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Pop culture patriarchs more nuanced, ranging from distant to doting to doofus


Here’s a pop (that’s a hint) quiz.

Question: What do Homer Simpson, Tony Soprano, Rob Petrie, Cliff Huxtable, Al Bundy and Don Draper have in common?

Answer: They’re dads. Fictional dads, to be sure (from “The Simpsons,” “The Sopranos,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Cosby Show,” “Married ... With Children” and “Mad Men” respectively). Some of them are good dads, some of them aren’t so good. Some of them are clueless dads, some of them try but come up short.

That such a diverse array of dads has been able to strike a chord in popular culture over the years (even if only in reruns) is a sign that, when it comes to depictions of fathers and fatherhood, we Americans are pretty adaptable people.

Particularly during the past decade or two, depictions of fathers and fatherhood in pop culture have become increasingly multidimensional, mirroring the increasing diversification seen among real-life dads, said Peter Gray, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Contrast today’s pop culture dads with, say, those of the 1950s, when dads — Ward Cleaver of “Leave It to Beaver” and a few others notwithstanding — more often than not served merely as bumbling, clueless comic foils.

Today, “I have a hard time generalizing across the popular culture,” Gray said. “That, alone, may be informative. What ‘fathers’ are today is so varied, I think you can find all sorts of representations.”

Today’s fictional dad can be a distant-but-means-well Don Draper or a bumbling Homer Simpson. Today’s real-life dad can be President Barack Obama being “very forthright in his role as a father,” Gray said, or the Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade writing about “the importance of being a father.”

Today’s pop culture landscape includes sensitive dads, young dads, old dads, straight dads, gay dads, single dads, married dads and every other permutation of “dad” imaginable. With such diversity, Gray said, “I’d find it difficult to generalize what (a father) is because there is so much segmentation of representation of fathers in popular culture.”

“The image of the father has changed a lot,” said Donna Wilburn, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “I’ve seen it in the media and in clinics and in personal life.

“Fathers are expected to be more emotionally available for their children. They’re expected to participate in the activities of their children, and not just in sports but in homework and in medical appointments and things like that where, in the past, dads were working all day and moms would do that.”

Consider a recent commercial for Tide detergent, which features a father talking about the laundry challenges presented by his young daughter and her princess dress. Nowhere in the ad is a mother seen or even referenced, leaving it up to the viewer to decide exactly what kind of dad — stay-at-home? single? gay? — he is.

It’s hard to imagine such a spot running even a decade ago. Now, said Wilburn — who, by the way, loves the ad — “that’s how normal it has become.”

Even as a wider diversity of real-life dads seeps into pop culture, pop culture flows through more conduits than ever before. That helps to make it less likely that any single image of fatherhood, whether good or bad, will hold the power it once may have.

“When there were three channels to watch on TV, pop culture was constrained,” Gray said. “Nowadays, there is a niche market for every taste and every social value. And, in some ways, that’s probably representative of fatherhood.”

Even just a few decades ago, pop culture hewed to “a very narrowly defined, rigidly controlled” notion of fatherhood, said Troy McGinnis, a sociology instructor at the College of Southern Nevada. “There was only one way to be a dad.”

Now, “we have a much more robust social definition” of fathers and fatherhood, said McGinnis, who, himself, has been a single father since the mid-’90s.

McGinnis’ son was in kindergarten and grade school then and child-raising dads weren’t as common as they are now. Media portrayals of the time were still heavy with “fumbling” dads and dads who were “relatively incompetent caring for children,” he said.

“Men are being more active fathers now and are more involved with their children and more active in school and sports and other activities with kids,” he said, so portrayals of dads today are “not just more diverse but more nuanced.”

Consider Tony Soprano, who tries to be a good dad despite also being a mob boss and killer.

Soprano “struggles with having to uphold older standards of masculinity, but also is needing to be someone else,” McGinnis said. “And, he tried. He was unsure in many ways, but he tried.”

Cartoonish, buffoonish depictions of fathers haven’t disappeared completely from the pop culture landscape, and it’s worth keeping in mind that the depictions of fathers seen in pop culture don’t necessarily represent all fathers.

“I want to be clear about this: The representations of fatherhood are different from the lived reality of most dads,” McGinnis said.

A househusband may become a househusband not out of choice, but because he lost his job. A single dad may become a single dad not out of choice but because of a divorce.

Mistakenly, McGinnis said, “pop culture often is used to support claims that the battle is over.”

Mark Sherwood, publisher of Parents Guide of Las Vegas, has two sons and two daughters in third to ninth grades. Recently, he attended his third-grader’s talent show, where he found himself sitting with several other dads.

“I was just thinking how cool it was that one of the things we can do now and couldn’t do before is to just have flexibility of schedule,” he said.

Unlike other dads whose work schedules are less flexible, Sherwood joked, “I’ve got a work schedule that lets me choose the 60 hours a week I work.”

Actually, what Sherwood mostly sees in pop culture representations of fatherhood is “that it’s cool to be a dad.” And he doesn’t worry much one way or another about how pop culture portrays fathers.

“If you’re overly reliant on pop culture to dictate anything in your life,” Sherwood said, “you’re going to be disappointed.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

 

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