Roland Barthes was one of the French grandfathers of postmodernism. He wrote Mythologies in the 1950s. In that text he argued that myth was a language that made assumptions feel natural in people’s minds. Analyzing everything from detergent commercials to staged wrestling matches, he sought to understand how everyday symbols drove home political beliefs and made people assume they were the only way things could be. The process resulted from the effect popular myths had on people’s minds, convincing them that certain stories were simply unfiltered truths when they were, in fact, very particular political slants on issues that mattered to people.
Barthes’s Mythologies went along with a number of theorists who all sought to make a science of studying “myth”. Myth here meant an all-encompassing category that no longer indicated that something wasn’t true. It indicated, rather, that a partial symbolic truth had social power over people’s minds and created a limited reality by making a compelling story feel so real it should be taken for granted.
In this era Jung, breaking somewhat from Freud, went so far as to argue that a “collective unconscious” existed in people’s minds. This collective unconscious made it possible for people to respond to timeless and universal “archetypes” that endured across time. Other theorists of the mid-twentieth century furthered this concentration on mythology: Lévi-Strauss, Malinowski, Eliade, for instance. They tried through various ways to turn the study of myths into a logical and orderly system of meaning that researchers could catalogue.
While much of what the mythologists of the 1950s and 1960s wrote now strikes me as kind of far-fetched, they had kernels of strong insight. If nothing else, they opened a space for people to have lots of fun talking about themes that repeated in the world around them, and what our continued fixation with those symbols might tell us about ourselves.
I had the good fortune to do graduate study when some of this theorizing was still fun. It would be hard to say I believe it all as much as I did in 1999, studying in Buffalo. But I do like the exercise of asking how stories change in our heads as we change and the world in which we live changes. Analysis of archetypes, mythical themes, symbols, and recurrent scenarios offers, if nothing else, an exciting way to understand how our own life experiences have changed the way we read things–thereby showing us how we have changed.
One consequence of losing my job last year was that I had more free time and needed to quiet the stressful din inside my head. I found solace in watching old movies. Like most conservatives I fall prey to nostalgia easily. As I watched four shows from my past–Mr. Mom, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Married with Children, Falling Down–part of me ached with a longing to return to the 1980s and 1990s. I watched these movies as an inexperienced, childishly hopeful youth.
Part of me felt some fulfillment in seeing these films as a middle-aged man with far greater experience, seeing so much in them that I couldn’t see as a young man.
Mr. Mom (1983)
I saw Mr. Mom when I was twelve years old and didn’t watch it again until I was forty-nine years old. Wow!
All my memories of the film consisted of laughing at the slapstick I Love Lucy types of scenes where a man who hasn’t had to take care of kids suddenly has to do laundry, feed a baby, and cook. At twelve years of age, when I was still young enough to take responsibility for a lot of household chores, the film seemed absurdly humorous.
Jack Butler, Michael Keaton’s character, struck me as a farcical and two-dimensional being, someone I had no understanding of. I spent much of the film mocking the ridiculousness of a man who couldn’t operate a washing machine. Of course in the film the audience sympathizes with Jack Butler because he’s the one dominating the storyline. But I sympathized with him without taking him seriously. He entertained me by not being able to do things I had learned to do long before I was twelve.
At twelve years of age, I distinctly remember feeling identification with Caroline Butler, Jack’s wife played by Teri Garr. As in many narratives of the 1980s, the wife presented herself as a commonsensical, practical person stuck with a bumbling and hilariously clumsy husband. A twelve-year-old boy with no work experience will have spent more time at home. He’ll therefore (in my case) see Mr. Mom through the eyes of Mrs. Butler, a housewife who can run an orderly home but now must set out and get a job to replace the lost income of her unemployed husband.
In one scene Jack is so incompetent at looking after his children that his baby daughter eats a bowl of chili and explodes with diarrhea. When I was twelve years old that potty humor delighted me.
Watching the film in the twenty-first century as I closed in on my fiftieth birthday, I suddenly saw the film from a completely different angle. First of all, it stunned me that John Hughes, the famous director of teen classics like Pretty in Pink and Breakfast Club, had directed Mr. Mom. Hughes must have made this film in an early stage of his career, exploring the ups and downs of a working adult male. The later teen movies, for which he is best known, were maybe an exercise in the exotic for him, creating a self-contained adolescent world full of youthful stereotypes that had long ago slipped out of his life.
At any rate, as a fifty-year-old man I see this John Hughes film and it takes on an entirely different meaning. For over thirty years I have been spending the vast majority of my time away from home. The workplace has been for me the office, the classroom, the conference hall, or the meeting room. Watching Mr. Mom from my present vantage point, I no longer feel solidarity with the children or with Caroline Butler, but with Jack.
When you get fired as a middle-aged father who’s been the breadwinner, the forced reversion back to domestic space feels like exile. Even though you’ve technically lived in your family’s home for all the years of your career, the house hasn’t felt like yours. That’s how Jack Butler existed in the film and lo and behold, that had been my experience for the vast majority of my married, working life. The home was a place I left early in the morning, usually before everybody else was awake, and then a place I came home to, in the evening. The rooms looked different by the afternoon because things moved around during a ton of activities that I wasn’t a part of.
In Mr. Mom, Jack Butler is a foreigner in his own house once he loses his job. His children and his wife, for whom he’s slaved away at the office so many years, know where everything is and how everything works. He might as well have come as a refugee from another country to a suburban American home, because nothing feels instinctual or natural to him. The very place he has been coming home to is actually unfamiliar, even mysterious.
Added to this sense of disorientation comes the depression of having lost a job. When I was twelve everything Jack Butler did was funny. As an older guy I didn’t laugh at the scenes. What was farce to me at twelve years of age was deadly serious at the age of fifty. I knew the stress Jack experienced with a dishonest supervisor, backstabbing coworkers, and then judgmental outsiders looking into his unemployed life and assuming he must have done something wrong. I realized as an older dad watching the movie that Jack wasn’t fumbling with vacuum cleaners and washing machines because he was incompetent. He was distracted and down in the dumps.
I found one irony: The film did not seem as outdated as I thought it was going to be. I was expecting to find the movie embarrassingly old-fashioned, dependent on silly stereotypes about gender roles. When I was twelve, I think I never expected that I would one day be a working stiff supporting a stay-at-home mom and two kids. But that’s how my life turned out. When I lost my job, the one difference is my wife didn’t go back to work right away. Instead, I existed as an alien organism invading the habitat of my wife, son, and daughter, stumbling around the house and muttering about my old boss. I wanted badly to contribute to the household labor but every time I tried to do the dishes, wash clothes, or tidy up the rooms, I did something wrong and ended up being more of a problem than a help.
Even the early treatment of workplace sexual harassment in the film holds up fairly well from 1983 to 2020. We’re still talking about the same issue today. Caroline starts working and deals with a frisky boss who wants her to cheat on Jack.
In short, Mr. Mom was an entirely different movie when I watched it at fifty, an age that placed me in an older age bracket than the central male character in the film (he seems in this mid-thirties.) While it’s funny in some ways, it is a much more serious narrative. And Jack does not feel like a two-dimensional buffoon engaging in slapstick. I felt like I’d walked in his shoes.
National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985)
By the time I was fourteen I was trilingual in English, French, and Spanish because of a bunch of flukes in my childhood. It would take too long to explain all that here. I lived in what seemed a monochrome middle-class suburb of Buffalo, yet I had a worldly, even exotic vocabulary dancing around in my head.
Perhaps because of this strange contradiction, I remember the film National Lampoon’s European Vacation was one of my favorite films of the 1980s. It showed a suburban family of four, the Griswolds, traveling through England, Germany, France, and Italy, interfacing with a cosmopolitan assortment of foreign countries. I must have watched the film a hundred times, memorizing all the famous lines like “look kids, Big Ben, Parliament!” It demonstrated a theme I could relate to, even though I would never travel to Europe until the age of thirty-four. I refer here to the theme of the mundane, suburban boy wandering in amazement through the glamour and exotic thrills of Europe.
John Hughes directed. By 1985 you could see that John Hughes had found his strong point in teen movie scripts. I say this because when I saw European Vacation in 1985, I identified easily with Rusty Griswold, the teenage son of the Griswold family. Justin Lively played the role of Rusty, though he didn’t have that many lines in the film. The important part of Rusty’s role was that if we watch the film through his eyes, the relative humility and inactivity of his character makes it possible for the action to scroll before our eyes like an entertaining series of happenstances, as it would have seemed to Rusty.
Unlike his sister Audrey, Rusty does not have a romantic relationship and arrives in Europe full of teenage hormones. Awkward yet eager to experience something stylish, he dreams about meeting a European girl and fantasizes about going to a discotheque dressed in New Wave style. This was the heyday of Berlin, the Fixx, and Nena, among other European bands that gained popularity with suburban high schoolers during the 1980s. My closest friends in high school used to get together with me to listen to the Smiths turned up very loud, while we lay on the ground in the dark and watched a fan spinning overhead. We did this drunk and on weed.
Recently when talking to my best friend from high school, we asked ourselves where we got all the alcohol that surrounded us back then. It’s funny but it never occurred to us how dysfunctional we were. I was a functional alcoholic, basically, by the time I was fourteen and watched European Vacation. Being drunk or stoned went together with listening to New Age bands from Europe. Now I can look back and piece together the abuse and trauma I’d been through, which could explain the drunkenness and escapism that led me to foreign languages and strange bands from overseas like the Cure, ABC, Echo and the Bunnymen, or the Psychedelic Furs.
In fact one of the things that most stuck out in my memory of watching this film at fourteen was the Plastic Bertrand song “Ca plane pour moi,” which played while the Griswolds were rushing through the Louvre Museum.
As a teen watching this film, my reasons for identifying so strongly with Rusty Griswold were obvious. Like him I was a plain, awkward teenager watching the world with a sense of detachment, seeking escape and distraction by drawing close to the exotic mysteries of everything foreign. Like Rusty, I could watch the parents with the smug condescension of a shrewd and streetsmart youngster. For this reason, the humorous scenes of European Vacation made me laugh because Clark and Ellen Griswold, the parents, were so laughably parochial and Midwestern. From knocking over Stonehenge to trying to translate the word for soufflé, the Griswold parents were, I thought, everything I wasn’t: obnoxiously American, outdated, sheltered. Their mishaps existed as a kind of detached amusement.
That was 1985, when I was fourteen. Fast-forward to 2020, when I am nearing fifty, with a stay-at-home wife, a son, and a daughter. I’ve been to Europe about eight times, once with my wife, and once with my wife and whole family. But I’ve been to Europe for work, for the most part, to do research and coordinate on pro-family or church causes with British, Belgian, French, Italian, Spanish, and Hungarian conservatives.
European Vacation was, like Mr. Mom, an entirely different movie to watch thirty-five years later. Rusty’s point of view felt utterly irrelevant because I immediately experienced the movie in the mindset of Clark Griswold, played by Chevy Chase. Having worked with European people, I don’t view them as exotic cultural icons or people who can help me escape the doldrums of a boring middle-class life. Europe to me was a cultural battleground, a place where I’d been brought by conservatives to fight against the left. The old buildings were not a gateway to an old and exciting civilization, but rather, the backdrop for serious heartfelt struggles over people’s cultural and spiritual identities.
I found myself laughing with Clark Griswold, not at him, because I have been in his shoes. I don’t think traveling to foreign countries with a wife, daughter, and son will ever feel entirely like a vacation. It doesn’t seem that way for Clark Griswold, who spends the entire trip trying to marshal his straggling family to a disciplined itinerary that he set up because, well, he knows how many hours of his hard work had to go into the budget for the trip. Traveling as a unit to a foreign country, Dad becomes the de facto chief of state, the guy upon whose shoulders everybody’s safety and comfort hinges. Everything that goes wrong–and wow, a lot can go wrong when you’re traveling–will be blamed on Dad.
I remember trying to get my whole family by train from London to York when we traveled to the UK in 2017. I booked the wrong train because I didn’t understand the ticketing system. We ended up being on a crowded Friday car with no seats, standing up in a crowded space beside the baggage hold. My son was crying, my daughter felt sick, and my wife kept looking at me as if I could fix everything. An English dad was pressed against us. He saw how stressed we were, and let my son watch Cars on his cell phone while we tried to endure the trip up to York.
There is so much that Rusty Griswold doesn’t understand about what’s happening around him as he scoffs at his father’s clumsiness. There’s so much I didn’t understand when I was fourteen. Like Mr. Mom, European Vacation holds up remarkably well as an enduring story.
Married with Children (1987)
I was sixteen when Married with Children launched on Fox in 1987. At the time, I was dealing with painful personal issues and confusion about my identity. While I was a straight A student and everyone knew I was bound for college, I was trapped in disgusting, scandalous patterns of behavior that I kept secret. Surrounded by facades of normalcy and prim suburban decorum, I woke up every day believing I was a complete freak. Because I was living a squalid double life. Because my family was racially different in a blindingly white town in upstate New York. Because people didn’t know how crazy my family was. Because most people didn’t know how much I was drinking and already retreating into my secret world with drugs.
Like so many people in the Reagan era, I was deceived. In truth I was not a freak at all. This was the age of keeping up appearances. Williamsville, where I grew up, excelled at the social charade. Our high school was full of secret perversions, drunken indiscretions, and family scandals, but I didn’t see those things. That was all hidden behind the porticoes, gazebos, front stoops, and plastic yard animals. Everyone was going through vile things they didn’t talk about. I wouldn’t know as much, until I went to my twenty-year high school reunion and listened to my peers’ stories.
Married with Children gratified me tremendously because the sitcom laid waste to myths about normal and decent Reagan-era families. Here we had a white family with no tact, no prospect of professional success, nothing to admire, nothing to praise. The Bundys were deliciously pathetic. Mostly I watched the show in reruns, especially when I was in my early college years, though I do remember on some occasions watching episodes when they first aired.
I did not identify with anybody in the show, except perhaps Peg Bundy, and that was because she was the only character who seemed capable of entertaining herself with the derangement around her. Walking with her famous high-heeled “waddle,” she struck me as a kind of Greek chorus, never fazed by what a failure her family was, but always alert enough to offer a telling comment about everybody.
On some level I grew to like the Bundys, including Al and his two children. When I first started watching the show, I just got a kick out of laughing at how trashy their lives seemed. But Married with Children and the Simpsons had similar life cycles. They began by mocking suburban America and over time became odes to the everyday folk who populated their satire. Nonetheless, even though I could join in the cheers every time a character from Married with Children entered the scene, my main pleasure from the show was simply the resentful satisfaction in watching “normal” families revealed as repulsive.
That was me watching the Bundys at sixteen. Then, at the age of forty-nine, I had extra time because I had lost my job. I watched some old Married with Children episodes and saw a completely different story. Al Bundy’s life as a beleaguered shoe salesman no longer offered me the occasion to smirk. His life was not so different from mine. That hit close to home. I would have to do lots of odd jobs now, as I did at many times in my young adulthood.
The premise of Married with Children is that Al Bundy had his glory days as a high school football star. Now that heyday is long past and he lives in a stressful marriage to a frivolous woman. In my life, my wife gave me incredible support. My wife was my pillar and my reason for going on. She stood by me through thick and thin. So watching the show now, my thoughts dwell on the full tragedy of Al Bundy.
While much of the show still makes me laugh, overall it isn’t that funny. This man who sells shoes all day, whose happiness faded long ago, must drudge day in and day out with no affirmation, and on top of it all, his wife views him with derision. The thought evokes something more like pain than anything else as I watch it.
As a young guy I couldn’t understand the theme of living in the haze following a lost heyday. I can relate to that now. With each passing day, my time as a professor feels more like a dreamy lost time. I did great things during my academic career, and that makes the post-academic life that much more bittersweet. It is not that different from Al knowing that his best moments were when he won football games, which he will never recapture again.
More importantly, the show feels different now because of what I know about those picture-perfect homes around me in Williamsville. They too had their problems. Many of my classmates felt like freaks. I don’t relish the entire enterprise of watching a bawdy program like Married with Children simply to gloat over seeing a middle American family’s flaws revealed.
Lastly, I don’t remember calculating the Bundy family finances in my head when I was younger. Now, as a middle-aged man, I can’t help doing that! The premise of the show is that the family’s a mess and Peggy does nothing but sit on the couch eating chocolates and watching Oprah Winfrey. But how does Peggy keep her knockout figure so shapely? Why is their house, as humble as it is, so devoid of the messes and disorder that you’d expect of a dysfunctional family? The house looks like a maid came and put away things, dusted the furniture, cleared the flung clothing from the floors, and washed the dirty dishes in the sink. The Bundy house appears larger than the house I live in now; certainly it is far larger than the apartment in which my family of four lived only a few years ago, in Los Angeles. On a shoe salesman salary? A basement and two floors? Even today I only have two floors, with my PhD!
One unfortunate consequence of getting older and living through family struggles is that you can no longer suspend disbelief as easily as you once did.
Falling Down (1993)
The last film I’ll discuss is the darkest one: Joel Schumacher’s 1993 Falling Down. In one of his best performances Michael Douglas plays William Foster, a downtrodden Los Angeles divorcé who loses his mind one day in a traffic jam. Laid off from his national security job due to post-Cold War layoffs, his coping mechanisms fail and he goes on a murderous rampage. The film had racial undertones, which largely determined the way it was interpreted when it came out.
At the age of twenty-two, when I saw this film, I was at my most radical. My identity as a Puerto Rican assumed exaggerated importance in my mind and I felt angry about every social injustice. Racism preoccupied me, and Falling Down appealed to me mostly as a text to study racism and understand it better. I did not identify with Foster at all, nor did I identify with anyone in the movie. Certainly the Latino gangsters struck me as borderline offensive stereotypes, along with the badly cast Korean greengrocer whose rudeness prompts a baseball-bat attack from Foster.
The whole experience of watching the film, when I was 22, depended on my not seeing myself in anybody in the movie. Robert Duvall plays Officer Pendergrast, a retiring policeman with a nagging, crazy wife who becomes obsessed with Foster’s march of terror through Los Angeles. The film suggests, not too subtly, that Pendergrast sees in him a mirror image of himself and feels haunted by the imagery of a desperately unhappy white man in his middle-aged years freaking out because society seems to have left him behind. Critics had mixed reactions to the film. I knew that when I walked into the theaters and saw it in 1993. Some critics thought the film perpetuated racism. Others, however, praised the film for “exploring” the mind of the angry white male in American society.
I was already somewhat intellectual and grown-up when I saw this film, though I was still a tender youth of twenty-two. I walked in, expecting to see a psychological study of the angry white male. I got what I expected. I felt perhaps a little bit of pity for Foster. At no moment did I think his acts were justified. Nor did I believe society should do anything to comfort or accommodate the Michael Douglas malcontents of the world. The film flattered my own beginning assumptions since it confirmed my worst stereotypes of middle-aged white men as angry, dangerous, and unreasonable.
The family drama of Foster’s ex-wife blocking him from seeing his daughter did not register when I was twenty-two. It felt like a strange thing to force into the script. I perceived it as a poorly fitted side story that didn’t matter.
Then I saw the film in January 2020, one month after having lost my job after twenty years as a professor. I had spent a decade living in Los Angeles, prior to living in Texas. I was actually deeply affected by the movie watching it 27 years later. The things that mattered most to me when I was 22–the racial politics, the sociological implications, etc.–mattered least to me. The fact that Foster was white and I was Puerto Rican put no distance between his character and my life.
I identified completely with Michael Douglas’s performance. By today I know what it’s like to be in a non-descript shirt and tie, drudging away in a job and then cast aside thoughtlessly by powerful people with no regard for the sacrifices one has made. The wincing expressions that Douglas masters in the film portray the psychological state of the middle-aged guy who is, well, falling down. I didn’t get the title when I watched it in my early 20s, because I had never gone through anything like that.
Don’t worry–I do not plan to kill anybody or shoot up a hamburger joint! I am not violent. And certainly one thing creates a gulf between my life and the lives of Foster and Pendergrast. Those characters had terrible wives whereas I have a rock-solid and happy marriage. I can’t relate to the pain of being denied visitation with my own child, aside from imagining how unthinkably traumatic that would be.
Having been driven out of academia for my beliefs about traditional family, I watch Falling Down now and sense that the film dramatizes the dilemma of the middle-aged conservative dad (of any race). You play by the rules. You come through for people. You want society to do the same for you. You want people to observe standards and honor things that should be honored. And the world beats you up. It’s enough to drive you crazy. While I am happy I would never become a crazed gunman, I can relate to that dilemma now in a way I couldn’t before. I not only pity William Foster. I understand him, because part of me is him.