Bringing Up Baby: The Overrepresentation of Fatherhood in TVLand

cast of two and a half men--two white men and a white boy singing into a microphone

In today’s complex television landscape, it’s easy to argue that traditional conceptions of “parenthood” are changing as we see fewer heteronormative nuclear families, which reflects demographic and social changes in the real world. Yet a closer look at parenthood in contemporary scripted television reveals that when it comes to family life, the perspective of the cisgendered male is still privileged above all others.

Let’s examine some of the the trends. (Note to readers: I’m stepping into somewhat uncharted territory here—material I found about the breakdown of parenthood on TV is either dated or incomplete—so I’d really appreciate leads and/or ideas in the comments!)

Single Parenthood

Although 84% of custodial single parents are single moms, single moms and single dads are represented about equally on television. Raising Hope, Castle, Two and a Half Men, Suburgatory, Louie, and Dexter all feature single dads as main characters, while Weeds, Nurse Jackie, Parenthood, The Good Wife, and Once Upon a Time feature single moms.

So the TV demographics don’t match reality. No surprise here; the demographics of TVLand, as we know, are rather specific (read: white, rich, cisgender, etc.). But the overrepresentation of fatherhood is a deeper problem that extends beyond portrayals of single parents. Series that include both mom and dad as cast members tend to foreground the perspective of the father, regardless of the specific family situation. Whether the parents are together/divorced/separated/never a couple, the tale of parenthood as told on TV is too frequently a dad’s tale, which I think is a direct result of the preponderance of male writers and producers for these television series.

Co-parenting Parenthood…

In the great tradition of series like Everybody Loves Raymond and Home Improvement, many of today’s shows include both parents, but the perspective is a cisgender male’s, even though the female is represented as performing most of the parenting duties. Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, American Dad, Bob’s Burgers, and Last Man Standing are all current examples. Meanwhile, there are a plethora of series in which the parents are not together, and the mom is the “other parent” seen through the dad’s eyes. This happens/happened on almost every FX series (Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, Sons of Anarchy, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Sons of Anarchy —I’m sure there’s more), and in Hung and Californication.

White guy from Castle sitting with his daughter who has red hair

Currently, two series on network TV include homosexual male characters as parents: Modern Family and the new animated series Allen Gregory. I’m unaware of any lesbian parents currently on network (or even non-network?) TV.

There are a couple of current shows that portray motherhood and fatherhood from both the male and female perspective, thereby creating more egalitarian, supportive relationships (Up All Night, Parenthood), and a couple that foreground the female’s perspective (The Middle, Desperate Housewives).

Historically, of course, stories on TV tended to be told with the male as protagonist, so the story of parenthood was the dad’s. The single dad on TV goes all the way back to The Andy Griffith Show, and even on The Cosby Show—hailed for its representation of Clair Huxtable, a woman of color and a successful career mom—parenthood is clearly experienced through Cliff, not Clair. So series like Nurse Jackie and The Middle represent a significant change, but we must be aware that even today, series with parents often foreground a cisgendered, male perspective.

The Childless Career Woman

Perhaps more significant—and more unsettling—is the structural division of television series according to “working women” versus “stay-at-home mom” roles. On crime shows, sci-fi, and office-based dramas, title role female characters often don’t have kids, while title role male characters have wives and children somewhere off-set who occasionally enter the storyline as periphery characters. (Or, often on these shows, the male lead is avenging the murder of his wife and/or daughter.) I believe that this trend also reveals the perspective of the predominantly male writers and producers of these series, who aren’t thinking as deeply about the out-of-office lives of their female characters. The easy default is to skirt the issue and create mini-realities in which female career women don’t have kids—or, as on Bones, eventually have kids with a colleague.

I’m not overly familiar with these types of dramas, but from what I’ve seen, the women tend to be childfree. Can somebody help me out here? What about the female characters on all those Law and Orders, CSIs, or NCIS, Hawaii Five-0, Prime Suspect, Harry’s Law, The Closer, Fringe, Prime Suspect, Unforgettable, Harry’s Law, etc. etc.—how many women on these series have children? And on the office-based series—30 Rock, Parks and Recreation—how many of the women have children? The most recent statistics show that one in five American women never have children. I wonder how those numbers compare to female characters on crime/office dramas? (Prediction: The number of childree career women on TV is much higher than one in five.)

white woman with blond hair looking at the camera wearing a business suit

On the one hand, these series depict women without children as refreshingly unapologetic (although some, like Liz Lemon, are rather obsessed with changing their childless status). The appearance of women without children on crime and medical dramas is important. But in TVLand, why must all women without children be cops, scientists, lawyers or doctors—and, in turn, why are cops, scientists, lawyers, and doctors so rarely allowed to be moms?

To quote the recent documentary about women in the media, Miss Representation, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” In other words, if parents are portrayed a specific way in the media, it’s difficult to imagine other models. And I’m not seeing many television series that tell the tale of motherhood through the eyes of women who aren’t pigeon-holed into specific roles. It’s notable that series created by women tend to include female characters that are moms and career women, or moms who also work outside the home, and their experience is foregrounded, not that of their baby daddy. Shows like Nurse Jackie, Reba, Roseanne, Gilmore Girls, Judging Amy, Murphy Brown, Weeds, Grace Under Fire, The New Adventures of Old Christine, My So-Called Life, and Once and Again were all created or co-created by women.

Screen cap from Judging Amy showing a white woman with brown hair in a judge's robe

Parenthood is extremely diverse, and while TV has been quick to grasp the diversity of fatherhood (imagine a show about a single mom in 1960, the year The Andy Griffith Show premiered), representations of motherhood are still influenced by a (still!) largely male television industry. When there are different types of parents portrayed, they are almost exclusively white and (usually) straight as well. That being said, TV tends to be more open to a diversity of perspectives than the news media or the film industry, and I hope more diverse perspectives on parenting will pop up soon, especially where they’re really needed, such as on workplace and crime shows. 

If anyone is aware of a comprehensive list/analysis breaking down parenting roles on TV, please let me know! And stay tuned later this week for an exploration of race, socioeconomics, and motherhood on TV.  

Previously, on Bringing Up Baby: on Pregnancy and Sex, Stay Away From That Tuna! (Or I’ll Take Your Baby) 



by Katherine Don
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16 Comments Have Been Posted

Off the top of my head, on

Off the top of my head, on the show Rookie Blue (of which I only watched a few episodes of the first season) there is a female rookie officer who has a son. For the first few episodes she tried to keep that fact hidden from her colleagues because she was afraid it would be frowned upon, as if she wouldn't be able to do her job as well being a single mom (or perhaps being a mom at all).

I'm surprised you overlooked the work of Shonda Rhimes: Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, and Off The Map. I think she does an excellent job at bringing in a vast array of perspectives and scenerios, showcasing both female and male perspectives on being single, dating, relationships, marriage, pregnancy, abortion, co-parenting, and single-parenting.

Sorry for overlooking Shonda!

Sorry for overlooking Shonda! --every time I think about her shows, I think to myself, "there's so much there, I need to write a separate post on it!" -- but then I forgot to include her shows in my list above of heterogeneous portrayals of momhood. Definite oversight.

Law & Order SVU: neither

Law & Order SVU: neither Olivia Benson or the new female cop (I don't know her name) have children. Two male characters do: Ice-T has an adult son, who happens to be gay, which has been a cause of tension although that's generally been resolved. The new male cop (I don't know his name) has a daughter and appears to be a single parent. His mother seems to help care for her. Stabler (no longer on the show) had about seven kids and long suffering wife.

Prime Suspect: Maria Bello's character lives with a man (not sure if he is her boyfriend or husband) who has a young son. The boyfriend/husband's ex-wife is portrayed as an overprotective mother, but the son does stay with them part of the time. I think several of the male police officers are fathers.

Fringe: Fringe had a terrible pregnancy storyline which I won't get into too much, but, (SPOILERS) the alternative universe version of Olivia (the main character) gave birth to a child fathered by another main character, but due to the shifting or universes and timelines, the child currently doesn't exist. But this show is ALL about fraught father-son relationships. All the mothers are either dead or more-or-less out of the picture. Olivia does have a positive relationship with her niece, and her sister is a single mother. The other primary female character isn't portrayed as having a life outside of work, so it's generally assumed that she's single and childless. She does play a pretty problematic caretaker role to another character on the show.

Criminal Minds: one of the main female characters has a son -- she is happily married, but her job vs family issues are a minor story line. One of the main male characters has a son, his mother is dead as a result of the father's job. His job vs. family issues used to be a story line.

30 Rock: no mothers on this one, although Liz Lemon goes through phases of wanting to be a mother.

Parks & Rec: the only mother on this one is Leslie Knope's mother, who is also involved in local politics. She's not a main character, but presumably was a working mother while

The Office: As far as I can remember, three female characters are mothers -- Pam (married), Meredith (divorced, I think), and Angela (married and currently pregnant). Daryl (single) is a father, as is Stanley (married), and Jim (married to Pam).

Thanks for this. And shocked

Thanks for this. And shocked to hear about this Olivia storyline. Guess I never saw those ones. Interesting, though, because "alternate"Olivia is always implied to be warmer and less messed up b/c she was raised by a mom...and she is the one allowed, in turn, to be a mom. And agreed---this show is ALL about father-son relationships.

Spoilers for season 4 of Fringe

That was so badly done! Really, couldn't they have found another way to have alt!Livia face her feelings for Peter (and to start the machine)? I mean, I liked that apparently no one guilted her into staying at home instead of saving the world, but it was altogether a horrible glitch in storytelling quality. The baby was nothing more than a plot device.

There were a few nice mother-child bonding scenes between Peter and his mom (in both universes) and Olivia/alt!Livia and her mom, but definitely overshadowed by all the father-son drama! I wish they'd delve more into Olivia's relationship with Nina, since Olivia was adopted by Nina (another childless career woman) in this season's timeline. But at least they show some subtle changes in both women that I attribute at least partly to this mother-daughter bond.

Adding to the demographics,

Adding to the demographics, since I watch a number of these shows:

On Bones, title character is now pregnant because the woman who portrays her is pregnant. This was apparently something of a surprise to the producers/writers, which is why they now have 2 seasons in a row with a pregnancy storyline (and had to wrench some characterizations around to cover this one).

On the various L&Os, many of which I have watched, none, or almost none, of the women are parents. On Criminal Intent, when a female actor got pregnant, she was given a pregnancy storyline--she was a gestational surrogate for her sister! On SVU, Mariska Hargitay's character has flirted with motherhood but nothing has worked out. On the original L&O, S. Epatha Merkeson's character had two children; they appeared irregularly in the series. She had a well-developed personal life; viewers saw her through divorce, saw her struggling to raise her kids, saw her fall in love again and go through treatment for cancer).

On the original CSI, the highest-ranking woman in the department/show is the divorced mother of a now-teenage daughter who is rarely seen and when seen, is usually in jeopardy. Contrast this with the highest-ranking man's son, who dropped by recently to visit dad at work for no immediately-apparent reason. On CSI: NY, two of the CSIs are married and have a young daughter.

None of the characters on NCIS or NCIS:LA have children. Ditto Harry's Law, The Closer, and Unforgettable.

On Hawaii Five-O, one of the men is the divorced, non-custodial father of a daughter who appears from time to time in the episodes, more often for moments of father-daughter bonding as for child-in-jeopardy storylines. None of the other main characters have children.

On Prime Suspect, the main character's boyfriend is a non-custodial dad.

CSI's Catherine Willows

When CSI started, I had quite high hopes for Catherine - ex-stripper turned CSI, working-class single mom doing her best for her daughter while progressing in her chosen career. Then the writers made her rich, making her daughter disappear into the land of expensive private schools.

This one was just brought to

This one was just brought to mind: Body of Proof: Dana Delany's character is a non-custodial mom.

On the Vegas CSI...Brass'

On the Vegas CSI...Brass' "daughter" was a total screw up who showed up when she was in trouble (I think it was revealed later that she was not biologically his daughter). Eckley - isn't his daughter working with the CSI team, now? I stopped watching part of the way through the season with Lawrence Fishburn. So my memory isn't great...

Also, on CSI:Miami...They had a female medical examiner...Who (I thought) was warm & caring on the show...always having a lot of empathy for victims...and showing emotion over their deadness. She was a mom...and later decided to stop being the medical examiner b/c her kid(s?) got into trouble and she thought being around them more was important. None of the other females in that show has kids...but one dotes on a niece pretty regularly. Horatio found out he had a son after several years (and the kid was a teenager when he found out)...and his mom turned out to be a total fuckup and the kid had no one to rely on but his dad who was oh-so-wonderful. Also the kid aged like 6 years inside of 5 episodes or something.

NCIS: The lawyer-girl? The Asian chick the goofy, skinny kid was banging? She ended up having a child, then breaking the law to try & save her (and I think in the end maybe it wasn't HER child, but a younger sister? Sorry, my husband watches this, I am usually just listening in the background...I probably miss a lot). The current director has a family...who has of course been put in danger a time or two b/c of his job. And of course Gibbs had a wife & child...whom he avenged and the loss of his daughter turns nearly every damn chick in the show into his surrogate daughter.

Dexter, Walking Dead

I am racking my brain, but can't think of anyone on Dexter with kids except Dexter. Obviously, Rita, but you know.

What do you think of the mother characters on Walking Dead? I haven't made up my mind about a lot of things on that show. In some ways I think that the message is that, in a pressure-cooker situation (y'know, like a zombie apocalypse) that people revert pretty hard to gender roles. But maybe I'm just reading into that so I don't have to be bothered by all the gender role-ing.

On Gender Roles in Walking Dead

too bad....

Awwwwww you poor womyn. Is the majority being represented in the mainstream? Keep crying and maybe you can bully your minority viewpoint into being the norm.


Fathers might outnumber mothers, but...

Fathers might outnumber mothers, but they are often portrayed as idiots. I can't speak to all of the shows you referenced here, but I know that the typical sitcom, although it may be told from the perspective of the father, goes out of its way to paint him as an incompetent parent/complete moron. While I would love to see more shows about and by women (and especially more women balancing challenging careers and parenting), I think TV producers also need to address the stereotypes of men in the pop culture landscape. Everybody Loves Raymond and Home Improvement are classic examples of the doltish and clueless husband/father. Even on Modern Family, a show I love, the character of Phil comes off as a less competent parent than Claire. While the domination of men's stories in entertainment is a problem, so are tiresome tropes like the dopey dad.

Totally agree. It's very

Totally agree. It's very telling that the moronic dads are always on the same shows as the totally gender-roled moms -- where you make one stereotype, you need to make another. Like lying! On the sitcoms you have moronic dad/controlling mom (Phil/Claire), and on the dramas you have macho, macho dad/slutty manipulative mom (all FX series of all time)

Just tossing an idea out

Just tossing an idea out here, but maybe the preponderance of male parental perspective in TV is because in reality more women are in the single parent role. A single male parent is seen as unusual, different, even edgy, and that's what makes a TV show pitch . I'm showing my age, but I think back to 60s TV shows like "The Courtship of Eddie's Father", "My Three Sons" and "Family Affair", which all had a usually competent single dad (and in two, a secondary male in a parental role, come to think of it) and into the 70s we had a number of Single Mom shows (One Day at a Time pops to mind, and Good Times showed a family going from being two parent to one female parent) because that was the Edgy New Thing -- although single mom families have been around forever . So I don't find the current crop of Dad-Only TV shows all that new.

And Disney movies have been doing the single dad (often incompetent) and single mom stories for years and could do an entire set of articles about the non-traditional family structures in so-called "family friendly" Disney movies.

TV shows don't really reflect reality very much because we live that and most of us aren't interested in watching it. Of course this has other effects in that audiences don't necessarily parse out that TV does NOT represent reality and confuses what is modeled on TV for how people ought to act which is a whole 'nuther barrel of fish.

Okay, I get it but...

The majority of shows are about white, cis gendered people because that is the majority of people in the U.S. plain and simple. Now, are there areas that are becoming "majority minority"? Are queer/transgendered people becoming more and more visible? For sure, but you're talking about a bunch small groups vs. one big ass group of gender normative whities. Of course, diverstiy is good and it's great to have varied stories told but it's silly to act like it's weird that the majority would be reflected in entertainment.

It is interesting about single fatherhood being so prevalent in TV compared to reality. I figure alot of that comes from the fact that men are seen as less naturally capable as parents therefore it will be more entertaining to watch them stumble along at parenthood when really I figure parenting is hard for everyone but women are encouraged to pretend that it comes naturally lest they be seen as being "bad" at womanhood.

Parenting Roles

CSI:NY has Jo one of the detectives who is a single Mom with a son and a daughter. It also has Lindsay and Danny who are collegues that are married and have a daughter. Blue Bloods the sister is a single Mom and Assistant DA.

Olivia on SVU doesn't have one yet, but has always wanted one and did briefly get to take care of one. It's not the job in the way for her although it did figure in with trying to adopt. With her backgrund and lack of support system that would actually make sense especially when in a job that can get you killed and no family to help raise the child. I think it's harder to show single parent (Mother or Father) in some of the various law enforcement shows by the nature of the job they do and the background they give the character..

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