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.
While I ended my last post by snarkily suggesting that pop culture’s fascination with fathers might give way to an interest in motherhood, the truth is a lot of messages about moms are already encoded in these male-centric narratives.
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.
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.
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.
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.