Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Devo Dad - How Sitcoms have destroyed the Father

Over the years, I find myself less and less willing to watch television sitcoms.

Sure, in part, it's because the the descent from high comedy to low comedy, the condescension of the writers, and  the complete disconnect between the values and lifestyle depicted versus my own.  We just don't really click any more.

However, there's one particular aspect of the usual sitcom that, above all other things, has disgusted me, and convinced me to turn them off.  That aspect is the depiction of the father, and how it has descended.

Look at Leave it to Beaver.  Dad, in this incarnation, is a figure of wisdom, morality, discipline, and respect.  When the Beav and Wally are caught in a moral dilemma, they turn to Dad.  (OK, sometimes Mom, but that's a different post.)  When they want an authority, either in knowledge or ethics, they turn to Dad.  And when they do wrong, they see swift and terrible consequences.  From Dad.

June respects Ward, and tolerates zero disrespect for Dad.  This isn't because she's afraid of him; far from it. She simply knows the quality of the man she has, and displays her faith in him.

It's funny; I know Dad's name in this show is Ward Cleaver, but I can't bring myself to call him that.  He's quintessentially Dad, and that's how I think of him.

Then we get all the way up to the 80s and run across Heathcliff Huxtable from The Cosby Show.  Again, Dad is still something of an authority.  However, we begin to see the warts.

Heathcliff lacks willpower; we see it in his inability to refrain from buying gadgets.  He lacks confidence; we see it in his ever abused ego and the over the top shenanigans he gets into in order to compensate.

He is still a leader, however he too often abrogates this role, turning the really heavy moral lifting over to his wife. 

Heathcliff's relationship with Claire is really where he falls apart.  He is weak, in that he too often plays th whipped dog in speaking to her.  He averts his eyes, lowers his head, and turns from her in their confrontations.  This isn't because he lacks the will, but because in these situations, he's wrong, and she's had to point it out to him, or because he finds it easier to surrender rather than to lead.

She senses this weakness, and it shows in the way that she speaks about him.  She has some modicum of respect for him, but there's still a layer of contempt there, as if she's simply raising another, larger son.  Sound familiar?

Cliff's a good guy, but we begin to see chipping around the edges.  He's not perfect, but then, none of us are.  My problem is that these problems are the elephant in the living room; he sees his own faults, but makes no move to correct them.

Come about 1987, however, the brakes come off, and we get stuck with Al Bundy from Married.. with Children.  Husbands everywhere breathed a great sigh of relief; instead of having a role model to make them feel smaller, they were given an anti-hero to feel bigger than.

Al is over the top nasty.  He's amoral, slovenly, petty, licentious, and you wouldn't want to leave your kids alone with him.

At this point, any attempt to paint a father as a figure of respect is gone, but because he's so over the top, you tend to think of him as a caricature rather than a depiction.  He's not a real dad, he's anti-dad.  So it's okay, they're not really mocking dads.  Right?

Well, yes, and you can see the results in Everybody Loves Raymond.  This isn't meant to be a caricature; Ray is supposed to be something of an everyman.  You see this by the way sympathy is evoked in the difficulty in his relationship with his parents.

Ray is no kind of father.  We can't even see his relationship with his children, since in most episodes, you don't even see them.  This reflects an interesting attitude towards parenting; children are yet another job (you don't see him at work much, either) to be dismissed whenever possible. 

This lack of parenting might be a good thing; Ray himself is childish to the point of petulance, dishonest to a fault, and requiring the care of two mothers; his mom and his wife.  Debra has no respect for  him at all, and he deserves none.

Is this what the modern father has become?  Is this what we wish him to be?

It keeps getting worse.  I can't even bring myself to discuss Family Guy.  Homer Simpson comes to mind as well.  I can't think of a single strong father role in modern sitcoms.

Now that I am a father, I find myself regularly offended by the depiction of my role as not only contemptible, but meaningless. 

Our culture chooses all the wrong targets for their outrage.  We carefully monitor against slights against gays, minorities, illegal immigrants, while we sit every night and watch the things that matter most to us being denigrated and reviled, more so than the worst criminal.

I don't know.  If we as fathers are so simple as to fail to see how we are being depicted, maybe the image is true.    I doubt it, though.  I know a lot of very good dads.  However, I will say that should we fail to counter, or even discuss this trend, then eventually we will deserve the stereotype, we will become the subject of this terrible humor.

Our sons are watching, too.  And they may not get the joke.

1 comment:

  1. Nailed it! so much of tv, from the shows to the commercials, exploit our lost values