This past weekend, I took my four year-old daughter Heloise to see Epic, the latest animated feature from Blue Sky Studios, creators of Ice Age and Rio. At this early-afternoon showing, the theater was nearly full. There were few teens or young adults; rather, the auditorium was packed with children aged three to ten—and their fathers. I counted a couple of heterosexual couples with kids, and two unaccompanied moms with little ones. The overwhelming majority of adults were like me—dads with their kids, without their partners.
As a gender-studies professor, I reflexively notice sex disparities in public places. Usually the anecdotal data I collect gets filed away in whatever part of the brain archives trivia I'm unlikely to use again. Not so on Sunday, when I realized that the theme of the film we were watching seemed perfectly designed to match the demographics of the audience. Epic wasn't just aimed at parents and children—it was, like so many other recent animated films, squarely focused on celebrating and redeeming the father-daughter relationship.
When it comes to the make-up of movie audiences, my anecdotal observation jibes with the data. Across the United States, there really are more dads than moms on their own with their kids at the movies. A 2011 study by polling firm Ipsos found that dads are 50 percent more likely than moms to take young kids to the movies. (This holds true for films of all ratings, from G to R.) "Dads are more interested in finding content they can enjoy with their kids," said Ipsos senior vice president Donna Sabino. Moms may remain the key decision-makers about most household purchases, but fathers increasingly rule in one area: entertainment.
It's not news that advertisers design sales campaigns to appeal to their target demographic. What seems evident is that when it comes to animated features, film makers are making the same calculation as the marketers. A 1998 study found that girls are twice as likely as boys to cite animated films as their favorites. If preteen girls are twice as eager as boys to see animated features, and dads are 50 percent more likely to be the parent sitting next to them in the movie theater, then it makes sense to center that relationship in the plot of what they're watching together.
Epic centers around 17 year-old Mary Katherine ("M.K.") who, following the death of her mother, moves in with her eccentric, bumbling father, Professor Bomba. Her dad is obsessed with finding tiny soldiers ("Leaf Men") who he claims live in an advanced forest society. No one else believes him, and as we learn, this obsession has already cost him his marriage to M.K.'s mother. Just when it's on the verge of ruining his relationship with his daughter as well, M.K. is suddenly swept into the world of the Leaf Men, and realizes her father has been right all along.
Single fathers have long been a central presence in fantasy and fairy tales, as any reader of the Grimm Brothers knows. Until the coming of modern medicine, childbirth was among the leading causes of death for women—a fact that resulted in a lot of widowers. But while the fathers in these fairy tales were often stern and over-protective as in The Little Mermaid, or in thrall to the proverbial wicked stepmother as in Cinderella, it's only very recently that they've become benign fools—fools who are mocked by the world but saved by a daughter's love.
This paradigm shift began in 1991 with Disney's hugely successful Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. In From the Beast to the Blonde, her masterful history of fairy tales and their adaptations, Marina Warner argues that the depiction of Belle as a feminist heroine necessitated a loss in power for her father, "crazy old Maurice." Disney "replaced the father with the daughter as the enterprising authority figure in the family," Warner writes, a radical reversal from the 18th century French text on which the film was based. The runaway triumph of Beauty meant that Disney and its many rival studios have stuck to the same formula of heroic daughter and lovably inept (but always well-intentioned) dad ever since.