In his moving testimony on behalf of the Sexual Assault Survivors' Bill of Rights last summer, actor and former NFL player Terry Crews explained to the Senate why acts of sexual violence are never really about sex, but always about power. His voice had by then become a prominent one in the #MeToo movement, the cultural reckoning around sexual violence given a name by civil rights activist Tarana Burke. He chose not only to come forward about his own assault at the hands of a white Hollywood agent, but also to openly reflect on how he himself was taught to associate having control with being a man:
As a child I watched as my father violently abused my mother, using his power and authority to dominate her. As I grew up, this thought transformed the type of man I became. I swore I would never be like my father and yet I believed, to my core, that as a man, I was more valuable in this world. As a protector and symbol of strength, I was more worthy. That women were beneath me.
Two new documentaries contributing to the current cultural conversation about assault and abuse also deal with the themes of masculinity, fatherhood, and power. Surviving R. Kelly and Leaving Neverland spotlight how singers R. Kelly and Michael Jackson allegedly abused and sexually assaulted young girls and boys, respectively, throughout their careers. Based on the accounts of the survivors featured, both men are shown as obsessed with performances of masculinity rooted in control — from the casual demeaning of women to forcing kids to watch pornography.
According to these series, both stars also positioned themselves as “father figures” to the children they have been accused of abusing, as a means of further manipulating them. Wade Robson, one of the survivors at the center of Leaving Neverland, recalls in the film that Jackson called him “Little One” and encouraged in him a distrust of women, while simultaneously isolating him from his actual father, who remained in Australia when the family made the move to the US. (Robson has said that “it was because of Michael, I understand now, that I was pushing my father away.”) Kitti Jones, who says she spent two years trapped in R. Kelly’s home and was also separated from her family, has said that the black girls and women under the singer’s control were “required to call him Daddy.”
As Crews’ Senate testimony suggests, fatherhood is itself often understood as a performance of masculinity: a role traditionally defined by the ability to work and provide, to be ”a protector and symbol of strength.” This role has been historically aligned with what scholar bell hooks, in Feminism Is for Everybody, calls “the two-parent patriarchal family,” reinforced by popular culture that extends far beyond the work of musicians. From the iconic white paternalism of Father Knows Best to the fantasy of “fatherly invulnerability” in Taken, there is a prevalent cultural narrative in the United States that suggests that having authority over others — especially women, children, and people of other genders — is akin to being a “good” dad.
Which is why it surprised many when Crews seemed to come out in defense of traditional views of fatherhood this past weekend. In a series of tweets, Crews responded to a New York Times op-ed by the lawyer Derecka Purnell, which criticizes former president Barack Obama for what she sees as a tendency to “scold” black boys. Purnell writes, “programs like [Obama’s] My Brother’s Keeper insist on making better versions of Trayvon Martin, the black victim, instead of asking how to stop creating people like George Zimmerman, the racist vigilante.”
Crews disagreed, arguing that Obama was more than justified in offering his advice to black boys as “a successful black man.” He also took umbrage with the fact that the piece "was written by a WOMAN [sic] about how how boys should be taught to grow into successful young men" — a topic that, apparently, he felt should be off-limits to women. After being challenged by his followers to elaborate on his disagreement, Crews explained his view that children require a paternal figure in their life, sharing a clip from his 2014 appearance on The View, in which he says, “There are things that you need from your father.” And in a now-deleted tweet, for which he later apologized, Crews wrote that those raised by parents of a single gender — without a father — grow up "severely malnourished.”
What makes this line of argument so troubling is that Crews seemingly doubles down on the very perspective he warned us about in his Senate testimony: The idea that those socialized to be men, particularly straight men, have access to rarified knowledge, one thing that can make them seem “more valuable in this world” than others. In that testimony, Crews spoke out against a fundamental and dangerous aspect of maintaining ideals of traditional masculinity and fatherhood.
Those dangers aren’t only highlighted by the stories of Jackson’s and Kelly’s accusers, but in countless others about accused and convicted predators, from the villain at the heart of Netflix’s Abducted in Plain Sight to the former USA Gymnastics national team doctor and convicted serial child molester Larry Nassar. In all of these stories, it’s clear that the mythic image of fatherhood has itself been used as a shield of protection by men looking to maintain their innocence and preserve their power.
During Jackson’s 2005 trial, one of the singer’s lines of defense was that the boy who had accused him of molestation, Gavin Arvizo, thought of him as a father figure. During the case, in which Jackson would eventually be acquitted of all charges, his lawyers cited video evidence in which Arvizo’s brother says that Jackson “actually seemed more fatherly than like our biological father." The implication is that a father, in a traditional, heteronormative sense, would be less likely to be an abuser (despite research that shows most children who are abused are abused by their parents). In Leaving Neverland, news clips about Jackson’s abuse are contrasted with fawning reports of his subsequent marriages to women, signaling the building of a traditional family, which survivor James Safechuck recalls as an intentional move to avoid public scrutiny.
R. Kelly has also appealed to his status as a family man in attempts to defend himself against charges of abuse. On Wednesday morning, CBS News aired a dramatic interview in which the singer responded to the accusations laid out in Surviving R. Kelly, and the criminal charges that followed it, with extreme anger and an emotional invocation of his role as a patriarch. Through tears he shouted and gesticulated toward interviewer Gayle King and directly at the camera, at one point saying, “This is not about music — I’m trying to have a relationship with my kids!” (Meanwhile, Kelly’s own daughter has described him as a “monster,” and later that same day Kelly was arrested for failing to pay child support.)
There’s ample evidence that men are awarded any number of privileges when presenting themselves as traditional fathers. Researchers have found that cisgender heterosexual men with children tend to be “held to more lenient standards than mothers and childless men,” including in hiring decisions, where “fathers are assumed to be providers [and thus] may be perceived as needing the job more than mothers.” As the existence of movies like 1983’s Mr. Mom or the more recent Daddy’s Home series highlight, there is a fundamental tension between the cultural expectations of manhood versus what we expect of or admire in those who raise children. Depictions of fatherhood in parenting magazines still tend to emphasize men as “breadwinners” more than as parents, reinforcing the notion that caregiving itself is inherently feminine, and therefore — troublingly — at odds with “being a man.” It’s not surprising that studies continue to find that most “men perceive fathering as something they ‘do,’ whereas women experience mothering as something they ‘are.’”
When straight cisgender men fail at an aspect of parenting or domesticity, embodying the “bumbling dad” trope of TV sitcoms like The King of Queens, that’s to be expected; but when these dads make an effort to succeed at even basic parenting tasks, they can defy expectations and reap the rewards — like going viral for baking their daughter a cake or styling a child’s hair. Meanwhile, for women and gender-nonconforming people, “good” parenting is an increasingly impossible standard to meet.
This relatively low bar for acceptable parenting from fathers, coupled with the expectation to be a “provider” first, is still the norm — and one championed by the likes of Obama, who said in 2008 that “what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child [but] the courage to raise one.” Unlike Crews' choice to share his story of sexual assault — which defied gender norms — the assumption that a certain set of behaviors “makes you a man” only supports the fallacy of gender essentialism. Attempting to define manhood lends itself to creating a hierarchy of masculinity, in which “real” men have some claim to power over others. Patriarchy teaches us to believe that there are only two genders, and that they have fixed and finite meanings in relation to each other. It’s no wonder that a majority of Republicans do not seem to recognize the existence of transgender and gender-nonconforming people, and believe that biology determines differences in how men and women parent.
On Tuesday, Crews apologized again, after his Brooklyn Nine-Nine costar Stephanie Beatriz helped him understand why members of the LGBT community “were hurt” by his comments about gender and parenting, which Out described as offensive “not just to same-sex parents, but also to all of the single mothers and fathers out there.” In a few more thoughtful tweets, Crews clarified that he “was speaking out of my very personal experiences as a Black Father,” which he now realizes others may not have.
Indeed, Crews’ story is not exactly like those that are commonly told about fatherhood in popular media. In a system of white supremacy, black men like Crews are not expected to be able to perform fatherhood well, or even at all. Black fathers have been demonized as irresponsible parents or child deserters, and as a result face additional pressure to conform to an authoritative, hypermasculine standard.
Yet the trope of “absent” black fathers is not based in fact, something that Purnell, the lawyer writing in the New York Times, points out by citing a 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that, compared to other groups, “black fathers were the most involved with their children daily.” But the harmful stereotype remains a popular conservative talking point, because as Xavier Clark writes in a 2016 piece for the Grio, it’s “easier to make the black father the issue, not the systems and institutions that toy with black life constantly.”
Despite the reality of the added pressures around performing masculinity, there is only temporary safety within the traditional gendered vision of fatherhood for black and other men of color. Moreover, the myth that there is some essential truth that only parents who identify as men have access to actively puts children and people of other genders in danger. As hooks observes in Feminism Is for Everybody, “In a culture which holds the two-parent patriarchal family in higher esteem than any other arrangement, all children feel emotionally insecure when their family does not measure up.”
At one point in Leaving Neverland, Wade Robson says that Michael Jackson gave him the nickname "son," but simultaneously treated him like a romantic partner, sexually assaulted him, and promised to use his position of power to make Robson a star. He recounts that, at 7 years old, the prospect of having this global icon as a father was something like a dream come true. But as Terry Crews once said about the exploitative myth of Hollywood — if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere — “someone has power over these dreams.”
Crews went on to say in his tearful testimony that "as a man, I was taught my entire life that I must control the world. So I used power, influence and control to dominate every situation: from the football field to the film set, even in my own home with my wife and children." But now, he’s using his platform to give “power and control back to survivors,” and he believes that “every man, woman and child deserves to be seen as equal under the law.” Crews, as a straight black man and survivor of sexual assault himself, has amplified the fight to help men unlearn harmful ideals of masculinity; but his recent comments indicate that even those who devote themselves to that unlearning can have trouble extricating themselves from deeply-embedded patriarchal narratives.
Now, instead of insisting (without real evidence) that children need a mother and a father, or teaching kids that gender predetermines a person’s ability to parent, the current cultural conversation has given us an opportunity to lean into what we do know: that, as hooks writes, “Children need to be raised in loving environments. Whenever domination is present love is lacking.” ●
Imran Siddiquee is a writer and filmmaker based in Philadelphia.