Family  /  Film Review

The Auteur of Fatherhood: How Steven Spielberg Recast American Masculinity

Steven Spielberg’s early films conjure all of his moviemaking magic to repair a world of lost dads.
Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner

But Spielberg did not become the premier dad auteur of American cinema just by making movies that micro-targeted men who wear cargo shorts year-round and assert dictatorial control over their home thermostats. He also did it by being one of the greatest popular critics of the failures of dadly masculinity in the twentieth century. Nearly every one of his films is, in some subter­ranean way, about his parents’ divorce, and many of his most iconic films—from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) to E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) to the Indiana Jones series—are haunted by absent fathers, dads abandoning their children for obsession, for pride, for madness, for infidelities large and small. Spielberg makes precision-crafted films to flatter dadly sensibilities; he also makes movies for children, warning them that, one day, those dads might choose to disappear. And sometimes—especially of late—he makes movies that do both.

In the years that followed that screening, Spielberg’s interroga­tion and articulation of dad culture has only continued, with mov­ies and series about dads (like last year’s autobiographical feature The Fabelmans) and for them (like Masters of the Air, the Apple TV+ miniseries about World War II pilots that premiered in January). Spielberg, it’s now clear, is not just an ambivalent avatar of the dad culture he grew up with. Instead, his films have helped invent the “dad” as we know it.

BUT WHAT IS A “DAD,” anyway? While “dad” has come to be a with­eringly descriptive adjective (dad jokes, dad rock, dad hats, dad bods), conjuring up harmlessly bad puns, rock bands that have lost their edge, soft-crowned caps, and soft bellies, for much of the twentieth century the word was still becoming a noun of its own. Children have been calling their fathers “dad” since the six­teenth century at least, and across many, many different cultures. Linguists suspect its etymology is simply that it’s a sound that’s easy for babies to say. But it has only been a meaningful epithet in the American vernacular since the early twentieth century. As sociologist Ralph LaRossa writes, the idea of the dad as something separate from the father—or rather something that came to be associated with a very specific, modern version of fatherhood—is a product of the Machine Age between the two world wars.