Mrs. Doubtfire was ahead of its time. When the film was released on Nov. 24, 1993 (21 years ago today), it was met with mixed reviews. Roger Ebert gave Robin Williams' cross-dressing effort two and a half stars, saying, "The film is not as amusing as the premise, and there were long stretches when I'd had quite enough of Mrs. Doubtfire." The New York Times critic Janet Maslin had only mild enthusiasm: "If this film creates as good a showcase for the Williams zaniness as anything short of Aladdin, it also spends too much time making nice. And not enough time making sense."
Eventually Mrs. Doubtfire become one of America's most beloved comedies, long before it could benefit from the bloated sense of appreciation that's an inevitable byproduct of a celebrity's death. But the delayed appreciation isn't the only reason why Mrs. Doubtfire was ahead of its time. The film featured a progressive portrayal of divorce in the 1990s, a time in which the dissolution of marriage was more stigmatized than it had been in decades. While America's idea of family values regressed back to the '50s, Mrs. Doubtfire reflected an attitude that wouldn't become more common until the new millennium. The reviews, which focused on the quality of Williams' wild performance, failed to consider how its message was an outlier in American culture.
During the '70s the United States' divorce rate rose steadily, peaking at 5.3 divorces per 1,000 people in 1979 and hovering above 5.0 until 1986, as therapists encouraged separation. Then therapists, as well as politicians, began recommending staying together for the sake of the kids, and by 1993 the divorce rate dropped to its lowest since 1974.
Mary Kay Blakely described the re-stigmatization of divorce in her 1996 book, Red, White, and Oh So Blue: A Memoir of a Political Depression, indicting conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and Christian Coalition for pushing the narrative that "to restore both the morality and the good life in America, everyone must get back into a nuclear family." She added, "Anyone who splits this atomic structure can now be held in contempt and charged with a kind of domestic treason."
Ironically, Blakely pointed out, some of the most prominent proponents of "family" values were Ronald Reagan, then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and Rush Limbaugh—all of whom were divorced men. "It's apparently not husbands leaving their wives that has the Christian Coalition in such a froth," wrote Blakely. "It's wives striking out for independence that's so threatening to national security."
Mrs. Doubtfire didn't gloss over divorce. You see exactly how difficult the separation is for all parties involved: Daniel (Robin Williams) and Miranda Hillard (Sally Field) and their three children. For Daniel, life without his kids—or life without more than one day of visitation—is so painful he cooks up a Tootsie-like scheme to become an old, British nanny. His limited time with "his goddamn kids" is warranted, though. He's an oversized kid, which makes it easy to connect with his children. But his immaturity and irresponsibility make him more a friend than a father. As a kid, I watched the party at the beginning of the film and focused on the fun. Now, as an adult, I realize it was reckless and represented a failure to be his partner's teammate and follow through on a punishment plan. It isn't until he plays the part of a fastidious, responsible, and caring caretaker that the role becomes a part of him and he grows into a better father.
Daniel's final monologue, delivered in character as Mrs. Doubtfire on a children's TV show, shows how he's let go of the resentment of his ex-wife and accepted divorce:
"Some parents when they're angry, they get along much better when they don't live together. They don't fight all the time, and they can become better people and much better mommies and daddies for you.... Just because they don't love each other anymore doesn't mean they don't love you. There are all sorts of families. Some families have one mommy. Some families have one daddy or two families.... Some live in separate homes in separate neighborhoods in different areas of the country, and they may not see each other for days, weeks, months, or even years at a time. But if there's love those are the ties that bind, and you'll have a family in your heart forever."
This message may not seem like a big deal now, when 68% of Americans consider divorce morally acceptable, but at the time it wasn't a common enough refrain. Four years apart, in 1992 and 1996, the Philadelphia Daily News and Seattle Times, respectively, ran trend pieces on the pushback against divorce. The Seattle Times focused on how to make marriages work better without acknowledging some don't need to be mended—they need to be amputated.
Only the Philadelphia Daily News gives space to the contrarian view, suggesting that divorce isn't to be avoided at nearly all costs, and that it isn't as threatening to American values as Communism had been just years before. (Worrying about divorce or Communism ruining this country are equally laughable thoughts now.) The article followed a couple, Lynette and Mike, who discussed divorce but stayed together for five years just for the children before finally separating. Lynette acknowledged the difficulty her children had with the divorce but also reported a surge of self-confidence that dissenting therapist Cynthia Shar said is paramount for children to witness.
"The last few months that we were together," Lynette said, "I forgot what it was like to smile...I feel very independent now. I feel good about myself. I thought I couldn't handle it by myself, but I can."
Still, Lynette acknowledges the stigma. She said she felt like her neighbors were pointing their fingers at her and gossiping. The figures the Daily News reports, which are similar to the ones I listed above, validate her suspicions.
Blakely argued not only that divorce isn't the enemy to the institution of marriage, but that the possibility of a split is necessary to keep it alive: "It may not be immediately obvious to righteous traditionalists, but the survival of ex-wives is critical to the happiness of still-wives. By restricting divorce, the message that goes out to negligent husbands and abusive fathers is this: Be mean, be brutal, do whatever you want—your wife can't leave."
Mrs. Doubtfire didn't dive this deeply into the consequences of stigmatizing divorce—understandable for a PG-13 film that grossed more than $400 million worldwide—but it didn't have to. The film stood up before millions of people with a dissenting voice that said, "Divorce is acceptable; sometimes divorce is the best thing for everyone." It was a powerful stance at the time, one that audiences most likely didn't expect from a comedy that leaned heavily on Robin Williams' penchant for funny accents. Movie lovers will never forget his awesome talents, but they should also appreciate his role in this surprisingly progressive experience.
Ian Servantes is a contributing writer. He tweets here.