The depiction of fathers in popular culture is one that has evolved slowly over time, but appears to be at a point where it has caught up with the reality of current society. For decades, fathers were depicted as aloof, oafish, and unwilling or unable to participate in many facets of daily family life. Characters like Homer Simpson, Al Bundy, or Peter Griffin, come to mind immediately when thinking of some of the more popular and well known fictional pop culture father figures. Those character types will probably always have a place in television shows, but there seems to be a concerted push by many parties to represent fathers in today’s world differently, with a focus being on younger dads.
An obvious statement: life today is different than it was 30 years ago. In general, the family unit has had a complete makeover from the time when Married with Children and The Simpsons first aired. A typical family arrangement had the father working full-time, with the mother staying at home to tend to children. In many ways, being a father meant that you were detached from your children most of the time and when you did come home, your main focus was on relaxing and unwinding.
This general portrayal may have been accurate, or at least relatable, for the times, but those character types are no longer as relevant to our current society. Family units more often than not require both spouses to be working in order to support the household. Having the father be the sole provider for a family is viewed as uncommon and a luxury in current society. With societal roles changing so that both parents are working to provide for a family, this enables an environment were there will be a blending of household duties. If a mother is working, the father watching the children does not have the luxury of not wanting to change a diaper; it becomes a requirement in order to function on a basic level. Beyond that, there isn’t a stigma associated with men doing chores or “women’s work”, it just goes with the territory of being a father. In Hanna Rosin’s article “The Evolution of the Doltish Dad” for Slate.com, the author details this more clearly: “The father who comes home to pat his kid on the head and then sits down to read the newspaper is now an anomaly. Consequently, jokes about dads who can’t figure out the diaper fall flat. Recently, a group of fathers started a public campaign to protest a Huggies ad showing a group of football watching dads ignoring their infants, as the diapers grew heavy and smelly. Huggies pulled the ad and show a new one.” (6)
New one: (2)
The fact that a campaign would be started from the uproar of the portrayal of dads being unwilling to change diapers over watching football, is telling for how much society has changed on that front. That idea for a commercial just doesn’t work now. Here is another commercial from Huggies “Dad Campaign”:
The dads in these commercials are all young, energetic, and watching the kids without the mother present. This is very far removed from the depiction of characters like Al Bundy.
Because of the public outcry Huggies pulled the first ad with the hapless fathers and replaced it with a version that they felt the public would find less offensive. The question then becomes why do these portrayals of fathers still continue? Seth Stevenson in the article “The Reign of the Doltish Dad,” expands on this thought: “But why does it work? What Makes galumphing hubby such an enduring stock character?… The simpler conclusion to draw is that there’s a dollop of truth in the caricature. We all know goodhearted dudes who are a teensy slow on the uptake, forever a step behind their sharper female companions. By no means does every heterosexual relationship exhibit this dynamic, but it happens frequently enough to provoke a chuckle on TV” (7)
One of my favorite clips from the show “Louie” blends a few aspects of fatherhood portrayal:
I don’t want to fully detail what this clip shows because it takes away from how great it is, but what I found interesting about it was the fact that on a basic level it shows the main character, Louis, having extreme difficulties fixing a doll that he bought for his daughter and exhibiting many of the previously stated stereotypes of the doltish dad- this skit could have been on a show 30 years ago. However, when you examine the show on the whole, the series revolves around a single young father who is essentially doing the best that he can to raise his kids and the struggles that go along with it. The show often shows Louis doing his daughters hair, fixing their meals, walking them to school, which are all qualities that most current dads can relate to. There are “dollops of truth” throughout the show, but the main focus isn’t on what Louis is incapable of doing as a father, but on what is required of him.
Another example of fatherhood being highlighted in mainstream television, particularly young dads, is in the 2012 sitcom Baby Daddy, which was released on ABC Family. The show centers on a mid-20’s independent guy who had a one-night stand and then months later had a child left on his doorstep. Beyond the legal ramifications and silliness behind the plot, I think it is a really important concept for a show, especially with how it relates to the portrayals of fathers. The show highlights the evolution of the main characters personality and how he deals and grows with the reality of becoming a father. Having a child left on your doorstep doesn’t just happen in reality, but in many ways becoming a father feels a lot like that. One day you are responsible for yourself and then suddenly you are entrusted with the life of something that seems infinitely fragile. The life you had before is gone and a new life begins, for better, worse, or something in between. The show is meant to be light-hearted, and it is, but with my background the overall plot was oddly appealing. Unsurprisingly, the main character in the show grows out of his old party life style and eventually settles into being a dad and all the shenanigans that go along with it.
As much as there has been a change in perceptions about fatherhood, not all portrayals of young fathers are completely positive. As you would expect, there is no perfect way to portray a wide-ranging large portion of the population, because everyone within that population has different values and belief systems. Reality television makes up a large portion of consumed popular culture. Shows like Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant are two well-known and popular shows that focus primarily on young mothers and fathers. A young girl gets unexpectedly pregnant and her life is then followed. The boyfriends who eventually become fathers become central characters. Both of these shows are trying to get viewers by having real life drama and in most cases the young dads are the antagonists. Drug, alcohol, and criminal problems are a common theme. I understand that the shows exist purely to get viewers, which they do extremely well, but overall I think that these shows go out of their way to highlight the deadbeat young dads for the sake of having a dramatic element. Granted these dads are very young, in some cases still in high school, but very few of them adjust at all to having kids or are given much of a chance to be liked in the show. You can even tell subtle changes in music and ambient noise when some of the dads come on screen. It may be comparing apples to oranges, but fatherhood is portrayed and produced much differently in these reality shows than in shows like Louie or Baby Daddy. I think that in the long run, reality shows that focus on the most dramatic elements of being a young family, do an overall disservice to many young fathers because they are being portrayed in ways that may not be completely accurate.
The portrayal of fatherhood is something that has changed dramatically in recent time and will undoubtedly continue to evolve along with society. The portrayal of fathers as being unwilling or unable to partake in household duties has shifted, along with the society, to show fatherhood in a light that highlights a willingness and resolve to be present in their children’s lives. When those current values that highlight the best aspects of fatherhood are not shown and old stereotypes are rehashed, it often falls flat with audiences. There isn’t a stigma with men doing household and childrearing work because the days of a single-family member supporting the family are all but done. It is cool to be a dad and being a dad involves helping in whatever way you can with your children.
(1) Baby Daddy. Perf. Jean-Luc Bilodeau. ABC Family, 2012. 20 June 2013. Web. 28 Feb. 2015.
(2) Huggies. Dad Campaign. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Mar. 2015.
(3) Huggies. Real Dads. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.
(4) Louie. Perf. Louis C.K. New Year’s Eve. FX, 8 Sept. 2012. Web.
(5) Married… With Children. Perf. Ed O’Neill. FOX. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Feb. 2015.
(6) Rosin, Hanna. “TV and Film’s Doltish Dad Gets a Makeover.” Slate.com. N.p., 15 June 2012. Web. 01 Mar. 2015.
(7) Stevenson, Seth. “This Huggies Ad Starred a Doltish Dad. Then Real Fathers Complained.” Slate.com. N.p., 26 Mar. 2012. Web. 01 Mar. 2015.