From Peppa Pig to The Simpsons, why do cartoons portray dads as lazy and incompetent?tries to make amends for Father’s Day.
Dads! Ever get fed up of how you are portrayed on television, in films, in adverts? You can’t all be incompetent nincompoops orabsent workaholics, can you?
Some of you do actually know how to keep a small child alive, defrost a pizza and work a washing machine without the supposedly superior parent — the mother — standing over you in a supervisory capacity, don’t you?
Of course you do. The Crap Dad stereotype belongs to washing powder ads from the last millennium. Yet, the reality of Modern Dad — co-parenting, emotionally literate, and able to assemble dinner without making either a massive cock-up or massive celebrity chef fuss — is not being beamed to us from our screens.
Instead, Crap Dad continues to lurk, unhelpfully perpetrating out of date tropes, rather than reflecting back to families the reality of more evolved and involved 21st-century fathers who are the product of changing social dynamics. It’s annoying to real dads and misleading to real kids.
Disney recently commissioned research to look at the gap between dads on screen and dads in real life and what they found confirms that jaded stereotyping remains prevalent, from Homer Simpson (fat, lazy, domestically disabled, ethically dubious) to the dad in Peppa Pig (fat, lazy, the butt of family jokes) to Darth Vader (stern, emotionally distant, prone to chopping off hands).
Disney’s researchers talked to 160 dads in Germany, Sweden, Spain and the UK about their attitudes to parenting. What they found was that real dads have four aims: To bond, protect, equip and entertain their kids. These aims transcended age, nationality,location, income and education, and revealed a desire to parent beyond the cliché of dad as children’s entertainer, useful for piggybacks and staying up late, but hopeless at domestic management and who cheerfully leaves all the practical stuff to the long-suffering, but hyper-capable mum.
Consider this American advert for Huggies nappies from 2012: “To prove Huggies can handle just about anything, we put them to the toughest test imaginable: Dads, alone with their babies, in one house, for five days.”
The assumption was that dads would not be able to look after their own kids. This may have been true in the case of old men from bygone eras — Donald Trump has boasted of aggressive nappy-avoidance, outsourcing the pooier end of parenting to women, paid and unpaid — but this dinosaur dad model is swiftly shifting towards extinction.
One stay-at-home dad from Pennsylvania was so irritated by the portrayal of fathers in the Huggies ad he started a petition, writing:
“Why not find a way to celebrate dads in a way that doesn’t minimise, stereotype and judge us as — at best — well-meaning but second-class parents?”
However, the rise of ‘dadvertising’ in recent years reflects not just the evolving family model, where dad is hands-on rather than remote, but also how culture is consumed in real time, in theNetflix era, we are all engaged in an instant feedback loop, so a tone deaf advert can be pulled within hours of its launch, followed by a tweeted apology.
The result is adverts which more effectively mirror reality, because to not do so would be commercially foolish.
Kids cartoon dads are still catching up; generally, the dads remain a bit naff. Broadcaster Ray D’Arcy and columnist Sean Moncrieff have commented on the portrayal of Daddy Pig from the pre-school Peppa Pig cartoon for embodying the crap dad trope so perfectly; lazy, incompetent, self-seeking. Daddy Pig, according to D’Arcy, is a “bumbling idiot”. (“Silly Daddy? Eff off!”) Online, Daddy Pig is slammed by parenting websites like Dadding Every Day (“Daddy Pig Isn’t Helping”) and Mum’s The Word (“The Continued Emasculation of Daddy Pig”), as well as articles in GQ (“What Peppa Pig Tells Us About British Fatherhood”) and the Huffington Post (“Can Peppa Pig Stop Fat Shaming Daddy Pig All The Time?”).
This might all sound slightly po-faced until you remember the primary audience of Peppa Pig are small literal-minded kids, with sponge-like brains, ready to soak up andimplant as reality anything that’s put in front of them.
Including ideas that dads are a bit useless, that mummy is the real parent, and daddy is a part-time helper who means well but is clueless.
When it comes to active parenting, real dads have had a rich tradition of uselessness. Olden Days Dad couldn’t find the kitchen, or remember birthdays. He called looking after his own children ‘babysitting’ and was reluctant to push a pram.
He hadentrenched ideas around what he considered ‘manly’ and ‘girly’,because so did everyone else.Adverts directed at Olden Days Dad were designed to make him look good and to cause envy within the masculine world; his wife looked after the kids, while he sipped martinis and played golf.
Modern Dad embodies a masculinity that is not afraid of itself, and does not wish to be represented as irresponsible, crap in the kitchen, emotionally unavailable, and generally giving the impression he would rather be anywhere else than parenting his own kids.
Chris Rock says when he hears other men boasting that they look after their children: “You’re supposed to, you dumb MF!”
Yet, not all onscreen portrayals of dads reflect poorly on fatherhood, from Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch to Marlon the father fish in Finding Nemo, from Mufasa the lion to Roberto Benigni’s character Guido in Life Is Beautiful, amazing dads do exist in popular culture.
In Mrs Doubtfire, Robin Williams subsumes his masculine identity to dowdy drag so he can access his estranged kids (in real life this would be deemed creepy and probably illegal), while the dad character in indie movie Juno presents a more realistic portrayal of a great dad, not overjoyed by his teenage daughter’s unplanned pregnancy, but supportive and quietly feminist.
Movie dads are deemed particularly heroic and martyred when represented as single parents (unlike female single parents, who are dismissed or demonised): Think Jon Voight’s character in The Champ, or Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness. Both single dad characters are depicted as brave and saintly, muddling along without anyone to make them a casserole.
Even Dustin Hoffman in 1979’s Kramer vs Kramer, representing the old how-does-this-kitchen-work-I’m-a-busy-man stereotype, is still elevated to sainthood as he learns to look after his own child.
Modern, stay-at-home dads do not get the same onscreen reverence, even as real life men areincreasingly opting to go full time at home, as mum is earning more, or they both work part time, or he just wants to spend as much time as he can with his kids in their early years.
The stay at home dad in Sharon Horgan and Graham Linehan’s comedy Motherland is an emasculated people-pleasing wuss, just as the other dad character in the series is entirelyabsent and self-seeking.
Where are the representations of real-life, cool dads, like the latte papas of Sweden who hang out together in coffee shops, all beards and baby slings, their ability to parent not cancelling out their masculinity? Maybe it’s still just a Scandi thing.
Perhaps the US sitcom Modern Family is the one that represents fatherhood best, with Phil, the good-enough, but distinctly non-heroic straight dad, and Mitchell and Cameron, the devoted, adoring gay dads whose childcare anxieties are some of the mostaccurate representations of parenthood in popular culture.
They bicker, they indulge, they worry about paying the Tooth Fairy too much. They represent everything good about parenting: Needs-providing, care-giving, responsibility-taking, fun-having. They are the ultimate modern dads.