June 18, 2005

Would you place your child with a bumbling fool more preoccupied with booze, golf, than his own children? Whether it is Homer Simpson of “The Simpson’s,” Raymond Barone on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Ed Bundy on “Married with Children,” or almost any other sit-com, fathers are portrayed as incompetent, indifferent, ill-groomed, uncaring, stupid, and just generally abysmal parents. In the cartoon “The Family Guy,” the plot outline is described as, “A misfit Rhode Island family experiences ridiculous events caused by their idiotic father, Peter Griffin.”

Stewie, a talking prodigy toddler with a British accent, is openly contemptuous of his loutish dad. In the Simpson’s, fourth-grader Bart Simpson refers to his beer-guzzling father as “Homer.”

In one episode, Homer guffaws at a museum cashier pointing to a sign suggesting a $4 donation at the entrance, laughing that nobody would voluntarily make such a donation, his mortified daughter Lisa standing by in horrified disbelief.

In the cartoon “King of the Hill,” the father, a red-neck Texan propane-salesman Hank Hill, cannot bear his son playing soccer instead of football, or participating in a rodeo as a rodeo clown, or being a model, because they are not manly enough activities. Dads, after all, must have testosterone overdose.

In “Everybody Loves Raymond,” the show’s chief protagonist, Raymond Barone, slips out of the house to play golf to escape watching over his kids, with his wife Debra begging for help. When asked about the meaning of life from his children, Raymond is reduced to blurting seemingly apoplectic induced nothings.

During the first season, during the title sequence, Ray gives a speech while putting together a playhouse for his children. Eventually, he locks himself into the playhouse. The message is recurring: Debra, the competent parent, has to extricate Ray from predicament after predicament, and provide moral instruction when Ray’s value system (especially about parenting) goes awry.

In “Yes Dear,” two couples with children, the Warner’s and Hughes, live nearly in the same household, with the Hughes living in the guesthouse. Jimmy Hughes, a security guard and Greg participate in an orgy of bad parenting.

In one episode, they talk the wives into going to a spa, tell the wives they will take the kids to a park, ultimately taking the kids to a casino. Covering the fraud, Jimmy plots to digitally alter a videotape of the casino visit by sending the video to a friend. He gets caught when his wife views him walking on a pond.

Television advertising is not much better. In a Verizon campaign, there is a father doing research on the Web with his daughter. When he can’t seem to understand the Web, the father is humiliated both by his daughter and the mother. The mother tells the father to go wash the dog, commands him to “leave her alone,” and then yells at him when he is slow to comply.

So much for the Jim Anderson day’s portrayed in “Father Knows Best,” Ward Cleaver of “Leave it to Beaver,” or Cliff Huxtable in the 1980s “Crosby Show.” Research by the University of Massachusetts Erica Scharrer reveals what any casual observer of television recognizes: during the ’50s and ’60s father’s were portrayed as wise, caring, and moral. Today, fathers are portrayed by Hollywood as stupid, incompetent, and unengaged. The trend is disturbing.

True, the writers throw in a positive trait or two so that they are not totally irredeemable — but the message is clear — the mother does the real parenting. Dad is the dolt. While all the data shows that children benefit from the presence of a father in their life, these images on television foster the stereotype of dads as incompetent and ultimately dispensable.

In one Fannie Mae ad, a “family” stands in front of a house of a newly purchased house — the father conspicuously absent. A barrage of phone calls and e-mails by father’s right activists put dad back in the picture.

This attitude carries itself into family courts across the nation, if not the world. This Father’s Day, let’s remember fathers as they really are — loving, caring, participating, wise, and central to our lives.

Rinaldo Del Gallo III is an attorney who practices in Family Law, and is spokesperson of the Berkshire Fatherhood Coalition.

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