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Special Men's Health Issue

What kind of example are TV's dads setting?

October 17, 2005|Marianne Szegedy-Maszak | Special to The Times

SOMEHOW, "Father Knows Best" has morphed into "Let's Manage the Moron." Some of the dads populating TV these days give the impression that fathers not only don't know best, they don't know much at all.

The title character on "According to Jim," for instance, tangles with a department store Santa in front of his young kids. The dad on "Still Standing" often seems less mature than his youngest daughter. And the patriarch of the Bluth family of "Arrested Development"? In jail. Even "Malcolm in the Middle's" loving father devolves into a lather of cigarettes and killer-robots when his wife isn't around.

Some, like Homer Simpson, that capo di tutti capi of doofus dads, are inadequate whatever they're up to. Others, towers of efficiency in the tool shop or workplace, turn into blithering idiots over matters domestic.

Does it matter?

Will young boys be shaped by watching such TV and emerge into adulthood believing they're hard-wired for domestic ineptness? Social scientists have yet to agree whether these doofus dads nudge our boys and men to be less than they can be, or merely reflect exaggerated truths and help us blow off cultural steam.

Some think it's bad news.

"The message that is conveyed ... is that men just can't do it," says Michael Lamb, professor of psychology in the social sciences at Cambridge University. "And I see that as an insidious message that would be hard for a child to ignore as a theme."

Real-life fathering has changed dramatically since "The Life of Riley" was beamed into the black-and-white sets of young baby boomers. No longer aloof authority figures, nor uninvolved breadwinners, today's dads today are far more involved in child care. A 2002 survey in Parents magazine found that 84% of men spend more time with their children than did their own fathers; 72% said they would like to spend more time with their children if they could.

Meanwhile, the number of children living with stay-at-home fathers has jumped 70% since 1990, to 1.7 million.

Today, concerned about the emotional state of men and boys, researchers are exploring all sorts of media stereotypes of men -- blundering fathers, violent criminals, sexist guys on the make, ambitious careerists.

Three years ago, one of the researchers, psychologist William Pollack, asked a focus group of boys ages 7 to 12 to react to images of fathers selected from television. Over and over again the boys used the words "silly" and "funny," but they never described the fathers as "caring, nurturing, helpful or supportive."

If TV producers intend doofus dad characters to seem loving and protective as well as dorky, that message may be lost on young male viewers.

These TV images offer boys "role models that they cannot relate to and don't want to become," writes Pollack, director of the Centers of Men and Young Men at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts.

The good news is that some newer shows feature dads who are both with-it and loving, like Damon Wayans on "My Wife & Kids." On "George Lopez," the character may have trouble with his own mother, but he handles his children pretty well.

Thousands of studies have examined TV's impact on children, many concluding that in terms of violence, family life or gender stereotypes, TV conveys potentially influential messages.

In 2003, researchers from Georgetown University reported that grade school children who watched educational TV programming wrote papers that contained "more male than female characters, more male than female pronouns and more masculine than feminine behaviors." This gender bias went away when boys saw shows with adventurous female characters, such as an animated version of "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" or "The Wild Thornberrys."

UC Riverside sociologist Scott Coltrane has examined 20 years of TV imagery. He summarizes male characters as "knowledgeable, independent, powerful, successful and prone to swift decisive action," and female ones as "passive, emotional, dependent on men, and eager to serve others."

With the average American kid watching more than 1,500 hours of TV a year, these images are bound to make an impression, he says. Yet there are other ways to look at the doofus dad phenomenon.

For one, poking fun at fathers is part of a long comic tradition of needling the powerful and bolstering egos of people in subservient positions. Indeed, some social scientists say that the presence of so many doofus dads in pop culture could actually be validating how much power men continue to hold in our society.

Doofus dads could also be doing something comforting: helping us adjust to changes in traditional family structure fueled by altered gender roles, divorce and single parenting.

All this change creates real anxiety for men and women -- which can be managed, in some ways, by humor and reassuring old images, Coltrane says.

"There is an enormous difference between how [today's parents] grew up and how they are raising their own kids," Coltrane says. "One way of organizing the tension around that change is to lampoon men for looking silly doing that stuff."

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