Study finds that bumbling TV dads are still the norm

Fam­ily man says mar­riage, fa­ther­hood worth it

The Washington Times Daily - - Front Page - BY CH­ERYL WETZSTEIN

D’oh! Blue-col­lar dads still can’t catch a break on TV, ac­cord­ing to a new study.

An anal­y­sis of 13 fathers in 12 re­cent TV sit­coms and their 699 in­ter­ac­tions with their mi­nor chil­dren showed that work­ing-class fathers con­tin­ued to be de­picted less pos­i­tively than mid­dle-class fathers, said study au­thor Jes­sica Troilo, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of child de­vel­op­ment and fam­ily stud­ies at West Vir­ginia Univer­sity.

This fol­lows the kind of pat­tern seen, wherein TV work­ing­class fathers are typ­i­fied as “kind of bumbling” and “in­ca­pable,” com­pared to mid­dle-class fathers, Ms. Troilo said.

Her study also showed that sit­com dads dif­fered by net­work, with ABC, CW and ca­ble shows show­ing the most dad-friendly be­hav­iors, and CBS most likely to have snarky dads.

More­over, the one gay fa­ther stud­ied was found to be over­whelm­ingly child-in­volved and didn’t ut­ter a sin­gle “crit­i­cal and caus­tic” com­ment to a child, the study found.

In con­trast, 11 of the 12 het­ero­sex­ual sit­com fathers stud­ied said hurt­ful things to their chil­dren, es­pe­cially the fathers on “Still

Stand­ing” on CBS, CW’s “The Ge­orge Lopez Show” and ABC’s “8 Sim­ple Rules,” which starred the late John Rit­ter.

“TV dads” are im­por­tant be­cause tele­vi­sion is a pow­er­ful medium for “trans­mit­ting mes­sages about fam­i­lies and fathers,” said Ms. Troilo.

In par­tic­u­lar, chil­dren and youth watch a lot of tele­vi­sion, and the ways fathers are de­picted can both in­flu­ence how they will think about them­selves as fu­ture par­ents and re­in­force what they al­ready be­lieve about fam­ily roles, she said. “We are likely to watch things that match with what we think.”

The study, “Stay Tuned: Por­tray­als of Fathers to Come,” ap­peared in Psy­chol­ogy of Pop­u­lar Media Cul­ture this month.

Pre­vi­ous re­search has shown that the “pa­tri­otic” and “heroic” im­ages of work­ing-class fathers — i.e., the men who re­built Amer­ica af­ter the Great De­pres­sion and World War II — have been re­placed by im­ages of im­ma­ture buf­foons and schemers who need con­stant res­cu­ing from their com­pe­tent wives.

Stud­ies show that even as far back as Fred Flint­stone in “The Flint­stones” and Archie Bunker in “All in the Fam­ily” — and, more re­cently, Homer Simp­son in “The Simp­sons” — it is typ­i­cally the mother, not fa­ther, who knows best in work­ing-class fam­i­lies, said Ms. Troilo.

In the late 1980s, John Good­man’s Dan Con­ner char­ac­ter in the long-run­ning sit­com “Roseanne” fi­nally chal­lenged that de­pic­tion.

Mr. Good­man’s fa­ther fig­ure — a dry­wall con­trac­tor mar­ried to Roseanne Con­ner, played by Roseanne Barr — was seen as the “emo­tional an­chor” of the fam­ily of five, and “Roseanne” is con­sid­ered to be the first to show a suc­cess­ful work­ing-class fam­ily, said Ms. Troilo.

How­ever, in her study, Ms. Troilo found that work­ing-class fathers, such as Julius Rock in CW’s “Ev­ery­body Hates Chris,” Sean Fin­nerty in the WB’s “Grounded for Life” and Michael Heck in ABC’s “The Mid­dle,” were still slightly less likely than the mid­dle-class dads to have pos­i­tive or fun in­ter­ac­tions with their chil­dren but more likely to have “crit­i­cal and caus­tic” in­ter­ac­tions.

Ms. Troilo said “pos­i­tive” fa­ther stereo­types re­ferred to be­ing suc­cess­ful at work, spend­ing qual­ity time with their chil­dren, giv­ing them emo­tional sup­port and teach­ing them life lessons. “Neg­a­tive” stereo­types in­cluded ir­re­spon­si­ble, bumbling and im­ma­ture be­hav­iors and fewer in­ter­ac­tions with a child.

Another find­ing from her study was that view­ers got dif­fer­ent im­ages of fathers based on the net­works they were watch­ing.

View­ers of ABC, CW and TBS, for in­stance, were likely to see friendly, fun and child-in­volved dads in shows like “My Wife and Kids,” “Ev­ery­body Hates Chris” and “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.” But CBS view­ers of shows like “Still Stand­ing” and “Two and a Half Men” would see dads who were more likely to say things that made fun of their chil­dren. Get­ting laughs didn’t mat­ter if the com­ment was crit­i­cal and caus­tic, the study said.

The 12 TV sit­coms were ABC’s “8 Sim­ple Rules,” “The Ge­orge Lopez Show,” “The Mid­dle,” “Mod­ern Fam­ily,” “My Wife and Kids” and “Subur­ga­tory”; on CBS, “Ac­cord­ing to Jim,” “Still Stand­ing” and “Two and a Half Men”; the CW’s “Ev­ery­body Hates Chris”; WB’s “Grounded for Life”; and “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” on TBS. Ex­cept for “8 Sim­ple Rules,” the shows were cho­sen at ran­dom, and five episodes were coded. “Mod­ern Fam­ily” had four fathers; het­ero­sex­ual Phil and ho­mo­sex­ual Mitchell were cho­sen for re­view.

Sep­a­rately, the Par­ents Tele­vi­sion Coun­cil (PTC) on Wed­nes­day of­fered ku­dos to ABC’s “The Mid­dle” and three other shows for their re­spect­ful, ad­mirable por­tray­als of fathers.

PTC’s fa­vorite TV dads be­sides Mike Heck on “The Mid­dle” in­cluded An­dre “Dre” John­son from ABC’s “Black-ish,” Frank Rea­gan and Danny Rea­gan from “Blue Bloods” on CBS and Henry Allen and Joe West from CW’s “The Flash.”

What has mar­riage and fa­ther­hood meant to a young Michigan man? Sim­ply put, an end to the days of self-amuse­ment and the start of a life of pur­pose and ful­fill­ment.

Be­ing mar­ried has “kept me the same” and yet changed R.J. McVeigh, a Michigan pro-life leader who works with stu­dents.

“Mar­riage kept the good parts of me the same and chal­lenged the not-so-good parts to im­prove,” he said.

Re­searchers find that Mr. McVeigh’s ex­pe­ri­ences are com­mon: The mile­stones of mar­riage and par­ent­hood can in­spire “man­ning up” in men.

Still, as Amer­ica pre­pares to celebrate its 105th Fa­ther’s Day on Sun­day, there is a con­stant dis­cus­sion about when and how Amer­i­cans now form their fam­i­lies. For in­stance, Mr. McVeigh has bucked na­tional trends by mar­ry­ing in his early 20s and be­com­ing a fa­ther of two by age 23. On av­er­age, Amer­i­can men now wait un­til they are about 29 years old to marry.

Fa­ther­hood, how­ever, is not so de­layed: The av­er­age age for a man to be­come a fa­ther is 25, ac­cord­ing to data from the Na­tional Sur­vey of Fam­ily Growth.

These days, cou­ples of­ten opt for co­hab­i­ta­tion in­stead of mar­riage, said Don­ald Paul Sullins, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at Catholic Univer­sity of Amer­ica, not­ing that men and women of­ten co­habit for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. For many men, co­hab­it­ing is a way to avoid mar­riage, even though women think co­hab­it­ing is the path­way to mar­riage, he said.

Preg­nancy typ­i­cally changes that dy­namic, Mr. Sullins said.

“When they con­ceive a child, the co­hab­i­ta­tion takes one of two forms: It ei­ther breaks up and you get another sin­gle mother who chooses to raise that child — if they don’t abort that child — or they de­cide to get mar­ried,” said Mr. Sullins.

If the choice is to marry, it’s not un­com­mon for the young fa­ther to step up and take re­spon­si­bil­ity for his fam­ily — be­com­ing fully em­ployed if he hadn’t been be­fore, or work­ing to­ward ca­reer ad­vance­ment if he hadn’t been do­ing that be­fore.

Mar­riage and fa­ther­hood “up­grades the whole qual­ity of their life — you could call it ‘man­ning up,’” said Mr. Sullins, who is also a mar­ried Catholic priest and fa­ther who joined the church later in life.

Re­search has doc­u­mented tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits of mar­riage for men — most of whom are also fathers.

For in­stance, mar­ried men aged 28-30 are likely to earn $15,929 more a year than their sin­gle peers. This “mar­riage pre­mium” grows with time, so that mar­ried men aged 44-46 earn $18,824 more than their sin­gle peers, aca­demics Robert I. Ler­man and W. Brad­ford Wil­cox said in a re­port in Oc­to­ber.

Mar­ried men also are more likely to have bet­ter health — no doubt due to ef­forts by their wives — as well as en­joy a level of re­spect in so­ci­ety.

So­ci­ol­o­gists such as the late Steven Nock have main­tained that be­ing mar­ried fos­ters re­spon­si­ble be­hav­ior — par­tic­u­larly in hus­bands — like prac­tic­ing self-con­trol and stay­ing at­tached to the work­force, Mr. Wil­cox and Mr. Ler­man said in “For Richer, For Poorer: Fam­ily Struc­tures, Eco­nomic Suc­cess in Amer­ica.”

As economist and No­bel lau­re­ate Ge­orge Ak­erlof once put it, “Men set­tle down when they get mar­ried: if they fail to get mar­ried, they fail to set­tle down,” their re­port said.

How­ever, the in­tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits of fa­ther­hood do not al­ways come easily, Mr. Sullins said. “Be­com­ing a fa­ther calls both par­ents to sac­ri­fice.”

The so­ci­ol­o­gist said that par­ents lose cer­tain free­doms — there’s less time for ro­man­tic be­hav­ior, week­end trips, sleep, fi­nan­cial sav­ings — “the list is huge.”

Also, the ne­ces­si­ties of child-rear­ing can pre­dom­i­nate the ro­mance, sex and mu­tual ful­fill­ment of the par­ents, he said. The child will “make de­mands on the par­ents,” and that, in turn, will call the adults into growth and ma­tu­rity.

“The rea­son par­ents im­prove in lots of ways when a child comes is be­cause we hu­man be­ings are made to sac­ri­fice — to live for the sake of some­one else and not to live for the sake of our­selves, and a child calls us far [be­yond] our­selves to serve the in­ter­est and needs of some­one else,” said Mr. Sullins.

In other words, “the man who chooses to raise and fa­ther a child will find out that the child is also rais­ing him, mak­ing him grow up and be more of a man than he would have been oth­er­wise,” he said.

Mr. McVeigh, who has a de­gree in bio­med­i­cal sciences and is cur­rently Great Lakes Re­gional Di­rec­tor for Stu­dents for Life of Amer­ica, dis­cov­ered many of these things first­hand.

Be­fore he mar­ried, the high points of his life would re­volve around ac­tiv­i­ties such as stay­ing en­ter­tained and avoid­ing bore­dom, he said.

“But I don’t feel that way any­more,” said Mr. McVeigh, who has a tod­dler and a new­born. “I feel like I have a more con­sis­tent and sta­ble, joy­ful life where I don’t have to be look­ing for some­thing to en­ter­tain me.”

More­over, get­ting mar­ried helped him learn how to man­age time and stress more ef­fi­ciently, as well as not stop try­ing un­til he found his way into a sat­is­fy­ing ca­reer path.

Life got rough when he and his wife’s “new­ly­wed” plans “pretty much fell apart com­pletely” due to un­fore­seen events in their school, jobs and fi­nances.

But still, hav­ing a wife and new­born daugh­ter had a pos­i­tive ef­fect on him, Mr. McVeigh said.

“Even though my daugh­ter was just a baby,” he said, “I re­al­ized that we are all in this to­gether.”


ROLE MODEL: The char­ac­ter John Good­man (left) played on the sit­com “Roseanne” was cited as a pos­i­tive ex­am­ple of a tele­vi­sion fa­ther fig­ure amid a glut of work­ing­class bungling TV dads.


ABC’s “8 Sim­ple Rules,” which starred the late John Rit­ter — one the 12 sit­com fathers stud­ied — fea­tured di­a­logue that in­cluded hurt­ful things to their chil­dren. The study ap­peared in Psy­chol­ogy of Pop­u­lar Media Cul­ture this month.

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