The Problem With Sitcom Parents

Dads are jerks or dummies; moms are weak ormean.

The Problem With Sitcom Parents

Duke Harten

Dads are jerks or dummies; moms are weak or mean.

Fred and Wilma. Peter and Lois. Homer and Marge. Study each couple and you’ll find a troubling trend: The dads fall neatly into two (equally unattractive) categories — inept buffoon or emotionally detached grump — and the moms are either overbearing shrews or feckless nags.

‘Malcolm In The Middle’

Some researchers believe that this formula isn’t the benign comedy it appears — that it could, in fact, be harming the real-life nuclear family by representing a one- or two-note model of how things should be.

Why dads get a bad rap

An Atlantic article about TV dads quotes author Hanna Rosin:

If there is a dad in the home [on TV], he is an idiot. It must have reflected our own discomfort with dads being competent. Until very recently, a guy who wanted to stay at home or be earnest about fatherhood could not see his image reflected on TV, which essentially meant he did not exist.

The Atlantic isn’t the only outlet concerned with how TV talks about the old man. The Washington Times covered the issue recently, and a UMass Amherst researcher wrote about it back in 2001. The two share a theory: A TV father’s competence is a function of both time and class. Meaning that the farther back we go in time, the more likely we are to have a brainy (if not emotionally involved) dad. Similarly, the higher up the financial ladder a family is, the less likely that Dad is the butt of its jokes.

As women entered the workforce starting in the 1950s and 60s, men spent more time with their children. By the turn of the century, the father-as-breadwinner thing was no longer the sacred reality of earlier decades. To reflect that new truth, shows began to take the newspaper-reading strongman and turn him into Homer Simpson or Hal Wilkerson or Phil Dunphy. Let’s call this shift the “Post-Breadwinner era.”

The real-life development of a family’s financial composition translated to an evolution of Family Sitcom dads. And with the evolution of dads came, inevitably, the evolution of moms.

TV moms suffer from real-life boon

You’d think that as more women pursued professional careers and shed the restrictive social doctrines of the 1940s and 50s, TV would shift to reflect that new empowerment. But just as it mistook the father’s new increase in family responsibility for weakness and stupidity, so did it take the feminist boom as an opportunity to paint moms in an unflattering light.

New school

‘Modern Family’

Witness mothers like Lois Wilkerson of “Malcolm In The Middle” or Claire Dunphy from “Modern Family.” On paper, both satisfy the mother-kn0ws-best trope. Claire and Lois are, after all, empirically smarter than their husbands. But because those shows were both made in and take place in the Post-Breadwinner era, the fathers are bumbling dopes. (For whatever reason — residual misogyny? bad writing? — Phil and Hal are, paradoxically, more professionally successful than their wives.)

This imbalance of smarts results in Lois and Claire becoming the “Bad Guys.” Phil and Hal are kind, loving fathers, but not especially talented ones. From that gentle incompetence comes the don’t-tell-your-mother phenomenon, in which father and child ally themselves against the shrewish mom who is, in most cases, simply trying to keep some semblance of order.

Old school

Interestingly, there is one example of a Pre-Breadwinner show that was produced in the Post-Breadwinner era. “That 70s Show” ran from 1998–2006, yet was set — surprise, surprise — in the 1970s. It aired during a time when its mom should fit the modern mold (read: a no-fun foil to a doltish dad) despite being a relic of the Pre-Breadwinner era (read: subservient and domestic).

‘That 70s Show’

Kitty Forman is an interesting meld of Pre- and Post-Breadwinner sensibilities. She has a career as a nurse, but remains deeply maternal. She sticks up for herself when she needs to, but often finds herself the butt of the joke. She requires Red to participate in zero domestic duty, yet is unafraid to square off against him if needed.

In this sense, “That 70s Show” succeeds where many others fail — it paints a mom who is maternal yet professional, who is strong without being shrewish, who is fearsome yet lovable. She’s something more evolved than June Cleaver but not as cartoonishly strict as Lois Wilkerson.

Two-for-one

Comparing old shows to new shows only gets us so far. Yes, we can see discrete differences in the way parents are written from the 1950s to the 1990s. But what TV often can’t acknowledge is that parents of the 90s are products of Pre-Breadwinner families. Meaning that in theory, at least, a bumbling 90s father should have an emotionally detached, grumpy dad of his own.

Enter “Everybody Loves Raymond,” the show which offers us a look at both generations. Frank and Marie are the old school parents — Dad is irritable and emotionally distant, Mom is petty and shallow and mentally weak. Their child, Raymond, is a grown man with a wife of his own. Ray and Deborah fall nicely into the modern mold — Dad is a clueless, good-humored buffoon and Mom is a bullying shrew.

This show proves what The Atlantic, The Washington Times, and the UMass Amherst researcher all believe: A TV parent’s personality is dictated by the era in which they exist.

Moving forward

The point of examining these shows is not to crucify their writers for misrepresenting the American family. It’s tough to make people laugh without exaggerated characters — there’s nothing funny, I admit, about a flawless parent.

The point is to start considering the third option. Painting parents into these stale stereotypes relies on a model of marriage wherein the partners are enemies. Erase that rift, and you have something closer to the truth (but no less ripe for harvesting funny material): Mom and Dad are in league against their children, and vice versa. Allying the parents would allow writers to start building healthier portraits of what a mother or father should be — and therefore, start helping real families see themselves reflected on TV. In Jessica Troilo’s study of television dads, she writes about the importance of this self-recognition:

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.

In other words, art on TV both reflects and informs life.