‘Every 3.24 minutes, a dad acts like a buffoon.”
That’s the conclusion of a small study done by a student a Brigham Young University after watching eight hours of the two most popular Disney “tween” shows featuring families. The results of the research — “Daddies or Dummies?” — are not particularly surprising.
Are “Good Luck Charlie” and “Girl Meets World” any different from previous sitcoms like “Roseanne” or “Home Improvement?” A 2001 study by Erica Scharrer in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media found that the number of times a mother told a joke at the father’s expense increased from 1.80 times per episode in the 1950s to 4.29 times per episode in 1990.
But what’s interesting about the new research is that the author, Savannah Keenan, also looked at the reaction of the children on screen to their fathers’ displays of cluelessness. At least half the time, children reacted “negatively” to these displays — by rolling their eyes, making fun of dad, criticizing him, walking away while he’s talking or otherwise expressing their annoyance.
This behavior, especially on Disney shows, has become the norm to such a degree that parents regularly tell me they don’t allow their children to watch the channel. There’s no sex or violence — but there’s only so many times they want their children to watch their counterparts on screen ignore, insult or pretend to humor their parents for laughs.
We should probably be most concerned when dads are the butt of the joke. Decades ago, when the place of men in the family and in the work world was clear, the use of comedy to make the powerful powerless was understandable and helped lighten the mood by humanizing the authority figure.
Sure, kids tried to put one over on their fathers and sometimes they got away with it. But there was a sense that a father’s authority was something you had to work to get around. And that doing so came with real consequences.
Whether you were the teenage girl trying to sneak out on a date with the wrong boy or you were a kid who got caught breaking a vase when you were playing ball in the house and then lying about it, it was Dad’s rules and Dad’s wrath that you feared the most.
Today’s sitcoms, by contrast, often show dads trying to act like mothers have traditionally — and failing miserably. In an episode of “Black-ish,” the mother and father learn that they haven’t been saving as much money as they should have. The father, played by Anthony Anderson, was supposed to be in charge of the finances.
Not only does he prove to be an incompetent money manager, his wife, played by Tracee Ellis Ross, also says that if he doesn’t get his act together then he’s going to have to start dealing with the children’s lives more — taking them to doctor appointments, worrying about their schedules, etc. — a fate he seems to fear more than death.
Not only has Anderson failed in his traditionally male role, but the assumption is that he would be a total disaster performing his wife’s duties.
He comes off looking like an idiot, and his wife — even though she acknowledges that she doesn’t like to do the family budgeting — looks like superwoman. She’s an Ivy League-educated surgeon running a house with four kids. All she wanted was her husband to be putting aside money for college, and he couldn’t even manage that.
Maybe the problem isn’t simply that men are portrayed as bumbling. Women in popular culture — and also in journalism — are portrayed as the people who can do it all. They’re showing how it’s possible to juggle careers and children, all without missing a beat. Can you imagine a popular comedy in which a woman really is falling down on the job?
The sitcom “Mom” offers viewers this contrast. Allison Janney is the aging recovering addict, a mother who did everything possible to screw up her daughter’s life. But the daughter is managing to raise children of her own, hold down a job, keep her mother’s predilections in check and even date occasionally. She’s got this all covered.
In a recent episode of “Girl Meets World,” the father, Cory, played by Ben Savage, tells his daughter and her friend that a fight between Superman and Batman wouldn’t be fair because one has superpowers and the other one doesn’t. His wife, Topanga, played by Danielle Fishel, gives the punch line: “Sort of like when you and I fight.”
The question is if women are really superwomen, how are men supposed to be anything but buffoons?
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.