Daddy Issues: Pop Culture's Pioneering 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.

The original cast of My Three Boys, including dad, grandpa and shaggy dog, stand in a clean-cut 1950s black and white tableau, mostly smiling.

If you’d asked me a couple of months ago when the pop cultural trend of dads as primary caregivers began, I might have guessed the 1970s (when we saw an increase in single moms on TV). Turns out I’d have been off by a couple of decades.

Like many people, I associate the 1950s with nuclear families like those on Leave it to Beaver, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and I Love Lucy. But the ’50s also brought an avalanche of shows about single fathers, most of whom were widowers. The earliest example, My Little Margie, was about the relationship between a dad and his daughter, who was 21 but still lived at home (and would always be his little girl, etc).

In 1953, one-season wonders Bonino, My Son Jeep, and Wonderful John Acton all tried to jump on this bandwagon, as did Make Room for Daddy (later The Danny Thomas Show), which lasted until 1964 and unintentionally and briefly became about a widower when Jean Hagen, who played Danny’s wife Margaret, left the show between seasons. However, Danny soon remarried and (like Mike Brady after him) was slotted back into a more traditional family unit as if nothing had ever been amiss. That show spun off The Andy Griffith Show, one of the most famous and long-running of the single father subgenre, which lasted from 1960-68. Similarly iconic and also starting that same year was My Three Sons (pictured), which ran for 378 episodes over 12 seasons and doubled up on father figures, with first the boys’ granddad living with them and helping out with their care, and later Uncle Charley taking on that role.

A variation on the early trend for single fathers was for a man to foster or adopt (not always formally) a child in need, which was a quick way to foist responsibility on a character without giving him a sad backstory. (It would also presumably have seemed more heroic and far less scandalous than being divorced.) Bachelor Father, Fury, and The Great Gildersleeve all took this tack. The latter two are westerns, which made up a large proportion of single dad TV shows prior to 1970. (There was also The Adventures of Champion, Brave Eagle, The Rifleman, and the long-running Bonanza, which centered on a three-time widower and his sons, who were fully grown but still lived and worked on the family ranch. Meanwhile, Robert Mitchum took the trend to the big screen in River of no Return.)

Westerns in general were hugely popular at this time, a fact that’s often attributed to fears about the Cold War and its potential to curtail American freedoms. The setting also makes sense for stories about single fathers because it’s a male-dominated place concerned with reaffirming traditional masculine traits. There’s also doubtless a parallel between literally conquering new territory without a road map and becoming a sole parent. Furthermore, setting a show in the past means that any criticism, for example, about the paucity of women, can be dismissed in the name of accuracy.

But while women don’t always play a huge role, the majority of TV shows and movies in which a dad is widowed (and later, divorced) include some kind of surrogate mother, who often works or volunteers in a caring capacity (housekeeper, cook, teacher). This both “reassures” the audience that traditional gender roles are still in play and provides the possibility of (heterosexual) romance. In fact, in TV shows and movies with widowed fathers, it’s common for kids to meddle in their parent’s love life.

In films like 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle and a TV movie I watched just last week, Dear Santa, a child wishes for a “new mom” so their widowed father will be happy. This strikes me as problematic not just because it seems callous for a child who’s lost their mom, but also because it suggests both that men cannot be happy and functional without a love relationship, and that a dad cannot properly parent without a woman by his side. Although it often overdosed on angst, teen drama Everwood was more realistic in this regard, with sulky Ephram Brown resentful of his formerly workaholic dad’s dating life and dismissive of his clumsy attempts to bond.

Although shows like this, Full House and My Two Dads all dealt with the impact of a wife and mom’s death, as divorce became more common and less stigmatized in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, single dads in pop culture increasingly tended to be divorced rather than widowed. This is especially true for TV, where a divorce allows for a larger cast and a wider range of potential stories (from custody issues to double the step-siblings). We’ve also seen an increase, albeit a slight one, in the representation of gay dads, stay-at-home fathers, and single dads of color.

While we’re experiencing a boom in male primary caregivers on TV and in movies right now, it’s interesting to bear in mind that this isn’t their first time at the center of the zeitgeist, and worth wondering how long our current obsession will last — and whether a fascination with mothers might follow.

Previously: Keeping it (Upper Middle) Classy; The Mixed Blessings of “Dadvertising”.

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6 Comments Have Been Posted

I think

that this series is excellent and I'll be really sorry when it comes to an end. It's extremely well-researched and brilliantly written. Well done!

Thank you, that's very kind!

Thank you, that's very kind! Only two more posts to go, but I'll try to make them good ones ;)

Modern single dads- and absent mothers.

I've really been enjoying this series of posts as well! Some great, thought-provoking stuff.

We have been watching early seasons of Eureka recently and these posts have made me think about the portrayal of a single Dad in that show - the rise of divorced single Dads in TV has also meant a rise in the portrayal of the "irresponsible" or "inappropriate" mother figure, of course, which is problematic.

Veronica Mars and Eureka both give us great, warm, trying-as-hard-as-they-can Dads (though in Eureka the hero at least acknowledges that his good Dadhood is a very recent thing and it's only since they arrived in the magical science town that he has managed a decent relationship with his daughter) who are the primary caregivers of their sassy, slightly broken daughters - and in both cases, have glamorous, blonde, Far More Damaged Ex-Wives whose Bad Mother status is largely conveyed through their absence and occasionally through turning up to wreak havoc on their daughter's psyche and their ex-husband's love life. I don't think these are the only example of this meme?

Dead mothers tend to be far more saintly, of course.

Speaking of single dads, I acknowledge that Glee is a problematic show in a million different ways, but I have been genuinely touched by the portrayal of Kurt's Dad Burt, the blue collar bloke who really doesn't understand his gay son but has worked hard to repair the distance between them. I watched the season 3 finale for the first time this week and found myself crying and laughing to watch the scene where Burt gives his son a well-rehearsed, worked-his-butt-off dance number for his graduation present, in honour of the Single Ladies routine that he caught his son performing in Season 1 which led to their first conversation about Kurt being gay.

Go, Burt! I gave up on Glee a

Go, Burt! I gave up on Glee a long time ago but sounds like I should look that up; I did like the way he worked to accept his son, and totally should have included him in my working class single dads round-up.

You're totally right about the moms in these stories and how they're often portrayed negatively. I haven't really gone into that as much as I could have, although I think I touched on it in a previous post.

Re: Eureka, I don't watch any sci-fi or fantasy shows, but I was just thinking that it would be interesting if someone who knows the topic wrote a post or series about parenting and gender roles in genre pop culture, and whether it's any more/less progressive — especially in futuristic narratives.

Anyway, thank you for reading and commenting, and for your kind words.

I've also been really

I've also been really enjoying this series.

Oh, thanks so much! It's been

Oh, thanks so much! It's been fun to do.

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