As Chris Rock fills the screen in What to Expect When You’re Expecting, Notorious B.I.G. thumps in the background. Rock, who plays a dad named Vic, is wearing a Baby Bjorn and pushing a stroller with twins. He is surrounded by a small army of fathers, infants, and toddlers. One dad is chugging what looks like malt liquor but turns out to be apple juice. Another dad sucks on what could be a crack pipe but is actually an asthma inhaler. What we’re expecting next is the usual barrage of moron-dad jokes familiar from half a century of sitcoms, and we do in fact get one or two stupid confessions (my toddler ate a cigarette butt, mine drank from the toilet).
But then this otherwise uninspiring movie throws us a welcome surprise: The dads, for once, are not total fools, peripheral to the domestic drama and played entirely for jokes. The whole point of Vic’s “dudes group,” in fact, is to teach reluctant would-be dads about the charms and wonders of fatherhood. “We love being dads,” Vic earnestly tells a potential inductee. “When I was young I used to think I was happy but now I know I’m happy.”
By the standards of cinematic dad-dom, such a simple declaration of dedication to fatherhood counts as a small miracle. For nearly the entire history of cinema and especially TV, the doltish dad has thrived as a steady source of comic relief whose only role is to screw everything up and set off the laugh track. Think of Fred Flintstone, Tim Taylor, and Homer Simpson, and the collective number of household appliances and Christmas trees they have accidentally exploded.
But the stock type is ever so slowly evolving. In Modern Family, Phil Dunphy should be the house boob, with his embarrassing philosophy of “peerenting.” But Dunphy is not just comic relief; he’s a successful salesman and the center of joy and fun in his household, especially compared to his uptight wife. No one really disdains him, and the domestic space belongs as much to him as to her. In Up All Night, Will Arnett’s character Chris started out as an idiot who stayed home with the baby because he had nothing better to do. In early episodes, he propped up the infant on the couch so he could play his video games or watch hockey, and didn’t really notice when she tipped over. But over time he has morphed into the sane, sensible parent we all want to be. Now his role is to check his wife’s crazy competitive instincts and to never renege on a promise made to his daughter. In fact, the show’s main innovation is creating a reliable stay-at-home dad whose wife still wants to sleep with him.
This past fall, the networks began to experiment with new gender dynamics. In a crop of new sitcoms, from Man Up! to Last Man Standing, the husbands were unemployed or otherwise obsolete while the wives went to work. (In Up All Night, Chris’ wife Reagan is a TV executive for an Oprah like diva.) At first the shows just overlaid the old sitcom stock types—doltish dad, haranguing wife—onto the new storylines. But then the writers began to relax and experiment, assigning certain personality traits of the old stock type to the wrong gender. Reagan for example turned into a version of Ralph Kramden, prone to tantrums and meddling. Like the classic doltish dad, she creates elaborate schemes to fix domestic problems but only winds up making everything worse. And then Chris swoops in, Alice-style, to make it all better. The success of Up All Night bodes well for the slightly evolved dad; Last Man Standing, starring Tim Allen, has also survived.
The network collective subconscious seems to be picking up new cultural signals about fatherhood. The number of stay-at-home dads is still tiny, but the rules of fatherhood have changed a lot since the Honeymooners days. The father who comes home to pat his kid on the head and then sits down to read the newspaper is now an anomaly. Consequently, jokes about dads who can’t figure out the diaper fall flat. Recently, a group of fathers started a public campaign to protest a Huggies ad showing a group of football watching dads ignoring their infants as the diapers grew heavy and smelly. Huggies pulled the ad and shot a new one. The updated version is arguably equally condescending. The narration still refers to dads as “the ultimate test” for a diaper. But at least it shows a room full of fathers tenderly rocking their infants instead of neglecting them.
If this seems like a minor concession, then spend some time watching old clips of TV’s most famous dads. Starting from the birth of sitcoms, fathers are pretty much universally morons. On the Trouble With Father, Stu Erwin is a high-school principal who pontificates on big questions but can’t do anything small right. (Here is a 1951 clip showing Erwin blowing up the fire pit.) Accident-prone is a requirement of the role. “How do they always manage to bollix things up?” Wilma Rubble asks in a 1960 episode of The Flintstones. “I don’t know,” Betty replies. “Practice I guess.” George Jetson is shockingly idiotic. Here he is in a clip teaching his son to lie, then putting the electric shaver to disastrous use.
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.”