4 Ways Robin Williams Changed the Way We Think About Feminism and Gay Rights
The world lost a comedy legend on Monday, one children all over grew up with as he took us on magic carpet rides, literary journeys and inside the mind of a man who desperately wanted to be a strong father for his children.
For many, one of Robin Williams' most iconic roles was in Mrs. Doubtfire. Not only did his portrayal touch people of all ages, it also helped elevate conversations about LGBT and feminist issues in the early 1990s, when it wasn't particularly popular or agent-advised to publicly be an ally for either movement.
But Williams showed Hollywood, and in some ways, the world, that it's possible for a heterosexual man to take his lead from women and queer people, to use his star power and platform to make divisive gender and sexual issues accessible enough for family dinnertable conversations.
And he did all of that while unabashedly donning granny drag.
Image Credit: Felix Dzim via YouTube
Williams' portrayal of Daniel Hillard and his alter-ego, Euphegenia Doubtfire, was indisputably ahead of its time. The award-winning film premiered while Congress was preparing to vote on what would become the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, and just three years before President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law in September 1996.
During those years, like many other future millennials, I was learning how to walk on my own, how to use words and even what it meant to inhabit my gender identity. Mrs. Doubtfire appeared on the silver screen just one month after I celebrated my 5th birthday, and Williams' transcendent performance unwittingly helped me celebrate parts of myself society would soon teach me to suppress and shame — my own identities as a queer, gender-nonconforming and male-bodied intersectional feminist.
In the days and months ahead, there will surely be countless tributes to a man who had an indisputable impact on America's comedic landscape. But for me, Williams will always be the man who first taught me that it was OK to explore the non-binary expanses of my childhood identity, to be both strong and caring and to empathize with causes and people who aren't mainstream and face everyday discrimination. Here are a few of the moments that had such an indelible impact on my life:
1. He affirmed gay relationships and shared an appreciation for LGBT cultural contributions.
Before the LGBT community witnessed RuPaul's rise to mainstream prominence as a drag performer, and several years before I was old enough to learn about the black vogue and ball scene in iconic gay documentary Paris Is Burning, I watched Robin Williams make a cross-cultural transformation all his own.
Daniel Hillard, struggling after a divorce, finds compassion in the home of his gay brother and his brother's partner, known to the children as Aunt Jack and Uncle Frank, who were played respectively by Scott Capurro and Harvey Fierstein, an openly gay actor and playwright.
The trio sang campy gay tunes from musicals and pop divas, including "Matchmaker" from Fiddler on the Roof and a show-stopping rendition of "Rain on My Parade," as popularized by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.
Image Credit: Panter98 via YouTube
At that time I was, still unwittingly, living as a gender nonconforming person who was told that he had to "be a boy" and do "boy" things. But seeing Mrs. Doubtfire emboldened me to dress in drag as a 5-year-old, putting my older female cousin's Christmas makeup kit to good use.
Once, after a full make-over, my cousins told me to go show our caregiver, the woman we called Granny. With glitter, jazz hands and a smile, I did a little dance and was rewarded with a chortle of adoration. She was the first adult to affirm my queerness and gender fluidity, even while I was bullied through adolescence, oscillating to and from the brink of suicide as a teenager. Six months ago, my first ally passed away unexpectedly, but with loved ones nearby; she was ahead of many of her peers in empathizing with LGBT issues. Something similar can be said for Williams.
Mrs. Doubtfire wasn't the only role in which Williams elevated conversations about gender and sexuality. He also played gay cabaret owner Armand Goldman in the 1996 film The Birdcage. As mentioned over at Autostraddle, Williams wasn't at all ashamed about using his platform and comedic art to support elements of the LGBT rights movement.
"If I can use my celebrity status to draw people into a movie theater to see me perform as an admirable gay man and thereby make them a little most positive about gay people, why wouldn't I do it?" he said.
2. He showed us that fatherhood is a feminist issue.
Image Credit: Felix Dzim via YouTube
Daniel Hillard wasn't a perfect father by any stretch of the imagination. But what mattered most was his steadfast commitment to his children, even after a divorce and intense custody battle restricted his custody privileges. Those very battles have emboldened a new crop of misguided "men's rights activists," many of whom lost intense custody battles and who reject second- and third-wave feminism because they think women have advanced at the expense of men.
But nothing could be further from the truth. And it's men like Daniel, who take pains to interrogate their male privilege and examine how patriarchy tarnishes manhood and masculinity, who ultimately benefit from feminist advocacy for equality among the sexes and genders.
At first, Williams' character refuses to develop into a well-rounded parent, to step out of rigidly constructed roles of the man as solely "the provider" and not "the nurturer." It's the issue that ultimately prompted his wife to file for divorce. Yet he found a creepy, if ultimately endearing way to redeem himself. In the messiness of employing a drag character, he wanted to see his children and learn how his wife effortlessly balanced both career and motherhood.
The move also showed just how desperate he was to become a constant, present source of strength, esteem and enrichment for his kids — by responding to his ex-wife's want ad for a housekeeper and ultimately landing the job.
Once Mrs. Doubtfire is found out, and Daniel is eventually able to gain more custody of his kids, the values stay with him. Daniel proves that being a good parent doesn't require perfection, nor does it require strict adherence to rigidly gendered roles for parenting — rather, it's about cultivating the passion, connection and commitment to learning while performing one of the most important adult jobs.
3. He challenged street harassment and violence against women and the elderly.
The year after Mrs. Doubtfire made its way into theaters, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act in September 1994. Activists were just starting to call out problems such as gendered street harassment, as played out in one scene in the film highlighting sexist, misogynist violence.
Strolling down an avenue in broad daylight, Hillard, dressed as his nanny alter-ego, is attacked by a mugger, a white male dressed all in black. Taken aback by this "granny's" surprising ability to stand up for herself, the robber soon realizes he is dealing with no ordinary woman and runs away.
There's much to be said for how such a moment, in addition to many other moments in the film, could potentially reinforce transphobia and even transmisogyny. As Everyday Feminism defines the term, it reflects denigration and even hatred of trans women. Many moments of the film unfortunately play on the trope of a "man in a dress" as funny, although that very perception isn't humorous for many trans women, who are real-life targets for harassment, offensive jokes, institutional discrimination and physical violence. Yet at the time of the film, there were almost no mainstream conversations about transgender people, especially not the way we discuss such issues now in the wake of such trailblazers as Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Carmen Carrera and others.
We can't reimagine history, and we surely shouldn't explain away any film or cultural production's problematic politics on any issue — that's all the more apparent with recent discussions between drag performers and transgender women about the appropriations of words and experiences that impact the lived realities and possibilities for a community disproportionately targeted by abuse and hate crimes. But we can look at the choices and images from the time to gauge how conditions forced people to make decisions for survival within oppressive systems. And, in this case, the choice for Mrs. Doubtfire, and for Daniel, was to fight back, challenging the idea that a woman can't fight for herself while simultaneously illuminating the ongoing issue of violence against women.
4. He taught everyone that no matter what your family looks like, it's the love that matters at the end of the day.
Image Credit: Pej Assemi via YouTube
At the close of the film, we see Daniel finally get the big career breakthrough he's always wanted. But instead of taking the offer as himself, he decides to keep his Mrs. Doubtfire persona and become a children's television personality. He makes amends with Miranda, his ex-wife, but the couple doesn't get back together "for the kids," rather remaining friends and partners in the process of raising three children, albeit separately.
That's a model for feminist fatherhood in and of itself: equitable and compassionate sharing of parental responsibilities between opposite-sex parents. But that's not the film's only commentary on the diversity and scope of birth families and chosen families.
During one of Mrs. Doubtfire's first TV appearances, which Miranda watches in tears, she fields a question from a young child experiencing pain from her parents' recent divorce. It's a situation that many children and adults can connect with, having seen their homes changed by parents whose ties no longer held steady. It's one I myself witnessed as a high schooler. Mrs. Doubtfire's words comforted the child while affirming that many families, in reality, aren't the conventional mommy/daddy pairing that often happens when children are born.
"Just because they don't love each other anymore doesn't mean they don't love you," she says. "And there's all sorts of different families ... some families have one mommy, some families have one daddy or two families." Mrs. Doubtfire stutters on "two families" as if she is a breath away from saying two daddies or two mommies, as Hillard's children have two married uncles. It's an issue that we've since come to understand is much larger than we might assume.
According to the Movement Advancement Project, 2 million kids in the United States are raised in an LGBT household, losing out on vital rights and protections, thanks to governmental and societal stigma and discrimination. Meanwhile, for many LGBT kids who are open about their gender and/or sexuality, they don't always have a safe and loving home. Various studies point to figures approximating that 40% of homeless youth are queer or trans-identified.
But Mrs. Doubtfire, while consoling one hurt child, continues making a larger point about what it really means to be a parent or to be part of a family. "Some children live with their uncle or aunt, some live with their grandparents or some children life with foster parents," she says. "But if there's love, dear, those are the ties that bind. And you have a family in your heart forever."
Maya Angelou may have said it best in her poem about how, in life, we're gifted with "extravagant spirits" all around us. Williams, through his work, embodied that very sense of spirit, urging us to "dance upon our leaden feet; and to our sullen hearts, bright laughter." Even in death, these words offer some comfort, as we'll always have Mrs. Doubtfire's own master class, the wispy words she uttered as while signing off her televised children's show, and the film itself: "All my love to you, poppet. You're going to be all right. Bye-bye."
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