|By Allen Ang via Flickr|
Dads aren’t funny any more. That seems to be the latest development in the media this Father’s Day. We’ve always known that dad’s aren’t funny. They tell terrible jokes, and chuckle to themselves why we all roll our eyes. They pick you up from friends’ houses wearing unfashionable clothes listening to power ballads on the car’s achingly unhip CD player. Dads aren’t funny.
But they’re not funny on television either. The joke has worn thin. We don’t want any more incompetent dads messing it up, getting it wrong, failing to dress or feed their children properly, maiming pets or setting fire to sheds. The stereotypes are not helping.
There are two reasons for this: A report and a survey. Let's look at each in turn:
The ‘Fractured Families’ comes from the Centre for Social Justice, claiming that single parent families we growing at a rate of 20,000 a year. Useless fathers who are so useless that they are absent are no laughing matter. Ever keen to take a moral stance, the report points out this breakdown costs around £46 billion a year, or £1,541 for every taxpayer. Forget the pain and anguish of broken families. Someone’s got to pay for all this. And it's you. The taxpayer.
And then the real story: an online survey from the mighty Netmums said that dads were all too frequently stereotyped as “lazy or stupid” on TV shows, adverts and in books. Out of 2000 (self-selected) parents asked, almost half “slammed books, adverts and children’s TV shows like Peppa Pig, The Simpsons and the Flintstones.” Yes, I know. Almost half is less than half. And The Simpsons isn’t not a children’s TV show. But that is not the point here. With Father’s Day only days away, this briefly became a story. The Times editorial said the image of the hapless dad “has gone from gag to cliché to ubiquitous slur”.
The message is clear: Dad’s aren’t funny any more.
Why are fathers such easy targets for comedy?
And why is so hard to subvert the current narrative of useless dads? There is an easy answer to this. Comedy exploits surprise and subversion. Fathers are authority figures. Anything that makes a traditional seat of power look ridiculous is subversive and therefore frequently funny. It’s why jokes about politicians, princes, bishops and bankers are easy to do – because these people have tended to get their own way so we don't need to feel sorry for them. Technically, it's satire.
In the same way, everyone used to assume the father was ‘in charge’, the key bread winner, decision maker and law giver. Patriarchs have pretty much been the narrative in most households in almost all societies across the world for the last 6000 years. Reinforcing this is not artistically all that interesting.
The fact is that dads are no longer the authority figures they once were. This means that jokes about not knowing how to cook or change a nappy means that lots of these jokes have worn thin – to my generation, at least. For my parents, who are nearly seventy, the old way is still lodged in their minds. This is why Jim Royle still works as an old-fashioned stereotype. He still exists. But the Jim Royles are dying out. Fathers who are involved with their children are expected to do more and more.
The way I am involved in bringing up my children looks very different to the way my parents brought me up. I regularly get my kids dressed, cook their dinner, give them baths, wash their hair and put them to bed, much to the amazement of my mother. I try to explain to her that I don’t do these things because I’m an exceptional father. I’m not. In fact, if I didn’t do them, many people (including my wife) would think considerably less of me. It’s just that fathers do this stuff now. And so the some of the stereotypes will have to change, purely because the old ones will no longer ring true. And comedy is about truth.
We should not be surprised that TV shows and adverts perpetuate stereotypes. Audiences like stereotypes (see Death by Civilisation, Part 1: Chapter 11). Stereotypes are easy to understand quickly – so we can get on with the story and do the jokes. And then they can be subtlely subverted if time permits. But time does not permit in adverts in which they have 10-30 seconds to sell you toothpaste or wood stain. Ronseal’s view of fatherhood is limited to encouraging men to feel man enough to defend their castle by putting wood preserver on their fence.
Redressing the balance and showing ‘positive role-models’ is comedic death, especially if it feels preachy or untruthful. Even when it’s realistic, it’s not cool. Family sitcoms like My Family or 2.4 children have never been hip. And the mainstream domestic comedies that have felt fresh and subversive sidestep children – and fatherhood – altogether. There were surprisingly no children in The Good Life, Ever Decreasing Circles. Or One Foot in the Grave. Even Terry and June managed to avoid their grown up children most of the time.
But there is one show which has pulled off a very need trick: Modern Family, which has a patriarch in Jay, an old-school beer-drinking my-word-is-law I’ll-be-in-my-shed kind of dad. He keeps learning that these ways don’t always wash, especially with his grown-up gay son, Mitch, and his extraordinarily precocious step-son Manny. And then there’s his son-in-law, Phil Dumphy, who is a hands-on, I’m-your-friend kind of dad. It’s toe-curling, but he’s doing his best. And that’s what we want to see dad’s do. Because it's the truth. Dad's do their best. It's just their best is often lousy. And if they get hit in the face with a rake or covered in goo in the process, so much the better.
If you want to read more articles like this one, buy Death by Civilisation, available as a paperback or an e-book on Amazon here.