On Mrs. Doubtfire

I have seen Mrs. Doubtfire dozens of times, but I hardly remember it as something I’d take too seriously. As the post from My Elegant Gathering of White Snows states in the post, “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.

According to the Crushable article, “The Judge Was Right To Take Away Daniel’s Custody In Mrs. Doubtfire“:

When I watched Mrs. Doubtfire as a child, I totally sided with Daniel Hillard. In fact I sided with him so hard that I hated Sally Field for years to come. “What an uptight bitch,” I thought whenever I saw her in that movie and ANYTHING ELSE. But then, upon a recent rewatch, I realized that she was completely in the right. And that Daniel’s a horrible father. So let’s take a trip back in time to this movie so that you too can see that he’s the worst.

The movie kicks off with Daniel getting fired from his job for not wanting to do it. I think you’re supposed to view this as a sign that he’s a creative genius trapped inside of a corporate drone. But instead I see him as a stuck-up “artist” who thinks he’s too good for the cartoons he’s voicing. Um, dude, someone’s paying you to make silly voices all day long. So you can tie that high horse up at the door and come on in to reality if you’d like.

But Daniel’s too good for a job so he happily leaves it, picks up his kids at school and throws his son Chris a wild birthday party on a week night. And its literally wild. There are farm animals everywhere. I’m sorry, but what kind of party is this? No, really? Where did these animals come from and WHY ARE THEY IN THE HOUSE? The neighbor, who’s supposed to be a total c-word, calls up Miranda at work to complain that the animals are eating her flowers. Which, looking back, is a totally valid complaint. So Miranda’s forced to leave her job (bear in mind, this is now the family’s sole source of income) and come and clean up her husband’s mess. As she cleans up from the petting zoo that was in her house, she realizes that her husband’s an overgrown child incapable of making rational decisions and promptly divorces him. Which, like her neighbor’s phone call to her, is completely and 100% valid.

Because Miranda’s proven herself to be the responsible parent, the judge gives her primary custody of the kids. Even though Daniel really, really loves them. From the second they were born! Miranda’s like, “bitch puhlease, I love them too. I love them so much that I don’t risk their health by bringing a farm into our house.” The judge, realizing that Daniel’s completely unfit to be around his own children, throws an extra requirement into the mix if he wants custody– he needs to get a job.

So he does. In fact he gets two. The first one’s as some kind of shipping assistant at a TV production company. Which is boring, but that’s what happens when you get fired from your job as a cartoon voice actor. People aren’t clamoring for you to work for them. The second job is as his children’s nanny. That’s right. In effort to prove that he’s a good father, Daniel transforms into an elderly lady and applies for the job as his children’s nanny. Hijinks ensue as he proves to be a much better housekeeper/nanny than he ever was as a husband. Miranda loves him! The kids love him! Everything’s going great!

Until Chris walks into the bathroom one day and see Mrs. Doubtfire peeing standing up. Five minutes of transgender shaming later, we see Daniel explaining to his two older children that he felt forced to do this because he loves them. Which will surely be a great jumping off point for them in therapy down the road. “You know that thing where your Dad loves you so much that he violates a court order and impersonates an elderly lady just so that he can see you? Yeah, my dad did that.”

As if things aren’t complicated enough in this family, Miranda starts dating Pierce Brosnan. Who I think we’re supposed to hate because he’s good-looking, rich and employed. Because yeah, screw the stable guy who takes his girlfriend’s children to his pool club for the day! What a dickhead! Yes, he insults Daniel in front of Daniel/Mrs. Doubtfire…but again, for valid reasons. After all, Daniel is kinda, sorta sitting at that bar DRESSED AS AN OLD LADY, mooching off his ex-wife’s new boyfriend. “How dare you say bad things about me, I’m a great father/housekeeper to my children!”

Meanwhile at Daniel’s boring job, he gets “discovered” for his creative genius by Mr. Lundy, an old dude who works high up in the company. “What creative genius?” you may ask. Oh I’ll tell you. Mr. Lundy sees Daniel taking a break from his job and playing with dinosaur toys that were left on a set. And I do mean playing. Like a child, he’s just giving them silly voices and having them interact with each other. But Mr. Lundy sees something that I don’t and invites Daniel to pitch him a show over dinner.

Except CONUNDRUM! He invites him to the same place where Daniel/Mrs. Doubtfire’s supposed to have dinner with his family. Because there’s no such thing as telling his employer (his ex-wife Miranda) that he’s sick or allergic to dining out or anything else you say to get out of things, he ends up attempting to attend both dinners at once. As you can imagine, there are laughs galore as he rushes back and forth between bathrooms, changing in and out of his Mrs. Doubtfire outfit. At one point he messes up and ends up at Mr. Lundy’s table dressed as Mrs. Doubtfire. “What’s this?” asks Mr. Lundy. “Oh my new character!” says Daniel. Which is weird and unprofessional. Mr. Lundy at no point in time asked him to show up dressed as a ridiculous character. But alas, that’s what happens.

You know what else also happens? Daniel, after overhearing that Pierce Brosnan’s allergic to pepper, goes into the restaurant kitchen and covers his food with pepper. Which I think is something that the legal system calls murder. However when Pierce actually starts to die (because he is allergic!!!!), Daniel feels guilty and saves his life. In the process of giving Pierce the Heimlich, his Mrs. Doubtfire mask falls off and ruins everything. Yet actually nothing.

Mr. Lundy gives him a Mrs. Doubtfire show (remember this is the same guy who kept that horrible dinosaur toy show on the air for years…so his judgement’s horrible at best) and Miranda goes against the judge’s orders and lets Daniel see the kids whenever he damn well pleases. Which means the moral of this movie is to ignore what the court says, come up with a false identity and when confronted with all of this just say, “I did it for love.”

Maybe, just maybe, it would better to watch Jumanji, than this. On the other hand, at the time, I developed a crush on Matthew Lawrence. According to The New York Times review:

“Mrs. Doubtfire” is about a man who dresses as a dowager to invade the household of his estranged wife, who has thrown him out. The movie’s biggest challenge, one that it does not exactly meet, is to persuade the audience that this husband and father’s escapade is somehow an act of love.

Fortunately, Robin Williams lurks behind that latex face mask, ready to scatter wicked jokes and brilliant non sequiturs about whatever crosses his mind. Mr. Williams’s genius is in these details, and it is given free rein during much of “Mrs. Doubtfire,” as in the sequence that has him improvising with toy dinosaurs at a television studio and coming up with a Raptor Rap. (“Yo, yo, see me/I’m livin’ below the soil/I’ll be back/But I’m comin’ as oil.”) But if this film creates as good a showcase for the Williams zaniness as anything short of “Aladdin,” it also spends too much time making nice. And not enough time making sense.

A lot of trouble has gone into giving a sitcom shininess to “Mrs. Doubtfire,” which was directed by Chris Columbus (who also did both “Home Alone” films). Attention has been paid to everything from the sunny, well-heeled look of the family household to the pert costumes on Sally Field, who plays Mr. Williams’s careerist wife. The story is so simple-minded that the wife’s job alone is enough to villainize her: Miranda Hillard (Ms. Field) is seen doing something terribly important involving fabric swatches, while her sweet, helpless husband, Daniel (Mr. Williams), can barely stay employed dubbing voices onto animated films. When Miranda complains about his childishness, kicks him out of the house and keeps him from seeing enough of their three children, Daniel remains much too good-hearted to sue for support.

Conveniently, Daniel has a brother (Harvey Fierstein, tart and funny here) who specializes in makeup effects. And naturally Daniel is an actor, just as Dustin Hoffman’s character was in the funnier, more substantial “Tootsie,” which unavoidably comes to mind. That film made the most of its hero’s hostility, allowing it to become part of the joke. This one insists on a veneer of good intentions, which wears thin long before the story culminates in a speech about families and love.

Once the screenplay, by Randi Mayem Singer and Leslie Dixon, has accomplished the gargantuan job of getting Daniel into a dress (so that he can play nanny to his own children), it stops adding up. There’s a sequence about how Daniel, now done up as the broad-backed, hairy-legged matron of the title, can’t cook dinner for the children, even though he has been feeding and caring for them for years. There are also two separate episodes, one elaborately staged in a restaurant, when Daniel must become a quick-change artist and jump into and out of his Doubtfire drag. No audience will believe he can do this in a few seconds’ time.

The film keeps busy by finding Miranda a handsome chump of a boyfriend (Pierce Brosnan), who becomes a fine target for Daniel’s insults and the subject of Mrs. Doubtfire’s motherly advice to Miranda. (“Once the father of your children is out of the picture, the only solution is lifelong celibacy,” the nanny says sweetly.) It also lets Daniel’s son (Matthew Lawrence) catch his father in the bathroom and discover his disguise, asking nervously: “You don’t really like wearing that stuff, do you, Dad?” Even then, the comic possibilities posed by letting the children in on the joke are never explored.



One thought on “On Mrs. Doubtfire

  1. Pingback: On The Santa Clause | The Progressive Democrat

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