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The Fantastic Mr. Fox and the allure of risk-taking masculinity

Practice family law with any degree of passion and intellectual curiosity and you will naturally turn into an amateur marriage counselor and sociologist.  One cannot understand one’s clients without understanding what makes marriages work or not work.  I continuously contemplate how our culture might be restructured to make humans happier and make the stabilizing institutions of marriage and parenting more stable.

It could be a chicken-and-the-egg thing but in twenty years of practice I have yet to see a couple going through divorce despite a strong erotic connection.  If our culture could figure out methods of sustaining this connection through decades of marriage, it would greatly increase human happiness and cultural stability.  One can read myriad women’s magazines for advice on how to do so but such advice is frequently trite and always false–clients who have put it in practice indicate it does not work.

One possible conclusion is that the very nature of marriage is antithetical to erotic charge.  The view of masculinity necessary to sustain marriage is very different than the view of masculinity necessary to sustain most women’s erotic interest.  Perhaps the best recent work of art to examine this dilemma is Wes Anderson’s animated version of The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

There are many who hate Mr. Anderson’s mixture of storybook whimsy, dollhouse set-design, arch dialogue, and half-recalled 1950’s and 60’s pop-rock music.  But for those who love these aspects of his work, The Fantastic Mr. Fox may be his best film.  Better than any serious modern fiction it dramatizes the desire of an aging man to remain desirable.

The movie starts with Mr. Fox (voice of George Clooney) on a squab-stealing excursion with his wife, Mrs. Fox (voice of Meryl Streep).  Anderson, using stop motion animation, sets a scene of romance and adventure, with bucolic rolling landscape and dusky evening light making the Foxes glow.  Mr. Fox exhibits a tic of wolf whistling and clicking his tongue, designed to evoke Rat Pack insolence and charm.  The two banter in a manner typical of 1930’s/40’s screwball comedies.  Their “date,” involving risk, food and exercise, is romantic, and, in a few broad strokes, the attraction between the two is vividly rendered.  During this excursion Mr. Fox continuously elicits but then ignores his wife’s cautious counsel and engages them in riskier but more lively acts.  The scene ends with Mr. Fox’s devil-may-care hubris leading them to become caged in a fox trap, whereupon Ms. Fox announces her pregnancy.

The movie immediately fast forwards twelve fox years and Mr. and Mrs. Fox are now settled with a sullen adolescent son whose lack of athletic prowess and lack of popularity with his peer are sources of disappointment to his father.  Mr. Fox has given up his poultry-stealing ways for the life of a newspaper columnist.  His job provides few thrills, little money and notoriety (few of his neighbors read his work), but sufficient stability to raise his family in modest means.  The masculinity Mr. Fox believes Mrs. Fox found desirable in a boyfriend is antithetical to the masculinity he believes she finds necessary in a husband/co-parent.  The former is risky, adventure seeking, and unbounded; the latter is stable, dependable and highly constrained.  However the former is sexy and the latter is not.  Mr. Fox pines for a riskier sense of self and feels hemmed-in by stability.

The plot engages through Mr. Fox’s desire to live larger. He starts by trading up housing from an underground lair to an above ground tree.  It is quickly revealed that this is part of his larger plan to engage in one last chicken, goose, and alcoholic cider stealing caper.  In outwitting the farmers and succeeding in his risky scheme, Mr. Fox feels alive and vital. Women marry stability but lust after bad boys.  Mr. Fox knows this, and risks his life and family in a quest to remain sexy.

When the farmers figure out what’s happened they engage in increasingly forceful attempts to destroy Mr. Fox and his family.  They begin by shooting up his above ground home.   Next, the Foxes’ home, and the homes of their animal friends, are destroyed by bulldozers and all the animals are forced underground.  Mrs. Fox is outraged that her husband’s behavior has endangered their family, slashing his face in a moment of anger.  Family stability is shaken to its core and the Foxes’ marriage is at risk.

The farmers then try to flood the Foxes and their animal friends out of their underground warrens.  His nephew is captured by the farmers, his son risks his own life to rescue his cousin (his bravery finally winning his father’s admiration), and Mr. Fox’s own tail is shot off in an ambush.  While Mr. Fox and his son and nephew are speeding away from the farmers, they encounter a wolf–which Mr. Fox sees as a symbol of unconstrained animal wildness in contrast to a Foxes’ life on the boundary between the animal and human worlds.  Mr. Fox gives the wolf the raised-fist “power” salute as a measure of respect and attempted solidarity.  While this scene is subject to myriad interpretations, my reading is that it symbolizes Mr. Fox’s (perhaps misguided) belief that his recent risky behavior connects him to the wolf’s virility.

The movie ends with the Fox family and their varied friends outwitting the farmers.  They remain trapped underground but are able to raid the farmers’ grocery store at whim to sustain themselves.  While both the lighting and the food in this grocery are artificial, Mr. Fox is able to provide for his family.  Further, because this providing involves an element of risk and rule breaking, Mr. Fox is able to sustain a self-image of unconstrained masculinity even though he remains imprisoned underground.

Many of the stupid husband behaviors I encounter in practicing family law stem from the male desire to remain vital and sexy despite their role as a domestic provider.  Our culture has not really figured out a way for men to engage in risk-taking masculine behaviors without endangering the stable-provider behaviors that represent another definition of masculinity.  It could be cultural, it could be biological, but it seems that male domesticity undermines female erotic attraction.  So long as men consider [I believe accurately] the stable-provider role as erotically emasculating, I expect such seemingly counterproductive behaviors to recur with comic/tragic regularity.

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