As a child of the 90’s, I grew up with some of the best dads that sitcoms and movies had to offer (Full House had FOUR father figures!). In fact, it was often the father figures who served as single parents to children across popular media at the time. (Fun fact: some of Disney’s most prominent princesses—including Ariel, Belle, Pocahontas, and Jasmine—were raised by single dads). The importance of fathers and healthy relationships with children is demonstrated throughout a variety of TV shows and movies that our kiddos watch. In honor of Father’s Day this month, I will discuss five prominent papas within pop culture and how their relationships with their children can model the important roles that fathers play in the lives of kids.
But before I do that, you might be wondering what I mean when I say “the role of the father.” What are the important duties that a dad fulfills anyway? Well, according to the child development literature (Palkovitz, 2002), there are ten primary functions and responsibilities of an “involved father”:
- Engaging in thought processes
- Showing affection/supporting emotionally
- Sharing interests/activities
- Being available
What do these responsibilities actually look like? Let’s take a deeper dive into five famous fathers from film to learn more…
Mufasa and the Importance of Teaching and Protecting
You didn’t think I was going to talk about movie dads without mentioning Mufasa, did you? This lion is the prototype for a patient, authoritative, playful, and loving father – the Greatest of All Time or GOAT, if you will, of movie dads. Mufasa is from the acclaimed Disney animated feature The Lion King (1996), with a more recent CGI adaptation (2019). Mufasa demonstrates the importance of teaching children about the ways of the world. In The Lion King, Mufasa patiently and lovingly explains some very complex concepts to his son, Simba. Mufasa gently conveys to Simba both the magnitude of his future responsibilities and the importance of humility: “When we die, our bodies become the grass. And the antelope eat the grass. And so, we are all connected in the great circle of life.” He also gives Simba a pouncing lesson, demonstrating how teaching can also be silly and hands-on rather than philosophical.
Mufasa is also very protective of his young son when he wanders into a dangerous situation. Mufasa demonstrates strength, but not necessarily violence, which is important modeling for Simba. He explains to Simba that he is “only brave when [he has] to be,” which suggests that protectiveness is out of necessity, not brute force. Another key component of this protection is chastising Simba, who got in trouble because he “deliberately disobeyed” Mufasa’s orders to stay out of danger. Part of protecting children is calmly explaining why situations are dangerous, rather than relying on the “because I said so” method. Mufasa uses the secret weapon of dads everywhere by emphasizing that he is disappointed, rather than angry. He explains to Simba why Simba is wrong in a way that he can understand, then follows it up by confessing he was scared he might lose Simba. Mufasa demonstrates that protectiveness can be authoritative, rather than authoritarian.
Marlin and the Importance of Monitoring and Care-giving
Keeping with the Disney/animated animal theme, let’s transition to Marlin, the lovable clown fish father from Finding Nemo (2012). This movie is unique because, while it is a “kid’s movie” by nature, it focuses on the parent’s perspective. Finding Nemo begins with (spoilers!) Marlin suffering the tragic and sudden loss of his wife and several of his children. As a result, he becomes overprotective of Nemo, the one son who managed to survive. Marlin monitors his son to the point of “over-monitoring” and becoming something of a “helicopter dad.” Finding Nemo—and Marlin’s character, specifically—emphasizes the rationality and anxiety of fathers who may worry about the safety of their young children, especially as they transition through important milestones (in Nemo’s case, starting school for the first time). The movie ultimately culminates with Marlin learning to trust Nemo’s ability to take care of himself. It demonstrates the important balance that fathers must walk between monitoring their children and giving a little independence as they grow older. (Honestly, I would argue the movie should be called “Finding Marlin,” because he has to learn how to form a healthier relationship with his son and the world around him).
It is important to note that Marlin’s concern and protectiveness from Nemo comes from his care-giving nature. From the moment Nemo hatched from his tiny fish egg, Marlin assures his little son, “I promise, I will never let anything happen to you, Nemo.” But it is impossible to protect a child from every single dangerous event that could occur. In fact, it is in these dangerous moments that parents and children learn crucial life lessons (e.g., “Just keep swimming” when you happen to be trapped in a giant fisherman’s net). Kiddos need to face hardships in order to grow, and part of caregiving is encouraging autonomy while also providing support. Marlin learns this the hard way, when his over-protectiveness breeds resentment from Nemo, which results in Nemo rebelling and getting captured by divers. Marlin slowly realizes that being a caregiver means not being so controlling and tough on his son. This is a key component of secure attachment—letting kids venture off to take risks, but being there and supportive for them when they return.
Mr. Incredible and the Importance of Providing and Sharing Activities
You’re probably starting to notice a pattern in the fathers I’ve chosen. Yes, I happen to be a Pixar aficionado, but I promise I’ll introduce a little variety after this last Disney-based example. For our next dad, let’s take a look at Mr. Incredible (aka Robert Parr) of Disney’s The Incredibles (2004). At the very beginning of the film, Mr. Incredible is one of many superheroes who must ultimately hang up his cape when citizens begin to object against “supers” and the potential dangers of their powers. He and his wife, Elastigirl (aka Helen Parr), eventually start a family of their own. In his “ordinary” life, Mr. Incredible financially provides for his family as an insurance salesman. The film picks up when he becomes frustrated with the drudgery of his job and takes up superhero work in secret—a secret he keeps even from his beloved family. Although Mr. Incredible continues to provide for his family, he does so at the behest of family time. He frequently travels to exotic places and pursues exciting superhero work, while growing more and more distant from his wife and children. He eventually realizes his drive to do superhero-type things almost cost him his family when he remarks, “You are my greatest adventure, and I almost missed it.” He learns how to be present with his loved ones and provide for them, while still being true to himself and his own needs. Mr. Incredible makes mistakes as a husband and a father, but he ultimately confronts them and addresses them.
The movie gets really fun when the Parr family becomes the Incredibles—a superhero team that fights together as a family unit. Mr. and Mrs. Incredible, along with their two children Violet and Dash, are actually able to accomplish more when they work together. Mr. Incredible is ultimately supportive and even enthusiastic about each of his children and their unique skills. He excitedly remarks on Violet’s ability to generate force fields, and he encourages Dash’s super-speed from the beginning of the movie. This shows how important it is for dads to cheer their kids on and get involved in their interests and activities. Mr. Incredible reminds us that, while parenting certainly isn’t easy, it truly is a heroic act.
Officer Davis and the Importance of Engaging and Emotional Support
Here is that brief sojourn from Disney movies that I promised! Our next dad is Officer Davis from Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), the Academy Award winning computer-animated film from Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation. While the film focuses primarily on Miles Morales and his journey to becoming the new Spider-Man, his father (Officer Davis) plays a key role in this journey. The film starts out with Miles beginning his first day at a new school. Miles insists he can walk to school, but his father offers to drive him anyway. When his father drops him off in his police car, Officer Davis tells his son he loves him. At first, Miles gets out of the car without replying, but Officer Davis comes over the police car’s loudspeaker. “You have to say it back,” he playfully demands. After a lot of nudging, Miles begrudgingly says, “I love you too, dad.” While this exchange may seem silly and “dad joke-esque,” it demonstrates how Officer Davis is modeling engagement in his son’s life, as well as emotional expression.
There is an even more poignant demonstration of this engagement and emotional vulnerability just before the climax of the movie. Miles is struggling with his “spidey” powers, and he cannot tell any of his loved ones about them—least of all his father, who is a police officer and actively opposes Spider-Man’s vigilante tactics. At one point, Miles is alone, abandoned, and deeply afraid that he will never be able to master his superpowers. Officer Davis knocks on the door to his room, and Miles is unable to respond. Officer Davis, instead of feeling rejected by his son and leaving, leans against the door and opens up to him. He says, “Look, sometimes people drift apart. And I don’t want that to happen to us … I know I don’t always do what you need me to do, or say what you need me to say. I see this spark in you and it’s amazing. It’s why I push you. It’s yours. Whatever you choose to do with it you’ll be great. … I love you. You don’t have to say it back though.” This scene is important for so many reasons. It shows how fathers can model strength and vulnerability. It demonstrates how fathers can be engaged in their children’s lives while also stepping back and letting them make choices. It is ultimately these empathic words that empower Miles to believe in himself. He closes his eyes, and he is instantly in-sync with his superpowers. Through Officer Davis’ trust and emotional expression to his son, Miles is finally free.
Darth Vader and the Importance of Communicating and Being Available
I know what you’re thinking. So far, we’ve examined fathers who are pretty wholesome and involved in their children’s lives. How does a villain like Darth Vader constitute a good father? Just hear me out for a second. In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), viewers are treated to one of the biggest plot twists in cinematic history (“I am your father”). Up until this point, Darth Vader had no idea that his children (Luke and Leia) were alive, as they were secretly whisked away during one of the movie’s prequels. As soon as he knows his son’s whereabouts, Vader is commendably eager to be involved in his son’s life… perhaps even to a problematic extent. He’s so excited, in fact, that he wants to skip catching up on the last twenty-or-so years of his son’s life and go straight to “ruling the galaxy as father and son” together. (Never mind that he just cut his son’s hand off with his lightsaber, oops.) Vader’s enthusiasm is admirable, but it would probably be better for him to slow down and get to know Luke a little bit more first.
All jokes aside, Darth Vader shows that even the most detached and damaged relationships between fathers and children can be repaired. Despite not knowing each other very well, Luke and Vader are able to have some surprisingly vulnerable conversations during Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983). They talk openly and authentically, demonstrating an impressible level of communication for two people who only recently discovered they are related. In fact, as demonstrated in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Luke and Vader seem to be capable of communicating without even speaking to each other. But it isn’t just the Force that brings them together. As Luke beseeches Darth Vader to see the error of his ways, Vader laments, “It is too late for me, son.” We see this is ultimately not true when the movie’s main villain and Vader’s boss, Emperor Palpatine, strikes Luke down. Vader faces a difficult decision—follow his master’s orders, or save his son’s life. Darth Vader ultimately chooses the latter, which costs him his own life. In the end, Darth Vader is there for his son when it matters most. It is Darth Vader’s story that shows how father-child relationships can be healed—and the first steps are communicating and being present.
Fathers play such an important role in children’s lives. They are communicators and caregivers, teachers and playmates, providers and protectors. These larger-than-life characters in some of our favorite movies show that having a good father allows children to transform and be the protagonists of their own stories. While being an involved father is incredible feat, you don’t need to be a superhero (or villain!) to be a good dad.
Palkovitz, R. (2002). Involved fathering and child development: Advancing our understanding of good fathering. In C. S. Tamis-LeMonda, & N. Cabrera (Eds.), Handbook of father involvement (pp. 33–64). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Written by: Alana Fondren, M.A.