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Category: Trends / Topics: Change Family Father's Day Media Television Trends

The Changing Image of the American Father

by Barbara Greenleaf

Posted: June 29, 2021

How the fortunes of fathers have waxed, waned, and shape-shifted in the media over the years…



1950's 'Father Knows Best'

Since I didn’t put out a newsletter earlier in the month, I didn’t get to publicly acknowledge Father’s Day. I’d like to do it now. As a longtime chronicler of the American family, I’ve been struck by how the fortunes of fathers have waxed, waned, and shape-shifted in the media over the years. I’m focusing on TV and movies because they both reflect and shape our society’s attitudes.

Until relatively recently fathers were considered the last word on any dilemma facing the family. In the mediathey were generally depicted as the leader of the family: wise, breadwinning, dependable, and emotionally controlled. These patriarchs were expected to serve as exemplary role models who would raise sons into men. With the title of a popular 1950’s sitcom, Father Knows Best, I rest my case.

Then, in the sixties, perhaps as a backlash against Women’s Lib, engaged, sympathetic fathers made their debut. The Andy Griffith Show is often cited as a premier example of an exalted fatherhood in which men were deeply invested in and sensitively attuned to their offspring. It was also a convention that the fathers should be without spouses, as in Andy Griffith and To Kill a Mockingbird.

As mothers began to work outside the home, fathers were expected to pitch in more. No less an exalted figure than Dr. Spock lobbied for fathers’ taking on a greater role in raising the children, which he believed would be enormously beneficial to the youngsters. His belief is borne out by a raft of contemporary studies.

At the same time, the winds of change were blowing through the younger generation, who were carving out identities for themselves based more on outside influences than on the examples set by their mothers and fathers. Did the new, permissive upbringing cause this? We’ll probably never know. But again, a film title, in this case Rebel Without a Cause, telegraphs fathers’ waning authority over his teenage children. Although this James Dean classic was released earlier than the sixties, it became shorthand for the mixed-up, middle-class teens (or wannabe cool kids) who would soon make their appearance on the suburban scene.

The late seventies’ film Kramer vs. Kramer did an outstanding job of portraying the New Father, a man who struggled to fulfill both his roles as provider and single parent. While by no means perfect, Ted Kramer showed us what a fully realized father could be in a bitter divorce situation that was devastatingly realistic.

Perhaps too realistic for many people’s taste. The Cosby Show during the Reaganeraof the eighties was a kind of throwback to earlier depictions of the cozy nuclear family, where Dad was always there at the right time with the right advice and the childrenwere respectful and cooperative. While real-life families were falling apart left and right in America, it must have been reassuring that in the Huxtable household, at least, old-fashioned order reigned.

TV has not helped—or even realistically depicted—real-life fathers today. According to Mark Johnson of the Good Men Project, who studied hundreds of family sitcoms and commercials, fathers have been overwhelmingly depicted as humorously foolish, encouraging audiences to laugh at their parenting missteps and mistakes. These shows  and commercials reinforced the Doofus Dad stereotype in which new fathers cannot change a diaper and are always tripping over themselves, at best  a kind-hearted bumbler but always inept. It’s left to the (more attractive) mothers to solve the problems their spouses create.  See The Simpsons and Married…With Children to get the idea.

Hopefully, Dad’s stock will rise again in the media because the reality is that today’s New Father is a caring, competent, full-fledged partner in parenting, from early diaperchanger to later scout leader and spiritual guide. Today’s New Father is a true co-parent. So let’s hear it for fathers! Without them where would we be?

Next week we'll post "My Father's Hands," a poem by Linda Schwartz that appeared in the June 29 issue of Barbara's email newsletter.



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Barbara is the author of eight books, including two of particular interest to seniors. She has given us permission to use material from her newsletter, "From the Desk of Barbara Greenleaf," to which you can subscribe on her website.

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Posted: June 29, 2021

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