A few years ago, right as my relationship with my own father reached a breaking point, I started noticing how often bad dads and father figures get redemption plots in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. A Quiet Place had just come out. John Krasinski, who also wrote and directed the film, stars as Lee Abbott, a soft-apocalyptic hipster dad in a beard and flannel, who kind of looks like he was in an experimental folk band at some point. Carnivorous aliens with sensitive hearing have invaded the earth—a very handy excuse for Lee’s utter inability to have a conversation with his estranged, Deaf daughter Regan. Despite everyone in this movie telling Lee to get his shit together and talk to Regan, he waits to tell her he loves her until approximately seven seconds before he sacrifices himself to save her.
That’s how these things always go; it’s never a conversation, but a one-sided declaration moments before annihilation. These redemption arcs inevitably end with the fathers’ self-sacrifice after spending most of the movie ignoring, neglecting, or abusing the kids under their care. They die, because death is the only way we imagine fatherly failures being forgiven. And we applaud them for it, the writers and the dead dads both. It’s meant to be cathartic. In fact, it is bullshit.
I’ll willingly admit that some of my bias against Bad Movie Dads is rooted in my decades-long estrangement with my own father, who was an abusive alcoholic in my childhood and a fraught ghost haunting the peripheries of my adulthood. My grandmother, with whom he lived, became the mediator between him and his children: buying birthday cards and prompting him to sign them, keeping us all updated on each other. When she developed dementia and went to live in an assisted living facility, he stopped initiating any contact with us at all.
So yes, I’ll admit I’m particularly unsympathetic to the Bad Dad Redemption Arc. But once I started looking for it, I started seeing it everywhere. A Dad (or a stand-in for one) is abusive, violent, neglectful, or unwilling to do the emotional labor of raising a kid. A catastrophe presents itself as the ultimate Get Out of Accountability Free opportunity. The Bad Dad will impart some final stunted effort at affection, usually for the first and only time, and then conveniently die. His fuckery is redeemed, and he avoids being held accountable for all the shit he pulled.
Most of the big SFF franchises of the past decade are veritable Bad Dad Graveyards. Harry Potter’s many father figures get Avada Kedavra’d throughout the series. Peter Quill’s kidnapper/adopted father Yondu is forgiven for being an abuser and human trafficker. Star Wars is an entire saga of garbage dads begetting other garbage dads. Even Luke Skywalker, the one guy you thought might just avoid children like the celibate space monk he is, decides to kill edgelord teen Ben Solo instead of having a conversation with him. When that fails, Luke exiles himself to the ass-end of the galaxy to stew in his manpain, then whiffs out of existence.
All of these sacrifices are self-centered, however. The children in these movies are only ever an afterthought to someone else’s character development. It’s like the concept of fridging was turned inside-out: the children live and the men die. But men get the spotlight, the good death scene, the redemption. The children get the consequences and the lifelong trauma, but that all happens off-screen. I guess it’s not as compelling.
If we read these stories in a harsher light, the Bad Dad Redemption Arc actually punishes men for finally acting like the fathers they should have been all along. Death is the consequence for that ultimate betrayal of cis-masculinity: admitting you messed up, have feelings, are vulnerable. It’s the worst sin a father can commit. There’s no coming back from that. There’s only death.
It surprises me not at all that some of the more interesting and complicated looks at fatherhood in recent years have come from Black writers and directors. I’m unqualified to talk about portrayals of Black fatherhood in depth, but it feels safe to guess that part of this care comes from having to write against racist stereotypes of Black men and families. Such stereotypes were and are used to forward white supremacist agendas, justifying policies that see Black families and populations overpoliced, over-represented in the carceral system, and overly scrutinized by the state.
Black Panther presents us with a father, T’Chaka, who, rather than being forgiven in death, is held accountable in the afterlife. Moreover, his son actually assumes responsibility, atoning for the sins his father committed. We feel complicated sympathy instead for Eric Killmonger, and for all the children like him: abandoned, angry, too hurt to distinguish the boundaries between demanding justice and perpetuating violence.
Black creators have also imagined white fathers in more interesting and nuanced ways. Alex Murray in Ava Duvernay’s A Wrinkle In Time, father of Meg and Charles Wallace and played by Chris Pine, has his shitty moments; his ambitions and refusal to be wrong lead him to abandoning his family for years. But Alex admits that he’s failed, goes home, and lives with his mistakes. Making amends for his failures as a father will probably not be easy, but we see the consequences of his abandonment. Meg in particular is deeply wounded. The journey she takes is ostensibly to save Alex, but it’s also to bring herself back out of the shadow of that trauma. A Wrinkle In Time got a mixed reception, but it’s one of the only movies in recent memory where a dad was forgiven, but his daughter got the spotlight. The accountability lay on Alex Murray, and it was a burden he was willing to shoulder. The story, the journey, the resolution, and the decision to forgive him belonged to Meg.
Here’s a hard truth: death doesn’t guarantee you forgiveness. Dying is not sufficient. Atonement takes effort. For the children who survive their terrible fathers, the pain will not end when their fathers do, in a tidy funeral montage and a few poignant words. Grieving someone who hurt you, not once but over and over, is a terrible legacy to leave behind.
I’ve nursed a suspicion for years: that my father’s move to Oklahoma when I was fourteen—a state that previously he had expressed nothing but contempt for—was a sort of descent into the underworld for him, a willing sentence in purgatory for being a violent failure of a father and husband. When I can look past my own anger and channel some empathy, I think maybe it was a retreat; my father is disabled, with limited mobility and a speech impediment that makes moving through the ableist world frustrating. Why fight to stay in a world that tells you at every turn that you’re not welcome? Why fight, except it’s where your children are?
When he left, our relationship froze in time. He still calls me by a name I no longer go by—not out of malicious transphobia, but because he has no interest in who I am now. He’s too intent on wearing all the mistakes of his past, and I have no idea how to invite him into the present, or even if I want to. For a while, my mother tried to keep him apprised of his children’s accomplishments when my grandmother no longer could. Then he got rid of his phone, and his internet access. I last saw him in 2017, when my older sibling graduated from med school; he hadn’t realized that Donald Trump had been elected president until months after the inauguration.
Does he know I’m a published author? Has he read my books? Or does he only remember me as a child who once accompanied him to open mics and read his poetry for him? Does he think of the writing workshop he drove me to the summer I turned fourteen, how he let me play Neil Young’s Heart of Gold and Led Zepplin’s IV on repeat? Does he think about trying to hit me and my older sibling with his cane, heavy and hand-carved from oak? Does he remember how I used to shut down and freeze whenever his voice rose above a certain decibel?
Most likely, he doesn’t think of me at all. A great-uncle who lives in town told my mother, “He is used to living like he does and accepts the blame for his problems and is content.” If he follows the script Hollywood has laid down, it’ll take a supervolcano or alien invasion for him to reconsider his approach to paternal responsibility.
If his exile was an ongoing trial period for his physical death, my father dragged his children into the underworld with him. I’ve spent nearly twenty years in its shadow, wondering how I’ll handle it when he dies for real, and knowing very well that it might wreck me. He was part of my life long enough to carve out an absence in the shape of his silhouette; for me to know all the ways in which I am like him and of him, for better or worse. Having practice at loss rarely softens the blow.
And as I was first writing this essay, a year since our last conversation, there was a death in my family. Not my father, but his mother; the same grandmother that maintained the link between my father and his estranged children.
The only reason I didn’t find out she died from Facebook is because my mother saw my uncle posting about it first and called me. I didn’t hear from my dad until nearly a day and a half later. “I hate talking on cell phones,” he told my voicemail, in a studied, reading-from-a-script voice. “It’s not you. It’s everybody.”
That’s the best comfort my father could offer: his neglect, at least, wasn’t personal.
Listening to my father’s half-assed apology, I came to a decision. I no longer want any part in his redemption. I abdicate my position as my father’s judge and jury, as his audience, as the witnesses called to testify or condemn. I’m not his keeper, his redeemer, or his character development.
I am abandoning this narrative that I hate so much. I wanted to imagine a good ending for this story, but I’ve reached the limit of my own creative powers. As creators and as audiences, as the children of all kinds of fathers, we deserve better stories. So I’m closing this book, and I’m walking away.
© 2021 Nino Cipri