Study finds that bumbling TV dads are still the norm
Family man says marriage, fatherhood worth it
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images of working-class fathers — i.e., the men who rebuilt America after the Great Depression and World War II — have been replaced by images of immature buffoons and schemers who need constant rescuing from their competent wives.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.