Joel Schwartzberg says it’s not fair for kid flicks to make divorce the ultimate tragedy.
When my kids stay with me as part of their weekly custody arrangement, we usually spend Saturday mornings eating my wife’s homemade pancakes and watching a taped movie. (My 12-year-old son handles DVR remote control duties with the dexterity of Liberace on the piano.) Recent viewings include The Shaggy Dog, The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl, The Incredibles, and—last night—the seemingly innocuous Ramona and Beezus.
I picked up on two themes:
- In the first two films at least, the willingness of Sex and the City‘s Kristin Davis to play a suburban housewife under any circumstances.
- The leveraging a child’s worst nightmare—divorce—for gratuitous dramatic effect.
In these and other “family-friendly” kid films, the parents’ marriage is often in some state of jeopardy, and the kids perceive a role in saving it … or else! Even in the wonderful The Incredibles, Violet warns her brother Dashiell: “Mom and Dad’s life could be in danger. Or worse, their marriage!”
Typically—if not universally in kids’ films—these parents avert tragedy and ultimately fall lovingly into each other’s arms. (Though Davis should consider parting with her agent.) Said a friend of mine recently, “I remember, as a kid of divorce, being deeply offended by The Parent Trap for its premise that a marriage could be fixed just by sticking the parents in a room together!”
What’s the takeaway for spongy young minds other than defining divorce as a fate worse than death?
I’m all for positive nuclear family images in kid films, even the “hit-you-over-the head-with-a-mallet” kind (see: Spy Kids). What makes me uncomfortable is when divorce is superfluously depicted to kids as the end of the world. The obvious inference to real-life children of divorce (of which there are roughly one million a year): Your family is broken. Happy ending for us; stinks to be you.
In reality, while divorce is an unfortunate outcome, these children are not necessarily wounded for life. A comprehensive 2002 study of more than 1,400 families and 2,500 children by a professor emeritus in the department of psychology at the University of Virginia found the negative impact of divorce on both children and parents has been “exaggerated.” Roughly 20-25% of youngsters experience long-term damage after their parents break up, but the large majority end up coping comfortably.
Yet watching with my kids as Ramona and Beezus celebrated joyously that their family will stay exactly as it is—presumably forever and ever—was as awkward as it was sticky-sweet. This subliminal message stands in direct contradiction to mine: that family love can remain intact even when the family unit does not. That divorce is not the end of the world. That dads can be good dads whether they live with their kids, live in another home, spend years fighting a foreign war, wait in jail, or work late every night at the office.
Divorce is clearly not the psychological terminal sentence for children it’s sometimes made out to be. Knowing this alone, Hollywood writers looking to put their kid protagonists in jeopardy should stick to the safe slate of aliens and demons, and avoid the all-too-easy and alienating road of demonizing divorce.