Meanwhile, Back at Pop Culture…


February 15, 2021 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

Media researcher Erica Scharrer recently completed a new study of depictions of fathers in television sitcoms (The Print, 1/23/21).  She did something similar back in 2000 and, amazingly, things seem to be getting worse, not better.  The more parenting fathers do, the more we realize their importance to kids, the more we understand that fathers are every bit as competent at parenting as mothers, the more television touts the opposite.

Scharrer, et al studied TV sitcoms from the early 80s to about 2017. 

For our study, we identified 34 top-rated, family-centered sitcoms that aired from 1980 to 2017 and randomly selected two episodes from each. Next, we isolated 578 scenes in which the fathers were involved in “disparagement humor,” which meant the dads either made fun of another character or were made fun of themselves.

Then we studied how often sitcom dads were shown together with their kids within these scenes in three key parenting interactions: giving advice, setting rules or positively or negatively reinforcing their kids’ behavior. We wanted to see whether the interaction made the father look “humorously foolish” – showing poor judgment, being incompetent or acting childishly.

The results?

Interestingly, fathers were shown in fewer parenting situations in more recent sitcoms. And when fathers were parenting, it was depicted as humorously foolish in just over 50% of the relevant scenes in the 2000s and 2010s, compared with 18% in the 1980s and 31% in the 1990s sitcoms.

Now, over that same time, 1980 – 2017, fathers have roughly tripled their time spent in hands-on care of their children.  Indeed, that’s one of the major behavioral changes among parents to have occurred during that time, so we might think that increased parenting by fathers would be reflected, if only in a rough way, in TV sitcoms.  But if we expected that, we would be wrong.  In fact, the opposite has happened.  Dads are depicted less as hands-on parents than before.

Meanwhile, portrayals of fathers as bumbling incompetents have increased substantially, from 18% of the sitcom scenes studied involving fathers to over 50%.  Needless to say, fathers’ parenting abilities haven’t eroded over that time and their parental experience has greatly increased, so they’re far less likely than before to actually be the buffoons depicted, but sitcoms show them to be far more so.

In short, TV sitcoms are digging in their heels, refusing to accept the reality of what fathers actually do.  To the extent that pop culture shapes attitudes and understanding, rather than simply reflecting them, that’s a trend that can only be harmful to fathers, children and mothers.  We read and hear a lot about the extremist political views of those working in the entertainment industry, so it’s possible to tentatively conclude that Hollywood/Burbank elites view increasing paternal investment in children and competence at parenting with alarm and are at pains to do what they can to put a negative spin on what is unquestionably a positive trend.

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