Mrs. Doubtfire hit theaters in 1993. Despite Robin Williams’ multitude of comic voices and his high energy, I remember being very traumatized by this movie when I was a kid–not because Williams’ character dresses up and acts like a woman but because of the film’s portrayal of divorce. After graduating from monsters underneath the bed, there was something else lurking that I had to fear.
The movie doesn’t suggest that divorce is prominent in San Francisco. In fact, it focuses on the potentially traumatic effect that divorce may have on children in the family. The court grants Daniel (Williams) once-a-week visitation rights, and he is devastated to be apart from his children for more than a day. The obsession is almost creepy.
Mrs. Doubtfire does hint at the importance of family in San Francisco. After Miranda (Sally Field) and Daniel divorce, Stu enters as Miranda’s new love interest. He meets the kids and tries to step into a fatherly position, later admitting that despite his bachelor ways he really does want a family. Family and the security it supposedly brings are at the heart of the movie.
In San Francisco today, the family problem is not so much divorce as it is marriage. (I mentioned this back in my first column on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). Growing up in California in the ’90s, divorce was increasingly popular among my friends’ families and eventually my own. Divorce is still messy and it’s still sad, but it can be seen as a viable solution rather than a sure trip to the shrink for all your children for years to come. Now, the struggle for gay marriage is the issue at hand–a problem that prevents people from forming (legally recognized) families instead of a problem that divides families. Family politics still exist, just in a different form.
And you’d have to admit that Mrs. Doubtfire is a pretty gay movie. Daniel even has a flamboyant brother who transforms him into the 60-year-old Doubtfire. And, oh, drag! There’s no way that’s not queer. As Doubtfire, Daniel absolutely proves the notion of performing gender, as advanced by UC Berkeley’s Judith Butler. Queer theory, hello. The female body allows Daniel to become a different person complete with her own history. At one point, Daniel claims that Mrs. Doubtfire is a way to “entertain and educate,” and that’s exactly what the drag persona does.
The reception of Daniel’s drag, of course, is mixed. His son finds Doubtfire in the bathroom peeing standing up and has a minor meltdown. For a boy on the verge of puberty (he’s 12), this gender transgression shocks him and leaves him without vocabulary to describe what he’s seen. Daniel is able to calm him down and explains the disguise to both his son and his older daughter. She understands; he eventually accepts and approves but it at first hesitant to touch his father. Despite being in San Francisco, this family still retains the trappings of what Hollywood would see as a “normal” family: scared of cross dressing and yet ultimately accepting of their father (but not necessarily the whole drag thing).
Is this how the general San Francisco family would act? I couldn’t say for sure. Representation of queer or fluid sexuality is strong in the city, and queer sexual identities are accepted (for the most part and at least to a greater degree than elsewhere in the States). Gender performance, however, is still a touchy subject, though San Francisco certainly isn’t lacking in men who look like women and women who look like men. But separate that from sexuality, and you’ve gotten yourself into transgender issues, which is a whole other ball game.
Mrs. Doubtfire ends up getting her own show, which at least proves that the people at KTVU don’t think that men in drag are detrimental to children’s mental health. But when the family finds out that Daniel was behind his alterego, they stammer and work themselves up. You could chalk it up to the surprise of the reveal, or you could see it as the shock of drag hitting so close to home. You know, the whole ” I’m okay if other people do it, just as long as it’s not near my children” sort of thing. Eventually, the family realizes their fondness for Doubtfire. The courts, however, cannot understand the act of gender transgression.