DAD TV – Postfeminism and the Paternalization of US Television Drama
Hannah Hamad / Massey University
Recent years have witnessed a pronounced thematic and representational trend in television serial drama towards paternalism, fatherhood, and relationships between fathers and children. In many ways, the WB’s Everwood, which ran from 2002-2006 is epitomic of this trend in terms of its heavily paternally inflected premise, centred on the down-shifted life a widowed single father in the aftermath of his wife’s death, and his efforts at solo parenting in her absence.
Prior to Everwood’s premiere it was described by Entertainment Weekly as “a rare showing of paternal instinct”1 by the network, quoting then entertainment president Jordan Levin asserting “This was a conscious decision to tackle an arena we felt is underserved in network TV – portraying a father in a strong and sympathetic light.”2 Similarly, creator Greg Berlanti identified what he perceived as a dearth of depictions of father-child relationships onscreen as a motivating factor in his decision to develop Everwood in the way that he did – as a paternal drama of lone fatherhood –telling Variety when it was first broadcast, “I just wanted to write something that was a father-son story because I felt it was under-represented on television.”3
A major turnaround of this state of affairs has taken place since Berlanti expressed his perceived lack of representations of fatherhood on television, to the extent that it is a ubiquitous trope and a dominant structuring theme in contemporary televisual discourses of postfeminist masculinity. Symptomatic is that in the multi-layered narratives and ensemble casts of characters of high-end series like Lost and Heroes, nary a character can be found populating their respective diegeses who does not have a paternally inflected back story, or sub-plot centred upon their own situation and identity as a father (or both) built in to the series’ arch-narrative at some point.
This thematic prominence of fatherhood has not gone unnoticed by critics and commentators with regard to individual shows, genres and creative personnel, and attempts have been made to understand this representational recurrence in relation to various critical frameworks. Elsewhere in Flow, Michael Kackman identifies it as a “central narrative preoccupation” of Lost, citing it as Oedipal.4 Ina Rae Hark notes that the first season of 24 is (amidst themes of terrorism, counterterrorism, intelligence, and conspiracy) “the story of three fathers whose… work has interfered with the well-being and happiness of their… families,”5 and explores this theme in Deleuzian terms. Rosalind Coward points to the paternal in Desperate Housewives in which, despite privileging a representational and thematic discourse centred on motherhood and femininity, “the main narrative impulse… is a mystery centring on a father-son relationship.”6 And New York magazine’s Logan Hill makes an auteurist case for the noticeably father centred work of J.J. Abrams, posing the question “Does J.J. Abrams Have Daddy Issues?” before tracking the paternal thematic drive that has infused Abrams’ cinematic and televisual output from 1991’s Regarding Henry through 2009’s Star Trek by way of serial television dramas Felicity, Alias, Lost and Fringe.7 He answers this question squarely in the affirmative, positing the prevalence of the paternal in both film and television as a signature trope of an individual auteur. Abrams’ authorly idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, a structuring theme centred on a given character’s “daddy issues” in contemporary television drama is not unique to the output of this one individual. Rather, it is increasingly omnipresent in a postfeminist media culture in which the hands-on, emotionally involved practice of fatherhood has become a prerequisite for the attainment of mature ideal masculinity. Frequently, anxieties that trouble this paternal ideal (often in relation to the fatherhood of men from the generation that preceded postfeminism, which tends to be depicted as inadequate) emerge in cultural discourses, manifesting in the form of the aforementioned so-called “daddy issues” that blight the development and narrative progression of innumerable characters, and thence inform and nuance representations of the fatherhood of younger generations of men whose job it seems to be to personify the postfeminist paternal ideal.
Postfeminism operates to naturalise cultural imagery of involved fatherhood as simultaneously progressive, and preordained by second wave feminist shifts in notional norms of gender equity in parenting that resulted, or were perceived to result. One cultural upshot has seen fatherhood become the testing ground upon which masculinity is affirmed and celebrated, or censured and disavowed, while effecting the political neutralisation of the concomitant marginalisation if not outright elision of motherhood from representational discourses. I hence offer postfeminism as a critical framework and cultural context that enables further understanding of the pronounced paternalisation of television drama, a case in point for a much wider representational trend.
The way fatherhood is introduced to a series varies in the extent to which it impacts the narrative, and the degree to which it nuances characterisation of the father character/s depicted. There have been self-contained individual episodes within series specifically thematically privileging fatherhood or treating it as a representational phenomenon unto itself (while subsuming it into the series’ narrative context in a diegetically apposite manner), such as the Desperate Houswives episode ‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy,’ which makes the fatherhood of Rex, Carlos, Mike and Tom the structuring theme. Or the Lost episode ‘All The Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues,’ which reveals a significant moment behind Jack’s traumatic paternally inflected back story (thereafter it becomes a recurring trope to paternalize the back stories of other characters). And the Angel episode ‘Dad’ that focuses on his attempts to adapt to fatherhood following the arrival of his son. Oftentimes paternalization occurs as a significant development, whereby fatherhood is introduced to an established character, and the show modifies its thematic accordingly as in Angel, and Six Feet Under and Nip/Tuck, which similarly paternalized Nate and Christian.
It is beyond the scope of this column to be able to adequately conceptualize or fully typologize all the discursive nuances of postfeminist fatherhood on television, but I would like to highlight some of its dominant tropes. The diegetically apposite absence of mothers is one, and is apotheosised in the prevalence of the widowed single father as the paradigmatic male. This figure abounds in serial drama, and can be found in Everwood, Angel, 24, Numb3rs, Lost, Desperate Housewives, Six Feet Under, Ugly Betty, Prison Break, Battlestar Galactica, Fringe, Nip/Tuck and Harper’s Island to name only some. Down-shifted widowed single fatherhood was, of course, the springboard scenario of Everwood which ran for four seasons on the back of this set-up that saw bereaved neurosurgeon Andy Brown and his two children retreat to small town Colorado, and showcased paternalized postfeminist masculinity through what is now a stock character.
The matter-of-factness with which single fatherhood is sometimes articulated is also noteworthy. The circumstances that bring about a state of singlehood can go un-interrogated, be referenced glibly, or at the other end of the spectrum, laboured narrative contrivances (that usually involve the mother’s unlikely death) are conceived and deployed to explain and thence naturalize it, as in Angel where a partially humanized Darla stakes herself to save her unborn baby from her post-partum reversion to vampirism. Instances whereby fatherhood is depicted as troubling or problematic are lent pathos by what is shown as the tragedy of failed, inadequate or absent fatherhood as in The Wire, 24, Without a Trace and Battlestar Galactica, most of which provide the narrative impetus, context and circumstances to redeem their formerly inadequate fathers. For example, The Wire’s fourth season included representation of McNulty’s paternal transformation and rehabilitation, allowing for the recuperation of his fatherhood that was heretofore marked as inadequate due to his absence through workaholism, alcoholism and adultery, reminiscent of the paternal failings of Jack Malone in Without a Trace.
Compositional commonalities in the depiction of the tactile, increasingly emotional and ultimately redemptive paternalism of the single fathers in Fringe, Battlestar Galactica and Angel pictured here, all similarly thematically privilege fatherhood and its transformative, recuperative and redemptive possibilities.
These are but a few of the commonalities to be found in television representations of fatherhood, which themselves are indicative of a much broader trend in contemporary media culture. Beyond the serial drama, the paternalized discourses of masculinity on television have emerged in a number of other forms such as celebrity reality TV (Snoop Dogg’s Father Hood, Run’s House, Hogan Knows Best), sitcom (Two and a Half Men) and advertising (Patrick Dempsey’s current L’Oreal campaign). The role of fatherhood in contemporary cultural discourses of postfeminist masculinity would hence bear further and more detailed critical inquiry and debate.
1. Paternal instinct in Everwood
2. Paternalizing characters in Angel, Six Feet Under and Nip/Tuck
3. Everwood deals with single fathers – Author’s screen capture
4. Fringe, Battlestar Galactica and Angel explore tactile paternalism
Please feel free to comment.
- Lynette Rice, ‘Fall TV Preview’ Entertainment Weekly No. 671-672 (13 September 2002), http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,348148,00.html. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Stuart Levine, ‘‘Everwood’s’ Cold Comfort’ Variety. (16 September 2002), http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117872862.html?categoryid=1351&cs=1&query=everwood%27s+cold+comfort. [↩]
- Michael Kackman, ‘Quality Television, Melodrama and Cultural Complexity’ FlowTV. Vol. 9, No. 1 (31 October 2008), http://flowjournal.org/?p=2101#identifier_0_2101. [↩]
- Ina Rae Hark, ‘“Today Is The Longest Day of My Life”: 24 as Mirror Narrative of 9/11’ in Wheeler Winston Dixon (ed), Film and Television After 9/11 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), p 130. [↩]
- Rosalind Coward, ‘Still desperate: Popular television and the female Zeitgeist’ in Janet McCabe and Kim Akass (eds) Reading Desperate Housewives: Beyond the White Picket Fence (London and New York: IB Tauris, 2006), p 40. [↩]
- Logan Hill, ‘Does J.J. Abrams Have Daddy Issues?’ New York. (3 May 2009), http://nymag.com/movies/features/56444/. [↩]
A great article! I find this new trend in many television programs fascinating, and I appreciate your analysis using postfeminism as a framework.
Another program in which paternalism and widower/father-child relationships play a central role is Supernatural, which began airing on the WB as Everwood entered its final season.
I’ve also noticed this upward trend in the paternalization of television. Another show that stands out to me as dealing the issue of father/child relationships (though not always in such an obvious way) is Mad Men, specifically in relation to Don Draper, who constantly thinks about his troubled relationship with his dead father and who can’t be a proper father to his own kids either, but who now also has odd relationship with surrogate father Connie Hilton. Then, of course there’s Betty, Pete, and Roger, who are also in complex father/child relationships.
So many lone fathers so little time!. Very good article.
C.E. and Carolina, thank you both for your comments. C.E. – ‘Supernatural’ is a gap in my viewing, thank you for bringing its widowed single father to my attention – I will certainly check it out. Especially interesting is that it appeared on that network and at that time given the thematic bent of the WB at the time. Fascinating. Carolina – of course you’re quite right! Don Draper, and indeed Pete Mitchell both have traumatic paternally inflected back stories in line with so many of their tv drama contemporaries. Season 3 has yet to air here in New Zealand. It’ll be interesting to see how the paternal thematic progresses. Also interesting about Mad Men with regard to its paternal thematic is the period setting, which is something I am currently thinking about from a purview of postfeminist and post 9/11 fatherhood, largely as a reaction to seeing the US remake of ‘Life on Mars.’ I know this only ran for one season, but nevertheless it seems highly symptomatic of some of the trends and representational recurrences I was talking about in my article. Sam’s traumatic paternally inflected back story is overdetermined to the point of absurdity in relation to the UK version (the last few minutes of the finale are extraordinary in this regard), but also in locating it in 1973 New York its meanings are inevitably nuanced by a post-9/11 context (see the seqence in which Sam arrives in 1973 for a striking example). Sam’s own postfeminist masculinity is also juxtaposed with the unreconstructed masculinity of his 1970s colleagues in rather over-determined ways too. Anyway, in the same way that 9/11 seemed to have bearing on the appeal of the retreatist aspects of fatherhood depicted in Everwood, I wonder if the period New York settings of Mad Men and Life on Mars also nuance the paternalism depicted in these shows in particular ways. Might they provide a safe space for the playing out of particular anxieties, behaviours or modes of paternalism that would be problematic in a contemporary setting? I’d be interested to hear what you think.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on Castle.
Rex – Thank you for bringing this show to my attention. It has not come to New Zealand yet, but I just did a bit of reading around it after seeing your comment, and sure enough, it looks like yet another intriguing example of televisual postfeminist fatherhood. Particularly interesting from what I can gather is that they seem to be making use of another trope (that I did not discuss in my article), and one that seems to recur particularly in father-daughter relationships in postfeminism – the child who is wise beyond her years, a la Delia in Everwood and Rachel (Dakota Fanning) in War of the Worlds for example. I’m looking forward to checking this show out.
And to think that all of this is coming from network TV, alone. Considering AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad, as well as the stuff on HBO and Showtime (i.e Dexter) this new concept of masculinity is definitely something that has significant cultural capital. However, I do not see these versions as being increasingly progressive in their treatment of gender roles. It is when they make comments on the roles of fathers, sons, and husbands that they become cutting edge. This is not something network TV has been able to do, but this type of programming can be found on cable. Masculinity is shown to be just as much of a construction of femininity.
Hannah – great and timely article, even though I hadnt realised quite how timely until you articulated it! There have always been fathers as sole care giver but in previous examples there was a larger support network, I’m thinking of My Two Dads and Full House; absent mothers but perhaps critically not “single” fathers as such. The suggestion perhaps being that the fathers could not cope alone, or that it was funnier to partner them with other men to play off the success of Three Men and a Baby? I wonder what you would make of Veronica Mars which only recently made it to the UK, (though I have managed to watch the series through twice now). Veronica’s relationship with her father is key to the show, but there are interesting examples of other fathers, who at some point become single; Aaron Eckles, Dick Casablancas and even Duncan Kane…is this indicative of some socio-cultural shift, or indeed as you suggest an example of postfeminism, depsite the obvious strengths of Veronica’s character?
I think you’re exactly right about the way the daughter is portrayed in Castle. The fact that Castle also lives with his grandmother makes this dynamic more complicated — he is both a father and a son. I do wonder how much of this has to do with trying to appeal to a female demographic — as the knavish playboy Castle’s flirtation with the buttoned-down strong-female cop Beckett makes him a romantic figure, but by also making him paternal and safe the writers make the character likeable, domestic and ‘safe’ and thus prevents him from becoming unlikeably shallow or, as we say in the states, simply a horndog. It also established parallels (currently being played out) between the daughter and Beckett.
Interestingly, he is not a widower — his ex-wife appears in the show, and the writers struggle (largely successfully) to portray her as a likeable character but also sufficiently flawed that you can understand the daughter (and Castle’s) motivation not to want to live with her (cf. Darla and Angel).
One future direction of research would be to see how these post-feminist characters are created with a female audience in mind, and to what extent they up providing an effective counter-discourse for men seeking alternatives to current hegemonic masculinities, or whether they simply speak to post-feminist aspirations for ‘traditional’ but transformed hetero romantic relationships.
Thanks Nichola. Of course you’re right that there have always been sole care giver fathers on television, but the historical and socio-cultural specificity of those that I talk about (especially the widowers) to their postfeminist context can, I think, be seen in some of the differences between them and comparably high profile examples from cinema and television before second wave feminism. I’m thinking of widowers like Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, Emile de Becque in South Pacific, Tom Corbett in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Steve Douglas in My Three Sons, Fred Sanford in Sanford & Son, and Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show. For characters like these, I think it’s more the case that separate spheres parenting is portrayed as the norm, to the extent that fathering as primary care-giving (as opposed to breadwinning and secondary care-giving) is shown to be an unnatural and abnormal state, and hence the incompetence and incongruity of their fatherhood is used either to generate humour from their attempts to perform motherhood, or to effect a salvation for the struggling father in the form of a suitably domesticated replacement mother figure. Veronica Mars certainly sounds like another must-see, so thanks a lot for the suggestion.
Rex – Thanks a lot for those comments. Some of what you are saying about the character in Castle strikes me as quite reminiscent of David Duchovny’s character in Californication (“making him paternal and safe… prevents him from becoming unlikeably shallow or… simply a horndog”)? I hadn’t really thought about postfeminist fatherhood in terms of its being a counter-discourse to current hegemonic masculinities, so much as a negotiation of an extant discourse that incorporates a politically disingenuous amelioration; so I guess acting upon your suggestion to research the extent to which the target audience is gendered could prove very illuminating, as could research into how this discourse of masculinity is received and made sense of by audiences.