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Stay-at-home dads want more than laughs

Movies and books still portray full-time fathers as bumbling buffoons, but that's not the whole story

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 7, 2003



When screenwriters and authors portray men as full-time fathers, many follow a simple rule: Play it for laughs.

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It has been 20 years since the movie "Mr. Mom" regaled audiences with a stay-at-home dad named Jack, who bumbled his way through diapers, discipline, and such domestic terrors as a runaway vacuum and an overflowing washer.

Now Jack's 21st-century counterparts are arriving, and similar humor prevails. The movie "Daddy Day Care" opens this weekend, starring Eddie Murphy as an unemployed father who starts a "guy-run" day-care center with a buddy. The "Mr. Mom" formula remains firmly in place: Men + kids = laughs galore.

That theme also runs through two new books by at-home fathers. In both, Dad cares for the kids while Mom works to support the family. Publishers describe these books as "hilarious." Producers use the same adjective for "Daddy Day Care," along with "sidesplitting."

Real-life families have changed considerably since "Mr. Mom" appeared, with more men sharing child-rearing and household chores. But public portrayals often remain stuck in stereotypes of hapless domesticated dads. That image rankles some men in real-life role reversals, who think the laugh-track approach demeans what they do.

"It's almost as though the media want us to think of them as bumbling fathers, but they're not," says Peter Baylies, founder of the At-Home Dad Network.

A report released this week by the Council on Contemporary Families finds that American men do more housework and child care than men in any of the other four developed countries surveyed: France, Italy, Germany, and Japan.

Finding humor in parenthood is nothing new, of course. Erma Bombeck played motherhood for a million laughs. And as Scott Coltrane, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Riverside, notes, "Comic, inept dads have been around for a long time."

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a number of "househusband" books were published, many written by reporters taking a year off. "There's now kind of a genre for the new dad: the involved, nurturing father, celebrating the joys of actually being a parent," he says.

Popular culture both honors and makes fun of men in families, Professor Coltrane says. "Cultural images feed off men's and women's anxieties over changing gender and parenting roles."

He describes "contradictory tensions" in cultural stereotypes. "In one, men are bumbling idiots - they can't do anything. In the other, men are capable, nurturing, caring, and loving people. Both are addressed to women. One makes women feel good because he's a bozo and can't do it. The other is more a wish fulfillment that there actually are men out there who are kind, caring, sensitive, even sexy."

Ironically, Coltrane adds, "Men are lampooned when they're doing more."

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