In 1983, the poster for a new movie called Mr. Mom showed Michael Keaton as a perturbed dad, his two kids wreaking havoc as he held his baby at arm’s length while his business-suit-clad wife cheerfully walked out the door. Thirty years later, pop culture’s stay-at-home dad hasn’t progressed very far beyond that. Cue the laugh track.
Last month, a Pew study showed that 40 percent of U.S. households now have a woman as the leading breadwinner. Fox News’s Juan Williams said the change was “hurting our children” while a professor of economics and behavioral science at the University of Chicago, Richard H. Thaler, argued in The New York Times that it was leading to the “decline in the formation and stability of marriages.” This despite the fact that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20 percent of fathers with working wives regularly care for their children (by comparison, 23 percent of marriages were found to have stay-at-home moms).
But you wouldn’t know it from watching TV or going to the movies. Last year the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media released a report titled Gender Roles & Occupations: A Look at Character Attributes and Job-Related Aspirations in Film and Television (PDF). It found that, on film, women are almost 12 percent more likely to be depicted as caregivers, legal guardians, or parents than men. Meanwhile, 21 percent more men are depicted with jobs than women and, even when they are employed, women don’t tend to be depicted in the “upper echelons of power.” TV was found to be slightly less “lopsided,” with only 10 percent more men depicted with jobs than women (who were also more present in “higher clout” positions than they were on the big screen). While both genders were equally likely to be caregivers on the small screen, in children’s series women were 30 percent more likely to take on that role. Little wonder when you consider the way stay-at-home dads act on screen.
The latest example is NBC’s Guys With Kids, which followed a bunch of exhausted young dads, including one stay-at-home father of four, who The Hollywood Reporter compared to the bumbling trio in 1987’s 3 Men and a Baby (a.k.a. Mr. Mom cubed). (The show was canceled last month, though its spirit animal, Australia’s House Husbands, is alive and well Down Under.) According to Dr. Elwood Watson, a history professor at East Tennessee State University who wrote the 2011 book Performing American Masculinities: The 21st-Century Man in Popular Culture, most on-screen house husbands are presented as “dysfunctional” like that. “They tend to be people who lack motivation or they are emasculated or they’re not the smartest men,” he says.
Pop culture just doesn’t have the balls to give its stay-at-home dads balls. In last year’s What to Expect When You’re Expecting, for instance, a group of fathers creates a “dude’s group” in order to maintain the machismo beneath their Baby Bjorns. The quartet giggles like preteen girls around its idol, an unattached alpha male played by Joe Manganiello. “I will Freaky Friday with you anytime,” one of the dads tells him. And in the 2010 comedy Grown Ups, Chris Rock plays a stay-at-home father who is mercilessly emasculated by his own mother-in-law. “Looks like it’s his time of the month again,” she says at one point.
And it doesn’t seem like TV is growing out of this trope anytime soon. In May, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that A&E had ordered eight episodes of a reality series about stay-at-home fathers called Modern Dads. The press release described the cast as “a diverse group of stay-at-home dads balancing guy-life with dad-life,” suggesting that being a man and being a father are mutually exclusive.
Gayle Kaufman, a sociology professor at Davidson College who wrote Superdads: How Fathers Balance Work and Family in the 21st Century, thinks the on-screen proliferation of emasculated house husbands comes down to gender-role stereotyping. “Because [caregiving has] been associated with women, we’ve got these ideas that it’s more feminine,” she says. “I think that’s where it comes in that these men are not considered as masculine as fully employed or breadwinner men.” Titles like Mr. Mom, Daddy Day Care, and Who’s the Boss? reaffirm the fact that “we still make distinctions about what a mom does versus what a dad does,” Kaufman says.
Nor are their traditionally assigned jobs created equal. “We can put a dollar figure on the worth that someone might put into employment, there’s some way of evaluating that, but there’s not really the same thing with caregiving,” Kaufman says. In Grown Ups, Rock’s mother-in-law diminishes caregiving in precisely this way. “My daughter’s got to bust her hump all day paying the bills while Dummy here stays home and cleans,” she says. The suggestion being that if you’re smart, you work and you’re worthy. If you’re not, you stay home with the kids and you’re worthless, particularly if you’re a man. “Even though women have increased their education and their economic power, the expectations are still there that the men will be the primary breadwinners,” Kaufman explains.
But, in the U.S., almost 200,000 stay-at-home dads are subverting these expectations without regret. A 2011 study conducted by Professor Noelle Chesley at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, analyzed 21 families with stay-at-home fathers and breadwinning mothers. She found that, contrary to Thaler’s belief, this new dynamic promoted gender equality, with fathers valuing taking care of their children and supporting their wives’ employment (this directly contradicts The Politician’s Husband, a U.K. mini-series in which a cabinet minister quits his job and becomes a house husband and proceeds to rape his wife, a former housewife, when she takes his place as the family’s primary breadwinner). No wonder, then, that from the 1970s to the 2000s, 19 percent more men chose to stay at home and take care of their families instead of being pushed into it by unemployment.
Writer Andy Hinds is one of those men. “There was never any consideration of my wife staying home and me trying to support the family financially,” the doctor’s husband said, adding, “it has worked out so well that I doubt I will ever have a 9-to-5 job again until the kids are much older.” Hinds writes the Beta Dad blog as well as contributing to The Atlantic’s The Sexes and believes the media’s representation of house husbands is “lagging behind” reality. “There are still a lot of images of stay-at-home dads as if we were a novelty or a joke—they just don’t gel with what I’ve encountered in real life,” he says. “The biggest misconception is that we’re somehow different from any other stay-at-home parent.”
The reaction Hinds gets to being a stay-at-home father is largely positive (though, like comedian Louis C.K. and Go the F**k to Sleep author Adam Mansbach, he admits he has been overly praised in the past), but women have confided in him that they wouldn’t trust their husbands with their kids. This is reminiscent of the 2003 film Daddy Day Care in which Eddie Murphy’s character loses his job and becomes a stay-at-home dad who launches a day care run by men, only to be called a “sicko” by one mother. As Kaufman explains, “There are still expectations for women to be [caregiving] so when men step into those roles, there are doubts about how well men can do that.”
There is no doubt that men can do it, though; Hinds admits he encountered an attempt to cast him in the hunky house-husband role. Last year he auditioned for a new reality show created by Evolution Media (the company behind the Real Housewives franchise) and says, “They were really really interested in sexual tension at the playground.” For the record, Hinds says there’s “no time” for that. Apparently the production company had him mixed up with Patrick Wilson, who, in the 2006 indie Little Children, played a hot stay-at-home dad known as the “prom king” who has an affair with a stay-at-home mom he meets at the park. “For the first time in my life I feel like I can do anything,” he tells his playground piece.
The few progressive on-screen depictions of stay-at-home papas have not ended well. Perhaps the most realistic example, NBC’s Up All Night, was canceled in May. In it Will Arnett played a former lawyer who looked after his baby so his wife (Christina Applegate) could work as a producer. The couple supports one another and the baby wants for nothing—unfortunately, the show wanted for a lot and was canceled. Another NBC series, Parenthood, included a stay-at-home dad who was supported by his fellow stay-at-home moms, but he eventually returned to his construction manager job when his wife quit her high-powered lawyer gig to focus on the family.
Perhaps the best representation of a stay-at-home dad can be found in a show in which the father isn’t exactly a stay-at-home dad at all, which is precisely why it works—it defies type. In Louie, comedian Louis C.K. plays a version of himself who splits caregiving with his wife. C.K. has been lauded for addressing the double standards faced by dads (“How do you know I’m such a great dad? Just because I’m in the same room with my children, that’s it?” he asks a fellow PTA member in one episode) and showing that raising children as a father can be as lovable/detestable as it can be for a mother. But it’s unsurprising that C.K. would do such a great job of depicting parenthood considering he is the same dad who, in a 2010 Father’s Day message for CBS, said, “Spend time with your kids and have your own ideas about what they need. Get into it. It won’t take away your manhood; it will give it to you.”