Best Interests and Bad Decisions: The Hollywoodization of Custody Battles

Curator's Note

The courtroom is a space once removed. It exists within, yet is resolutely separate from, the world beyond its doors; a space with its own rules, hierarchies, and atmosphere. Nowhere is this clearer than in Mrs Doubtfire (Columbus, 1993), as the film’s brightly lit suburban world is abruptly replaced—without so much as an establishing shot—with the dark, oppressive interior of the courtroom. Despite its function for mediating custody disputes, here the courtroom is signified as a space removed from the family. As a result, doubt is cast on its ability to determine the “best interests” of the children or, indeed, the family as a whole. Frequently, it is the father who loses out, in this case the demonstrably loving figure of Daniel, left bereft by the court’s ruling. 

Straightforward custody agreements are not generally determined within a courtroom, yet for dramatic purposes Hollywood has frequently overlooked this, preferring the adversarial to the banal. Parents face off in a “battle” for rights and access. In The Next Best Thing (Schlesinger, 2000) Robert must justify his fatherhood from the witness box; the very title of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) is another reminder of this conflict dynamic.  

Yet the real villain is frequently the law practitioners themselves, incapable of recognising the value of the familial—and particularly the paternal—bond. In I Am Sam (Nelson, 2001) Sam, battling to keep custody of Lucy (and quoting Kramer in the process), reminds his lawyer Rita to value her time with her son. In Liar Liar (Shadyac, 1997), Fletcher unscrupulously strips a father of his custody in order to gain promotion; only when his son Max curses him with the inability to lie does Fletcher realise his failings as both father and lawyer. 

Hollywood’s dramatization of the custody battle coincided with the proliferation of fathers’ rights groups, and reflects one dominant narrative of such organisations: that custody law is fundamentally dismissive of, and deleterious to, the father. Though in reality the family court performs many necessary functions, on screen it is cast as resolutely Other to the family itself, serving the best interests of no one, least of all the flawed but loving dads caught in the system.  


Thank you very much for your post. I really enjoyed it. I am glad to see someone writing about the treatment of custody battles in cinema. I have seen different portrays of such battles in cinema. I have also seen such portrayals on television. Thus, it is nice to see someone address this topic.

I like your discussion of the representation of the courtroom space in Mrs. Doubtfire. I saw the movie during its original release, but did not notice the lighting of the courtroom. I'll have to look out for it the next time I watch the movie.

There's certainly something at work in the courtroom drama, as you suggest, with regards to the defense of masculinity. It would be interesting to pair the development of paternity defense in film with development in women's legal rights. Kramer vs. Kramer came immediately to mind when I saw the title of your post, but it's so interesting to start with highlighting Mrs. Doubtfire. I'll definitely have to revisit this early 90's classic!

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