One reason I remain fascinated by the Heene “balloon boy” spectacle is that you don’t often see such a blatant case of father-blaming in the media. I can easily name famous mothers who murdered – Susan Smith, Andrea Yates – but I can’t think of a father who killed his kids and drew similar media attention. We all know that the mother of Britney and Jamie Lee Spears is a lousy mom. I can recall the name of JonBenet Ramsey’s mother (Patsy). Who are their fathers? No clue. [Update 10/22/09, 12:30 a.m.: I'm not suggesting Patsy Ramsey murdered her daughter, and in comments Mandolin notes that she was exonerated. My intended point was the media and much of the viewing public - myself included - forged a broad consensus that sexualizing one's child prematurely and letting them be judged on appearance is not healthy. The media blamed Patsy for this almost exclusively.]
And even if you’ve forgotten who Nadya Suleman is, you likely remember “Octomom.”
I’m not defending the actions or judgment of any of these women, just observing that it’s unusual for media attention to focus on fathers’ misdeeds. To be sure, not every last commentator is pouncing on Richard Heene. At the HuffPost, Norman Lear expresses empathy for Heene, saying he just wanted to grab his 15 minutes. Lear conveniently ignores the fact that most fame-hungry adults neither break the law nor drag their kids along for the ride.
It’s telling, though, that Lear doesn’t see any need to defend the kids’ mother, Mayumi Heene. Why, exactly, is the media focusing on the “bad dad” this time, and practically giving the mother a pass?
Well, for one thing, in their TV interviews Richard has done almost all the talking. Mayumi has hovered at the edge of the spotlight. That makes him appear more culpable, even if they both agreed to the hoax.
For another, his overbearing attitude makes it easy to believe that he hatched the balloon scheme and bullied the rest of the family into going along with it.
Racism just might play a role, too. Tracy Clark-Flory of Broadsheet reports that when the Heenes were on Wife Swap, Richard yelled to his ersatz wife:
“You’re a man’s nightmare. I’m so glad my wife was born in Japan” — presumably because Japanese women like his wife, Mayumi, know how to be appropriately obedient to their husbands.
It’s possible that the media are cutting her more slack because she’s assumed to be stereotypically subservient. If so, that’s the kind of “understanding” that mothers really don’t need.
More optimistically, it’s even possible that our culture is starting to turn allergic against the sort of toxic hypermasculinity that Richard Heene exudes. (Jeff Fecke of Alas just beautifully dissected this brand of masculinity.) We can hope, right?
And then there’s the fact that Richard Heene is an obvious whackaloon. He calls himself a research scientist though his last paid job was laying tile. He believes the world is due to end in 2012. His motive for doing reality TV is evidently to raise enough money to opt-out of world destruction, possibly by building a bunker.
Am I missing anything? And can you think of other “bad dads” who’ve captivated the media? Surely there must be some that I’m forgetting.