- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 18, 2015

D’oh! Blue-collar dads still can’t catch a break on TV, according to a new study.

An analysis of 13 fathers in 12 recent TV sitcoms and their 699 interactions with their minor children showed that working-class fathers continued to be depicted less positively than middle-class fathers, said study author Jessica Troilo, assistant professor of child development and family studies at West Virginia University.

This follows the kind of pattern seen, wherein TV working-class fathers are typified as “kind of bumbling” and “incapable,” compared to middle-class fathers, Ms. Troilo said.

Her study also showed that sitcom dads differed by network, with ABC, CW and cable shows showing the most dad-friendly behaviors, and CBS most likely to have snarky dads.

Moreover, the one gay father studied was found to be overwhelmingly child-involved and didn’t utter a single “critical and caustic” comment to a child, the study found.

In contrast, 11 of the 12 heterosexual sitcom fathers studied said hurtful things to their children, especially the fathers on “Still Standing” on CBS, CW’s “The George Lopez Show” and ABC’s “8 Simple Rules,” which starred the late John Ritter.

“TV dads” are important because television is a powerful medium for “transmitting messages about families and fathers,” said Ms. Troilo.

In particular, children and youth watch a lot of television, and the ways fathers are depicted can both influence how they will think about themselves as future parents and reinforce what they already believe about family roles, she said. “We are likely to watch things that match with what we think.”

The study, “Stay Tuned: Portrayals of Fathers to Come,” appeared in Psychology of Popular Media Culture this month.

Previous research has shown that the “patriotic” and “heroic” images of working-class fathers — i.e., the men who rebuilt America after the Great Depression and World War II — have been replaced by images of immature buffoons and schemers who need constant rescuing from their competent wives.

Studies show that even as far back as Fred Flintstone in “The Flintstones” and Archie Bunker in “All in the Family” — and, more recently, Homer Simpson in “The Simpsons” — it is typically the mother, not father, who knows best in working-class families, said Ms. Troilo.

In the late 1980s, John Goodman’s Dan Conner character in the long-running sitcom “Roseanne” finally challenged that depiction.

Mr. Goodman’s father figure — a drywall contractor married to Roseanne Conner, played by Roseanne Barr — was seen as the “emotional anchor” of the family of five, and “Roseanne” is considered to be the first to show a successful working-class family, said Ms. Troilo.

However, in her study, Ms. Troilo found that working-class fathers, such as Julius Rock in CW’s “Everybody Hates Chris,” Sean Finnerty in the WB’s “Grounded for Life” and Michael Heck in ABC’s “The Middle,” were still slightly less likely than the middle-class dads to have positive or fun interactions with their children but more likely to have “critical and caustic” interactions.

Ms. Troilo said “positive” father stereotypes referred to being successful at work, spending quality time with their children, giving them emotional support and teaching them life lessons. “Negative” stereotypes included irresponsible, bumbling and immature behaviors and fewer interactions with a child.

Another finding from her study was that viewers got different images of fathers based on the networks they were watching.

Viewers of ABC, CW and TBS, for instance, were likely to see friendly, fun and child-involved dads in shows like “My Wife and Kids,” “Everybody Hates Chris” and “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.” But CBS viewers of shows like “Still Standing” and “Two and a Half Men” would see dads who were more likely to say things that made fun of their children. Getting laughs didn’t matter if the comment was critical and caustic, the study said.

The 12 TV sitcoms were ABC’s “8 Simple Rules,” “The George Lopez Show,” “The Middle,” “Modern Family,” “My Wife and Kids” and “Suburgatory”; on CBS, “According to Jim,” “Still Standing” and “Two and a Half Men”; the CW’s “Everybody Hates Chris”; WB’s “Grounded for Life”; and “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” on TBS. Except for “8 Simple Rules,” the shows were chosen at random, and five episodes were coded. “Modern Family” had four fathers; heterosexual Phil and homosexual Mitchell were chosen for review.

Separately, the Parents Television Council (PTC) on Wednesday offered kudos to ABC’s “The Middle” and three other shows for their respectful, admirable portrayals of fathers.

PTC’s favorite TV dads besides Mike Heck on “The Middle” included Andre “Dre” Johnson from ABC’s “Black-ish,” Frank Reagan and Danny Reagan from “Blue Bloods” on CBS and Henry Allen and Joe West from CW’s “The Flash.”

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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