Negative male stereotypes pervade contemporary television

April 10, 2010

Ray Barone just cannot seem to do anything right. To be fair, neither can Jim Belushi, Tim Taylor or most of the fathers in sitcoms and advertising today. None of these men or their cartoon counterparts, like Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin, ever seem to be able fulfill their fatherly duties without making a huge mess of things – a mess their wives always have to clean up.

We’ve come a long way since the days of The Brady Bunch or The Cosby Show where fathers were productive members of their families. In the early days of sitcoms, the woman of the family was the helpless one whose sole duty was to mind the kitchen and look good for her husband. She was pretty one-dimensional. Thankfully, those days are over, and women are portrayed in a much more positive light. However, one has to wonder whether the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction.

Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor was perhaps the first father figure who just couldn’t figure it out. Most who watched the show could pick up a predictable pattern. Tim would do something to upset Jill, either on his hit cable show, Tool Time, or at home. Confused, Tim would proceed to the backyard where his sagelike next-door neighbor, Wilson, would dispense advice. Then, after a comical back-and-forth session with his clad-in-plaid assistant, Al, he would come to a better understanding of his error and make amends.

So Tim might have been lovably slow at times. But at least he had plenty of redeeming qualities.

First, he actually went to work and was productive around the house. Most men in sitcoms today seem capable only of occupying the recliner in front of the TV while their wives handle the kids, the housework and whatever mess their incompetent husbands have gotten themselves into (see According to Jim; King of Queens; Yes, Dear; Everybody Loves Raymond; Still Standing; etc.). Nowadays, it seems all men are portrayed as overweight couch potatoes who somehow managed to marry much more attractive and independent women with much higher IQs than their husbands.

Whenever Tim Taylor messed up, which was often, he was at least surrounded by other men who were competent and understanding (Wilson) or emotionally intelligent (Al). Where can Ray Barone or Tim Griffin turn but to their equally confused and dull-witted peers?

Interspersed between these sitcoms is advertising that sends the same message: Men are incapable of taking care of themselves or their families. While these comedic portrayals of men can be entertaining, they can also be quite damaging.

According to Gender Issues in Advertising Language, “Television portrayals that help create or reinforce negative stereotypes can lead to problems with self-image, self-concept, and personal aspirations. Young men learn that they are expected to screw up, that women will have the brains to their brawn, and that childcare is over their heads.”

Negative portrayals can be especially damaging to children who grow up without fathers because these children will grow up with a distorted view of what men and fathers are really like.

The Brady Bunch and the earliest sitcoms may not have been the most realistic depiction of the typical American family life, but as far as depicting men as fathers, they were much better than what we have today. Men are smarter than that. I hope television networks will figure that out, but for now that seems as likely as Ray Barone figuring out how to take on his fair share of fatherly duties.

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