Friday, June 21, 2013

The ubiquitous idiot Dad - a television stereotype

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 19.)
ANYONE who watches much television is familiar with that stereotypical character, the idiot Dad.
It’s hard to pinpoint his exact origins, but the chief suspect would have to be Archie Bunker from All in the Family.

Think back for a moment. Prior to AITF, television fathers were generally presented sympathetically.
In The Andy Griffith Show, the title character was a caring, eminently sensible widower doing his best to bring up his only son while keeping the peace in small-town Mayberry.

Ditto My Three Sons, in which Fred MacMurray played a wise, kindly father serenely coping with the chaos of raising three teenage boys.
In Gentle Ben, Dad was a wildlife ranger who always seemed in control of things. In The Waltons, John Walton was honest, courageous and hard-working.  In The Brady Bunch, Mike Brady was a respected architect and a man of integrity. In The Beverly Hillbillies, Jed Clampett was loyal and affable. And so on, and so on.

Those popular  series idealised fatherhood and family life, just as they idealised most things about America. Fathers rose to whatever challenge the scriptwriters threw at them and everything was neatly resolved by the closing credits.
Even when the main male character was flawed, as in the case of Darrin in Bewitched or Herman Munster in The Munsters, they were portrayed affectionately. Darrin was anxious and gullible; Herman was a loveable buffoon.

In virtually all the above programmes, the wife and mother – if there was one – was sensible and kind-hearted. A rare exception was I Love Lucy, in which the title character, played by Lucille Ball, was ditzy and accident-prone.
But All in the Family shattered the old template. Archie, the central character, was ignorant, bigoted, abusive and selfish.

The scriptwriters highlighted these unappealing characteristics by playing him off against his wife Edith, who was everything Archie wasn’t: patient, loyal, kind, non-judgmental and wise, in her own way.
Television husbands and fathers would never be quite the same again. Thereafter, the idiot Dad became something of a cliché.

One of the few exceptions was Cliff Huxtable in The Cosby Show, who represented a return to the norm of the 1960s. Huxtable, played by black comedian Bill Cosby, was eccentric but kind, well-respected and a dedicated father. I suspect the producers didn’t dare portray him in an unsympathetic light because to have done so would have been to invite accusations of racism.
The Cosby Show aside, leading male figures in domestic comedies in the post-Archie Bunker era generally seemed to be presented as objects of ridicule.

This was in marked contrast to a slew of programmes, starting with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, featuring leading female characters who were invariably smart, resourceful and courageously making their way in an often unsympathetic world. (Later examples included One Day at a Time and Alice.)
Think about it. How many domestic comedies can you think of in which the central male figure was not vain, stupid, vulgar or hopeless?

Homer Simpson, of course, is the gold standard. Homer is lazy, dishonest, reckless, greedy and self-centred. And what’s particularly interesting about The Simpsons is that the gender stereotyping extends to other members of the Simpson family.
Marge Simpson is patient, kindly, loyal and eager to do the right thing – a little like Edith Bunker, in other words. Her daughter Lisa is the smartest, most clear-eyed character in Springfield. But Bart Simpson is a little horror: rebellious, mischievous and calculating (not for nothing was he given a name that’s an anagram for “brat”).

Let’s look at a few other examples. In Home Improvement, Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor, while harmless enough, was accident-prone and a know-all. His wife Jill, of course, was a voice of reason.
In Everybody Loves Raymond, the family patriarch was crude, stubborn, abusive and downright contrary – in other words, a little like Archie Bunker, even down to his armchair. A redeeming feature is that his manipulative wife wasn’t much more likeable.

In Married … With Children, Al Bundy was a loser and a slob who worked in a down-market shoe store and was perpetually in debt. There was a running gag about him smelling bad and spending a lot of time in the toilet.
A somewhat balancing factor in this show, too, was the fact that his lazy, scornful wife wasn’t much better.

A similarly dysfunctional family featured in Malcolm in the Middle. Again, the husband and father was a no-hoper – inept, cowardly and usually looking for the easy way out. The wife and mother, though crazy like everyone else, was the strong one in the family.
Then there’s Alan Harper in Two and a Half Men: spineless, neurotic and a generally pathetic father to his slob of a son.

Don’t get me wrong. I watched all these shows and enjoyed them, at least until they suffered the inevitable American fate of carrying on long after they had passed their use-by date.
After all, they are comedies that depend on absurdity for their humour. No one expects them to mirror real life.

Yet you can’t help but wonder why, for several decades now, there has been a consistent pattern of fathers and husbands being portrayed as no-hopers while their wives, almost invariably, are generally shown as  noble and virtuous. This is as much a misrepresentation of the real world as those idealistic 1960s shows were.
We probably all know families in which the husband doesn’t pull his weight and it’s left to the wife to ensure that the household functions smoothly. Certainly that’s far more often the case than the reverse.

But I also frequently see conscientious, caring husbands and fathers of the current generation sharing the burdens of parenthood – cooking, doing the washing, carting the kids around – in ways that most men of my age would have considered beneath their dignity. It’s neither accurate nor fair to suggest that the male of the household is a waste of space.
Certainly the British parenting organisation Netmums isn’t happy with the way Dads and husbands are portrayed on television.  In a recent online poll, Netmums found that 90 per cent of parents objected to the “casual contempt” with which fathers are depicted.

It’s not an issue that keeps me awake at night, but I can’t help wondering whether TV producers would get away with portraying wives and mothers so negatively. I suspect not.






Unknown said...

FRed Flintstone, I think, was where the rot started.

Why Wilma put up with him is beyond me.

Karl du Fresne said...

Ha! You could be right, Rob. I was probably too young in the days when I watched The Flintstones to pick up any underlying sociological nuances.

Kiwiwit said...

Didn't you know, middle-aged, white males are the only segment of the population everyone is allowed to impugn with impunity? I call it the Politically Safe Villain Syndrome and it's closely aligned with Hollywood's English Villain Syndrome - where the bad guy is invariably an Englishman.

You see it all the time in this country, most notably in the government's TV advertisements against drink driving, domestic violence, etc. - the bad guy always looks the same. What the government agencies won't publicly admit (although they have to me in private) is that this demographic is invariably least represented in the ranks of the real offenders.

Marc said...

There was a man at the door last night asking my views on the country.

"I am a white male, heterosexual, Christian, I have worked all my life to pay for this house and provide for my family, never claimed a penny in benefits. "

"Oh, I am sorry to have wasted your time Sir." He said.

"Why's that?" I asked.

"Your opinions won't count." He replied.

Lindsay Mitchell said...

Perhaps a TV show like Coronation Street, which has existed over the entire period you've chronicled, divides parenting shortfalls and offences between the sexes fairly equally (as I cast my mind back). And that is the key to its unique longevity. Coro St neither satisfies nor disproves sexist prejudices.

What a reassuring thought. The wisdom of the masses at play...

Graeme Edgeler said...

No way are wives and mothers "invariably" in today's sitcoms played as wise and virtuous.

And I would say there are still good fathers on American television, although you may have to broaden your horizons from sitcoms (edit: I see, that by including the Waltons, you were).

Two that come to mind are Burt Hummel (Glee), and Eric Taylor (Friday Night Lights). I understand Castle from Castle also fits, although that's not a big part of the show. Go back a little I think, Philip Banks (Fresh Prince of Bel Air), and certainly Eric Camden from 7th Heaven.

And to go full circle, Jay Pritchett in Modern Family, played by Ed O'Neill (who was Al Bundy) seems a fine example of a Dad (although I haven't seen a lot of the show).

Graeme Edgeler said...

Hollywood's English Villain Syndrome - where the bad guy is invariably an Englishman.

Are you having a laugh? Hollywood has lots of Asian and Middle Eastern bad guys, many of them played Cliff Curtis.

Vaughan said...

My mother would not let us kids listen to the Aussie radio show Life with Dexter in the 1950s and 1960s because the father (Dexter) was depicted as an idiot.

She didn't think it suitable for us to think of fathers, and I guess our father in particular, with a lack of respect.

Steve Biddulph, author of the excellent book Manhood, criticises the phenomenon of attacking fathers.