Although divorce was taboo for much of the 20th century, it made its way onto the big screen as early as the silent era, in this film starring Clara Bow and Gary Cooper. And the fate of the three kids with divorced parents is pretty bleak. Two are raised in a convent after their moms give them up, and the other doesn’t fare much better at home. As they grow up, a tragic tangle of love affairs ensues, ending in suicide. Which pretty much reflects what most people back then thought was inevitable children of divorce.
It took much longer for divorce to reach television. In fact, the first TV divorce didn’t happen until 1977, when Rhoda separated from her husband Joe in the show’s third season and made the split official in the fourth. Fans of the show didn’t take the development well, with hate mail pouring in for everyone from producers to actor David Groh (who played Joe).
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
By the time Kramer vs. Kramer came out, starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep as a divorcing couple with a son, broken marriages were beginning to feel zeitgeist-y. The film, which focuses on a father’s struggle to raise a child alone and the painful minutia of custody battles, cleaned up at the Oscars: It won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, with Hoffman and Streep both taking home awards, too.
Meryl Streep also stars in this campy classic, as Mary Fisher, a beautiful, rich romance novelist who steals dowdy, servile Ruth Patchett’s (Roseanne Barr) husband, Bob. After an initial attempt to ignore the affair, Ruth cracks and Bob leaves her. The rest of the movie chronicles her successful quest to bring him down by destroying everything he holds dear. For wronged women everywhere, this (and The First Wives Club, naturally) are pure catharsis.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
Everyone who grew up in the ’90s has seen Mrs. Doubtfire at least once. It’s the story of Daniel, a recently divorced dad (Robin Williams) whose ex, Miranda (Sally Field), has primary custody of his kids because he’s unemployed. He solves both problems by dressing up as an old lady and answering Miranda’s ad for a housekeeper, winning the hearts of both the children and their mom… until he gets found out. But, somehow, because he’s Robin Williams, all is forgiven and everybody’s happy by the end.
Beverly Hills, 90210 (’90s)
Remember when Kelly’s mom married David’s dad? And then they had a kid? And then he cheated? And then they got divorced? And then they got back together? And then they got divorced again? Yeah, that was rough. Not to mention confusing!
The O.C. (2004)
On the 90210 of the ’00s (and no, the new 90210 series doesn’t deserve that title), Marissa’s privileged world begins to unravel when her father makes some serious professional mistakes and covers them up by stealing from his own clients. Amid the disgrace, her trailer park-bred mom kicks him to the curb — all at the very beginning of a long, complicated character arc that eventually ends in Marissa’s tragic death.
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
There’s nothing more brutal than watching really smart people who know each other well fight. And therein lies the sting of Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film about a boy (Jesse Eisenberg) coming of age as his Brooklyn family dissolves. The real asshole of the story is his father (Jeff Daniels), a formerly successful novelist and professor whose output has slowed to a trickle, a frustration he never hesitates to take on his family — especially his wife.
On this British series about bad teenage behavior, many of the kids have divorced parents. But the show’s most wrenching breakup happens when Effy’s dad learns that her mom is cheating — with his boss. Although Effy maintains a tough exterior for a while, the combination of her parents’ split, social strife, and a long battle with her own demons lands her in a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt.
Mad Men (2009)
A rocky marriage, riddled with infidelity, finally came to an end last season, when Betty discovered she didn’t even know Don’s real name. Since this is the early ’60s, the couple’s divorce is something of a scandal in suburbia (although it’s no oddity in the cosmopolitan world of advertising). Betty re-marries, Don moves into a kind of depressing Manhattan bachelor pad, and neither seems particularly well-equipped to raise their children.