Dads on Sitcoms

On television shows, dads have been portrayed as incompetent dolts reflecting and encouraging a damaging attitude towards men and childcare.
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My son. (Alexis Madrigal/The Atlantic)

ASPEN — As a new dad, I've often been struck with horror at dads I see on TV. On the small screen, dads are dolts, dads are idiots.

And while it may seem harmless to get a few cheap laughs at dads' expense, these characters, and their hilarious incompetence, form the culture backdrop for our society's larger discussion about the roles fathers play in families. The path from Homer Simpson ringing Bart Simpson's neck—his main parental action—to our country's miserable paternity leave rules might be more direct than we think.

"[On TV] if there is a dad in the home, he is an idiot. It must have reflected our own discomfort with dads being competent," said Hanna Rosin on a panel about the future of fatherhood at the Aspen Ideas Festival. "You put a dad in front of his kid, and the dad gives the worst advice. You put a dad in front of a toaster and he burns the house down."

There are a few exceptions to the rule, of course. Most notably Bill Cosby in The Cosby Show. And Rosin is hopeful that things are changing. She's been tracking the role of dads in sitcoms since she wrote a story for Slate about the topic a couple of years ago.

"The network collective subconscious seems to be picking up new cultural signals about fatherhood," Rosin wrote. "The number of stay-at-home dads is still tiny, but the rules of fatherhood have changed a lot since the Honeymooners  days. 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."

Rosin and her co-panelists New York Times columnist Mark Oppenheimer, Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace, and Kay Hymowitz, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute all agreed that this was a good thing. 

I do, too. The idiot dad stereotype structures both the expectations mothers have of the fathers of their children, and how men see their own role within the family. Significantly, as The Atlantic has charted in multiple stories over the past couple years: if we want gender equality, men have to step up as parents to free up their partners as workers. And not when the kids are teenagers, but when they're babies. 

"What I've noticed in my own life and among my friends," Oppenheimer said. "The men who've spent a good deal of time with their kids—maybe not as much as their wives, but a good deal of time—there is a seamless transition as the kids grow up. They develop a competency that they are proud of and that stays with them." 

I've noticed a key variation on this pattern, too. Men who chose to—or had to—spend time alone with their infants develop more parenting skills than those who don't have to "solo," as I call it. And those early experiences compound as the children get older. If you know what you're doing when the kid's two months old, you'll be more likely to know what you're doing when the kid is ten months or ten years old. 

Which is one reason why paternity-leave policies are so important. They allow men to commit to developing the foundations of being an involved, competent father. 

Because the flip side is that men don't know what to do when the baby starts crying or needs to take a nap or a bottle needs to be warmed or a toddler needs to go to the bathroom. They end up as the bumbling sitcom dad, or at best, "the JV parents," as one friend I know refers to the dads who visit her local park on the weekends. 

Perhaps as the culture shifts, fathers will assume their own competence and then spend the time with their children to earn it.

"Until very recently, a guy who wanted to stay at home or be earnest about fatherhood could not see his image reflected on TV, which essentially meant he did not exist," Rosin wrote. Now, perhaps, that man can turn to shows like Up All Night and Parenthood, or the movie What to Expect When You're Expecting.

In that film, Chris Rock plays Vic, a dad. And thankfully, the movie inverts the expectations we've developed through decades of The Honeymooners, The Jetsons, and Leave It to Beaver

"The dads, for once, are not total fools, peripheral to the domestic drama and played entirely for jokes," Rosin wrote. "The whole point of Vic’s 'dudes group,' in fact, is to teach reluctant would-be dads about the charms and wonders of fatherhood. 'We love being dads,' Vic earnestly tells a potential inductee. 'When I was young I used to think I was happy but now I know I’m happy.'"

And, as the sappiest dad on the block, I see you, Vic, and I feel you. 

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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