Dumbing down Dad: How media present husbands, fathers as useless

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 27 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

The Doofus Dad stereotype has always been around, with characters such as Fred Flinstone, Dagwood Bumstead and even Charlie Brown's monotone parents. But the consistency of these new portrayals in shows like "Jimmy Neutron" has slowly created a new norm opposed to what being a father used to mean.

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Joe Kelly stands in front of a room of professionals. Some in the audience are schoolteachers, while others are therapists or physicians.

He selects a man and a woman from the audience to join him on the stand. Looking at each of them, he says, "OK, pretend each of you are 22 years old and have decided to get married and have children. You have a completely egalitarian marriage, so you're going to share the rearing of your children equally."

Kelly then turns to the woman and asks, "How many years' experience do you have as a baby sitter?" The response varies from two to five years or more. He then turns to the man and asks the same question.

After hearing an answer that is usually "none," Kelly turns to the audience and says, "Raise your hand if you have ever had a teenage boy who is not a member of your family baby-sit your children?"

At this point, with the room in silence, Kelly then says, "It doesn't happen. But then we get annoyed and frustrated when men don't know how to calm a colicky baby? What did you expect?"

According to Kelly, an author and co-founder of the U.S. advocacy group Dads and Daughters, expectations for men are not where they should be. Not only have these attitudes and low standards worked their way into a majority of men in the media, they have worked their way into our homes.

Images of men in the media

It's not hard to find. If you watch TV, then you've most likely witnessed the portrayal of the modern-day husband and father as lazy, incompetent and stupid.

Just these three characteristics are sure to bring to mind one commercial or sitcom that personifies this type of man.

"One evening, after watching Homer Simpson wreck the family car at a monster-truck rally and plunge on a skateboard into Springfield Gorge, my 6-year-old son asked me, 'Why are dads on TV so dumb?'" wrote John Tierny from the New York Times. "Where did we fathers go wrong? We spend twice as much time with our kids as we did two decades ago, but on television we're oblivious ('Jimmy Neutron'), troubled ('The Sopranos'), deranged ('Malcolm in the Middle') and generally incompetent ('Everybody Loves Raymond'). Even if Dad has a good job, like the star of 'Home Improvement,' at home he's forever making messes that must be straightened out by Mom."

The doofus dad stereotype isn't new. There's Fred Flinstone, Dagwood Bumstead and even Charlie Brown's monotone parents. But according to Tierny, the consistency of these new portrayals has slowly created a new norm opposed to what being a father used to mean.

"While dads in 'Leave It to Beaver' and 'The Donna Reed Show' had flaws, they were close to what was then thought of as 'perfect,' part of an idealized white American family," Bob Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, told CNN. "Later, shows such as 'The Cosby Show,' 'Family Ties,' 'Growing Pains' and 'Full House' showcased caring dads of a new generation.

"But by the late 1980s, more shows wanted to distance themselves from the 'corny, syrupy stuff' — and in stepped shows such as 'Married With Children' and 'The Simpsons.'"

And that's just to mention a few examples within the sit-com sphere. Commercials have also created their own standard for men.

"Ad after ad makes doltish Dad the butt of all jokes," wrote Seth Stevenson with Slate Magazine. "He’s outwitted by his children. He’s the target of condescending eye rolls from his wife. He’s a dumb, incompetent, sometimes even selfish oaf — but his family loves him anyway."

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