thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Watching Parenthood in “The Descendants”

In Film, Oscars, parenthood on April 9, 2012 at 8:53 am

Phoebe B.

When I was a kid, which alas I only now am in spirit, I spent a decent amount of time looking at adults and presuming, sometimes rightly so, that they knew best. I believed that they understood things I was not quite capable of grasping yet; that their decisions inherently made sense and should be followed, even if I didn’t like them. I suspected that my own parents just knew what to do with some sort of parent-specific magic. It seemed to me that their rules, whatever they were, were preordained, and that bedtimes were of course always at nine, or ten, or eventually maybe even eleven.

As an adult, I have come to realize that my parents—like many other parents I imagine—are just people trying to do a good job taking care of their kids. This may sound silly, but it was quite the serious revelation for me. Even the best parents are not martyrs like Harry Potter’s parents. They’re probably more like the Weasleys, with their crazy house and messy kitchen and cluttered garage. The Weasleys do their best, but their best doesn’t always work out as well as planned. Or parents might be more like the less-magical but awesome Tami and Eric Taylor, or even MTV’s teen mothers, trying under difficult circumstances to do a good job despite being kids themselves.

Parenting is work. Fun work most of the time (according to my folks), but work nonetheless—which perhaps is why my mom quite smartly developed a system to pay herself for the work she did around the house and taking care of me when I was really little. And because I am at a point in my life where parenting is not quite on the table and but definitely up for discussion fairly often these days—not because I’m planning on being a parent anytime soon, but because many of my friends have started having children—I am all the more intrigued by representations of it.

That’s why The Descendants stood out to me. The Descendants begins with the near-fatal boating accident of Matt King’s (George Clooney) wife, Elizabeth. It becomes clear early on that Elizabeth will not survive. The film follows Matt and his daughters as they come to terms with her sudden death. Amidst his mourning, Matt learns from his eldest daughter, Alexandra, that Elizabeth was having an affair. The rest of the film follows Matt and his daughter’s search for his wife’s lover, including a Kaui vacation, to track him down. While this narrative does not laud Matt’s parenting skills, it suggests that there is no model or manual for good parenting and that everyone, including each of the family members, copes differently with grief, loss, and life.

It is odd imagining George Clooney as a parent, mostly because of his star text as a consummate bachelor, but as Matt King I found him compelling. Indeed, I was not really prepared to believe the handsome Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13 star as a parent. But perhaps that’s just it, as Matt King is not really a parent—or rather, he makes it quite clear from the very beginning of the film that he does not know how to be a parent, particularly to two young girls. He is, in his own words, “the back-up” parent who works hard to support his wife and children. As the film goes on, it becomes clear that Matt was rarely around for his family and that his marriage was far from perfect. Matt seems to be a nice and smart guy, but he is neither the ideal dad nor the ideal husband.

Matt King is a parent in crisis. He wants to be there for his children, but he is unsure of how to do this, and he also needs their help and support. The film does not shy away from showing his awkwardness and frustration as a parent who must keep it together for his children when he is in fact losing it. He reigns his eldest daughter, Alexandra, in when she gets mad at her mom in order to preserve his youngest daughter’s, Scotty’s, memory of her. Indeed, he understands Scotty’s sense of her mother as both human and not-human, as capable of dying but also infallible—a sense that Alexandra lost upon catching her mother with another man. For Alexandra, her mother became, in that moment, human, selfish, and capable of mistakes and causing hurt.

I wasn’t expecting to like The Descendants. But I did, because it reminded me that parents are far from perfect. They make mistakes; they get confused. Sometimes they are selfish, other times they are the most generous. In a culture that often champions parenthood as magical or provides parenting narratives wherein parenthood determines the format of the show or indicates qualities in a character, The Descendants felt like a breath of fresh air. For example, Castle suggests a parent-child relationship as character development. Castle’s tenderness and protectiveness towards his daughter Alexis is something Beckett admires, but is also used to indicate Castle as a good, responsible, and decent person, despite appearances to the contrary. Even the show Parenthood foregrounds parenting as its primary plotline, wherein each parent fits a particular type or trope of parenthood: the stay-at home mom; the single mom; the super-busy-at-work mom with a stay-at-home dad; etc. Don’t get me wrong, I really like both Castle and Parenthood, but parenting seems easier, glossier, and sometimes less nuanced on network television.

The Descendants reminds us that parenthood is rough, wonderful, and nerve-wracking. And it reminds me that my parents, and perhaps yours too, are simply human, replete with amazing qualities and faults and anxiety. The Descendants argues that parenting itself is a grey area; there is no super special parent magic and there is not always a safety net. There are no clear barometers for success and failure, and the things we pass on to our children are often exactly what we wanted not to.

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  1. Thanks for posting about this movie! I also expected to be under-whelmed, at best, because I generally dislike Alexander Payne’s movies, usually because I find them incredibly smug and more than a wee bit sexist. But I, too, thought that The Descendents was lovely. It also refused to demonize Elizabeth, too, don’t you think, by the end? She was both the mother who could charm Scotty, crush Alex, and dually fool and entrance Matt.

    • Sarah, I totally agree! That was definitely part of what I really enjoyed and found compelling … I liked that the movie didn’t demonize or even really judge Elizabeth but definitely placed blame for the disintegration of the marriage on both parties but also circumstances. And, I liked that despite all that had happened that in the end the film showed the ways in which their grief was complicated and ways of mourning different. And also, I thought it was interesting the way that mourning allowed space for anger …

  2. Yes! The scene where he says goodbye–wowzah!

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