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.
There are lots of films where single men act as surrogate fathers, from the John Wayne flick 3 Godfathers to Annie, Curly Sue, Fred Claus, About a Boy, Role Models, Happythankyoumoreplease [yep], Kindergarten Cop, Big Daddy, and (kinda) True Grit. It's also a common trope on TV, in shows where the non-dad "dad" is related to the children in question, like Hangin' With Mr. Cooper, Party of Five, Full House, or Gilmore Girls, and also where a lone man rescues a needy stranger (and himself in the process), as in Punky Brewster.
In the 2005 Disney movie The Pacifier, Vin Diesel plays Shane Wolfe, a Navy Seal–turned–temporary child minder. After failing to protect a government scientist working on a top-secret program that prevents other countries from deploying nuclear weapons, he's sent to protect the man's family as they've experienced some attempted break-ins, presumably in search of the secret program (which Wolfe needs to find before they do). After the scientist's widow leaves for Switzerland to open a newly discovered safety-deposit box belonging to her husband and the hopelessly negligent nanny quits, Wolfe is left in sole control of five children aged from baby to teenager. Hijinks ensue.
2006's The Pursuit of Happyness [sic] is one of a handful of movies that bucks the trend — as well as a rare example of a single dad of color. Based on the rags-to-riches story of Chris Gardner, it stars Will Smith as a down-on-his luck striver, struggling in his business selling bone density scanners to hospitals, while taking care of his five year old son following his wife's departure. He lands a prestigious stockbroker internship with a 1 in 20 chance of leading to a job, but it's six months of grueling, unpaid work (plus studying for an exam) leaving him to fit all his sales calls into the weekend, when he doesn't have childcare.
But even before he becomes a single parent, he plays an active role in his son's care, drilling Chris Jr. on spelling and math, and asking him about his day. Contrast this with 1979's Kramer vs. Kramer, where Dustin Hoffman's Ted Kramer has little insight into his son Billy's daily life before his wife leaves them. When he cooks breakfast for Billy for the first time, he doesn't know where anything is kept, and keeps saying that not only does he bring home the bacon but: "I gotta cook it, too!". (He'd clearly quite like a medal.)
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.
The first time we see Bill Sanford in Coyote Ugly, his daughter Violet is cooking him egg whites and urging him to stick to his diet. The first time we see Mel Horowitz in Clueless, his daughter Cher is telling him to drink his orange juice and reminding him about his doctor's appointment that afternoon. At different times, both of these men act like overprotective fathers uncomfortable with their daughters' sexuality, but that isn't the primary dynamic in either of these stories.
No, these young women are daughter-wives, or maybe daughter-moms. Each young woman's relationship with her father is based around the idea that (releatively healthy, able-bodied) men need looking after by their daughters. Sure, Clueless is satirical, but so are 10 Things I Hate About You and Suburgatory, both of which feature girls of around the same age, and fathers who act like an actual parents.
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.