Why Does TV Love To Portray Dads As Idiots?

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What are we telling young boys if the examples of fatherhood they see everyday are parodies of incompetence?

Every time I see a promo for the new Scott Baio sitcom, See Dad Run, I gag a little. I can hardly believe that a) Scott Baio is still working, and b) they’re still pushing this “Idiot Dad” shtick and we’re still buying it. The title alone is cringe-worthy, and in a 40-second promotional clip, we see Baio burning toast, exploding a blender, setting the kitchen on fire, and his daughter pleading with Baio’s wife, “Please don’t leave us with daddy!” Hardy har har, stay-at-home dads are so hilarious, especially when they don’t know how to make toast!

I was recently discussing the resurgence of the Idiot Dad trend with my cousin, a conservative married mother of two. On every political axis we find ourselves on opposite poles, but on this issue we finally found some common ground. “I don’t want my kids to think that dads are incompetent,” she explained, “It’s so insulting!” We already worry about children absorbing gendered messaging—adventure, exploration, and construction tools for boys, glitter and princess gear for girls—but what do they learn about their parents, or the way parents are “supposed” to be, from advertising and TV?

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We spend a lot of time, rightfully, talking about the depiction of women on screen, from the hard numbers (68% of speaking parts on prime-time TV are male) to the subtle ways they are simplified, objectified, and glossed over. Channel-surfing between Real Housewives, Teen Moms, The Kardashians, and Toddlers in Tiaras is enough to make me want to turn off the tube forever. Are these my choices? What will historians think of women of my era when they pore through archives and find this drivel? Of course, there’s also marked progress to congratulate, with complex, rich female characters on shows like The Good Wife, Girls, Parks and Recreation, and Homeland, but those still feel like the exceptions, not the rule.

But men, well, we’ve never spent nearly enough time talking about their roles on big and small screens because the range of roles available to them makes this kind of conversation seem unnecessary. They could play anyone, at any age, and get the girl every single time. There is no Real Househusbands of Orange County, no Teen Dads, and consequently fewer stereotypes that we need to push back against. This is why the Idiot Dad trope is worth exploring, because in the sea of available parts for men and depictions of dads, we keep coming back to this ugly, insulting version of fatherhood.

Underneath See Dad Run, or any of the ads blanketing the airwaves that depict women doing all of the housework and childcare while men watch football or fumble the chores, there is a kernel of truth. Not absolute truth (there is nothing that makes dads incapable of making toast), but what advertisers would call a “consumer insight.”

Studies show that, on average, women do three to four times as much housework as men, even when they both work full time. Imagine you’re an advertiser selling a new cleaning product, who are you going to target? The wife. And might it occur to you to target the wife by showing her you know how hard she works by plopping her “lazy” husband on the couch while she scrubs? And might your target woman identify with your ad and buy your product? She just might. This is what advertisers are banking on when they find a handy hook. No matter how hetero-normative or insulting it might be, if it works, they use it.

But sometimes it doesn’t work because advertisers neglect to consider the times and how they are, bit by bit, a-changin’. Huggies recently caused controversy with their “Dad Test” ad campaign that claimed their diapers were so good, even dads could use them correctly. The response was overwhelmingly negative, as parents across the country resisted the insinuation that dads are categorically inept, and Huggies re-shot the ad with a more dad-friendly spin. Advertisers and broadcasters will stop pushing this vision of family life on us if and when we stop responding so positively. The more we protest, the better this will get.

There are examples these days of non-idiot dads on TV. Will Arnett’s character on Up All Night, for example, is a sexy stay-at-home dad who is an engaged, responsible parent. Or consider the recent Google ads, “Dear Sophie,” and “Jess Time.” In one, a father documents through pictures, letters, and video the first years of his daughter’s life. In the other, a father and daughter stay connected when she goes to college through Google products. Do you mean to tell me that some dads are engaged in their children’s development and make time between lounging and bro-ing out to actually parent?

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In my day job, we devote a lot of mental energy to changing the ratio of women in leadership and technology because, as the saying goes, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Women who don’t have examples to follow or role models to observe have a harder time finding their own paths to success. It’s not impossible, of course, but it’s harder when you’re flying blind. You can’t be what you can’t see; what are we telling boys if the examples of fatherhood they see everyday are parodies of incompetence, laziness, or neglect?

Advertisers and broadcasters will say they are only doing what the focus group research tells them to do, but that excuse only lasts so long. There are lots of ploys advertisers don’t use, like blatant racism, even though it might succeed with certain audiences. Just because something works doesn’t mean you should use it. Just think, in recent history a line like “Even a woman can use it!” was perfectly acceptable. Now, I hope, we would all view that as miles over the line of acceptability. And yet, we use the same logic, and sometimes even the same language, to talk to men about being contributors in their households and engaged parents. Isn’t it time we let this trope fall by the wayside and become part of our sexist history instead of our slightly-less-sexist present?

Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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