Daddy Issues: Keeping it (Upper Middle) Classy
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 Lucas Neff), 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.
Most TV families in which fathers are single dads or SAHDs are upper-middle-class, and rarely deal with any serious monetary stress. The Brinkleys on Up All Night and the Braverman-Grahams on Parenthood might flip-flop on which parent should stay home with the kid(s), but there’s no discussion about the finances of doing so, because they’re affluent enough for that to not be an issue. Modern Family makes clear that Cam is going back to work because he needs a fulfilling project, rather than for the cash. (Luckily, as he's a part-time public school teacher.)
Meanwhile, his sister-in-law Claire has been a stay-at-home mom for almost 20 years, and is only just wondering if she might use her college degree again someday. Sure she’s been too busy raising three kids to think about that before now, but she's enormously privileged that she hasn’t had to. The fact that it’s a luxury for the gay dads in Modern Family and The New Normal to have children in the ways they do (international adoption and surrogacy, respectively) is also glossed over, because when you’re rich enough, any parenting experience is possible.
Earlier this year, TVDads.com analyzed the income streams of 272 single fathers currently on TV, and found that the vast majority are middle class. Wrote Jim O’Kane: “There are only 8%, or 22, TV Single Dads who could be classed as ‘Poor.’” Only one percent of single dads on TV is unemployed, and almost a third is rich or very rich. This is understandable, given that a lot of mainstream pop culture is aspirational and that society still expects men to be breadwinners. More pertinently, it reflects reality, where single dads consistently earn more than single moms. It would be a mistake to interpret this as proof that men are superior at single parenting rather than as evidence of structural inequality, but that hasn’t stopped some groups from celebrating it for that reason regardless.
In movies, too, single fathers are often upper-middle-class professionals, like Tom Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle, Liam Neeson in Love Actually, and Eddie Murphy in Imagine That. But there are a few working-class single dads out there, in films like The Pursuit of Happyness, which illustrates how difficult poverty can make it to get (and sustain) a job, and Jersey Girl, where Ollie (Ben Affleck) moves in with his dad after his wife dies, because he needs his help.
I Am Sam is one of very few mainstream pop cultural examples of a disabled single father and one which attempts to explore how disability, class and poverty intersect. Unfortunately, Sean Penn’s (Oscar-nominated!) portrayal of Sam Dawson, a developmentally disabled man raising his seven year-old daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning) is problematic and patronizing. Sam becomes a dad after a non-disabled woman “takes advantage” of him, cementing the myth that disabled people don’t have sexual agency. The film also takes the idea of Sam’s “mental age” literally, turning him into a childlike goofball and mining his condition for humor (including pratfalls). In addition, the R-word is repeatedly used (including by his own counsel in court) as if many developmentally disabled people don’t understand and hate that term. Worst of all, despite the film's title and the ostensible storyline, like many disabled people in pop culture Sam’s real purpose is to function as a “Magical Differently Abled Person”, a catalyst for non-disabled characters to make positive changes in their lives.
While no member of a marginalized group wants to see their experiences appropriated and misrepresented in this way, a more varied portrayal of single fatherhood, including the challenges working-class people face — especially if they experience intersecting oppressions — would certainly be a welcome change.
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