I was well into my thirties when my partner of six years and I signed ourselves up for parenting. And I mean signed up literally. Since we are in a same-sex partnership, we didn’t have the benefit of sperm whenever we wanted, so we opted for the foster care/adoption route.
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.
I'd read conflicting accounts of What to Expect When You're Expecting: while Bitch's own Andi and Kelsey previously pointed out many of its flaws, Bitchflicks called it an "unexpected gem". Having watched it, I understand the conflicting feminist opinions: the movie's so tonally inconsistent and stuffed full of characters, it's open to a range of interpretations. There's a lot to hate about it, from its heteronormativity (gay people and single people have babies too!) to its racial troping (a minor character calls Latino couple Holly and Alex "spicy"; Vic (Chris Rock) and his wife have more children than everyone else, and they're all named after professional athletes...). A subplot pitting Wendy (Elizabeth Banks) against her younger, more glamorous stepmother Skyler (Brooklyn Decker), who is also pregnant, felt hackneyed: why not subvert the idea that women are all jealous of models by having them support each other, instead?
But the film has some surprisingly realistic moments, especially compared to traditional romantic comedies where pregnancy and labor are portrayed as a breeze. After Rosie (Anna Kendrick) becomes unexpectedly pregnant, she had Marco (Chace Crawford), who she's barely started dating, become a cozy couple. But then she miscarries, is sunk into depression, and their too-much too-soon relationship falls apart; all of which felt surprising and pretty revolutionary for a big-budget (alleged) comedy.
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.
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.
I'm reliably informed that the poster (right) grandly named L'Enfant but more commonly known as Man and Baby wasn't a phenom in the United States like it was in the U.K. Here, it capitalized on the worldwide success of Three Men and a Baby and perfectly captured the sensitive man zeitgeist of the late '80s, becoming one of the country's top-selling posters of all time.
Honestly, I never understood its popularity. Sure, the guy was hunky in that Levi's ad beefcake way, but what was the baby adding? Even as a kid, I associated having children with stress and domesticity; I didn't yet understand that a man caring for his child was considered a novelty.
Three Men and a Baby isn't the first pop cultural example of a male primary caregiver, but it is arguably the most iconic and definitely one of the most successful. Released in 1987, it was the first Walt Disney Studios production to gross over $100 million domestically, taking $168 million worldwide and making men with kids a hot proposition. I loved the movie as a kid, but I dreaded re-watching it.
I imagined it to be rife with gender stereotyping, goofy gags demonstrating that men can't cope with babies, and jokes about the how emasculating being a father can be. Turns out, I was way off. Three Men and a Baby is a lot of fun, and more progressive than you might expect.
I know this was all over the Internet last week. But. But. But. If you haven't watched it yet you must. It is incredibly sad and funny, and shows in such a chilling way how even the most well-intentioned adults force gender roles upon kids.
"Daughters and Left-Wing Voting" is the name of a recent study that shows men with more daughters vote with liberal parties more often then dads with sons. The question we should be asking is do daughters really make dads more liberal or is feminism failing to show why boys also win out?