Redefining Fatherhood Through Kratos
With Father’s day just around the corner, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a father and what the role of fatherhood is in popular narrative as opposed to what it could be.
To start, I’m going to level with you: I obsess over stories because stories tell us how to be. They give us ways to experience the world and feel, ways to define who we are and who we want to be. Fictional characters become totemic in that we adopt portions of them and make them our selfs.
Explaining this to people is weird because they often don’t get it, but what is a holy text but a series of stories? We build philosophies and moral codes and identities based on the movies and comics and books we read. The figures therein are immortal, inspiring not only us but people we will never meet, and they speak of the cultures we come from as much as the cultures they are tied to.
We’re going through a cultural revolution right now, one that is overdue and may have come too late: the patriarchal capitalist paradigm we find ourselves in is based on a heady combination of nihilism and materialism and greed and it’s quickly killing us all. The system that we built made us into commodities, and part of that was the required destruction of a healthy self-identity.
For males, this means the butchering of any emotion other than anger. Men are not allowed to feel and are starved for physical contact, and the detrimental effects are clear in higher suicide rates, a lack of emotional communication or maturity, and a need to denigrate anyone that dares to deviate from the norm.
“How dare they be allowed to feel,” thinks the male that has fallen for this trap.
The definition, then, is tied to doing. “A man provides,” says Gus from Breaking Bad, one of the most terrifying villains in recent fiction. He’s justifying his own actions and providing a definition on paper. A man provides means that a man provides exclusively in terms of material goods – shelter, food, and that’s really it. It has nothing to do with emotion and nothing to do with feeling, because patriarchy demands that men mutilate their ability to feel.
But we’re feeling creatures. We’re animals and we do best when we work with one another, not against one another – but patriarchy and capitalism demands the inverse, that we screw one another and not have sympathy and not care how bad we have it so long as someone else has it worse, or we can make someone worse.
One of the primary examples of this was the original God of War trilogy. A Spartan named Kratos was killed and sold himself to Ares, who tricked him into murdering his family and stained his skin with their ashes. Kratos went after Ares, killing and replacing him before discovering that he was one of Zeus’ children. Thereafter, he went after Zeus and all the other Olympians, destroying them all in visceral fashion, feeling nothing but rage and hate, giving life to the terrible violence that lived in his heart.
God of War worked because it played to the tropes of Classical Greek tragedy, but as the series moved on it became a visceral means of an abusee dealing with abuse. It’s all the anger, guilt, and resentment that come with being made a victim, with perpetuating a cycle of hate. The reward for beating the game is the end of the world, because that sort of hatred is self-destroying and repeats itself in an endless cycle of societal entropy, where victims are blamed for suffering and become abusers in turn.
As a narrative, God of War celebrates that entropy and nihilism and ends where it began: in death and tragedy.
So, when a new game was announced, we expected more of the same.
Instead, we found an older and wiser Kratos. Reflective. He’s buried his past and made peace with it, moved on and found happiness. He left his demons in the past, created a new family. He married, had a son he cares for, and the whole of this game – while still being a violent masterpiece – shows Kratos teaching his son, protecting his son, and the two of them travel together to lay his wife to rest. She’s dead before the game begins but her strength and character are felt throughout the rest of the story, driving Kratos and his son forward.
This game is about moving past abuse as much as one can. It’s about not repeating the mistakes of the past, about making peace with your demons but still recognizing that they are there and they will never truly go away. It’s about making a better life and a better future for yourself.
So, with that in mind, what can Kratos teach us about fatherhood?
That it’s important to let your children experience life, to guide them but to let them make their own mistakes. To keep them safe and nurture their talents and interests, to not live vicariously through them but to celebrate them for who they are growing into. To respect the past and explain what was, and to be strong enough to admit ignorance and to find answers that are true.
We’ve talked about strength before, about the idea that strength is more about building and helping others stand more than in knocking anything down. Kratos killed his father the way Zeus killed his and Cronos killed his before him, but Kratos is taking the time to know his son, to celebrate his accomplishments. Kratos has learned not to be a dick, and in so doing has become a stronger character and stars in a better game than anything we’ve seen from this character or studio before.
Can we expect any less from our fathers or ourselves, we who are or might one day be fathers? Can we not help our children grow, love them for who they are, and want to learn what they define their happiness as and help them achieve it? To live in this world and make it better?
I’m not sure, but I hope so.
Happy Father’s Day.