Friday, May 6, 2011

Sitcom Dads or, "Sexism Hurts Everyone, TV Edition"

I hate sitcom dads.  Generally well-meaning but incompetent, they're the less essential half of nearly every couple in a family sitcom.  Growing up with a loving and very competent father, there was something offensively untrue about the bumbling idiocy displayed for 23 minutes at 8pm every weeknight.  I'm not alone either.  Quite a number of my friends have mentioned that their fathers either grumbled about or boycotted portrayals of paternal incompetence, and I've heard older male friends (fathers themselves) complain about them quite a bit.  In contrast, the number of people who will actually say "I love how fathers on TV can't do anything right" is about zero, by my experience.  Which raises the question of why the sitcom dads are such fuck-ups, if no one likes it.

The origins of the doltish pater familis are pretty well known.  Back in the 50's, TV fathers were omniscient and omnibenevolent agents of authority and wisdom for both their children and their child-like TV wives.  Father knew best, etc*.  Then in the 70's Archie Bunker came along and subverted the whole set-up with his bigotry, small-mindedness and general idiocy.  Or so I've been told, I'm no TV historian, and didn't even have TV land growing up.

Then the interesting thing happened.  Somehow, the subversion of TV fatherhood became the norm.  TV dads went from gently chiding their wives for opening their own bank accounts** to nearly blowing their kids' college fund on power tools and beer every other episode. Of the iconic TV dads I can remember from my childhood TV watching, only Cliff Huxtable seemed comfortable or competent raising his offspring.  The others, Homer Simpson, Tim Allen, Peter Griffin, were respectively lazy but well-meaning, bumbling and abusively neglectful.

If one were a Men's rights advocate (MRA) it would be tempting to blame the dominance of incompetent TV dads on feminism, since the shift from father knows best to sheer paternal idiocy happened in the 70's and 80's when feminism was becoming more and more of a cultural force***.  But that seems unlikely -- for one thing, the 90's housewife is just as devoted a wife and mother as her 50's counterpart, by and large, she just also happens to act like a grown-up and often have a career as well.

In fact, in many cases TV parents seem to fall into 1 of 2 general dynamics, that of the 'separate spheres' or what I (and I'm sure someone else coined this phrase before) call the 'incredible shrinking man.'

'Separate Spheres' is the notion that men have their sphere in the outside world, while women have their role within the home and the family.  Women are nurturers who raise the next generation, men actually run the world and only interact with the family as breadwinners or as distant monarchs.  It's an idea that feminists have been scrutinizing for ages, and the idea itself dates back at least to the 19th century.

It also describes a lot of TV families, albeit in a modified version.  The man's sphere is outside the home, so it's okay that he's kind of awkward and incompetent with the kids  - it's cute, in fact, that he so ineptly tries to raise them or to please his wife.  In the end, relating to his family isn't his job, so he can be a success without being much good at it.  Moreover, his self-centredness and incompetence don't make him a less sympathetic character because he can't help it.  He's a man, after all.

Women, in contrast, are expected to be mothers and wives and are still judged as such.  They can be doctors, lawyers and anything else but they become much less sympathetic characters if they're terrible at being moms -- it's funny when Homer uses Lisa as an aid to his football betting, if Marge did it I suspect it would just be disturbing.  In general, the more comic sitcom dads are the more incompetent ones (Homer, Tim Allen) while the more comic sitcom mom (Marge, Malcom's mom) are neurotically, comically competent and dutiful in managing the household.

Generally, the separate spheres dynamic describes more functional sitcom families; the more dysfunctional ones fall into the other dynamic, that of the shrinking man.

The idea behind this is that masculinity is primarily defined negatively.  The most important thing about Being a Man is to not be a woman and not be gay.  Women, contrariwise, are expected to be any number of things -- diligent, loving, maternal, organized, responsible, whatever.  These all become in some sense female traits.  This leaves men with pretty unappealing options if they don't want to be girly -- slovenliness, insensitivity, ignorance, bigotry, childishness and self-centredness all come to mind.  Pretty good description of Peter Griffin, no?

Now the separate spheres model leaves men their status as adult human beings, but as far as family life is concerned the result is the same for both dynamics -- women suffer from incredibly high expectations that they be all but perfect, and men suffer from disregard and comical contempt; their ability to contribute anything to the family beyond a paycheck and misdirected love is effectively discounted.  Everyone loses.

*And that was terrible
**See footnote above
***Also, when all you've got is an anti-feminist hammer, everything looks like a man-hating nail

No comments:

Post a Comment