by Jake Novak
Have you noticed that America is starving?
No, not for food.
What more and more Americans are starving for is fathers. Here are some shocking statistics:
-Only 46% of American children now live in a “traditional” household with a mother and father.
-34% of American children today are living with an unmarried parent, (almost always the mother), up from just 9% in 1960, and 19% in 1980.
-33% of American children now will never live with their biological fathers.
But these depressing numbers are actually better than the reality when you remember that so many divorced or never-married fathers never even interact or meet their children. And it’s important to take special note of the fact that the trend is not our friend, with this fatherless epidemic only growing in its cumulative effect for more than 50 years now.
Yet while this problem has been regularly reported, America’s politicians, journalists, and the entertainment media never make it a cause celebre. You don’t hear about the fatherless epidemic like you hear about the problems of racism, health insurance costs, gender pay gaps, obesity, or static cling.
At least you think you don’t. Because while it may not be explicitly cited in the media, this starvation is so profound that it comes out subconsciously in so many movies and TV shows that you really have to be in a fog not to notice it.
Look deeper at Hollywood and its most recent Best Picture winner, for example. “Moonlight” is still being peddled as a film about race, poverty, and sexual identity. Baloney. The movie is yet another story of how darn hard it is to grow up in America without a father. Everything else is commentary. I suspect even the screenwriters don’t realize this, but it’s true. And “Moonlight” is again just one example. Think back to every serious drama you’ve watched over the past 10 years and try to remember whether fatherhood played a key role. Hint: You’ll find a lot. Heck, I’ll just take the last three Best Picture winners before “Moonlight” as random examples:
“Spotlight”: A movie about abuse in the Catholic Church. Abuse that was found to have been almost entirely suffered by fatherless kids who were much more vulnerable to priests preying on their need for father figures.
“Birdman”: Michael Keaton’s relationship with his estranged daughter and the fact that he admits to having been a bad and absent father are the most emotionally engaging parts of the film. The fact that he’s a washed up actor isn’t something with which the audience connects.
“12 Years a Slave”: The main character’s separation from his wife and children in the North gives the film a profound sense of urgency and tragedy.
Switching to television, the trend is even more pronounced. In general, the stereotypical dopey and unnecessary dad you used to see in almost every family sitcom has been replaced by more important male characters up and down the line. Shows like “Modern Family” are filled with more good dads than you can shake a stick at and they come in all ages, sizes, and sexual orientations.
But the most compelling and blatant example of America’s burgeoning need for fathers comes shining through in the new hit drama series “This is Us” on NBC. The show’s three main characters are triplets comprised of two biological twins and a third adopted African-American brother. This brother joins the family because his biological father dumped him on a firehouse doorstep as a newborn and the main characters’ father decides to adopt him at the hospital and bring all the children home together. But the fatherhood role in the show hardly stops there.
An episode or two into the series we learn that the triplets’ father died sometime during their teen years. And even though each of them are now 36-year-olds and successful in their careers, it becomes clear that their problems are directly connected to their late father’s absence, especially since he is depicted as being a stellar parent while he was alive.
Like “Moonlight,” “This is Us” is often mischaracterized as being a show about race or relationships in general. But it is really a show about how drastically important it is to be a good father, to have a good father, and to maintain a strong relationship with a father well into adulthood. This message is reinforced through frequent flashbacks featuring the deceased father, brilliantly played by Milo Ventimiglia. And this plot point is reinforced with a present-day story arc where the African American triplet finds and cultivates a close relationship with the father, played by an equally brilliant Ronald Cephas Jones. And yet even that relationship is doomed as we are immediately informed that Cephas Jones’s character has terminal cancer. Such is the pain of America’s father starvation; even the imaginary sweet fatherhood portrayals can’t be depicted without a dark cloud hanging over them.
Artists in general and Hollywood are often accurately portrayed as living in a bubble. But that bubble can’t keep out the real pain of America’s fatherless epidemic. All you have to do is look closer at their work and you will see it at every turn.
Jake Novak is Senior Editorial Columnist at CNBC.com and a graduate of the Yeshivah of Flatbush. His Twitter handle is @jakejakeny.