How the “Dumb Dad” stereotype hurts us all

Do you remember the Berenstain Bears? You know, a family of four: mama, papa, sister, and brother. It was a classic kid show: they lived in a tree-house, played outside, learned some lessons, and so on. Although this show seems straightforward, my mother never let me watch it.

At the time, I thought she was just being unnecessarily strict. Seven-year-old Callie wanted to hang out with a couple cartoon bears, what could possibly be wrong with that? As it turns out, she was actually on to something.

Writer Paul Farhi explained in Los Angeles Times that the fundamental narrative of the show is problematic.

“The action usually starts when the kids face a problem,” Farhi wrote. “They turn to Papa, who offers a “solution” that only makes the problem – or the kids’ fears about it – even worse. Enter Mama, who eventually sets everyone straight.”

This is a common archetype for fathers in media. These male characters are portrayed as incompetent and incapable of nurturing their family. It’s important to analyze the impact these stereotypes have on viewers. From Papa Bear to Homer Simpson, this character mould transcends all ages and is harmful to society.

We have indulged the “dumb dad” cliché for years. Even shows that are seemingly “representative” of today’s family, like Modern Family, and Life in Pieces, portray dads as incompetent and unaware of what it means to emotionally support family members. It sends the message that fathers are not crucial members of the emotional aspect of a family unit, whereas mothers are. This is not only hurtful and often an inaccurate representation of many fathers, but sets a specific tone for young boys and girls growing up and learning about the expectations of fatherhood and motherhood.

Co-founder of the U.S. advocacy group Dads and Daughters, Joe Kelly, explains that this is a cultural blind-spot and has become an unconscious and recurring story we tell.

“I don’t believe it’s a manner of injustice or anyone being victimized, I think it’s habit,” said Kelly. “The habit is that men are of secondary importance in the life of a family.”

As much as a father like Peter Griffin from Family Guy is a comic relief character, he adds little to no emotional support to his children. On the other hand, his wife Lois Griffin, is less funny and more shrill. Mothers often do all the emotional work on television and young children internalize this.

This being said, we are slowly seeing dads portrayed differently. For example, Terry Jeffords from Brooklyn 99 is a sergeant for the police force. He is a strong masculine figure who also shows vulnerability and prioritizes his children. Jack Pearson from This Is US, is a father who shows love and care, and viewers actively see how this has helped shape his family. These shows are creating a space where men can be vulnerable, emotionally intelligent, and kind.

This speaks directly to the feminist movement. We have to remember that feminist ideology at its core includes all genders and orientations. It is meant to free people of the stereotypes and categories that society has put them in. Unfortunately, these stereotypes don’t start or end with television; and we can see this being portrayed in commercials and movies as well.

Not to mention, this trope is overdone and boring. So how about we move past dads drinking beer and rolling their eyes at their vacuuming wife and lean into the complexity of a shared partnership?


Graphic by @sundaeghost

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