There are some obvious similarities between 2012 sitcom Baby Daddy and 1987’s Three Men and a Baby. They’re both about three guys sharing an apartment in New York who are unexpectedly gifted a doorstep baby (and the chaos that ensues). But there’s a lot that’s different, too. In Baby Daddy, our eponymous hero Ben (Jean-Luc Bilodeau), his best friend Tucker (Taj Mowry) and brother Danny (Derek Theler) are a lot younger and less affluent than Tom Selleck & co., making raising a baby more of a challenge.
While Three Men’s baby nana was delighted about her new grandchild, Ben’s mom Bonnie (Melissa Peterman) is less impressed, saying he’s too immature to raise a child and chiding him for not having safe sex (“You knocked up some girl because you couldn’t figure out the basics of birth control”), which may be judgmental but makes a change from blaming single mothers. When Ben hears from his ex/baby mama Angela that she’s lined up a couple to adopt baby Emma, he’s torn about whether to sign away his parental rights. Although she later softens, Bonnie tells him he has no idea how hard it is to be a parent and how much sacrifice it involves, at least inviting the possibility that having a child isn’t necessarily the most fulfilling thing ever.
Ben, Danny, and Tucker share childcare duties, with Tucker even saying, “We have a baby now. So we kind of have to be adults.” But unlike the co-parenting dynamic in Three Men, it’s always clear that Ben has the ultimate responsibility. When he looks after Emma alone for the first time before deciding whether to give her up, he struggles to get her to feed and cries when she finally does. “I can’t let her go. I love her,” he later tells his friends and family. These are some mawkish moments, but such sentimentality is also pretty progressive for a young male TV character, especially one who’s so attached to being a bro.
One of the biggest differences between Three Men and Baby Daddy is how wedded to heteronormativity and stereotypical gender ideals the latter is. While the lack of acknowledgement that the movie’s main characters might be seen as gay can be read as erasure, presenting the possibility as unacceptable is arguably worse. When Ben and Tucker take Emma for her first medical appointment, Tucker anxiously tells the nurse practitioner, “We’re not together.” Ben asks why he keeps saying that, and he responds, “It’s New York, people assume.” (Why that matters is never explained.)
In Three Men it was refreshing that the women in the guys’ lives didn’t come to the rescue, or automatically know how to look after a baby by virtue of their gender. That’s not the case in Baby Daddy, where Ben and Tucker’s childhood friend Riley steps in early on when the men fail to cope. She’s incensed that they ask her for help just because she’s a woman, but it turns out she does know what to do, changing Emma’s diaper and preparing her bottle while cooing, “Boys are so stupid, aren’t they?” A trainee lawyer seems as unlikely to have these skills as a bartender and his pals, but Riley’s one in a long line of pop culture’s magical helper ladies, sent to make male primary caregivers’ lives easier. (See also: My Two Dads, Gilmore Girls, Suburgatory, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Pacifier, Parenthood…)
Baby Daddy insists on not only having its male characters act in a stereotypically masculine way but on them acknowledging this regularly, as if otherwise they might be mistaken for women (which is of course unacceptable, women being inferior and all). In episode eight, “The Baby Whisperer”, Tucker and Danny are distraught to discover that Ben is kicking them out of their apartment, as they’d planned to watch boxing on cable (“It’s how we stay manly”). They’re especially disgusted because Ben’s having a meeting with the leader of a local Mommy and Me group instead of hanging out with them, a decision Tucker says will cause him to revoke Ben’s “bro card.” In the end, they discover a cable hook-up in their building’s basement and erect a (shudder) “man cave” from which to watch the fight. They also play darts to determine their chore allocation, and when Tucker goes shopping with his girlfriend Vanessa, he describes it as “emasculation Saturday”; although it’s unclear what’s inherently feminine about shopping, or who’s forcing him to go.
The show’s writers clearly believe (probably accurately) that to not alienate male viewers means emphasizing that men are the superior gender, even while they’re doing something typically associated with women. When Ben says he’s got “important Mommy and Me business”, Tucker says that sounds “weak”, and Ben agrees. (Mommies, ugh!) It’s disappointing that in many ways, Baby Daddy is less progressive than Three Men and a Baby, despite their 25-year age gap. It’s great that the former’s cast is a little more diverse, featuring a black main character and some people of color in guest roles. But it’s ultimately a much more conservative piece of storytelling, more interested in reinforcing gender norms than questioning traditional ideas about masculinity and fatherhood.
In fact, it’s striking how little Ben’s friends and family expect of him. When he worries that he might not be a good enough dad to Emma, Danny tells him, “You do something great for her every time you tell her, ‘Hey baby, it’s me, Daddy’.” Standards for mothers in pop culture (and real life) are considerably higher, and it’s to their credit that the male caregivers in Three Men and a Baby expected and delivered a lot more than that.