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June 18, 2005

Misunderestimated on Every Channel

Tiereny's column on TV's "doofus dad" is suprisingly perceptive today.  Well worth a pre-father's day read.  It is, after all, a pretty interesting TV phenomenon.  If the majority of shows presented other demographics the way they present fathers, they wouldn't survive a day.  Ignorant blacks?  Bitchy, materialistic moms?   Moronic, accident-prone dads?  The whole set fits, but only the last is widely allowable.

Odd.  Maybe white males, as the dominant majority, are secure enough in their power and public image not to mind?  Maybe they're the last demographic group safe to infantilize because, as of yet, they haven't protested their portrayals?  And is it white males, or do the black-acted sitcoms work off the same format? 

Ah, the mysteries of pop cultures.  Tierney's answer, which makes sense, is that 3/4ths of sitcom viewers are female, and this is what they like.  Maybe.  Or maybe it's just that the stereotype works for everyone.  Aggrieved women get to laugh at a father worse than their husband.  Uncertain fathers get to laugh at a dad who makes them look superb.  And confident fathers get to pat themselves on the back for their superb, clearly atypical child-rearing abilities.  After all, nothing we all like better than a fairly harmless stereotype that makes us look good -- the soft ego boost of low expectations.

-Ezra

June 18, 2005 in Television | Permalink

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» The Doofus Dad - Why Are Sitcom Dads so Lame? from Outside The Beltway
John Tierney wonders why Homer Simpson has managed to replace Ward Cleaver as the archetype of fatherhood in American situation comedies. The Doofus Dad (NYT RSS) One evening, after watching Homer Simpson wreck the family car at a monster-truck ra... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 18, 2005 4:55:05 PM

» Father knows least from Mister Snitch!
Fathers have always been portrayed as a doofus to one degree or another. "Today, father, is Father's Day ? and we are giving you a tie! ? It's not much, we know - it is just our way of showing you... We think you're a regular guy! ? You say that is w... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 19, 2005 1:21:56 AM

» The female supremacist plot to control television from Pandagon
A couple of days ago, Ezra commented on Tierney's column about doofus TV dads, where Tierney blamed women for having too much money and not enough gratitude that men are doing some more chores around the house, bring their household... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 20, 2005 8:34:42 AM

» The female supremacist plot to control television from Pandagon
A couple of days ago, Ezra commented on Tierney's column about doofus TV dads, where Tierney blamed women for having too much money and not enough gratitude that men are doing some more chores around the house, bring their household... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 20, 2005 11:15:12 AM

Comments

Of course, the bumbling father inevitably ends up with an attractive, understanding wife, which may be why men don't complain.

As for other stereotypes, we less often see bitchy, materialistic moms, but bitchy, materialistic teenage daughters are fairly common. And punk sons are also pretty standard.

White men also get the best roles in television, so it's pretty hard to complain.

Posted by: Matt Singer | Jun 18, 2005 1:59:54 PM

Maybe white males, as the dominant majority, are secure enough in their power and public image not to mind?

This is the kind of thing Rush and others have built an empire out of. The angry white male is a huge industry. But you're right, apparenty it isn't big enough to get shows thrown off the air or anything.

Posted by: Tom | Jun 18, 2005 2:10:21 PM

C'mon. Seriously? Tierney also notes that most the sitcoms are written by white males. Maybe they're all teh gay. Maybe none of those guys has kids. Or maybe, just maybe, it's a lot easier to trust that self-mockery is "just kidding" than it is to accept it from the guy over you.

But let's test it out. Give African-Americans similar representation in the writing of sitcoms for the next five years. My suspicion is you'll see a fair bit of self-mockery (as you already see on black shows), but I could be wrong.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Jun 18, 2005 2:52:00 PM

Unlike Leave It To Beaver or The Cosby Show, even nominally family sitcoms aren't really directed at kids anymore. Kids have shows of their own: Lizzie Maguire, Sponge Bob. There are four or five cable channels that are pretty exclusivele kid-oriented.

The other thing Tierney missed is that we're probably at an all-time low ebb for sitcoms. As a genre they've never been worse.

Posted by: kth | Jun 18, 2005 3:29:00 PM

One can be a very lovable doofus. In some ways it's even an endearing quality. In addition, it's not really a dad stereotype as far as I know.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jun 18, 2005 4:12:27 PM

What sitcoms don't make everyone look like morons these days? What kid cartoon shows? Plus, as Matt Singer notes above the wife:husband hotness ratio has been out of control recently, like CEO:worker pay. I expect Greenspan will address it next time the Fed meets. So it's not like the cultural impact of Jim Belushi is 100% stacked against men and fathers.

In addition to that, doesn't the (conservative promoted) "dumb dad" theory collide head-on with the (conservative promoted) "women aren't as funny" theory? It's not hard to unify the 2 by suggesting that if men have a greater range and ability to be funny that quality is brought out by making them the focus of more of the jokes and comedic situations on TV. Is jerk-ass Marge as funny as jerk-ass Homer? Hardly (and for example I give you the 1st season episode where she gets drunk at Burns' party).

And if the situation were reversed, or even equalized I've no doubt we'd hear Tierney but especially David Brooks lament TV for promoting vulgarity among women and the denegration of motherhood.

Posted by: SamAm | Jun 18, 2005 4:32:48 PM

I don't watch sit-coms. They annoy me. Part of what annoys me is their highly predictable nature. The endlessly moronic men in the shows also annoy me greatly.

In a similar vein, the portrayal of some men in commercials makes me want to throw things at the television. There's the cereal commercial that ends with mom "cutely" remarking to the daughter how daddy used to do a lot of things that weren't very smart before he met mommy - as if to say that now that daddy has mommy to look after him, she protects him from his stupid tendencies.

Then there's the commercial about blocking TV channels where the daughter informs her father that he'll have to ask mommy if he can watch a particular channel that mommy has blocked. When asked, the mother tells her husband that no, he may not watch that channel.

I thought part of the women's movement was to release women from the role of "mother" to her husband. I married a man who was capable of being a partner. An equal. I had no desire to marry an overgrown child. It is not right that a wife shame her husband in front of the children by implying he can't refrain from stupidity or bad choices without her supervision.

IMO such representations of men are demeaning to the men, and make the women look like bossy hags. If we can't be angry on behalf of the humiliated men, can't we women be angry that we are shown as being the parent of a grown man? That we women are shown as having such poor judgement in choice of spouse that we couldn't pick a man who can be relied upon to be a responsible adult who is capable of seeing to his own care?

Feh. It's disgusting.

Posted by: Amelia | Jun 18, 2005 5:11:58 PM

firstly, these sitcoms are focus group tested six ways from sunday. If male characters are persistently characterized in a certain light, it's intentional.

But also, these characterizations do resemble those presented by many women I know. Women of a certain aged have been raised to believe that masculinity is pathological. Men are congenital rapists who’s immorality lies at the foundation of all the world’s sins.
Not surprisingly many tend to feel very threatened by males, even if not consciously so. The result is like a corollary to the notorious virgin/whore dichotomy – men are either beasts or children. When you tame the beast he becomes a child, if you don’t chastise the child he may become a beast , have an affair with your younger prettier sister, steal your baby and beat you. E and Lifetime make millions upon millions of dollars annually retelling such stories.

Posted by: max-ine | Jun 18, 2005 6:28:31 PM

I think we're straining at straws here.

Dad as Idiot is ancient entertainment concept. There was a program in the early 1950s - "The Life of Riley" starring William Bendix. Dad was a buffoon, an idiot. His get-rich-scheme always backfired. His teenage children baffled him into incoherent speech and his wise, loving wive held things together for everyone.

"The Honeymooners" and a host of other TV sitcoms, followed, cementing the concept into our culture. The were immensely popular. Ministers railed the programs as an assault on the hierarchal family.

Overlooked is the central message: Love. No matter how stressed Mom gets, how looney Dad is or how fragmented and crazy the family gets, the family loves one another and, when it counts, takes care of each other.

It was true of Chester of Riley. It's true of Homer Simpson. Dads may dolts. But they're our dolts.

Posted by: Dave In Texas | Jun 18, 2005 6:39:08 PM

Or maybe Dad is just musing how life has changed. Instead of no worries he's taken on a bunch and laughs at himself for being so intense (when he's in a good mood). A friend of mine punned it this way : Modern marriage breakup is so unnecessary. If men had more income and women were more patable ; there'd be no mutual incompatability.

Posted by: opit | Jun 18, 2005 8:49:34 PM

Imagine if there was a tv commercial right on time for Mothers Day telling mothers not to raise children on their own. Would the country chuckle and nod in sagely agreement at all those idiot women who decide to be single mothers (for no good reason I mean)? No way.

O yea, and sitcoms.

Posted by: Josh | Jun 18, 2005 10:08:02 PM

As a husband and a father, I frequently find my lovely wife to be a puzzlement wrapped in a enigma wrapped in a camisole; and being a father of a three-year-old boy is a role that frequently makes me feel foolish and underprepared. If I were a writer of sitcoms, I would draw from my own experiences, and I'm certain some of these uncertainties would come through in the stories I presented.

I'm not personally offended by Homer's follies. I guess it would be a pleasure to see a depiction of Dad as a heroic figure, someone to love and look up to and emulate; but it would probably not be as funny.

Posted by: Smallish Bees | Jun 18, 2005 10:54:02 PM

it isn't just sitcoms, in t.v. commercials the white male is the buffoon.

Posted by: brian | Jun 19, 2005 11:37:16 AM

I've said it before and I'll say it again--most negative stereotypes of men are insulting, but they are also serviceable to male dominance. The bumbling idiot man is one, since the end result is that women have to be boring and responsible all the time to take care of the child-men they are married to.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Jun 19, 2005 1:46:17 PM

All this means that there is no lack of negative female stereotypes since the bumbling idiot dad comes with a corresponding negative stereotype of the uptight mom.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Jun 19, 2005 1:47:35 PM

Hmm. I thought "black-acted" sitcoms already featured "ignorant blacks". That's why most black people don't watch them. Check the Nielsens. Black people tend to watch the Law & Order shows and sports, and not many sitcoms now that Seinfeld and Mad About You are off the air. No, I didn't make that up.

(The highest-rated shows on the black networks are Girlfriends and that Kevin Hill show, both of which feature upwardly mobile professionals who speak in Standard English and don't sell drugs or angrily stab yuppies in the neck for their swatches -- you know, human beings. But those are pretty much it. And even their ratings are low in comparison to ratings for sports and Law & Order, which blacks overwhelmingly prefer.)

And to Amanda: that is rubbish. The moms are not portrayed as uptight. They are portrayed as all-knowing, always right, and eminently reasonable. The men are portrayed utterly useless without them. How you can spin the pro-female propaganda on TV today into misogyny is beyond reason. The stereotypes do not serve male dominance, they serve female dominance, and your bigoted antimale perspective, which is a byproduct of your female supremacist zealotry, blinds you from seeing it.

Posted by: John Bartlett | Jun 20, 2005 6:20:46 AM

Whatever, John. I'd rather scratch my eyeballs out than be a mom to some overgrown baby. I don't know why people think this is an either/or situation, that if it serves men's interests to be given permission to be overgrown children because they can count on women to clean up after them that it doesn't flatter women at the same time. It's the same as the stereotype that men are oversexed animals. It serves men's interests, since it gives them "permission" to misbehave and expect a certain amount of female forgiveness. But it also flatters women by making us the responsible ones. I personally am sick and tired of the expectation that my gender makes me responsible for myself and for men, though.

Posted by: Amanda | Jun 20, 2005 6:57:30 AM

The old "bumbling men, babysitting women" stereotype goes hand-in-hand with the "women are responsible for mens' sexual behavior blaming-the-rape-vistim" stereotype. Women are the arbiters of civilized behavior and a harmonious home/society. Even if they actually don't have the power to enforce any decisions as said arbiters. And if they fail at that task, well, they deserve whatever they get. It's awful.

Incidentally, the only women in real life I have ever heard actually voicing the "men are bumblers, but they like to think they're running things nudge nudge" attitude...are older conservative women. The most recent overheard conversation took place in my gym, where two older conservative women were talking quite openly and derisively about manipulating their husbands into going to the latest local "Promise Keepers" rally. No joke.

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