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.
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.
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.)
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 really thought I would like NBC's new comedy series, Up All Night, which stars Christina Applegate (Reagan Brinkley) and Will Arnett (Chris Brinkley) as a married couple whose fun-filled, alcohol-drenched lives are interrupted by the birth of their daughter Amy. Reagan is the producer of Ava, an Oprah-esque talk show starring her best friend (played by Maya Rudolph), and Chris quits his job as a lawyer to be a stay-at-home dad. The premise led me to believe that a nuanced portrayal of the work/life balance might emerge. I also hoped the show might be funny.