Manchildren Are Not Sexy. Neither Are Helpless Dads

'Moms' Night Out' may be a Christian movie, but it's part of a long cinematic tradition portraying men as useless louts. And that's not good for anyone.
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The trailer for Moms' Night Out looks funny enough. In the movie, Allyson, played by Sarah Drew of Grey’s Anatomy fame, is a frazzled mom of three, who finally gets to let her hair down, but, of course, everything goes awry when the children are left with the men. There’s a motorcycle gang, a missing toddler, a tattoo shop, and a police car chase. It all looks very Hangover-for-married-moms, until you realize that the producers behind the movie specialize in Christian entertainment, and that the overarching message is a deeply conservative one.

What’s the message? Women belong in the home. Men don’t raise children. Sure, they dote on them. But men don’t know how to actually raise them. Also: Women are not allowed to drink, dress sexy, or have a single night free of children or men. The wildest thing that happens in Moms' Night Out is some bad dancing at a glow-in-the-dark bowling alley (oh, and Patricia Heaton’s character—the preacher’s wife—reveals that she went to Woodstock and has a lower-back tattoo. Crazy!).

Conservative agenda aside, Moms' Night Out is part of a long tradition of cinema—a not-specifically right-wing tradition—portraying men as helpless fools when their wives and girlfriends take a time out and leave them to care for their kids. And if the men somehow figure out how to put on a diaper, feed the baby, get everyone to school on time, they’ve somehow summoned heroic powers. Which is to say, it’s not normal.

And that's the biggest problem with Moms' Night Out: The moral of the story isn’t that the women are supposed to stay home and not have fun, but that the men are totally hapless morons without them around—and that this lesson is still being drilled into our heads in 2014. We’re supposed to feel better about this “men are total idiots, the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” philosophy (and that latter piece of wisdom was actually uttered in the movie in case you missed the point). But this story of the helpless manchild is a disservice to men—and families—everywhere.

Recall such 1980s movies as Mr. Mom or Three Men and a Baby. Both movies play on the idea that men are inept in the home, which is supposed to be ha-ha funny, but is an idea that in 2014—or even in 1984—should actually be enraging. There is still some baked-in notion that the only person responsible for parenting in a heterosexual household is the mother; she’s the one who changes the diapers, puts dinner on the table, and knows where all the meds are, where the kids have to go after school, and is on a first-name basis with all the teachers. Even when she works, she does those things more than—and better than—men do.

Movies tell us that without women, men can behave as they’d like to, as self-indulgent infants. See Vince Vaughn’s character in The Break Up, immediately ditching his fancy furniture for a pool table in the middle of the living room. Jason Segel in I Love You, Man, unattached for the greater part of his adult life, has an actual mancave where he’s free to smoke pot, masturbate, and play guitar or video games whenever he wants.

The manchild is the basis of every Adam Sandler vehicle—it’s the persona on which he’s built his career. In The Wedding Singer, however, he gets transformed, by, who? A woman.

Judd Apatow’s entire oeuvre is an examination of a sustained adolescence: Steve Carell’s girlfriend-less character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin is so juvenile he has an entire household of toy action figures, which is supposed to be endearing, but is in fact, ridiculous. In Knocked Up, Seth Rogen is a schlub in his late 20s or early 30s, content to smoke weed and surf porn with his guy friends; but his female counterpart, Katherine Heigl, has already got her shit together, and is about to land her first on-camera gig at a major network.

Where are the men in the movies? Real ones, men you watch on film and think, That guy, I’d like to marry him. He’s awesome. They almost always don’t exist.

In Moms' Night Out, the best of the men is a shotgun-wielding biker and tattoo artist named Bones, who’s also—as it happens—a Bible-spouting sensitive tough guy. After Bones, it goes downhill from there.      

Allyson’s dope of a husband, Sean, is the type who is never there. His daughter draws a family portrait that only shows the kids and mommy. When Allyson asks her where daddy is, she replies that he’s in the sky (sort of like God, never seen, but omniscient). Ouch.

Allyson has a meltdown after being left alone with them on Mother’s Day. Sean returns to find the house a total mess, Allyson locked in the closet, whimpering like a child. She tells him how unhappy and stressed out she is. Does he offer to help more around the house, or even bring in outside help to give her a break from the children or the housework? Of course not. He tells her to take time for herself—except how exactly would she do that, genius?

The other men, it goes without saying, are worse. There’s Marco, a grown man, the father of twins—about 3 or 4 years old—who is apparently terrified of children. Being left alone with them sends him in a panic, from which we can conclude that he’s never been alone with them, not once. And his wife is preggers again. Awesome. And then there’s Frank, the manchild, the guy who plays video games with Allyson’s husband. He’s just a bad influence. It follows that when left to the men to watch the kids, one child ends up in the hospital, and another one ends up missing after being left in a tattoo parlor.

The problem is, these dudes aren’t just in your average right-wing Christian movie. They are everywhere.

And the double standard for men and women behaving badly is palpable. Though in Moms' Night Out, nobody drinks or does illicit drugs—or has sex—there are tons of “men behaving badly” movies, The Hangover being the most recent and successful example. Bridesmaids was supposed to be its female counterpart, but really, it was little more than a chick flick raunchy enough for dudes to like—it didn’t actually feature ladies tying one on. The women get food poisoning and become violently ill in a bridal store bathroom—Maya Rudolph shits in the middle of a street wearing a wedding dress. Kristen Wiig’s character has too much Xanax on a plane, and gets sent home. And that’s about as bad as it gets. It’s almost like they were punished for trying—as Elizabeth Banks’s character is in Walk of Shame, where everything goes wrong after a great one-night-stand.

The one movie that features an inversion of the women-have-it-together-but-men-are-morons trope is Young Adult, which starred Charlize Theron as a 37-year-old YA writer who returns to her hometown trying to win back her high school boyfriend. Theron is a bedraggled, embittered hard drinker who still wears band T-shirts—a thoroughly unlikeable mess. It was refreshing—like an acidic palate cleanser.

Though Moms' Night Out might have been a hit with the Christian audiences it was targeting, it was a dud at the box office. The No. 1 movie this weekend was Neighbors, a Nicholas Stoller movie starring Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne as new parents who are reluctantly trying to become more grownup (that again) while they battle the fearsome fratboy next door. Guess moms couldn’t get a night out in real life, either.