Thursday, January 31, 2008

Todd Wasserman knew he had touched a nerve when he saw the enormous number of responses from readers.

As editor of Brandweek, a New York-based magazine that covers the nation’s marketing industry, Mr. Wasserman penned a column in November bemoaning the treatment of fathers in advertising.

The dad-as-buffoon and the anti-father imagery seemingly permeated advertising and marketing campaigns, which continually use stereotypes about men to get cheap laughs, he observed. And they are increasingly the norm.

The letters poured in.

“I don’t think we ever got so much reaction,” said Mr. Wasserman, the father of a 5-month-old. “That fathers are often the butt of ads and accepted as idiots, that was just commonly accepted. But for me, it just seems like a stale target, a safe target for someone trying to get an easy laugh in an ad. The more people I talked to, the more it seemed a lot of people felt that way.”

He is not alone in his assessment.

William McKeen, a father of seven from Florida, agrees that dads have taken a bad rap in media. He and wife, Nicole, knowanother familywho keep their young son from watching the popular cartoon “Jimmy Neutron,” because of the way it stereotypes fathers and portrays men.

“I think men in general — and fathers in particular — have become the scapegoat for all of society’s ills, real and imagined,” said Mr. McKeen, who writes about popular culture.

“It’s always bothered me, the pop-culture stereotype of a bumbling, knuckle-dragging moron too self-absorbed to talk to his kids,” he said.

Society, he says, offers plenty of mixed messages. Although “Leave It to Beaver” and similar 1960s-era shows gave Americans a view of father as breadwinner and mother as tender of the home fires — a nuclear model — in the past 40 years, men have become easy targets for public punch lines, the easy villain in a politically correct society.

“According to the old model, we were supposed to go out, work hard and provide. If we actually do that, we’re slammed for not being attentive enough,” Mr. McKeen said. “If we do put family first, then it’s whispered that we are somehow diminished as men because we know how to make biscuits.”

Mr. McKeen can cook and also does his fair share of cleaning at his busy household, which includes three boys younger than 6. He said men don’t fight this portrayal “because we play up to the aggressive part of our stereotype.”

Mr. McKeen continued, “The old TV image from ‘Father Knows Best’ and ‘Leave It to Beaver’ were of kindly and wise fathers who nurtured their children. Now the TV father is usually at best some genial lummox who can barely wipe the drool from his mouth. I refer, of course, to Homer Simpson, the funniest man on television and he doesn’t even exist. Maybe the old model was impossible to attain, but at least it wasn’t insulting.”

Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said that although fathers may be ridiculed in ads and on television, they spent years as warm, genial and courtly patriarchs.

For years, he notes, women were portrayed as dutiful mothers or spinsters eager to get married. The dad as ditz model is a recent phenomenon.

“Fathers are now something to make fun of on TV, but they had a good long run where they were the authority,” he said.

Through the ‘60s, he said, they were portrayed as benevolent within a family utopia. Then, in the ‘70s Archie Bunker came along and turned the dad perception on its head. By the ‘80s, dad was good again with such shows as “Growing Pains,” “Family Ties” and “The Cosby Show.” Late in that decade, however, the father roles shifted with shows such as “Roseanne” and “Married With Children.”

“Al Bundy was a buffoon, but Kate Bundy was no better,” Mr. Thompson said of the comedy show “Married With Children,” which chronicled the dysfunctional Bundy family and their lazy, unmotivated spawn.

“Dads in comedies now tend to be balanced by beautiful wives,” he said. “I’m thinking of ‘King of Queens,’ ‘According to Jim’ and, not too long ago, ‘Everybody Loves Raymond.’ ”

Each of those shows features a father who struggles when dealing with his children, and whose fix-it foibles and emotional shortcomings are managed or accepted by his long-suffering wife and family. But dads aren’t the only ones who have fallen prey to media stereotypes.

“Think of how the Italian-Americans feel when they see Italian-Americans portrayed as mobsters,” Mr. Thompson said.

With changing sex roles, and confusion over how those were supposed to work, men became easy comedic targets for the ad industry.

“A lot of these fathers are bumbling in the new roles they have,” he added. “When [men] got it all wrong, it was rip-roaring fun.”

Janelle Ray, a Texas mother of three, said she hopes to protect her children from seeing men as inept. The images they view don’t help her make her case. She bemoans car commercials that portray mom as sensible and dad as gadget-loving and home-improvement ad spots that show women tricking their hapless husbands into home beautification projects — particularly jobs that take a certain amount of hammer and nail skill.

“We’re only a generation or so past the time when women were the sole keepers of the home, but according to television, we skipped the part where men became good at doing things themselves and are now stuck in the clueless zone,” she said.

Mr. Wasserman of Brandweek argues that such scenarios are one-note songs, and he urges marketers to better use their creative noggins and pick a new funny.

“Let’s move on to something else,” he said. “I hope it’s not that people are so hypersensitive that it ends up as another politically correct thing you can’t joke about. Let’s just get real and stop these stupid portrayals of Dad, which can be so insulting that they aren’t so amusing anymore.”

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