News

How Mrs. Doubtfire Made Divorce Feel Survivable

On its 25th anniversary, Alicia Lutes reflects on how the Robin Williams comedy helped her -- and many children like her -- find hope in a difficult time.

by | November 23, 2018 | Comments

20th Century Fox Film Corp. courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp. courtesy Everett Collection)

I saw Mrs. Doubtfire at the exact right moment. It wasn’t on the day it came out, but maybe a year and a half later. My parents were about to embark on what would end up being a nasty divorce, and my father was no longer living at home. It was well before the “50% of marriages end in divorce” world we’re all deeply familiar with now, and my parents’ separation made me feel like an outlier in our slightly Stepford-ish Connecticut town. I didn’t know anyone else whose parents were divorced. Would we survive it? It felt like the end of the world.

My two younger siblings and I watched Mrs. Doubtfire for the first time on VHS, a rare universally approved pick from the local Blockbuster. Instantly, we were transfixed by Robin WIlliams’ effortless charisma. This was the dad that every kid wanted, and in my 9-year-old eyes, my father was a hilarious hero much like Daniel Hillard, an energizer bunny of a mostly stay-at-home dad, especially compared to my far grumpier workaholic mother. You’d expect a story like this to totally villainize the mother, but what happened was something far different. The film quickly became a tender ode to modern families when love simply isn’t enough, and what happens when families break apart for the better.

20th Century Fox Film Corp. courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp. courtesy Everett Collection)

Mrs. Doubtfire showed that life could not only be okay after divorce, but that in some cases it was the best case scenario for everyone involved. It was clear that the Hillards were dysfunctional and in pain. Dan and Miranda (Sally Field) were in precarious positions and relying on slightly toxic habits to stay mentally afloat. And stuck in the middle of it were Lydia (Lisa Jakub), Chris (Matthew Lawrence), and Natalie (Mara Wilson), who were as lost and confused by this brave new world as my two younger siblings and I were, and who in many ways mirrored myself and my younger brother and sister. All of us, real or fictional, were desperately in need of our father’s love and support, and rendered emotional and reactionary by all the new, seemingly unnecessary changes, complicated by a not entirely effective court system. But the film also provided us something else: a glimpse into the secret lives of parents.

Look at the lengths to which Dan Hillard was going: He was willing to risk everything to see and be with his kids! I needed to believe that there was a reason why my father wasn’t around, why this was all “for the best” in spite of it feeling like the worst. Mrs. Doubtfire’s outlandish scenario gave me hope — after all, being Mrs. Doubtfire made Dan a better father (and even at a young age, I knew my father could stand to be a bit more, well, fatherly).

20th Century Fox Film Corp. courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp. courtesy Everett Collection)

Watching it again as an adult proves the film to be even sweeter in that regard. Now a woman of 32 with much more context not only for my parents’ divorce, but the lives of moms and dads, I notice a real sense of compassion for both of the parents in the writing. “When I’m not with Daniel,” Miranda admits to Mrs. Doubtfire at one point, “I’m better. And I’m sure he’s better without me, too.” And we saw throughout the film how true that was: Without Miranda there to pick up the slack and give Daniel the easy out on enforcing responsibility and general childcare, he had to learn to step up. And without having to feel like a constant nag and familial buzzkill, Miranda was able to chill out a bit. Mrs. Doubtfire really did effectively co-parent with her! Being apart made them both better parents.

And Daniel’s speech at the court; the love he had for his kids? How badly he needed them? That he wanted them in his life even after the divorce, and would do whatever it took to do so? It’s exactly what a young child wants to hear about fathers. That even when we don’t see them or have them around, they’re thinking about, fighting for, and caring about us, ’til the end. Of course, the film isn’t perfect, but its heart was earnest in its intent.

20th Century Fox Film Corp. courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by 20th Century Fox Film Corp. courtesy Everett Collection)

My father did not turn out to be anything like Daniel Hillard during or after the nasty battle that followed, but the magical potential I saw in Mrs. Doubtfire of what life could be in a divorced family brought my tiny heart hope. It made the whole ordeal feel less ostracizing and more survivable. Maybe dad wasn’t around because he was out there looking for a job and a good home for us to be able to visit — and after all that happened, mom would be happier, and so would dad, and we’d all be okay in the end. Because “there are all sorts of different families,” as Mrs. Doubtfire tells Katie McCormack at the end of her children’s show, “but if there’s love, dear… you’ll have a family in your heart forever.”


Mrs. Doubtfire was released on November 24, 1993.

#1

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
71%

#1
Adjusted Score: 74.54%
Critics Consensus: On paper, Mrs. Doubtfire might seem excessively broad or sentimental, but Robin Williams shines so brightly in the title role that the end result is difficult to resist.
Synopsis: After out-of-work actor Daniel Hilliard (Robin Williams) loses custody of his three children to his ex-wife Miranda (Sally Field), he... [More]
Directed By: Chris Columbus

Tag Cloud

Esquire Adult Swim Pixar Writers Guild of America Winners DC Universe FOX spider-man dc Warner Bros. Syfy 2016 Amazon Prime hist singing competition Reality Competition zombies DirecTV Tumblr Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt 21st Century Fox Fall TV National Geographic travel Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Oscars Superheroe Red Carpet Sneak Peek 24 frames Fox News Grammys Captain marvel The Arrangement Thanksgiving LGBTQ E3 Comic Book Universal History Video Games robots award winner YouTube Premium CMT Lifetime Paramount aliens based on movie USA RT History Sundance Now Kids & Family anime binge Music Year in Review Cartoon Network Box Office Shudder First Look war PaleyFest Lucasfilm TV Land TruTV crime thriller Shondaland crime drama ITV WGN Amazon Black Mirror Rocky Opinion ABC Family NBC AMC zombie justice league Mary Poppins Returns HBO festivals BBC America Quiz Mary Tyler Moore TCM Brie Larson 2018 Nominations Freeform Masterpiece Sci-Fi VH1 Countdown Cosplay thriller Comedy Central Comedy OWN psycho American Society of Cinematographers Star Wars Ghostbusters technology Musicals Trophy Talk Teen Paramount Network period drama facebook green book CBS All Access TLC New York Comic Con Superheroes CW Seed political drama Starz police drama vampires X-Men 007 Spike Certified Fresh Trailer DC streaming service transformers supernatural MSNBC Western composers TIFF Bravo Valentine's Day crossover Star Trek Extras Toys 2015 Trivia GLAAD BBC Interview Anna Paquin Premiere Dates SDCC YA Calendar GIFs Awards Tour Song of Ice and Fire GoT Fantasy Ellie Kemper VICE TCA TNT Winter TV ratings A&E Emmys science fiction comic Dark Horse Comics YouTube Red SundanceTV politics TBS CNN unscripted Columbia Pictures boxoffice Polls and Games Action Best and Worst Christmas cinemax Hulu DC Comics serial killer Lionsgate Animation social media Britbox PBS harry potter IFC San Diego Comic-Con Marvel 20th Century Fox Mary poppins Sundance cooking NYCC romance miniseries Nickelodeon Netflix E! SXSW sports diversity See It Skip It comiccon Apple cops casting Crackle Walt Disney Pictures Infographic Reality sitcom Awards BET Musical talk show cats adventure FX President historical drama APB 45 Ovation Sony Pictures medical drama CBS Mystery golden globes crime Disney The CW DGA MCU Epix doctor who Holidays Election jamie lee curtis television cults Character Guide Set visit Martial Arts ABC dramedy Schedule streaming mutant FXX Marathons Nat Geo Disney Channel finale Photos spy thriller Spring TV MTV Rom-Com TV Pirates Comics on TV El Rey what to watch Biopics Mindy Kaling Country Summer Horror discovery Food Network 2017 Logo Podcast dceu ESPN 2019 Drama biography USA Network Tomatazos Acorn TV Super Bowl IFC Films Rock TCA 2017 Pop docudrama blaxploitation Watching Series Showtime Creative Arts Emmys