Last night marked the 70th annual Golden Globes, an awards show known for its snap, crackle, and pop (pop being the sound of champagne corks as the nominees get wasted). If, like me, you tuned in mainly to watch dream team Tina Fey and Amy Poehler put the "broad" in broadcast, you were not disappointed.
Over the last two months, I’ve written more than 20,000 words (!) about male primary caregivers in popular culture. I hope I’ve illustrated that while the rise in non-stereotypical portrayals of men is in some ways a step forward, it’s also often just another means by which the mainstream media reinforces gender norms — often at women’s expense.
When I started this series, I thought the increase in narratives about single and stay-at-home fathers reflected a genuine sociological phenomenon, because more men than women lost jobs in the recession and became stay-at-home dads as a result. However, I soon discovered that while the number of men who take care of their kids full-time has doubled over the last 12 years, it’s still just 176,000 people, or 0.8% of the population, according to Philip N. Cohen’s interrogation of the stats. (This rises when dads who work part-time are included, but only to 2.8%.) Plus, men are returning to work more quickly than women, making this much-discussed "trend" little more than a blip. What’s more, as Bryce Calvert pointed out in her Forbes column, it was only ever a partial victory considering that being a stay-at-home parent wasn’t a choice for many of these men, just as it isn’t a choice for many women.
If you’d asked me a couple of months ago when the pop cultural trend of dads as primary caregivers began, I might have guessed the 1970s (when we saw an increase in single moms on TV). Turns out I’d have been off by a couple of decades.
Like many people, I associate the 1950s with nuclear families like those on Leave it to Beaver, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and I Love Lucy. But the ‘50s also brought an avalanche of shows about single fathers, most of whom were widowers. The earliest example, My Little Margie, was about the relationship between a dad and his daughter, who was 21 but still lived at home (and would always be his little girl, etc).
With its over the top premise and mining of dementia for “comedy”, I could never get into Raising Hope, but there's one thing I do appreciate about the sitcom: it’s one of very few successful shows to feature a working-class single dad.
It centers on Jimmy Chance (Garret Dillahunt), who is 25 when he finds out that a former one-night stand has become a serial killer, been sentenced to death, and left him with sole custody of their baby girl, Hope. As he still lives at home, his haphazard family helps him out as best they can.
Similarly, in Ugly Betty, sisters Betty and Hilda Suarez both lived at home, where their dad Ignacio acted as a surrogate father to Hilda’s adolescent son Justin, helping to take care of him both practically (including cooking and housework) and emotionally. These shows highlight the fact that for many working-class single parents, a support system which provides affordable childcare is essential. They also illustrate that single parents may have to move in (or never move out) from the family home for financial reasons, a fact rarely explored in discussions (or statistics) about homelessness.
Earlier this year, Huggies launched a series of TV spots that showed moms putting their products to the “dad test” —the implication being that if those big dopes could use ‘em, anyone could. The backlash was swift and vocal, with both moms and dads taking to the brand’s Facebook page to complain that the ads played on out of date stereotypes. Huggies was clearly panicked by the strength of the negative response: they yanked one of the ads, emphasized that they featured real couples rather than a fictionalized idea of what fathers are like, and even rushed to a daddy blogging conference to issue an “our bad”.
What’s interesting is that this criticism didn't come from the media or the feminist blogosphere but the intended audience, suggesting a real-world shift in attitudes towards stay-at-home dads (and hands-on fathers in general). But while Huggies’ campaign was unimaginative and hackneyed, it’s understandable: for years, the Homer Simpson-esque clueless papa has been a reliable and uncontroversial target for humor. He still features in many ads, like Kroger’s current Christmas commercial, where a woman informs us that her husband helps out at this time of year by doing his own wrapping (just like a grown-up!) — and then we see said wrapping, and it’s atrocious.
There are some obvious similarities between 2012 sitcom Baby Daddy and 1987's Three Men and a Baby. They’re both about three guys sharing an apartment in New York who are unexpectedly gifted a doorstep baby (and the chaos that ensues). But there’s a lot that’s different, too. In Baby Daddy, our eponymous hero Ben (Jean-Luc Bilodeau), his best friend Tucker (Taj Mowry) and brother Danny (Derek Theler) are a lot younger and less affluent than Tom Selleck & co., making raising a baby more of a challenge.
While Three Men's baby nana was delighted about her new grandchild, Ben’s mom Bonnie (Melissa Peterman) is less impressed, saying he’s too immature to raise a child and chiding him for not having safe sex (“you knocked up some girl because you couldn’t figure out the basics of birth control”), which may be judgmental but makes a change from blaming single mothers. When Ben hears from his ex/baby mama Angela that she’s lined up a couple to adopt baby Emma, he’s torn about whether to sign away his parental rights. Although she later softens, Bonnie tells him he has no idea how hard it is to be a parent and how much sacrifice it involves, at least inviting the possibility that having a child isn't necessarily the most fulfilling thing ever.
Men who care for children are afforded high status in pop culture if their role is part of some macho, justice-seeking mission (The Pacifier, Kindergarten Cop) or incidental to their real life, allowing them to maintain a cool image (About A Boy, Role Models). When he takes on a childcare role for no other reason than to get paid, however, a man should be prepared to sacrifice his self-respect.
In Melissa & Joey, Joey Lawrence plays an Ivy League-educated former commodities trader (yup) who went broke thanks to a Ponzi scheme. When local politician Mel takes in her sister’s kids, Joe becomes their housekeeper and nanny as a last resort, having previously been living in his car. In one episode, Mel finds out that Joe has donated to a sperm bank, and asks him what the most degrading thing he’s ever done for money is, hoping he'll admit to selling some of his swimmers. Instead, he gestures around the kitchen and replies, “By far, this.” He’s not entirely sincere, but the joke (such as it is) is predicated upon the audience acknowledging that this isn’t a suitable job for a man who values himself.
There are lots of different dads on Parenthood: single dads, married dads, almost-stepdads, mostly absent dads, and of course, stay-at-home dad Joel Graham (Sam Jaeger). Married to high-powered attorney Julia (Erika Christensen), he was a contractor until the recession hit. Since then, he’s been the primary caregiver for the couple’s daughter, Sydney, who is 5 when the series starts.
The show doesn’t stint on clichés associated with stay-at-home dads, from Julia feeling threatened by the flirty, make-everything-from scratch homemakers her husband now hangs around with to his father-in-law wondering why he doesn’t have a “real” job. Joel himself sometimes seems frustrated by his lack of a creative outlet or a social life not involving children. But for the most part, it’s a positive portrayal of a man who doesn’t resent his wife for having a job, or consider his own contribution to the family to be any less important. He’s probably more patient than Julia, steps up to the plate when it comes to both discipline and showing affection, and is a caring, competent father.
The New Normal isn’t the first time we’ve seen gay dads (in this case, dads-to-be) on TV. But from Will & Grace’s Jack McFarland to LeRoy and Hiram Berry on Glee, they’re usually non-custodial fathers or secondary characters. The aughts brought sitcoms It’s All Relative and Normal, Ohio, both of which centred around gay fathers, but neither found an audience.
It wasn’t until 2009's Modern Family that a successful network sitcom showed gay men being full-time fathers — and even there, their portrayal is stereotypical and desexualized. That’s something Glee and The New Normal creator (and out gay man) Ryan Murphy publicly criticized in 2010, stating that if he were to make a show with two gay leads, their kissing would be shown as no big deal.
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.