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The feminist dream of a world without men

The narrative displayed in films and on television shows disdain for strong marriages

A scene from Netflix’s The Lost Daughter Photo by Yannis Drakoulidis/Netflix

The feminist dream of a world without men
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In the contemporary dystopia of the gender wars, most public attention is fixed toward political showdowns: abortion vs. pro-life, feminism vs. tradition, #MeToo vs. #NotAll Men. But sometimes one can get a clearer view of the landscape from the plateau of pop culture. Indeed, if you’re paying close attention, two of the more powerful volleys against men are currently playing on the screen.

Critics have highly praised The Lost Daughter, a Netflix original movie directed by actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, but it has also generated a notable share of controversy for its depiction of motherhood. In the film, a middle-aged woman becomes obsessed with a young lady and her small daughter, who remind her of the daughters she abandoned years before to pursue a career and another lover. While the film’s resolution is ambiguous and could be interpreted in different ways, many observers argue it sympathizes with a mother who bails on her family to make for herself a better life.

Slightly less critically acclaimed, the Netflix miniseries Maid acts almost as a counterpoint to The Lost Daughter. In Maid, a young 20-something woman flees her domestic abuser boyfriend, taking their toddler girl with her into the hardships of homelessness, poverty, and struggle for survival. Based on a memoir by Stephanie Land, Maid is often unnervingly realistic and dramatically humanizes the agonizing dilemmas that find women, especially mothers, who are abused by their boyfriends or husbands.

Different in tone and subject, The Lost Daughter and Maid nevertheless share an unmissable narrative conviction: Most men are awful.

In the Lost Daughter, the main character shows quiet desperation as an overwhelmed housewife and is clearly and unambiguously lonely. Her husband seems aloof and eager for work trips that leave her “stuck” with the girls. Two other men appear in the narrative: the abusive husband of the younger woman and the man with whom the young woman is currently having an adulterous relationship. At no point is the moral calculus of parenting affected positively by the presence of husbands or fathers, who seem to exist as merely hurdles or distractions.

Covenantal marriage protects individuals of both sexes while unifying them and training the conscience to choose the more enduring good over the more immediately gratifying.

But things are much worse in Maid. It may seem self-evident that men fare poorly in a show about domestic abuse, but Maid pulsates with hatred of men in every corner, hardly missing a chance to remind the audience that the only people this single mother can count on are other (unmarried) women. Tellingly, the writers of the series deviate from the memoir in a key detail. While the young woman’s father only appears fleetingly in the book, he looms large in the series, and in the show’s crucial moment, he clearly takes the side of the abusive boyfriend over his victimized daughter and granddaughter.

Taken together, both Maid and The Lost Daughter give high production values to a feminist fantasy. Yet in so doing, both productions miss a chance to speak more intelligently and more effectively to a genuine problem: a contemporary hostility and ignorance between the sexes that threatens social growth and the well-being of children.

The picture of the modern male as indifferent to his marriage or his children is simply wrong. According to Pew Research, more men than ever before are serving as stay-at-home caregivers, and they are equally as likely as women to value their identity as a parent. We can debate the propriety of such an arrangement, but statistics show increased father involvement, not less.

The bad news is that both men and women are delaying marriage. This is ominous for several reasons, but one deserves more mention: It is marriage far more than any other life situation or arrangement that creates empathy between men and women and draws out the kind of self-sacrificing love that creates whole and healthy families. A marriage-starved society is not egalitarian or satisfied. Rather, it relies on ideology, pornography, and insular subcultures to educate it about gender, sex, and relationships. Covenantal marriage protects individuals of both sexes while unifying them and training the conscience to choose the more enduring good over the more immediately gratifying.

The alienation that is now frequently palpable between men and women is in large part downstream from a culturewide disdain for and decline of strong, mutually sacrificial marriages. In the New Testament, Paul writes that through Christ-like, cross-shaped love, husbands can somehow sanctify their wives, meaning the spiritual and existential stakes of cultivating honorable, marriageable men are high. But our current sexual dysfunctions are not helped by pop culture artifacts that fantasize an abusive solidarity among men or depict them as hapless, uninvolved inseminators—images every bit as unreal as the airbrushed harems of online porn. Indeed, the stories of The Lost Daughter and Maid are arguably unwitting testaments to how powerfully men shape the women around them even—perhaps especially—when they’re not there.

Samuel D. James

Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books. He is a regular contributor to First Things and The Gospel Coalition, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and National Review. Samuel and his wife Emily live in Louisville, Ky., with their two children.

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