Resisting the Images of Dad in Popular Culture: Still a Thing

What do Homer Simpson, Al Bundy and Fred Flintstone have in common?

Homer Simpson, Al Bundy and Fred Flinstone are all fathers portrayed as goofy and inept in the media. Fathers, eager to shed their parenting responsibilities to escape with their friends or fulfill their own plans, often at the expense of their children.  Fred Flintstone was the ultimate bumbling father, while animated, certainly a powerful and lasting image. You can almost hear his booming voice shout “WILMA!”.

While things may be starting to change, there are decades of media portrayals of fathers as incompetent, childish and bumbling. Since the 1980’s the images have shifted to really emphasize the goofiness and incompetence as a parent.  It is difficult to find a children’s show without a goofy father positioned next to the super competent mother figure.  You might think, “lighten up, its funny”.   While occasionally funny, the joke may be wearing thin.

Parenting is something most people take very seriously.  Something changes when you become a father…. or a mother.   When my baby girl came into the world, my heart exploded and I was ready to do anything to be the best dad possible.

There seems to be a growing conversation about the portrayal of Dads in the media. People are starting to notice the abundance of negative images of fathers and its getting tiring.  There are some very professional and savvy efforts to recognize a different kind of dad…. an engaged dad emerging.

A Few Statistics About Dads in the Media

Neilson (2012) suggests that in storybooks, mothers are depicted as nurturing twice as often as fathers. TV programs and commercials tend to be more direct in making fun of or criticizing fathers. In fairytales, fathers are often presented as characters who mistreat or abandon their daughters. If they aren’t mistreating them, they are ignoring them and are blindly leaving them to be mistreated by evil stepmothers.

“In a survey of 200 best-selling storybooks, mothers were depicted as nurturing more than twice as often as fathers. In 65% of the stories, the mother was taking care of the children compared with only 47% of the fathers” (Nielson, 2012, p. 13)

In forms of media that we consume even more readily, fathers are shown to be profoundly (up to eight times) more likely to be shown negatively than mothers (Neilson, 2012, p. 14). Where they are not shown as being clearly mean and abusive, they are depicted as simply incompetent and foolish in comparison to their otherwise hard done by spouse (Pehlkey, Hennon, Radina, & Kuvalanka, 2009). (Neilson, 2012, p. 14).

Overall, “In the 100 top grossing box office films from 1990 until 2005, the fathers generally were depicted as less responsible, less likeable, and less competent than the mothers (Smith, Pieper, Granados, & Choueiti, 2010). (Neilson, 2012, p. 17).

Many returning shows or sitcoms are the ones that depict fathers as clumsy, goofy oafs with silly or funny advice for their children.  The children are often rescued or put on the right path by the competent, confident and capable mother figure (Weinman, 2006, pge. 60).

An All Too Common Experience

I feel like I am always trying to overcome the poor images of fathers that seem to dominate the popular consciousness even now.

When I started out as a dad – particularly as a single father trying my very hardest to be a good dad, I would look for positive images and material about single dads. The local and popular cultural context I am embedded in was filled with limiting and negatively connoted images and discourses around fathering, in particular single fathering. Everywhere I looked there were images of deadbeat dads, disappearing dads and of course the ever-popular abusive former husband.

Following my divorce I would often be asked things like “do you get to see her much”, or “do you get help to look after your daughter?”.  My ex-wife is not asked those questions at all.  The assumption is that she just would have full custody.  After all, she is the mom.  No one wonders if she knows how to parent, after all, she is the mom.  But the dad, well, he needs help.

So What?

Negative images of dad’s in the media can undermine the role men play in the family. Media plays a large role in influencing attitudes, perceptions and behaviour.  Negative portrayals of dads in the media can also lower expectations for dad’s contributions.

For single dads, the stigma can be almost unbearable. It is already difficult enough to be a single parent but the added criticism and concern because you are a single DAD can be trouble. It can interfere with creating a healthy community and network of supports. Parenting is a team sport.  Even if you are separated, widowed or divorced.  If you have an ex partner, a new partner or supports amongst your family and friends, the more love and support for your child the better. However, the negative images of fathers and the assumptions about single fathers can be discouraging to reaching out to build a community and network of supports.

Join the Positive Conversation

Thankfully, there are efforts to shift and change how men and fathers are portrayed in the media.  There are new, popular shows that portray the varied and unique family constellations and how fathers can be positive influences on their children.  So, tune in to one of those newly popular shows that finds humour in ways other than making fun of dads, or moms….


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