Doofus Dads

In today's Times, for Fathers' Day, John Tierney writes in response to his six-year-old son's question, "Why are dads on TV so dumb?"

It's a good question. It extends not only to sitcoms, on which Tierney focuses, but also to commercials; what I've referred to as the "gender fun" trope -- clueless male, oh-so-smart female correcting him, laughs based upon a rather essentialized theory of gender combined with an assumption of "oh, gender differences are just so gosh darn amusing" -- gets really old quickly, especially if you're in a relationship a) with someone of the same gender or b) where you're spending a lot of time attempting to not fall into classical gender hierarchies.

But aside from being annoying, it's interesting to ask where these tropes come from, and what effect they might have upon those watching, especially since, à la Neil Postman, entertainment media might be thought of us the propaganda of our times, reinforcing not the identity a state wants you to have, but that business interests reliant upon your continued consumption want you to have. Tierney suggests that Homer's ubiquity (the Simpson, not the poet, bracketing his odes to donuts) might be caused either by the gender-breakdown of the sitcom viewing audience, or by the changed roles of women which prevent Lucy- and Edith-like stereotypical housewives from seeming realistic on TV. These might explain some of it, but one might probe a little more critically.

Humor, as lgbt people, African-Americans, Soviet citizens and Jews know, is the most powerful resource a minority has against the powerful. But while one more joke about the Politburo might help your comrade get through the day, it doesn't change the fact that the Politburo still controls his or her life in ways that seem permanently decided. If we can make fun of the (almost always white) suburban straight dad, in sitcoms and commercials, in some ways it's because he is still in charge in our world. While we sit back and chuckle at Homer, his real-life counterpart is still more likely to be the C.E.O. of a corporation, the leader of a church, the elected official or the head of a household than Marge, Lenny and Karl (for various reasons!), or Lisa. There's a long tradition of resistance to this -- Desperate Housewives and the Marriage of Figaro both show how the marginalized are amazingly good at resisting the structures that attempt to keep them in check. But that doesn't necessarily change the fact that the structures still exist, and if humor passes the line from resisting those structures to ideologically covering them, i.e., if we stop being amused by these tropes and begin to see contemporary society as anti-straight white man, then we'll be supporting oppressive structures that are already firmly in place. So...remember while laughing at Homer ("Mmmm. Floor pie.") that in real life, he's your boss.

Happy Father's Day, BaptizedPagan said, sounding more like a Marxist than usual...

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