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.
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.
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.
The New Normal isn’t the first time we’ve seen gay dads (in this case, dads-to-be) on TV. But from Will & Grace’s Jack McFarland to LeRoy and Hiram Berry on Glee, they’re usually non-custodial fathers or secondary characters. The aughts brought sitcoms It’s All Relative and Normal, Ohio, both of which centred around gay fathers, but neither found an audience.
It wasn’t until 2009's Modern Family that a successful network sitcom showed gay men being full-time fathers — and even there, their portrayal is stereotypical and desexualized. That’s something Glee and The New Normal creator (and out gay man) Ryan Murphy publicly criticized in 2010, stating that if he were to make a show with two gay leads, their kissing would be shown as no big deal.
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.
As you might have noticed, there have been a lot of primary caregiver dads in pop culture (no pun intended) lately. In addition to populating long-running shows like Two and a Half Men, Castle, and Dexter, we’ve seen single dads on Raising Hope, Louie, and Suburgatory, plus Will Arnett as a sensitive stay-at-home-dad (SAHD) on Up All Night. This year, though, we’ve hit the father lode.
Plenty has been written about the fat husband/hot wife dichotomy on TV sitcoms. The critique usually consists of disbelief that a fat man would be able to land a "hot" wife. Now, in these shows, like According To Jim, King of Queens and Still Standing, the behavior of the husbands is also often undesirable. But the main thing people seem to be outraged about is that the husbands and wives are not of commensurate attractiveness. These men are also often referred to as "ugly," and their "ugliness" appears to be directly tied in to their fatness. While the men on these shows are fat, I would argue that their looks are at the least average if not slightly above average. But, as has been demonstrated in the comments on this blog, people are often perceived to be less attractive if they are viewed as fat.