The rise of the ‘sad dad’ is not a divorce trend, but a gendered one

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Unless you’re allergic to pop culture, you might have noticed Brad Pitt put forward his most vulnerable self in GQ earlier this month, laying bare his regret and grief over the disintegration of his marriage.

The accompanying photo spread showed Pitt contorting himself into a series of despondent poses that might best be described as “misery yoga”. The 53-year-old father of six copped to substance and alcohol abuse, new sobriety, and re-acquaintance with his long-submerged emotions. He also mentioned how effective therapy has been, allowing him to be a better father, albeit a sadder one.

Meanwhile, in March, the newly – officially – divorced Ben Affleck (who was alleged to have cheated repeatedly on the mother of his three children, Jennifer Garner), made a statement on Facebook addressing his second visit to rehab.

The reason, the 45-year-old said, was so he could “live life to the fullest and be the best father [he] could be”.

The Daily Beast is calling it a hot new trend: The Sad Dad. “These recent divorces … sport an aura of sadness that’s deeply at odds with their annual income. They’re handsome, semi-employed, and clearly not OK.”

The article included Tobey Maguire in the trend, although that’s a reach. Maguire appears to be firmly entrenched in the acting out phrase, while Ben and Brad have reached a level of atonement, at least publicly.

But although The Daily Beast appeared to have limited sympathy for these emotionally troubled superstars, it’s worth unpacking what might be going on at a broader level. At least so we can attempt to understand what on earth Pitt meant when he told GQ: “It’s the laughter of the African mother in my experience – it’s got to come from the blues, to get R&B.”

It’s easy to make fun of Pitt’s raw, if confused, musings, but let’s not forget that Jennifer Garner hosted her own tell-all last year in Vanity Fair, in which she admitted to the deep loneliness – and unrelenting heartbreak – a divorce can bring.

Angelina Jolie herself had to hold back tears when questioned directly about the split, so before we accuse these handsome Hollywood heavyweights of performative sadness, we have to remember: if your fame is as big as the potential profit from your forthcoming movies, the magazine tell-all is less about airing dirty laundry and more about assuring audiences that everything is going to be OK.

And, if you’ve had an affair with the nanny or had an altercation while intoxicated on a private jet, then you have to show that you’ve taken a long, hard look at yourself.

Here’s the problem. If you’re a white male, introspection is probably not going to come all that easy to you. Men are socialised to externalise and submerge emotional problems, as Pitt himself mentioned in the article, saying:

“I’m personally very retarded when it comes to taking inventory of my emotions. I’m much better at covering up.”

Affleck has his own complicated history that seemed to culminate not just in his divorce, but before that, during publicity for Batman, and the birth of the Sad Ben Affleck meme.

Buzzfeed claimed Affleck’s sadness was due to his existential war with himself. “Affleck has an issue with shame,” wrote Anne Helen Peterson, citing his almost constant discomfort with himself. It’s little wonder Affleck was once compared to another fictional golden American – Don Draper – who could scarcely bear the handsome charm he was blessed with.

So both men feel uneasy in the role they’re given, so what? This is not a divorce trend but rather a gender-based one. Women, both famous and non-famous, are being told almost constantly by society to check themselves. Look at Jennifer Lawrence, who has to consistently push back against shaming trolls. Look at Amy Schumer, and Lena Dunham. Look at Hillary Clinton – all have to weather abuse.

Women are told: watch what you wear, where you go, who you date, what you say, don’t nag, don’t act crazy, don’t raise your voice. As a gender we internalise society’s demand that we search for fault first within ourselves.

The upside of this is that when things go wrong in life, we can, generally speaking, look at our part in it and steer it before it goes off-course.

White heterosexual men are not policed by society. They have no need, therefore, to check and see – not just if they are wrong, but why their behaviour might be hedging toward the extreme.

Some people are born introspective, others have introspection thrust upon them. But if you grow up, as both Pitt and Affleck have, in a world that tells you you’re a golden god, you will skilfully and unknowingly avoid pain of any kind.

Until you’re in the middle of your life and yes, sadness creeps up on you and you’re forced to look at it. In this sense, they are like millions of other men, who wake and find out too late that damage is done.

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