TV Dads: Dumb but Rich

It’s a little late for Father’s Day, but there are two articles about fatherhood on television that caught my attention over the weekend. First is this CNN/Money Magazine report on estimated salaries for tv dads. As most culture critics have noted over the years, the typical tv sitcom family is much better off than your average real-life American family. The average salary of the typical tv dad has more than doubled in real dollars since the 1950s, with big-time glamorous jobs leading the trend. The average tv dad these days earns $195,000 a year, compared to the average tv dad of the 1950s who earned $75,000 in today’s dollars. Television producers have long favored portraying upper middle and upper class lives in their shows, perhaps as wish-fulfillment for their audience. Shows that portray lower class lives, like Good Times, All in the Family, and Roseanne stand out from the crowd for that very reason. However, it should be noted that for some shows “working class” is a misleading label. Slacker Homer Simpson, for example, earns a decent $67,000 annually as a nuclear safety engineer, despite being unable to pronounce “nuclear.”

Then there’s this New York Times commentary on the increasing stupidity of tv dads. Back in the 1950s, even if tv dads weren’t making the same money they are today, they at least commanded the respect of their families, the writers, and their television audience. Compare the the dad on Leave it to Beaver to Tim Allen’s character on Home Improvement or Homer Simpson for example. There is no comparison. In sitcoms and in tv commercials, dad is almost always a buffoon and object of ridicule. Mom is almost always the calm voice of reason. There are a number of reasons for this. The most obvious one is that sitcom viewership demographics have skewed towards women in recent years, and thus viewers are more likely to back mom as the better role model. But such changes don’t happen overnight and without some underlying cause. As the Times author points out, more women working outside the home makes dad’s income less critical to the family’s survival, and therefore he’s a softer target for ridicule than he was. The women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s has a hand in this I’m sure (the strong, independent woman as a hero motif), as well as the general feminization of long-standing societal institutions such as the academy (where more women than men are now earning college and advanced degrees) and the church (pretty much every mainstream and evangelical denomination has more women than men). As more institutions become integrated by gender, women are occupying more positions of power, which means men are safer to make fun of.

But I’m not decrying an increased role for women in the public sphere. That has been a good thing and something we should all get to accepting. For goodness sakes, I hope no one thinks women should be chained to the stove while wearing burkas based on that infamous passage from Ephesians anymore. I just think tv dad needs a break. There are strong male role models in adult drama programs like 24, but not so much in “family-friendly” sitcoms anymore. My dad certainly wasn’t a big doofus like Raymond (not EVERYBODY loves you, Ray!), and I’m sure there are other great dads out there. It would just be nice to see them on television every once in a while.

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