June 2nd, 2014
Father Still Knows Best
As of late, many people and media outlets have unnecessarily come to the defense of fathers, or more accurately, the perception of father figures in pop culture. In 2010, Forbes published an article by Jenna Goudreau entitled “The Changing Roles of TV Dads”. It cleverly dissected the change of father figures in TV over the years theorizing that “the late ’80s and into the ’90s featured the rise of the idiot dad…as feminism built, moms began overshadowing TV dads, who played the part of the well-meaning idiot.” In another article written by Hanna Rosin for slate.com she came to the aid of dads everywhere by examining the “The Evolution of the Doltish Dad”. She rattles her sabers unnecessarily by postulating, “For nearly the entire history of cinema and especially TV, the doltish dad has thrived as a steady source of comic relief whose only role is to screw everything up and set off the laugh track.” I, on the other hand, see it differently; their concern is misplaced and the father figure does not need rescuing. By reflecting upon popular TV shows through the 80s, 90s, and in present times I believe that TV actually does a remarkable job of portraying father figures as relatable characters who, although satirized and hilariously flawed at times, ultimately will do the right thing.
Even though today I am a 34 year old white male who is married with three children I can still recall the sound of canned laughter reverberating down the hallways of my childhood home. Dinner was finished, dishes were done, and our finished homework tucked neatly away into our backpacks. It was time to watch some TV before bedtime! In the 80s, our offerings for family friendly sitcoms were ripe with choices. Whether it was Clifford Huxtable from The Cosby Show, Jason Sievers from Growing Pains, Steve Keaton from Family Ties, or even Carl Winslow from Family Matters, the TV had no shortage of father figures who wanted to do right by their families even if they were bound to the pitfalls of situational comedy. One father and show always stood out in particular to me in the 80s and that was Danny Tanner in Full House.
Before introducing Danny Tanner and his unique family life let us explore some common concepts and terms that relate to TV shows. The term “sitcom” is a vernacular we use for the phrase “situation comedy.” It is a genre that is rife with sub-genres like “Odd Couple”, “Awful Wedded Life”, or even “Fantastic Comedy”. The sub genre that we are exploring, however, is “Dom Com” or “Domestic Comedy”. This sub-genre will always utilize a typical set of devices or tropes. It is commonplace for these shows to feature the hilarious differences between men and women, perennial “rebellious teenager” issues (including frequently inaccurate stories about what kids are like these days), kids doing the darnedest things, and visits from the wacky neighbor. Situational comedy is also built upon a fairly common equation. One or multiple main characters are thrust into unusual situations, such as misunderstandings, embarrassing coincidences, or mistakes they want to cover up. A critical part of this equation is that our troupe of main characters are often ones we can identify with in some capacity. Ultimately we care about them and whether or not their problems get resolved; even if their problems often result in comedic effect. Lastly, the antagonistic plot point will eventually create a moment of catharsis where everything becomes resolved and the characters share a lesson or special moment, and we, as the audience, are privy to that intimacy. Now that we understand some of the key ingredients of what a “sitcom” is we can begin to look further into Full House and one of its main characters: Danny Tanner.
Full House was created for the ABC Network and premiered in September of 1987. It was the crown jewel in the TGIF Friday night programming lineup. At it’s peak it was ranked #8 out of all shows on broadcast TV and reached approximately 16 million households. It had finally ended its eight season run in 1995 ranked #24. It was a unique cast of characters that centered around a recently widowed father Danny Tanner and his three daughters. Danny’s brother-in-law and best friend move in with Danny’s family to help and the situational comedy ensues.
As a father figure Danny Tanner was committed to his daughters and providing them with the best life he could possibly provide as a single parent living in San Francisco. Danny relies heavily on the other men in his life Jesse (his brother-in-law) and Joey (his best friend) to support him in parenting. He fulfills the archetype of “uncool” dad even though he views himself as “the raddest, baddest dad ever”. He seems to have a lot of authority over his daughters: DJ, Stephanie, and Michelle. They are afraid of disappointing him and getting in trouble like in the episode “The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang” in season four. His loving heart is unparalleled and he frequently emotes: ”Well, just remember when children seem the least lovable, it means they need love the most.” This is a very heartfelt and wise piece of advice that seems unlikely to come from a father, and certainly not a “doltish Dad”. Danny is not, however, without his character flaws.
Danny is obsessed with cleaning, and wants to make sure no speck of dust, dirt, or mildew resides on anything he owns. His motto is, “Clean is good, dirt is bad” and his favorite scent is Lemon Pledge. In fact, in the season five episode “The Trouble with Danny” he exacerbates the entire household with his obsessive behavior. Like a drill sergeant he assigns tasks and inspects them upon completion with military flair. While the rest of the family is venting their frustration about cleaning Danny happens to overhear Joey call him a “crazy psychopath holding a mop.” This, of course, hurts Danny’s feelings and Danny embarks on journey to find a balance between clean and dirty. At the end of the episode Danny and the family share their feelings with each other openly and Danny apologizes openly for being a “clean freak”.
As a father myself, I can relate with Danny in a few ways. While I am not a single parent I am committed to to providing my children with the best life I possibly can, and it certainly “takes a village” to raise three kids. I have relied on family and friends many times in my life as a parent. Whether I was just looking for advice or a babysitter I have looked to other people for help just like Danny relied on Jesse and Joey. I also exhibit authority over my children, after all, my wife will sometimes threaten the children by asking them, “Do you want me to tell you father about that when he gets home?” That may not always work, but for the most part they do not want to disappoint or get in trouble. Much like Danny I, too, also have my character flaws.
I can recall a time that our house was veritable wasteland of chaos. Dirty dishes, unfolded laundry, and children’s toys were threatening to overtake our home. I was struggling to find any corner of the house that could provide solace from the insanity and after stepping barefoot on the jagged corner of a Lego brick that could have doubled as a glass shard I had reached my breaking point. I thundered and stomped around the house expressing frustration and throwing toys back in their bins with a great frustration filled flair. My children got upset and began crying because I was letting my anger get the best of me. Was the house any cleaner? At the end of the day was the dramatic thunderstorm worth the tears? Absolutely not. I had to stop myself, take a deep breath, and be open and honest about my feelings with my children. Most importantly, I apologized and asked for their forgiveness. As a father, one of the most important lessons you can teach your children is that even Dad makes mistakes and he is willing to admit it. Children need to see that a father is just as vulnerable to slip-ups as they are. Speaking of imperfect, let us introduce Tim “The Toolman” Taylor who was ranked #20 out of “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time” (TV Guide).
In 1991 ABC introduced to households everywhere a character that was based on the stand-up comedy routine of Tim Allen. The show was called “Home Improvement” and the star, Tim Allen, literally and figuratively brought himself to life on TV. As a stand-up comedian Allen satirizes manhood–without demeaning women. He spouts “masculinist” philosophies like a geyser of testosterone. He grunts and chortles in primitive Neanderthal-speak, describes a man’s love of lawn care and vehicle maintenance, and pines over the importance chromed wheels and the tool department at Sears. Both Tim Allen and his Tim Taylor lost their father at the age of 11 in a car accident. They appear to be the same person in many regards. These parallels reveal that even though Tim Taylor is a main character who is bound to the tropes of situational comedy he is more than that. He is a reflection of the real man playing the sitcom version of himself.
In the season 5 episode entitled “Room Without a View” Tim’s three sons are getting too old to share a room. But since Tim wants nothing but the best for his kids he, in true Tim Taylor fashion, remodels the basement into an amazing one-of-a-kind bedroom for his eldest son Randy; complete with an amazing computer desk and a reverse laundry chute that sucks Randy clothes up and into the laundry room. Randy is amazed. But spends his entire first night wide awake in the basement overwhelmed with the number of new and unusual sounds that are going bump in the night. He cannot sleep! The usual sitcom plot devices play out as Randy goes to great lengths to hide his inability to sleep in his awesome new room. It is not until Tim discovers Randy’s pillow stashed in the microwave of all places that Randy can finally clear his conscience. Tim, being the loving father he is, shows genuine concern for Randy’s plight. Tim comforts Randy and reminds him lovingly that he is still a kid and it is perfectly normal to be scared of new places, after all, “I was the same exact same way when I was your age”. To put Randy’s mind at ease Tim walks Randy through a list of the sounds that are normal for a basement, explains to him what they are, and Randy is finally able to sleep soundly for the first time in his new room.
I can relate to Tim Taylor as a father and as a man. I can see visions of myself reflected in Tim’s parenting style. We both want to give our kids wonderful experiences even if sometimes we are subject to delusions of grandeur. This episode reminds me of last summer when I decided to have a fun camp out with my kids in our own backyard. My children, Ella and Hudson, were so excited and were more that willing to help. I recall the amount of diligence they exhibited in rolling out the tent, helping me pitch it, and arranging our sleeping bags with careful precision. As they organized our sleeping arrangement I was setting up the most masterful fire pit. Our menu was roasted hot dogs, chips, apples, and even s’mores for dessert. As twilight began to set in and firelight dwindled we watched the first few stars poke pinholes through the dusk and it was time for us to sleep. We crawled into our tent, got comfortable in our well-placed sleeping bags and fell asleep.
“Daddy, I can’t sleep. I think something is outside of our tent!” my daughter, Ella, whispered, shaking me awake. Looking at my watch it had only been a couple hours, but the world outside had grown dark and more quiet. Hudson, my three year old, laying against my back was still fast asleep. “Don’t worry, I’ll check it out.” I looked outside and realized the neighbor’s dog was walking around the fence near our tent, his collar tags jangled in the night. I turned back to Ella, “It’s just the neighbor’s dog, Penny, nothing to worry about.”
“What about the all the lights that keep zoom-zooming by?” she replied, still looking wide-eyed and mildly unconvinced.
“Those are just headlights on the cars driving by. Ella, everything is okay.” I responded.
She sat briefly with the same troubled look on her face. Her eyes darted from side-to-side vigilantly keeping watch for the boogeyman. After a brief reprieve she quietly asked, “Daddy, can I please sleep in my bed?”
“Of course, sweetheart.” I lovingly scooped her up, carried her to her bedroom, tucked her in with her favorite blanket, and watched as she quickly relaxed. “I love you, Daddy. Thanks for taking me camping.” I can only hope that my children remain as innocent as they are today; but as children grow so must your style of parenting.
As the year 2000 approached a new evolution of sitcom was beginning to take shape. Instead of relying on set pieces, live studio audiences, and the laugh tracks that had become synonymous with sitcoms like Full House or Home Improvement pop culture saw the rise of the “mockumentary”. The mockumentary can be summarized as a movie or TV program that takes the form a serious documentary in order satirize it’s subject (tvtropes.org). It can be filmed with a greater degree of camera work, more complex scripting, and provides the audience occasionally with intimate confessionals from the main characters. This is extremely effective because the audience gets to learn more about what our main characters are really thinking. NBC’s The Office made this particular narrative format extremely popular; so much so that its success influenced many other shows after it like ABC’s Modern Family.
Modern Family premiered in 2009 and is still currently airing today. It focuses on the lives of three intertwined families. At the heart of one of those families is the lovable, goofy, and hilarious father, Phil Dunphy. What is unique about watching a mockumentary sitcom starring such a contemporary father figure like Phil Dunphy, versus a traditional sitcom, is that the confessional device provides us with a window into the character and his internal thought processes. Employing this tactic the viewer learns volumes more about Phil Dunphy than we ever would about Tim Taylor or Danny Tanner because suddenly he becomes more real to us. The audience can better understand what motivates him, frustrates him, and how on occasion, he really feels about his kids; and because of this narrative device, I can relate more to Phil Dunphy than any other father figure.
Phil Dunphy is a fun-loving and well-intentioned father of two daughters and one son (just like myself) who sees himself as the “cool dad.” He dotes on his wife Claire and constantly tries to find ways to bond with his three kids. He is seen as very competitive, some examples being his nature of always beating his son, Luke, at basketball. He has a very childlike attitude and is referred to by his wife as the “kid [she’s] married to.” He uses a parenting method that he calls “peerenting”, which is a combination of talking like a peer, but acting like a parent. He is a real estate agent who is very confident in his work, once saying “I could sell a fur coat to an Eskimo.”
Phil Dunphy is the most accurate representation of the contemporary father figure pop culture can provide. Even though at times he is accident prone and doltish, the truth is, I can relate to it. I feel an attachment to Phil and I care about if and how he is able to solve his problem. What makes Phil unique to me personally is that I can see myself being a lot like him as a father as my three kids get older.
Currently my children are still young with the oldest being seven years old. Where as Phil Dunphy is the parent of a 21 year old, 17 year old, and a 14 year old. Trying to raise children at that age is an entirely different dynamic. Even though my children will, most likely, roll their eyes at my puns and over zealous attempts to bond with them I will remain unaware. Phil Dunphy is characteristically unaware of his perception to his children, in fact, in the pilot episode during a confessional moment he said, “I’m Cool Dad, that’s my thang. I’m hip, I surf the web, I text. LOL: laugh out loud, OMG: oh my God, WTF, why the face.” His describes his expectation for being a parent as such: “…if my son thinks of me as one of his idiot friends, I’ve succeeded as a dad.” But despite his tendency to be a buffoon he is protective of his children and in defense of his eldest daughter, Haley who is often the affection of boys, he yells at a would be suitor, “That’s my little girl! I need her to know that no guy on Earth is good enough for her!” His children also are concerned when they disappoint him because they know that, despite his loving nature, “you do not want to poke the bear!” It is easy as a father to see myself in Phil Dunphy despite all of his wackiness.
I think all the wackiness and good intentions are the traits that makes these father figures real. Both Jenna Gordreau and Hanna Rosin have misdiagnosed an issue that is not even really an issue amongst fathers like myself. Gordreau and Rosin have something in common. Both write about a common subject: women’s studies. Gordreau writes particularly about women leadership and Rosin writes on behalf of slate.com’s “Double X” webpage. Double X’s Facebook refers to themselves as “A space for conversation, argument and wit about feminism, gender, sexuality, health, politics, Beyonce and other issues of interest to women and their friends.” In my opinion, these hardly seem to be the appropriate proponents of fatherhood and it’s perception in particular. In an NPR interview Hanna Rosin was even dumbfounded when discussing father figures. Her response when pressed about Bill Cosby as Cliff Huxtable in The Cosby Show was “that Bill Cosby [as Cliff Huxtable]…was an exception.” But later as the interview continued Neal Conan emphasized my point expertly as a counterargument. Rosin was using Homer Simpson as example and Conan replied, “But by the end of the show, it’s…back to the aww moment. Every one of these dads has that moment where everybody’s reconciled and everything’s going ahead swimmingly before the time for the last commercial.” Rosin concedes by re-postulating a viewpoint we had yet to hear until now, “…men are having trouble these days, are struggling and women are supporting their families in many cases, so these sitcoms have an edge they didn’t used to.” That statement infers that it is not about the creation of a doltish dad but, more so, about dads who are being portrayed more typically as out of their element. Also, as a side note, the use of Homer Simpson (or even Peter Griffin from Family Guy) as artifactual evidence is misplaced because they do not belong in the sub-genre of domestic comedy. They would belong to a more satirical, and altogether different, sub-genre referred to as “dysfunctional family”.
Let’s be honest, as the perception of the father figure changed over time, it has actually only become an increasingly more accurate portrayal of fatherhood. Gone are the days of Father Knows Best when father was placed upon an unrealistic pedestal. This depiction is no more accurate than the representation of Donna Reed as the benchmark for the common housewife. It was a fantasy. Nowadays we are presented with a more realistic father figure and, because of that, now we can laugh at ourselves. At times us dads can be doltish, occasionally we rush in without forethought, and we are susceptible to our own weaknesses. We love our children and if the price of that is being portrayed as the doltish dad in the eyes of pop culture, then so be it. But I would conclude that if I can be a fraction of the father that Danny Tanner, Tim Taylor, and Phil Dunphy are then I must have done a darn good job; because if my life were a sitcom at the end of episode I will have ultimately done the right thing, taught a life lesson, and we would have had some laughs along the way.
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