In the second season of Stranger Things, Bob (Sean Astin) who is dating Joyce Byers mom, evinced a deep love and respect for the early John Hughes movie and Michael Keaton vehicle Mr. Mom. The reference is intended to drive home the point that Bob is a nerd. And he is. But sometimes nerds get it right. Despite being a bit of a box office flop, attracting mixed reviews when it came out in 1983, and seeming dismayingly reliant on gender norms almost three-plus decades later, Mr. Mom is a damn good movie. The story of Jack Butler, who gets laid off and has to take care of the kids while his wife Caroline goes back to work, may no longer seem novel or even like an adequate premise for a film, but the movie isn’t just the elevator pitch and Mr. Mom isn’t just about a man stepping into his wife’s apron. It’s about equitable parenting.
Today, there are approximately two million stay-at-home dads in the U.S. In 1983, that number was considerably lower — low enough that stay-at-home dad wasn’t a thing. The movie was, therefore, about a man trying to manage his own ego while taking care of his family. It was about equitable parenting. The movie started a conversation about how and when the division of household labor changes, which is to say that it’s a work movie. It just happens to be a work movie about unpaid labor — a 9 to 5 for the homefront. Our hero, Jack, is a vulnerable dad making the best of what he’s realizing might not be the worst situation. He’s great and Michael Keaton slays because, well, he’s Michael Keaton.
But, though it doesn’t subvert the incompetent-dad stereotype, there’s something to be said for the fact that it addresses it and shows Jack trying to solve the problem.
That’s not to say that there aren’t regrettable parts of the movie. Jack’s losing war against appliances, for instance, isn’t a great look up close. It pushes the stereotype of the incompetent dad. But, though it doesn’t subvert the stereotype, there’s something to be said for the fact that it addresses it and shows Jack trying to solve the problem. Rather than painting Jack as overwhelmed or defeat, the movie gives us a guy who is doing his best and remains convinced his best can get better. It’s about excellence. It’s not entirely unlike a sports movie in that regard. In other regards, it’s entirely unlike a sports movie.
Jack’s masculinity is challenged repeatedly throughout the movie, as he gets into soap operas, coupon poker, and even goes to a male strip club. He grows a beard, answers the door wielding a chainsaw, feigns home repairs, and even takes up day drinking to reassert his masculinity. And, eventually, he strikes a better balance. That this comes off as genuine is probably more of a credit to Keaton than Hughes, but it’s the hard transition that sells it. As anyone who has ever been fired or grown up or had a human experience of any kind can tell you, transitions are tough. They get tougher when there are no guardrails. And that’s the tension of Mr. Mom. What do you do when you know you’ve got to do something, but you’re not totally sure what? That’s some deep stuff.
The movie started a conversation about how and when the division of household labor changes, which is to say that it’s a work movie. It just happens to be a work movie about unpaid labor
The most compelling example of this depth occurs when Jack accompanies his wife to a company party, hosted by her brash boss Ron Richardson (Martin Mull). After making it clear he doesn’t want to be there, Jack gets baited into relay race. Despite dominating athletically, Jack throws the race so Ron can win, even though he knows on some level this guy is trying to sleep with his wife. He puts aside his pride for his family. Jack’s humility is what makes him great. And he is a truly great dude.
Still, Mr. Mom isn’t exactly a masterclass in co-parenting. Jack’s big victory is getting his job back and, when he does, Caroline quits her job. The Butler family resumes “normalcy” by 1983 standards. But that’s just what happens on its face. In actuality, Jack’s relationship with his employer and his family never goes back to normal. He knows too much. He’s made a massive cultural leap by changing his mindset. That’s the win, even if it’s not explicitly acknowledged. And presumably that’s why Bob likes the movie so much. It’s not a condemnation of masculinity, it’s the opposite really — it suggests that masculinity doesn’t have to be monolithic, homogenous, or ostentatious. It can just be moving forward no matter what. And it is.