who let the dads out

WHO LET THE DADS OUT?

A Father’s Day message from Matthew Gunton, a Tower Hamlets Dad staking his rightful claim of equality in parenting

In an effort to be more inclusive, ‘Tower Hamlets Mums’ is seeking to better reflect the realities of 21st century parenting by bringing more voices to the site. Lucky for me, this includes Dads.

So, what is this column going to be about? Well, I am a Dad of two sons, one just about to begin the whirlwind of primary school and the other has just clambered from the womb, so probably a lot of talk of school gates and tantrums mixed with nappy changes and lack of sleep. But, before I go into the nitty gritty of modern Dadding in Tower Hamlets in 2019, thus adding to the media portrayal of Dads, I thought I would reflect on how we are currently portrayed.  

It goes without saying that advertising, film and television have always played a significant role in shaping perceptions of what it means to be a Dad. Caricatures of dads range from

1950s Disneyland Dad-Overprotective and Ready for Action

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Deadbeat Dad- Glorified sperm donor, drunk and disorderly

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But by far the most pervasive and identifiable trope has to be the “Bumbling Dad”, Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin the unmistakable examples.

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The “Bumbling Dad” subverts the former King of the Dads tropes, the “Standard 50’s Father” – the solid dependable, happily married Dad always there to offer lessons and moral instruction, commanding respect from every encounter.  

“Bumbling Dad” is the opposite – occasionally clever, but not smart and always looking for a short cut. He is lazy, eats a lot and drinks a lot. Loveable but not really respectable, a man-child with endearing charm and loyalty expressed by a commitment to fixing the problems he has created.

Like all successful tropes this has proliferated because it reflects a truth and a cultural moment. It’s clearly an exaggeration but to varying degrees we are all a bit of Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin. What does this tell us about our roles as fathers today and how they’ve been transformed over 70 years? I’m certainly not nostalgically yearning for a return to “1950’s Dad” based on an era steeped in sexist gender roles. Our move away from “1950s Dad” reflects the social and economic changes to the workforce over the past two generations. Men are no longer defined as providers and women are no longer defined as dependants. Such a seismic shift inevitably results in unintended consequence, tension and anxiety. The “Bumbling Dad” is the cultural response.

This response is largely being driven by men (the patriarchy staggers on undeterred) and is typically male, self-deprecating banter. This new dad is the butt of the joke, mocked for his awkward and incompetent attempts to navigate the new frontier. But is this helpful? We know it’s an incomplete picture and an exaggeration played for cheap laughs but what does it tell men about fatherhood and what does it tell our children? There has been very little male representation depicting competent nurturing and care-giving. We are still reading the Tiger Who Came to Tea, awkwardly bumbling through the scenes of Daddy coming home expecting his wife to perform her womanly duties of ensuring tea is on the table. The fact is, I’d be hard pressed to think of a book in our kid’s library where Daddy plays the equal caregiver.

More recently, an even more discouraging trope that is in danger of acting as a stand in for “Bumbling Dad” is “Emasculated Dad”. I recently passively watched the hit BBC comedy Motherland as my wife chuckled along. I found myself becoming increasingly irritated with the representation of the stay at home Dad. The character is ridiculed for his wetness and effeminate attempts at parenthood. This plays into a misogynist view that choosing to raise children over working is a lesser role because it is women’s’ work. In other words, if a man takes on the role of caregiver he becomes a lesser man – an emasculated beta.

The BBC’s exploitation of this sentiment for cheap laughs is not just disappointing but dangerous. It fuels the fire brewing amongst men displaced and rejected by the cultural transformation. At the far end of this is a resurgent far-right in which Mens Rights Activists and the alt-right cross over. We can’t leave it to reactionary regressives who exploit legitimate concerns of men who feel displaced by this cultural and economic shift. These groups ultimately want to reverse the gains of women, the LGBTQ community, and ethnic minorities. It’s time to generate new tropes that celebrate the successes many men have made of fatherhood despite the lack of precedent and the discouraging cultural response.

This is an issue that has been garnering increasing attention over the past 20 years. There have been a number of examinations by both men and women on both sides of the political isle, unanimously concluding that the “Bumbling Dad” trope is not healthy nor a productive representation.  They argue that the effect is to discourage men and reinforce the idea that they’re somehow incapable of basic domestic and child rearing responsibilities.

So really, I am not adding anything ground-breaking to these examinations. I’m not here as “I don’t use Mr., it’s too hetero-normative, should I use Ms. Woke Dad?” to preach about feminist parenting. My wife would find that ludicrous! As far she is concerned I’m a zombie at worst and sleepwalking at best. I am frequently but discretely sent articles on Whatsapp detailing the ways in which men, through no direct fault of their own, are absent when it comes to the volume of invisible labour involved with the running of a household and rearing children. Essentially, I can often be that “Bumbling Dad” trope. What I am going to attempt is to bring modern Tower Hamlets Dads together to share ideas, successes, and the inevitable failures and frustrations of fatherhood. I want to celebrate the progress we have made and create a space that aides us all in this transition to fully equitable domestic life – hopefully with some humour and self-deprecating reflection in between.

A shout out on this Father’s Day to Genghis, the ultimate “Bad Dad”! 1 in every 200 men living today is his direct line descendant.

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3 Comments

  • Whilst I recognise “Bumbling Dad” I can’t say that I think I know any in my generation (just turned 40). I definitely think he’s a remnant of our fathers’ age.

    Personally speaking I am always of the opinion that my own dad status falls into four well defined (at least in my own mind) groups. The first is a perfect and equal amalgamation of the fathers portrayed by Steve Martin and Rick Moranis in the movie Parenthood. Ultimately I think I will always fall back on these two for my own ideas on how it should be done. The ying and yang of it ALL. My child will succeed at all costs even if that cost is my own sanity or sense of dignity.

    Second my old geography teacher from school who so expertly straddled the line between respect and authority with all he taught. Even at that young age I saw him as THE model of how to relate to young people and ultimately get them to do what you’re asking of them!!

    Third, each and all of the three men from Three Men and a Little Lady. If pushed I would actually cite these guys as THE perfect representatives for todays modern dad. They have it all, challenging careers, a next generation understanding (or perhaps more accurately, recollection) of childish fun, a tangible sense of bygone disciplinary values instilled by their own parents and of course, a more than healthy dose of “bumbling dad” who has no idea what their child needs but unlike Homer and Peter Griffin is open to finding out direct from the source.

    Lastly, and appropriately for last weekend, my own dad, the ultimate example of calm and control in any situation. That’s the `50s quality that money can’t buy, that needs a role model to flourish and that if successfully applied with the above means the sleepless nights, the tantrums, the illogical arguments, the endless repetition, the inability to implement simple instruction, the lack of care for anything, the constant babbling, the endless repetition, the boundary pushing, THE ENDLESS REPETITION can all be taken in ones stride.

    • Hi Dominic,

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply! I agree the “Bumbling Dad” is dated and has always been somewhat incomplete.

      Thanks also for sharing some of the more positive fatherhood portrayals. They prove Dad’s can be positively represented whilst still being entertaining and funny. It would be good to see these representations become more pervasive.

      You’re the second Dad to reference Parenthood to me. Another Dad promised me the film is well worth a revisit because lots of the jokes are all the more relatable now that I’m on the other side of the parent-child equation.

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