Saturday, June 14, 2008

Dads And The Media

In tribute to Father's Day, a group of bloggers have decided to post a series of articles focusing on "Dads In Media".

This blogstorm ought to be intriguing because the bloggers involved are a diverse bunch with varying outlooks on different aspects of general culture, and I was both honored and amazed to be asked to join in.

And then I promptly forgot about the whole thing until I received a reminder this week! (Thanks, RC, and sorry!)

I'm troubled by the way men are portrayed in popular culture, particularly in sitcoms and commercials. There are precious few dads who are shown as anything close to competent, and usually, there's an element of authoritarianism to the portrayal of a father.

Fathers, like the ones in early 60s shows like "Leave It To Beaver" or "Father Knows Best" worked a non-descript, flannel-suited job, came home each day at 6PM, had a drink and read the paper while mom made dinner. If there was any interaction with a child, it was usually in the context of dad pushing his paper aside as if the news out of England was more important than his son's ( didn't bother with the girls) grade in spelling.

My Three Sons was a typical show like this, despite the unusual premise of a widower raising three (and then adopting a fourth) son with a "wife" (the housekeeper, who for some strange reason that would probably raise eyebrows now, was a man, presented as the boys' grandfather/great uncle). The boys would get into some mix-up, the partner housekeeper would offer some advice, the kids would ignore it and dad would come home and straighten things out, usually adding some measure of logic and rationality to the proceedings.

All in thirty minutes. 26, if you count commercials. 52, if you were lucky enough to be "Bonanza".

As noxious as this image was, the was a certain cultural truth to it: back in the 50s and 60s, America was truly patriarchal. The man brought home the bacon, the woman cooked it up. Therefore, since the man was the sole support of the household, often his was the final word.

Somewhere along the way, this image shifted as the culture shifted through several iterations: Archie Bunker, who still held "sway" but could be influenced by a wife's stand or a daughter's tear; Cliff Huxtable, who's wife was at least on the same plane as Cliff, but ultimately, it was Cliff who made the decisions (in close consultation with Claire, but still usually his decision was final); Al Bundy, who while completely NOT in control of his family, managed to create the self-delusion that he was, only to have it shattered time and time again.

Until today, when it is nearly impossible to find a dad on TV who reflects reality.

I think the first TV dad to have begun to "dumb down dads" was Fred Flintstone. Basically The Honeymooners, when Fred and Wilma had Pebbles, Fred never really grew up (Ralph Kramden, the live-action Fred, never had children), and kept doing the same dumb schemes and having to be bailed out by Wilma, usually threatening to leave.

The exaggerated stereotype was OK, I suppose, because it was a cartoon and no one would take a cartoon seriously. Plus, there were plenty of TV dads to model fatherly behavior that was appropriate at the time.

Now? Not so much. Watch most sitcoms and dramas, or nearly any commercial set in a family, and you will see some Neanderthal scratching his head, trying to figure out how the world just shot right past him.

In an age that has seen Home Improvement, The Simpsons, and any number of forgettable sitcoms, what recent TV dads reflect some role model for men, some identifiable totem that society can look to that doesn't lampoon men as incompetent boobs when it comes to parenting, inept and totally ignorant of what fatherhood entails?

Fortunately, there are a few.

Roseanne - Although nominally second banana to Roseanne Barr's eponymous character, Dan Conner, played by John Goodman, was there to be a shoulder for Roseanne, and to support her when she had made a decision. He rarely acted out, but the character was realistic because there were times when the couple would fight when they felt strongly about what was going on, as Roseanne did like to control the people around her. He shows strength and compassion, and anxiety over his inability to keep a steady job.

Just like real people do. I was not a big fan of the show, but I did enjoy the camraderie, love and particularly, the repartee between these two.

Scrubs - This is one of my favorite shows of all time, a sitcom set in a hospital that doesn't play for the easy laugh often (indeed, one episode lampoons the entire spangly, brightly colored 80s sitcoms perfectly). It stands to reason that the characters on the show would have depth and dimension, despite their clear connections to characters from commedia dell' artes. Primary among these is Dr. Perry Cox, played by John C McGinley, whose parenting skills extend to drinking scotch from his son's sippy cup while watching the Lakers on TV. Think "House" without the limp.

Cox is like a real dad in that he recognizes how his own father had hurt him so badly and tries to do things differently with his children. His first child, his son Jack, breaks through Cox's rather sizable wall that distances him from other people and you see a genuine affection grow between them (the story arc exploring this is magnificent by the way, and any dad who has seen it can identify with Cox). In Cox's world, his real life and his work life tend to bleed over into one another, just like a real person's might without the "I'm so mad at my boss" rant you see on too many sitcoms.

I don't think it's a surprise that we have here two shows trying to deal humorously with the horrors of real life, and sometimes failing, have characters that hearken back to B J Hunnicutt of M*A*S*H: men for whom family is the respite from the world, not an extension of their incapacity to deal with it, and yet, the family creates its own tension for them, tensions they have to try to drown out somehow.