It's not that I don't enjoy Modern Family, exactly. It's a slick sitcom that showcases some great acting and witty writing. But despite including characters who are gay and people of color, at heart it's a deeply conventional show, more interested in peddling stereotypes than subverting them.
Most often, Modern Family's white heterosexual family with a stay-at-home mom is presented as the default, including in the show's promotional images, most of which literally position them at the centre of the show: the "normal" people those wacky minorities orbit around. The first season poster even made this overt, describing the family units we could expect to see as: "straight, gay, multi-cultural, traditional" — that last word providing reassurance to conservatively-minded potential viewers that storylines wouldn't get too progressive.
In comparison to single moms elsewhere, on Gilmore Girls, they're heroes. In fact, when it comes to parenting on the show, there's a recurring theme: Men! Not quite as good as women, are they?
They're certainly inferior to Lorelai Gilmore, the bright, witty firebrand who single-handedlyraised the cleverest girl in Stars Hollow while working her way from chambermaid to manager of a local inn, gaining a business degree in the process. Sure, at times she's a little over-invested in her daughter Rory's life (like when she sleeps over during Rory's first night at college), and she can be rude and selfish, especially when it comes to her own parents (although not entirely without reason). But she's also the fun mom who'll take you to concerts and and sneak you into her bachelorette party by pretending you're an international supermodel.
No wonder, then, that her parenting prowess doesn't only extend to her own child, but to those of the men she knows and dates, as well.
While men who unexpectedly become single parents are often presented as inspirational, women in the same position tend to be vilified. Take Murphy Brown.
The show's eponymous lead character, a TV journalist, became pregnant in her early forties and soon discovered her baby daddy didn't want to be a father. So this wealthy, talented, intelligent woman set about raising a baby on her own. Responsible, you might think. At the very least, making the best of things. Not according to then-Vice President Dan Quayle, who considered Murphy to be a scourge of humanity.
Back in 1992, Quayle used the occasion of the L.A. Riots as an opportunity for a little moralizing about family values. While he did at least acknowledge men's role in creating single parent families (saying, "Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong,") he focused his criticism on Candace Bergen's fictional character, ranting: "It doesn't help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another 'lifestyle choice'."
The idea that fatherhood redeems men, turning them into proper grown-ups (and thus acceptable members of society) is an enduring pop cultural preoccupation.
In Three Men and A Baby, the lead characters are living in New York, having fun while still (more or less) covering their bills — but it takes raising a baby and giving up wild parties to validate their existence. Jack, baby Mary's biological father, is the most irresponsible at the start of the film, and the one who is most changed by the experience. In case we missed this subtle lesson, Jack's mom makes it explicit, informing him: "You used to be a screw-up. Now you're a father."
Conveniently for writers, a man doesn't need to have spilled some sperm to have his formerly worthless life transformed like this. For Charlie Salinger in Party of Five, it just took his parents dying in a car crash. Suddenly, this 24-year old slacker who made his living from odd jobs and had a different girlfriend each week was in charge of his four siblings, who ranged in age from one to sixteen.
Brainy, outspoken, and with a fashion sense all her own, Blossom modeled confidence (and oh, so many hats) for a generation of teenage girls.
Along with unquashable self-esteem, she also possessed that mixed blessing, the "cool" dad. With his tight jeans, collar-grazing hair, hippie past, and career as a professional pianist, Nick Russo wasn't your typical TV father. He thought of himself as laid back, and his kids could confide in him.
When Blossom and her bestie, Six, made a video for a school-related media contest about the importance of wearing condoms, and the principal refused to submit it on the grounds of decency, her dad and Six's mom went into school with the girls to complain. Sure, the show could be preachy and heavy-handed at times, and became known (and parodied) for its very special episodes, but it was also extremely open about issues affecting teens in a way it's hard to imagine happening today.
Back in 1994, Sister, Sister captured my only-child heart by portraying one of my deepest wishes: teen girls bump into each other while shopping for clothes, discover they're long-lost twins, and become instant best friends.
Sister, Sister is also still one of very few shows to feature a single father of color. In comparison to today's whitewashed TV landscape, there were a lot more sitcoms with a predominantly black cast in the '90s (A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Moesha, and the two seasons of The Cosby Show, for starters.) But shows that were family-centric tended to feature traditional, upper middle class families, even Republicans, like Ray (Tim Reid) in Sister, Sister. This may be to counteract erroneous stereotypes as well as to transcend issues that often intersect with race — such as discrimination and poverty — in order to appeal to a wider/whiter audience.
A man gestating and giving birth to a baby! Can you even imagine? Well, yes. But 1994 was a different time. A time when men having babies was science fiction but Emma Thompson snogging Arnold Schwarzenegger was all too real. I couldn't write about dads as primary caregivers without considering a movie in which a (cis) man literally has a baby. Junior isn't the only example of this, but it's probably the best known.
It starts when the FDA decides not to approve the development of a new drug, Expectane, that scientist Dr. Alex Hesse (Arnie) and OB/Gyn Dr. Larry Arbogast (Danny DeVito) have been working on. The medication reduces the risk of miscarriage in chimps, and the men want to trial it with women. But having failed with the FDA, Hesse's university withdraws his lab funding and installs Dr. Diana Reddin (Emma Thompson) and her ovum cryogenics project in his place.
I used to love My Two Dads. To recap, or in case you (shocked face) never saw it: the show was about two single, straight Manhattan bachelors who were given joint custody of 12-year old Nicole after her mom/their joint ex-girlfriend died. Living with just one mom, I was fascinated by a show that centered around a girl's relationship with her two fathers. Except I re-watched some of it recently, and it's not about that at all.
I don't have exact stats, but it seems like the vast majority of shows and movies about single and stay-at-home dads feature a father-daughter dynamic. This could lead to some interesting explorations of what it means to parent a child with a different gender to your own in our patriarchal society. But most often, it's a way to reinforce society's discomfort with young women's sexuality.
As you might have noticed, there have been a lot of primary caregiver dads in pop culture (no pun intended) lately. In addition to populating long-running shows like Two and a Half Men, Castle, and Dexter, we've seen single dads on Raising Hope, Louie, and Suburgatory, plus Will Arnett as a sensitive stay-at-home-dad (SAHD) on Up All Night. This year, though, we've hit the father lode.