Even when shows feature towns full of idiots, the dads stand out. Trey Parker, creator of South Park, has described Stan’s dad Randy Marsh, who is supposedly based on his own father, as “the biggest dingbat on the entire show.” Homer Simpson caused a nuclear accident when he waved to Bart, who was visiting the plant. He repeatedly loses to his daughter Lisa in Scrabble. He has an I.Q. of 55 and possibly doesn’t know how to read. As the show slowly declined over the years, the writers generally took their anger out on Homer, having him visit leprechaun jockeys or get raped by pandas.
The standard academic explanation of the doltish dad blames not gender but class. Sociologist Richard Butsch points out that as the value of manual labor declined, only working-class fathers were persistently presented as fools while middle-class fathers retained their dignity. It’s true that Ozzie Nelson from The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, Jim Anderson from Father Knows Best, and later, Bill Cosby from The Cosby Show were less fools than full of wisdom, dispensing judicious advice to their children.
But the middle-class fathers had their own set of problems. Their role may have been to mediate domestic disputes, but they could never claim the domestic space as their own, because that was women’s territory. So instead they behaved like policemen stopping by for a visit, critical to the unfolding drama but never really at home. And if they did dare tiptoe into the domestic zone, they had to create elaborate and barely believable justifications to preserve their manliness. Here is Ward Cleaver explaining to his son why he is cooking on the grill: “Women do all right when they have all the modern conveniences, but we men are better at this rugged type of outdoor cooking. It’s sort of a throwback to the caveman days.”
It might be hard for you to muster up much sympathy for a bunch of beleaguered white guys, but you should, because the TV doltish dad has become a genuine block to social progress. Seriously. Over the last 60 years women have rapidly changed their role in the public domain and TV has chronicled it all, from Mary Tyler Moore to Murphy Brown to Hannah Horvath. But white men, in cinema as in life, remain “fixed in cultural aspic,” as Jessica Grose memorably put it. The dads evolve but only in tiny increments, and very slowly.
Until very recently, a guy who wanted to stay at home or be earnest about fatherhood could not see his image reflected on TV, which essentially meant he did not exist. About a year ago in a story about breadwinner wives I wrote that I was “startled” by the sight of a stay-at-home dad making hand-print T-shirts for the teachers in my preschool. I’ve thought a lot about my use of the word “startled” since then. What was so startling, exactly? I think I just had no category to put him in. A lifetime of TV has taught me that a scene like that ends with a mess all over the walls or one of the kids accidentally dunked in the paint bucket. It does not end, as Chris Rock’s Vic insists about his afternoon with the toddlers, with the dad declaring that he’s really the one “living the dream.”