Jewish World Review Dec. 13, 2000 / 16 Kislev, 5761
A generation before Mike Brady, of course, there was Ward Cleaver, Ozzie Nelson, and Jim Anderson (of "Father Knows Best.") Sure, some of the wisdom these dads dispensed came out in ways that could only have been scripted by Hollywood. And yes, every once in a while their kids ran a few rings around them before the dads caught on. But still, fathers in television days of a generation or more ago always knew best.
Those days are long gone, according to a just-out report out by the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI), a national organization committed to promoting responsible fatherhood. NFI recently conducted a comprehensive survey of portrayals of parents on primetime network television sit-coms and dramas. The organization rated the depiction of parents on a 1-to-5 point scale on the extent to which the mom and dad were involved in family activities; whether they guided their children emotionally, spiritually, and mentally; whether the parents were portrayed as generally competent, how much they engaged in conversation with their kids; and to what extent their children were their top priorities.
Shows with 20-25 points were considered "positive," 15-20 points was "mixed," and below 15 was "negative." When it comes to TV dads, NFI found that at least they are generally portrayed somewhat more positively than negatively. There are even some shows like "Get Real" and "Seventh Heaven" which showcase involved, responsible fathers, says NFI. Still, on average when it came comes to portrayals of parents even moms don't make it out of the "mixed" category and fathers, scoring lower, are well within it. Worse, fathers are eight times more likely than moms to be portrayed as incompetent or irresponsible.
Ward Cleaver, call your office.
Anyway, from what I've observed, TV-land considers a dad to be "responsible" if he is good about changing diapers and being at his children's birthday parties. Important stuff to be sure, but rare - some would say practically invisible - is the network TV dad who shows moral leadership to his children. Who is portrayed as actually being wiser than his kids. Who has earned a unique position of respect in the family simply because he is the dad.
Instead, as the NFI study shows, too often the TV dads are at best well-meaning bumblers. They have more to "learn" from their kids than their kids have to learn from them. They constantly need rescuing from their own ineptitude by their wives or children.
One can't help but wonder: Why even bother having a dad like that around, except maybe for the laugh factor he provides? And those are the "good guys."
In TV parent-land, when a script calls for a "bad parent," NFI found it's almost always, you guessed it, a dad. I know, I know, this is only "entertainment." But it is one reason why my kids aren't allowed to watch the "entertainment" that network TV typically offers. More important, it is also a reflection of our culture, and our expectations for the people in our lives.
"Dad Brady" may not have been a real everyday dad either, but at least when we listened to Mike Brady deliver his little sermons to his kids we were looking up to dads, not down. By contrast, the expectations for dads today are pretty darn low.
It's true that the notion that either parent has a moral authority in his or her
children's lives and a wisdom that can and should guide his or her kids is
routinely and consistently denigrated in today's culture. But it's fathers that have
borne the brunt of this demise of parenthood. I tend to think that TV's view of
dads is less an indictment of our entertainment industry than of our elite
culture and what seems to be its low esteem for dads. Still, families need all
the help they can get. And if our pop-entertainment routinely advances the lie
that kids don't "need" dads except, at best, for their laugh-factor as bumblers,
that doesn't help today's kids. Especially those who will grow up to be
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