Resisting the Images of Dad in Popular Culture: Still a Thing

What do Homer Simpson, Al Bundy and Fred Flintstone have in common?

Homer Simpson, Al Bundy, Phil Dunphy and Fred Flinstone are all fathers portrayed as goofy and inept by the mainstream media. They are often shown as fathers who are eager to shed their parenting responsibilities to escape with their friends or fulfill their own plans, often at the expense of their children. Fred Flintstone was the ultimate bumbling father. While animated, it was certainly a powerful and lasting image. You can almost hear his booming voice shouting “WILMA!”. While things may be starting to change, there are decades of media portrayals of fathers as incompetent, childish and bumbling.

Since the 1980s, the images have shifted to really emphasize the goofiness and incompetence of fathers as a parent. It is difficult to find a children’s show without a goofy father positioned next to the super-competent mother figure.

“Lighten up, it’s funny”

While occasionally funny, the joke should be wearing thin. There seems to be a growing conversation about the portrayal of dads in the media and people are starting to notice that the abundance of negative images of fathers is getting tiring. There are some very professional and savvy efforts emerging that recognize the engaged and attentive dad.

Something changes when you have a child, and parenting is something most people take very seriously. When your child comes into the world, it’s not at all uncommon for your heart to explode with love as you get ready to do anything to be the best dad possible.

Statistics about Dads in the Media

Neilson (2012) suggests that in storybooks, mothers are depicted as nurturing twice as often as fathers. TV programs and commercials tend to be more direct in making fun of or criticizing fathers. In fairytales, fathers are often presented as characters who mistreat or abandon their daughters. If they aren’t mistreating them, they are ignoring them and are blindly leaving them to be mistreated by evil stepmothers. “In a survey of 200 best-selling storybooks, mothers were depicted as nurturing more than twice as often as fathers. In 65% of the stories, the mother was taking care of the children compared with only 47% of the fathers” (Nielson, 2012, p.13) In the types of media that we consume even more readily, fathers are shown to be profoundly (up to eight times!) more likely to be shown negatively than mothers (Neilson, 2012, p.14).

Where they are not shown as being clearly mean and abusive, they are often depicted as incompetent and foolish in comparison to their hard-done-by spouse (Pehlkey, Hennon, Radina, & Kuvalanka, 2009). (Neilson, 2012, p.14). Overall, “[i]n the 100 top-grossing box office films from 1990 until 2005, the fathers generally were depicted as less responsible, less likeable, and less competent than the mothers (Smith, Pieper, Granados, & Choueiti, 2010) (Neilson, 2012, p.17). Many returning shows or sitcoms are the ones that depict fathers as clumsy, goofy oafs with silly or funny advice for their children. The children are often rescued or put on the right path by the competent, confident and capable mother figure (Weinman, 2006, p.60).

An all too common experience

Even today there seems to be the need to overcome the poor images of fathers that dominate the popular consciousness. As a single father trying my very best to be a good dad, I would look for positive images and written material about single dads. The local and popular cultural context that surrounded me was filled with limiting and negatively connoted images and discourses around fathering, in particular single fathering. Everywhere you looked there were images of deadbeat dads, disappearing dads and of course, the ever-popular abusive ex-husband. Following my divorce, I would often be asked things like, “do you get to see her much?” or “do you get help to look after your daughter?”. My ex-wife is not asked those questions, since the assumption is that she has full custody. No one wonders if she knows how to parent, because she is the mom. But the dad, well, he obviously needs help.

Negative images of dads in the media can undermine the role men play in the family. Media plays a large role in influencing attitudes, perceptions and behaviour, so negative portrayals of dads in the media can also lower expectations for a dad’s contributions.

For single dads, the stigma can be almost unbearable

It is difficult enough to be a single parent, but added criticism and concern simply because you are a single dad can be very problematic. It can interfere with creating a healthy community and support network. Parenting is a team sport, even if you are separated, widowed or divorced. Whether it’s an ex-partner, a new partner or support from your family and friends, keep in mind that it’s better for your child(ren) to have more love and support. The stereotypically negative images of fathers and the assumptions that are made about single fathers can prevent men from reaching out to build a community and network of support.

Join the positive conversation

Thankfully, there are efforts being made to shift and change how men and fathers are portrayed in the media. There are popular new shows that portray the varied and unique family constellations, and how fathers can be positive influences on their children. Try tuning in to one of the shows that seek to find humour in ways that don’t require making fun of dads, their parenting situations or their relationship with their kids.

Author

  • Jeff is a seasoned leadership and transformation consultant, thought partner, researcher and advocate for men’s mental and relational health. As CEO of the Bluerock Project, Jeff works with social purpose leaders to develop creative leadership, complexity fitness and relationally resilient cultures. Jeff is co-founder and director of the Men & Project and works with people interested in finding more helpful and relational ways to shift some of our grand narratives on gender, mental health, and violence.

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