Fatherhood Today

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Filmmaker Camille DeBose (LAS MA ’06, CDM MFA ’11), a lecturer in the College of Computing and Digital Media, recently completed a documentary on fatherhood and masculinity. “On Fathers and Sons and Love” features four generations of her own family as they negotiate their masculine identities. The film turns a sharp eye on the ways masculinity is challenged and altered by the experience of fatherhood.

In particular, DeBose was informed by the Grant Study, a 75-year longitudinal study of 268 Harvard University students, as well as a book on the subject written by the study’s director, George Vaillant, whom DeBose spoke with while making the film. “Vaillant was definitely part of the reason why my thoughts about love became more complicated,” DeBose shares. “[He says that] love and warm relationships are integral to a long and satisfying life. It’s important to distinguish between a ‘loving life’ and a happy one. Happiness is ephemeral and temporary. People who are loved aren’t necessarily happier—but they are more satisfied and content.”

With Father’s Day around the corner, DeBose shares her thoughts on love, fatherhood and masculinity.

How did you decide to do a film on this subject?
When I started the project, I wanted to juxtapose masculinity and fatherhood as two competing concepts. To be a “real man” in our society means eschewing certain tasks like changing diapers, cooking, cleaning, etc. However, to be a great father, one is often required to cook, clean, change diapers and demonstrate tenderness. So the primary question was: Are fatherhood and American masculinity incompatible?

My husband was always my initial subject—I often film my husband and children, much to their chagrin. In the beginning, my focus was on the tasks associated with parenting and his willingness to undertake them. I’m pretty sure he has changed far more diapers than I have. I thought I was going to make a short documentary upending notions of masculinity, but then I read Vaillant’s book, “Triumphs of Experience.” After that, it made sense to include multiple generations.

Did you find that fatherhood and American masculinity are indeed incompatible?
I concluded that our American notions of masculinity make it more difficult for men to be loving fathers. American masculinity has been rigidly constructed and maintained for a long time now, and we’re seeing real problems emerging as a result of the ways in which masculinity is structured and policed. With that said, I also think it’s important to note how much more aware we are today of gendered constructs. That awareness is leading us to interrogate those constructs and reshape them in healthier ways. Gender roles can expand and evolve. I think little films like mine show us what’s possible, while research like the Grant Study reinforces the need to move in a more loving direction.

Ultimately, I learned that being a father is separate from being a man, which is separate from being masculine. Manhood and masculinity are concepts, but being a father is a set of actions that are undertaken. All of these ideas—manhood, masculinity, fatherhood—play a tremendous role in how our society is shaped, so it’s important to have nuanced conversations about how they inform one another, but also how they are different.

How did you incorporate ideas on love into the film? What did you discover during that process?
First, I was considering what love looks and feels like to an individual. Then, I became interested in what love looks and feels like within a family, community, culture and even era. For example, how does love shape personal histories, as well as history in general? The expansion of love as a concept was a surprise to me. Ultimately, I ended up thinking anthropologically about love. That was an easy leap to make because the Grant Study offers such rich longitudinal data, plus I was working on an anthropology video during the final stages of this film. Those projects began to cross-pollinate in really fascinating ways.

When we cultivate a loving society, we create a more just society. To be loving isn’t a weakness. It takes a great deal of strength and courage to love. It takes a strong sense of self to say, “I don’t care if this person believes in a different deity or is from a different country, I will treat them with fairness and respect regardless of our many differences.” I think a really strong sense of self is built by loving and being loved.

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