sexual stereotyping.

    The only person Daniel feels sorry for in a situation of his making is himself. The only redeeming thing about the film is that his ex doesn’t take him back.

  3. I’m in two minds. On the one hand I totally agree that his behaviour as Mrs Doubtfire breaches all levels of trust and privacy, and yes, is stalking, plain and simple. And that can’t be argued against.

    On the other- I don’t see him as a lazy, selfish parent. I’m probably opening myself up to judgement but his parenting his quite similar to mine. My partner is the one who’s quick to lay down rules and stick at punishments whereas I tend to be a bit more spontaneous, and eclectic in my parenting. It works for us as it creates a balance. I’m sure some people looking in could call me childish, but my kids are totally happy with the way things are.

    I kind of see sexism in different places to you. Why is it that men are always presented as the eclectic parent? Why are women always the serious, authoritarian ones? I guess some could argue chicken or the egg arguments but to my mind it’s films like this which inform a society that too often sees mum left holding the baby, whilst dad goes off to do whatever he likes.

    I entirely don’t agree with Sally Field’s character limiting his access (prior to the deception-which would be a mindfuck and a half for the kids) to his children. He wasn’t cruel to them, he didn’t withhold love, he didn’t beat them, he didn’t try to economically abuse or control them. This isn’t about father’s rights- it’s about a child’s rights. My first husband is an absolute bastard, he was abusive in most senses of the word towards me, and isn’t a great father by any means. He’s now banned the kids from being in his life (my eldest 2 are from my first marriage) but for years I fought, with the help of his mother, to keep him in their lives. As far as I’m concerned it’s better that the kids know just who he is than be left with questions about their identity which can lead to all kinds of psychological issues and the lionisation of the absent parent. They’re now of an age where they have a good enough idea of who he is that I don’t feel it will hurt them as much not to have him in their lives, but that’s because they know exactly who he is as a person. I’m not saying that kids should be made to see their fathers against their wishes, but that where and when possible it should be facilitated. Even if that just takes place in a contact centre.

    He really wasn’t that bad a father pre-Doubtfire, and I don’t know if I agree that his becoming Mrs Doubtfire was about power. I can’t say that (if I thought it was remotely possible to get away with it) that I wouldn’t employ deception to see my kids if they were taken away from me. I’m not saying that behaviour’s justifiable- but I don’t know if I agree that it’s necessarily patriarchal. I’m sure many will disagree with me, but I just wonder how we would view it if it had been a woman trying to look like an old housekeeper in order to visit her kids.

    The bias towards the mother shown by the judge mirrors the bias shown by the court systems in the UK and America towards female parents. Obviously it’s something which benefits a lot of women, but it comes from some patriarchal bullshit thinking about the natural role of woman as caregiver, and man’s as irresponsible jerk. I just can’t imagine that bias is doing us any long term favours as it furthers the idea that women should be the ones who stay home to bring up baby, the second shift and the much higher number of single parents who are women. I think the film is almost paradoxical in that, on the one hand, it totally supports that through the parental characters and the judge’s decision, but on the other, it challenges it- showing the frailty of traditional gender roles. Williams’ character becomes perfectly capable in the “female sphere” the moment he dons a dress, which just goes to show the failures in his parenting were entirely socialised. I don’t think the film takes up a moral position and sticks with it. There’s a lot of ambiguity around William’s and Field’s characters who are both deeply loving parents but also very flawed.

  4. Honestly, I disagree with most aspects of this article. Was he stalking the ex wife? Absolutely. And that’s not acceptable. I also don’t think he was a particularly bad father. I think that he believed that Miranda was way too hard and strict with the kids so he tried to have more fun with them. He made a mistake by taking away Miranda’s authority in front of the kids (this can possibly teach kids to disrespect the mother), but all parents make mistakes. Also, the character development in Mrs. Doubtfire is very evident. My dad was a bad parent for a really long time. However, he got out of the environment that he was in and he changed, and he changed fairly quickly. So Daniel easily could’ve changed. The idea that Daniel was trying to sabotage Miranda’s new relationship doesn’t make sense to me either. He wasn’t trying to sabotage (if that’s what you want to call it) the relationship to show ownership over Miranda, he did it because they had just recently been divorced and she moved on very quickly. Besides, I don’t really remember Daniel outright sabotaging the relationship. He made some maybe inappropriate remarks, but it’s not because he’s a man and men feel the need to control relationships or whatever, it’s because he was jealous. The argument that MIranda’s inability to recognize Mrs. Doubtfire as Daniel is showing that women are stupid, also doesn’t make sense to me. In the movie, Daniel’s brother (or cousin or whatever he was, I can’t recall) is a makeup artist and face specialist. So presumably, it would be extremely difficult to tell that it’s actually Daniel. We as an audience can tell because a) we see the actual transformation and b) if Mrs. Doubtfire looked nothing like Daniel, it wouldn’t be as believable. I mean, if there was not even the slightest resemblance to Daniel, it would seem too extreme to even try to believe it. I’m not saying the movie didn’t have it’s flaws, I’m just saying, they’re not as bad as this article makes them seem

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