Editor’s Note: Josh Levs covers a wide range of topics for CNN. Father to two young boys, he explores the relationship between parenthood and chasing dreams in his TEDx Talk.
Fathers like Chris Routly are fed up with their portrayal as inept buffoons on TV
Routly created a petition against Huggies commercials that showcased clueless dads
Huggies revamped its ad campaign after Routly and others objected to it
There’s a movement under way among dads in America that’s changing what you see on TV.
Across the country, more and more are fed up – and rising up against the stereotype of the inept, clueless father.
It’s often the chief gripe among the dads I interview about modern fatherhood.
David Holland, father of three, rails against “doofus dads” in ads. In his blog Blather. Wince. Repeat., he calls them “Madison Avenue’s go-to guy.”
During every commercial break, he says, he and his wife “try to see who can be the first one to spot the idiot husband or father.”
In a sign of their growing power, dads out to end the stereotype recently scored a knockout blow against a pair of TV ads.
A Huggies ad earlier this year said the company put its diapers “to the toughest test imaginable: dads, alone with their babies, in one house, for five days.”
What exactly made time with dad “the toughest test imaginable?” The ad showed dads making some unpleasant faces and ended with a woman saying, “good luck, babe.”
Another Huggies ad featured a group of dads not changing their babies’ diapers while watching an entire game through “double overtime.”
Angry dads and moms responded with complaints, saying fathers aren’t incompetent parents who leave their kids in dirty diapers.
Chris Routly took it a step further, creating a petition on change.org.
“This wasn’t just that they had created a bumbling dad character or that sort of thing or just excluding dad,” like so many other TV portrayals, he said. “They were using language that was really saying dads are terrible at this stuff.”
Huggies took action.
On Facebook, the company praised dads and said its intention was to “break out of stereotypes.” And Huggies officials called Routly, giving him a list of steps they were taking to show fathers in a better light.
Soon, Huggies issued new ads featuring dads caring for their toddlers. Last month, the NYC Dads Group heaped praise on them for “raising the bar” in how a father was portrayed.
Huggies isn’t the first to run into frustration from consumers rejecting what they view as an outdated, inaccurate trope. AT&T angered some with an ad about a father who somehow couldn’t wrap his mind around the concept of wireless Internet.
The image of the hapless dad has long roots in American pop culture. A study of comics as far back as the 1940s found “incompetent” fathers and other mocking portrayals resurging at times across the decades.
But TV didn’t start skewering dads frequently until much later, says Bob Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
While dads in “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Donna Reed Show” had flaws, they were close to what was then thought of as “perfect,” part of an idealized white American family. Later, shows such as “The Cosby Show,” “Family Ties,” “Growing Pains” and “Full House” showcased caring dads of a new generation, Thompson says.
But by the late 1980s, more shows wanted to distance themselves “from the corny, syrupy stuff” – and in stepped shows such as “Married With Children” and “The Simpsons.”
It’s only natural that comedies would take on dads, Thompson says.
“Comedy is about inversion – taking people who are in authority and control and making them the butt of jokes.” So in a society “that has been so dominated by men… comedy is naturally going to play against that.”
Dads on TV today are presented in so many different ways that it’s impossible to say things are getting better or worse, he says.
From the stay-at-home dad in “Up All Night” to the lovable dads in “Modern Family,” relatively positive portrayals abound. Thompson says the growing push for “recognizable” dads who reflect today’s realities are probably to credit for these characters.
Meanwhile, dramas such as “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men” show such bad fathers that “you’d beg social services” to put their children in a foster home with Al Bundy, he jokes.
Plus, thanks to modern media, people now can always create their own videos about dads and, sometimes, watch them go viral.
To some, the idea that anyone would be upset over this stereotype is ridiculous.
Huggies’ Facebook page has hundreds of posts from women and men saying they found the original ads funny. “The problem these days is everyone has lost their sense of humor,” Christine Lee wrote.
And every group of people – including moms – gets caricatured and stereotyped on TV.
Do some dads just need to lighten up?
No, says Chris Routly. There’s a growing rejection of stereotypes in general – and that should apply to dads as well, he argues.
He’s also concerned that boys and men “see the bumbling dad … and think that’s what’s expected of them,” the stay-at-home father of two told me by phone while baking chips for his kids out of kale from his garden. “They’re not expected to be good, so they rise to the low bar that’s set for them.”
And it can lead girls and women to have low expectations for how their husbands will handle fatherhood, he says.
Part of the problem, Routly says, is that a lot of people believe negative stereotypes really apply to far more dads than they do.
I ran into that myself last year. A column on CNN.com by a stay-at-home father complained that “most” dads “just wanna chill in front of SportsCenter with a bowl of chips” after work and complain to their stay-at-home wives about how hard they work. On his blog, the writer railed against the “millions of dads who view their days at home as recovery from work.”
I responded with a long list of studies showing how well dads are actually doing, including this from Pew Research: “Almost all fathers who live with their children take an active role in their day-to-day lives through activities such as sharing meals, helping with homework and playing.”
While by far most of the responses I received were positive, some were from angry people insisting the negative depictions must accurately describe the average dad.
Routly says he received hate mail after launching his petition. “There are people who are so invested in maintaining these kinds of roles and stereotypes that they felt like they needed to attack me.”
But he also heard from men thanking him and sharing stories of custody battles and judges who assumed they weren’t as good at parenting simply because they’re men.
While there’s seriousness behind their complaints about the stereotype, these dads insist they can take a joke.
“By and large, men are willing to laugh at themselves,” says Holland. “But there just becomes a point where you say, ‘OK, the first 400 of these were funny.’ ”
And Thompson of the Bleier Center, himself a dad, says he enjoys laughing at these depictions, which exaggerate characteristics of some fathers, even today.
“As long as there are clueless bumbling men there will be clueless bumbling dads,” he says. “I’m sure there were clueless bumbling cavemen. Actually, his name was Fred Flintstone!”