Fatherhood, Feminism, and Feeling Left Out

Water your flowers before they wilt…

In the US, Father’s Day is upon us. I know a good amount of fathers, and I was thinking a bit about fatherhood and its portrayal in the media.

I am speculating, but my theory has long been that the recent treatment of fathers in television sitcoms is in direct response to the 50s and 60s type of Father Knows Best characters. Shows such as the aforementioned one, Leave It to Beaver, and even 70s staple Good Times all featured a strong, authoritative father who everyone loved, but never quite took seriously.

That stereotypical father has largely faded from the minds of television writers. Whether it’s a natural phasing out of an antiquated convention or a reflection of reality, I can’t say. But Dads like King of Queens’ Doug Heffernan (played by Kevin James) and Julius from Everybody Hates Chris (played by Terry Crews) are portrayed often as bumbling, highly flawed men whose wives often show them up. They have little authority over their mouthy kids, who also outwit the befuddled men. These dads are lovable, but clueless. Well-known comedians act out these roles, and maybe that’s why the comedic relief centers on the father-who-doesn’t-know-best, but pretends mighty hard to.

I never took notice until a male friend complained to me about how Dads seemed to be the butt of every family sitcom joke. He quipped that restaurants would most likely be empty this coming weekend, because America doesn’t value fathers like they do mothers.

He may have a point.

Coincidentally, I recently read an article titled “In Defense of Dads” that highlights the internal conflicts men face when they adopt non-normative roles within their families. Writer Aaron Gouveia attests that men, again, are the butt of jokes, accused of laziness and devalued in terms of their contribution to the home. Gouveia hints at the part feminism has played in getting mothers more active in the workplace, but more strongly indicates that a side effect of this gender role shift has resulted in men’s uncertainty about their own roles.

And even just colloquially, who gets the majority of book flap shout-outs, the Grammy win thank-yous, the random I’m-on-TV quotes? Mothers. But who thanks Dads? Why are they invisible in popular culture, except to be laughed at and shown up? No one shows up on mother’s day clamoring to uplift the “fathers who serve as both mother and father!” My friend, who is a father himself, feels the distinct impression that Father’s Day is commercially and personally a back burner holiday. And he’s right. We do not lavish Dad with personal gifts he loves, but with stereotypical Man Items or goofy kitsch gifts that bear his name, “Dad.”

I would like to think, with all the shifting definitions of womanhood/manhood, that our culture can still craft a place for fathers that is meaningful and dignified. No, fathers don’t have to know best in that cornball sort of way. But they should be honored for who they are: caregivers, not babysitters; breadwinners or vital support; diaper changers and tea party companions. For as much as we love to laugh at Dad, it’s no laughing matter when one is not present.

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