Daddy Issues: A Surfeit Of SAHDs And Single Dads

Diane Shipley, a white woman with short, black hair, takes a selfie
Diane Shipley
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Diane Shipley is a freelance journalist based in the United Kingdom who writes about pop culture for publications on both sides of the pond. Her bylines include the Guardian, Lit Hub, and the Washington Post. She loves podcasts and photos of miniature dachshunds. She tweets @dianeshipley.

As you might have noticed, there have been a lot of primary-caregiver dads in pop culture lately. In addition to populating long-running shows like Two and a Half Men, Castle, and Dexter, we’ve seen single dads on Raising Hope, Louie, and Suburgatory, plus Will Arnett as a sensitive stay-at-home-dad (SAHD) on Up All Night. This year, though, we’ve hit the father lode.

Steve Guttenberg, Tom Selleck, and Ted Danson pose with a naked baby, circa 1987. Danson looks particularly shocked.

Chris Rock and co. in What to Expect When You’re Expecting, the Jimmy Fallon-produced sitcom Men With Kids, and ABC Family’s Baby Daddy have all attempted to address the “can you be a dad and remain a bro?” dilemma. We’ve also seen a couple more entries to the non-traditional family canon with The New Normal, which focuses on a gay couple, their surrogate, and her daughter, and Ben and Kate, a show about a woman raising her ridiculously adorable daughter with the help of her ridiculously goofball brother.

While it’s true that the male parenting perspective is overrepresented compared to the number of fathers who are primary caregivers in real life, this increase in daddy-centric shows does reflect a genuine change. The ugly, woman-erasing portmanteau “mancession” may have made me roll my eyes, but the figures aren’t made up: men lost 71% of the jobs that disappeared from the US economy between December 2007 and June 2009. Even before that economic downturn, the number of stay-at-home dads was growing, with the number of fathers regularly caring for children under the age of 15 rising from 26 percent in 2002 to 32 percent in 2010. And those figures don’t include single fathers and gay fathers, whose combined numbers have almost doubled, from 1.5 million in 1990 to 2.79 million in 2011.

We’re living in an era of rapid social change, and I’m fascinated by how those changes are playing out in popular culture. My blog series, Daddy Issues, will look at a range of (mostly) movie and TV fathers who are single dads/SAHDs (plus the occasional “manny”), and consider how positively they’re presented.

I’m especially interested in whether being a dad confers higher social status (onscreen) now that more fathers are taking on the task; how portrayals of single dads differ from portrayals of single mothers, sometimes within the same show; whether gay fathers are used to subvert or cement harmful stereotypes; and what these shows and movies are attempting to say about gender differences, sexuality, and male-female relationships in general.

I’ll be taking a roughly chronological romp through the last 25 years of “male primary carergivers” popular culture, from Three Men and a Baby to Baby Daddy, and considering the changing face of onscreen fatherhood in between. I’m starting the discussion in 1987, because that year saw the launch of three hugely successful pop cultural products in this subgenre, and also because it marks the last gasp of the previous zeitgeist: male caregivers have increased every year since 1988.

Some posts will take on particular shows and movies, while others will look at recurring issues: the lack of diversity in portrayals of single dads, for example, or the fact that many of these shows (in particular) seem invested in validating a fear of girls’ sexuality. I’ll spend most time on current examples, as they parallel what’s happening in the culture right now, but I’ll also look to much earlier examples for comparison, especially attempts to reinforce the status quo, where single or stay-at-home fathers function as cautionary tales.

I’ll finish by analysing what my immersion in stories about SAHDs, single dads, and the occasional “manny” has taught me about how pop culture, which seeks to reflect and reinforce social norms, is dealing with this social change and its threat to traditional notions of masculinity. I’ll also explore whether these changes could be here to stay, or will suffer a backlash, as men taking on roles traditionally associated with women often do, both on screen and in real life.

I’m a TV-obsessed journalist and blogger and I’ve previously written book reviews for the magazine, as well as contributing to The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, xoJane, and Mental Health Today, among others. As a disabled woman, intersectionality is important to me on a personal and political level, and I’m sure my experience of being raised by a single mother will also inform my posts on occasion.

I’ll be blogging every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, and have a lot of stuff lined up to watch and write about already, from Sister, Sister to Mr. Mom, but I’d love to hear about some of your favorite films and TV shows featuring male caretakers, SAHDs and stay-at-home dads.

I’ll see you back here in a couple of days, when I’ll be writing about one of mine.

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5 Comments Have Been Posted

looking forward to this!!

I am a single woman and fairly successful, but I want a family of my own. As my dad has been part of the economic downturn, I am now considering options to have a child of my own as there is a stay at home grandpa now. I know I wouldn't be able to do it alone, and being so close to my parents, as well as having one who is willing to effectively retire if I choose this path, (he has been looking for 3 years but at 59 nobody seems to be interested in him) makes it possible. I look forward to reading what the media has out there, as there are very few examples that I think are valid... any SAHGrandDs in the list??

Oh, that's so interesting!

Oh, that's so interesting! I'm not aware of any stay-at-home-grandpas on TV (although my own grandad was one, now that you mention it) but I'll have to keep my eyes peeled... Do let me know if you spot any :)

Most of the dads I talked to

Most of the dads I talked to spoke of the importance of a female mentor in the lives of their daughters. For some dads, a grandmother, aunt or other family member can take that role. For others, it is the mom of a friend his daughter's age. For others, the mentor may be a church youth leader, girl scout leader or athletic coach. But finding a strong and capable female role model is critical to your daughter's success in growing up. Helping your daughter connect to this mentor is a step you need to take<a href="" rel="follow">.</a>

Grey's Anatomy

Thank you for this! I love thinking/writing/talking about television, especially the depiction of parenting/child caregiving on television. This reminds me of my latest rant on the latest episode of 'Grey's Anatomy.' If there are any fans of the show interested feel free to read it here:

Thanks again for sharing.

Great post!

It's a while since I watched Grey's, but that post made me not so sad about it — I hate to see them putting such retrograde sentiments in the mouth of Bailey, who used to be such a great character. It was a good read though, thank you!

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