Positive Depictions of Dads Dwindling

On the heels of a Father’s Day weekend in which many families celebrated the positive influence of dads in their lives, Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to find positive examples of fatherhood when they turn on their televisions.

In a nearly 40-year study of sitcom dads, researchers searched for interactions where fathers gave advice, set rules, or positively or negatively reinforced their kids’ behavior. In the end, they picked two random episodes of 34 top-rated, family-centered shows that aired between 1980 and 2017.

In those 68 episodes, more than 50% of the relevant scenes in the 2000s and 2010s showed dads as foolish, a number that was up significantly from 31% in 1990s sitcoms and just 18% in the 1980s. In addition, the number of times dads were shown in parenting situations with their children diminished significantly in the past decade.

“When sitcoms stereotype fathers, they seem to suggest that men are somehow inherently ill-suited for parenting,” wrote Erica Scharrer, a communication professor at UMass Amherst, in a syndicated article for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “That sells actual fathers short and, in heterosexual, two-parent contexts, it reinforces the idea that mothers should take on the lion’s share of parenting responsibilities.”

As sitcoms, the natural goal of the show is to make large audiences laugh. However, to accomplish that, writers often appeal to shorthand assumptions.

“It used to be that father knew best,” wrote TV Guide television critic Matt Roush in 2010, “and then we started to wonder if he knew anything at all.”

The results of the study are especially interesting because they come at a time when the number of stay-at-home dads is on the rise, and more fathers in the real world are actively caring for young children than perhaps any other time in history. For example, Pew Center Research showed that the amount of time fathers spent caring for their children nearly tripled from 1965 to 2016.

Because of those societal changes, Scharrer thinks it’s time for television to change its tone toward dads and catch up to the times.

“Sitcom writers can do better by dads by moving on from the increasingly outdated foolish father trope,” she concluded.

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