Andrew Smiler pines for the return of competent father figures in popular culture.
Pop culture is important. It permeates our lives and becomes an integral part of our way of relating to each other. Whether you like the content or not, almost everyone has a sense of what “American Idol” is about, just like we all asked, “Can you hear me now?” and “Where’s the beef?”
To get that kind of notoriety you need two things: a product and an audience. No matter how catchy, appealing, or clever the product is, if it doesn’t grab the attention of a whole lot of people, it won’t become part of pop culture.
I’m in my 40s, but I still pay attention to some parts of pop culture. One of the reasons is that I spend a fair amount teaching 18-21 year olds and using examples from pop culture can provide a variety of benefits for them and for me. I also study 15-25 year olds and knowing what terms they use and what’s going on in “their” culture helps me make sense of some of the things they tell me. Each generation is different, at least in some ways.
Over the years, pop culture—television in particular—has changed the way that fathers and families are usually portrayed. From the 50s through the 80s, most of those shows focused on families where fathers were smart, knowledgeable, and respected by their wife and their kids. It didn’t matter if you were in Mayberry with The Andy Griffith Show, Milwaukee with Happy Days, Brooklyn with The Cosby Show, San Francisco with Full House, or any of dozens of other shows. Those dads didn’t always know everything, but they definitely had a set of characteristics that many of us aspire to. And yes, some of them are now horribly dated and reflect sexist or racist attitudes of their time, but that doesn’t make those fathers any less honest or upstanding.
Over the last two decades or so, those guys have vanished. They’ve been replaced by dads like Homer Simpson, Tim Taylor (of Home Improvement), Al Bundy (from Married, with Children), and Peter Griffin (of Family Guy), among others. These guys represent a very different version of fatherhood, one in which dads are barely competent with their kids. On these shows, when mom leaves dad alone with the children, she’s happy if none of the kids are seriously injured and the house is still standing when she gets home. Fatherly advice often takes the form of clichés and truisms, or is flat out inappropriate.
These new fathers aren’t all bad though. They’re mostly likeable; they genuinely care about their kids and are part of their kids’ lives. And they have jobs; that’s important, because mothers on these shows have about a 50% unemployment rate. These dads also want the best for their kids, even if they have no real idea how to make that happen.
It bothers me that the folks who make decisions about TV keep putting these guys out there for us to watch. But it bothers me more that we keep watching them. In the highly competitive and imitation driven world of TV programming, these dads wouldn’t keep being on my screen if there weren’t millions of people tuning in every week.
The fact that millions of people watch it means that somehow, these guys resonate with us. For one, I think watching incompetent dads makes us feel better. After all, most of us know better than to do what these guys do, so it helps reassure us that we’re doing all right. Especially for those guys who didn’t have a father who was a good role model and are trying to figure it out as they go.
But I think there’s also a problem here. What does it mean that we’ve replaced those competent fathers with a caring but barely competent image? While it’s good that these TV fathers are caring, I don’t think that’s enough.
TV shows that focus on families are usually the first primetime shows that kids watch. That means these guys are some of the first dads children get to know. While these fathers aren’t altogether incompetent, they’re not exactly solid role models. I’m not sure how an eight-year-old or a 12-year-old really sorts through the idea of: “I like this dad, but I don’t really want to be like this dad” or “I like this dad but I wouldn’t actually want him as a father.”
For men, I think this barely competent image of a father reinforces the idea that once a guy gets married, the fun part of his life is pretty much over. After all, this group of TV dads are usually the butt of the joke; we laugh at them, not with them.
For young (and not so young) women, seeing these guys on show after show can reinforce the notion that “good men are hard to find.” Most teenagers only see the workings of other families through TV (and other media sources), and if most fathers (and husbands) are barely competent, how does that influence a young woman’s aspirations? Does it mean she should settle for a guy who’s “good enough” or she should find a guy who’s got potential and shape him into the man she wants?
Maybe it’s the result of Feminism. But that seems unlikely. I have a hard time believing there’s some great conspiracy between Feminist leaders, whoever they might be, and Hollywood moguls who also objectify women. I’m pretty sure those feminists aren’t too fond of Mad Men, The Real Housewives, and this year’s dead-on-arrival The Playboy Club.
I hope Hollywood finds the competent dads again. I think we need them.