A sitcom that stands out by subverting race and gender norms on network TV.
The NBC sitcom Guys With Kids is certainly not the best sitcom to ever air. It’s not particularly “edgy” (read: offensive) or flamboyant. It’s a light, clever show that manages to avoid flooding the audience with cliché family moments. The series started off slowly, with Anthony Anderson consistently overacting one of the main characters, stay at home dad Gary. But as the season progressed Anderson settled into his role, and I began to view him as one of the most mold breaking characters on television.
Yes, the stay at home dad occasionally makes an appearance on television, even sometimes in a major role, as in the short-lived sitcom The Stay-at-Home Dad, but Anderson’s character differs from the typical sitcom stay at home dad in a few ways that challenge typical notions of masculinity differently than any show has so far on television.
While his wife (played by Tempestt Bledsoe) works as a successful attorney, Gary spends his days at the couple’s condo caring for his four young boys: two grade school children and a set of infant twins. Sometime before the show began he was a successful commercial real estate agent, once commenting that he swept the local real estate awards before quitting when his wife gave birth to twins. Toward the end of the season, Gary begins a home business to increase his life satisfaction and supplement his family’s income. As his business begins to take off, he realizes that he is unable to care for his children while working, and his wife encourages him to hire someone to help with the child care. Instead, Gary decides that he’d rather care for his children himself and hire someone to help run his business.
In contrast to many other television stay at home dads, Gary’s decision to stay home with his children isn’t a result of occupational impotence. Despite two successful, lucrative careers, Gary decides that he’d rather stay home so he doesn’t miss important moments in his children’s lives. On most other shows, men who become stay at home dads do so because they lose their jobs and/or are unable to find employment that would offset the cost of childcare. They are forced to assume feminine gender roles because they are unable to fulfill masculine gender roles by providing for their families. They are, in essence, feminized. Unable to be “real men,” they are lowered on the gender hierarchy and forced to do “woman’s work.” As soon as another opportunity presents itself, these men readily abandon their stay at home dad duties, like the temporary SAHD character, Joel, on NBC’s Parenthood.
On The Stay-at-Home Dad, the main character struggled to contain his rabid masculinity, manage his home, and censor his cursing. By contrast, Guys With Kids’ Gary subverts the sitcom paradigm by choosing to stay home. His decision represents an alternate masculinity that blurs traditional gender roles. In addition, he is a real man who doesn’t devalue femininity by equating housework with castration: Gary is good at housework. The show’s comedy doesn’t center on Gary’s supposed masculine inability to cook, clean, and parent effectively. With his ability to successfully perform supposedly feminine tasks, Gary destabilizes gender essentialism.
Gary is black, which makes his character that much more remarkable. Black masculinity, especially in the popular imagination, is much more prohibitive than white masculinity. Even when they are not portrayed as the ultra-masculine criminals, athletes, and entertainers, black male characters are almost always respectable men in traditional masculine family roles. From Goodtimes to The Hughleys, black husbands always attempted to break the stereotype of the black man as a criminal by adhering to the traditional image of a man as the patriarchal provider for his family and leader of his household. Gary adds a much needed alternate image to the television canon of black masculinity.
Unfortunately, due to low ratings the show will probably be cancelled after only one season, which means that Gary will lose his spot on cable television and be relegated to the depths of Hulu. But hopefully, he is only the first of many black male television characters to directly challenge our views on masculinity and blackness in ways that are both disarming and affirming.