Today’s TV Fathers Are More Caring, but Still Flawed
Single-father families are increasingly common in the United States, but, historically, television representations of single fathers have not been complex portrayals of the fatherhood experience. In a new article in NCA’s Critical Studies in Media Communication, Jennifer Turchi and Laurena Bernabo examine media representations of single fathers in 11 primetime television shows that aired between 2008 and 2018.
Gendered stereotypes regarding parenting were common by the early 20th century, and many of these stereotypes have persisted over time. While today’s fathers are expected to take on more parenting roles in the home, about 75 percent of men report that they expect to be the primary breadwinner. This role was often reflected in classic television sitcoms and dramas, which depicted fathers as the stern head of the household. More recent television sitcoms have depicted some fathers as incompetent or foolish, leaving mothers to act as the “adult” in the family.
Turchi and Bernabo examined 13 fathers in 11 primetime comedy and drama series: Guys with Kids, House of Lies, Single Parents, Splitting up Together, Suburgatory, 9-1-1, Castle, Gossip Girl, Grey’s Anatomy, Hawaii Five-0, and Riverdale. They identified three major themes across the series: perpetuating/breaking stereotypes, emotional engagement, and willingness to make sacrifices.
The study found that in the television show portrayals, “three fathers break stereotypes, six attempt to do so, and four reinforce them.” Fathers that reinforce stereotypes do so by failing to care for their children well, which “reinforce[s] the gendered expectations that men cannot and do not want to care for their children.” For example, in Splitting up Together, Martin frequently chooses personal interests over family responsibilities, such as doing laundry or making dinner.
Turchi and Bernabo also identified some fathers who needed assistance with parenting and whose experiences, in part, reflect fathers who seek support from friends and family when making parenting decisions or confronting parenting challenges. For example, in Single Parents, Miggy seeks help with sleep training a child after failing to do so. Finally, fathers that subverted stereotypes are portrayed as competent, millennial dads. These dads often emotionally support their children, as Will does in Single Parents.
Turchi and Bernabo also examined how these television fathers connected emotionally with their children. They found that “seven fathers are emotionally engaged, three are not, and three are excluded because their children are infants.” For example, in Hawaii Five-0, Danny demonstrates emotional connection by conducting a “‘missing person’ search” for an important toy. Other fathers, such as Fred in Riverdale, strengthen their relationships with their children by protecting them from irresponsible mothers. These representations challenge stereotypes about both men and women in that they portray men as emotionally competent and “dismantle cultural assumptions that women are naturally better caregivers.” In contrast, in House of Lies, Marty’s conflict with an ex-spouse leads to inappropriate emotional outbursts.
Willingness to make sacrifices
Finally, Turchi and Bernabo found that “four fathers make professional sacrifices and nine make personal sacrifices for their children.” Fathers are not often shown making professional sacrifices because they are stereotyped as the primary breadwinner in the family. However, a handful of fathers do make professional sacrifices. For example, “Rufus (Gossip Girl) puts his music career on hold until his children are older.” These sacrifices show that the fathers prioritize their children and may be reflective of real-life decisions by single fathers. Similarly, many single fathers on television and in real-life may avoid romantic relationships for fear of complicating their children’s lives. Several fathers, including Eddie in 9-1-1, do so in the shows examined for this article.
The study demonstrates that fathers are portrayed as more emotionally connected than they have been in the past, and that “stern” or “tyrannical” fathers have largely disappeared from television representations. The authors conclude that most of the representations are positive; only a few of the television fathers included in the study fail to care for their children adequately. Furthermore, these fathers reflect the real-life experiences of some single fathers who put off romantic relationships, make career decisions with their children in mind, and care for their children. However, there were some portrayals that were less positive. In particular, Turchi and Bernabo highlight the fathers who did not meet their children’s needs or needed outside help to meet their children’s needs as “perpetuat[ing] stereotypes regarding fathers’ ability to parent successfully on their own.”
Turchi and Bernabo conclude that representations of single fathers are important because cultural assumptions can influence custody hearings, particularly if judges believe fathers are less competent than mothers. Furthermore, depictions of fathers with poor parenting skills may influence real-life “fathers’ perceptions about their own parenting skills.”