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Why are sitcom dads still so inept?
Yet, the real-world roles and expectations of fathers have changed in recent years.
From Homer Simpson to Phil Dunphy, sitcom dads have long been known for being bumbling and inept.
But it wasn't always this way. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, sitcom dads tended to be serious, calm and wise, if a bit detached. In a shift that media scholars have documented, only in later decades did fathers start to become foolish and incompetent.
And yet the real-world roles and expectations of fathers have changed in recent years. Today's dads are putting more time into caring for their children and see that role as more central to their identity.
Have today's sitcoms kept up?
I study gender and the media, and I specialize in depictions of masculinity. In a new study, my co-authors and I systematically look at the ways in which portrayals of sitcom fathers have and haven't changed.
Why sitcom portrayals matter
Fictional entertainment can shape our views of ourselves and others. To appeal to broad audiences, sitcoms often rely on the shorthand assumptions that form the basis of stereotypes. Whether it's the way they portray gay masculinity in "Will and Grace" or the working class in "Roseanne," sitcoms often mine humor from certain norms and expectations associated with gender, sexual identity and class.
When sitcoms stereotype fathers, they seem to suggest that men are somehow inherently ill-suited for parenting. That sells actual fathers short and, in heterosexual, two-parent contexts, it reinforces the idea that mothers should take on the lion's share of parenting responsibilities.
It was Tim Allen's role as Tim "the Tool Man" Taylor of the 1990s series "Home Improvement" that inspired my initial interest in sitcom dads. Tim was goofy and childish, whereas Jill, his wife, was always ready – with a disapproving scowl, a snappy remark and seemingly endless stores of patience – to bring him back in line. The pattern matched an observation made by TV Guide television critic Matt Roush, who, in 2010, wrote, "It used to be that father knew best, and then we started to wonder if he knew anything at all."
I published my first quantitative study on the depiction of sitcom fathers in 2001, focusing on jokes involving the father. I found that, compared with older sitcoms, dads in more recent sitcoms were the butt of the joke more frequently. Mothers, on the other hand, became less frequent targets of mockery over time. I viewed this as evidence of increasingly feminist portrayals of women that coincided with their growing presence in the workforce.
Studying the disparaged dad
In our new study, we wanted to focus on sitcom dads' interactions with their children, given how fatherhood has changed in American culture.
We used what's called "quantitative content analysis," a common research method in communication studies. To conduct this sort of analysis, researchers develop definitions of key concepts to apply to a large set of media content. Researchers employ multiple people as coders who observe the content and individually track whether a particular concept appears.
For example, researchers might study the racial and ethnic diversity of recurring characters on Netflix original programs. Or they might try to see whether demonstrations are described as "protests" or "riots" in national news.
For our study, we identified 34 top-rated, family-centered sitcoms that aired from 1980 to 2017 and randomly selected two episodes from each. Next, we isolated 578 scenes in which the fathers were involved in "disparagement humor," which meant the dads either made fun of another character or were made fun of themselves.
Then we studied how often sitcom dads were shown together with their kids within these scenes in three key parenting interactions: giving advice, setting rules or positively or negatively reinforcing their kids' behavior. We wanted to see whether the interaction made the father look "humorously foolish" – showing poor judgment, being incompetent or acting childishly.
Interestingly, fathers were shown in fewer parenting situations in more recent sitcoms. And when fathers were parenting, it was depicted as humorously foolish in just over 50% of the relevant scenes in the 2000s and 2010s, compared with 18% in the 1980s and 31% in the 1990s sitcoms.
At least within scenes featuring disparagement humor, sitcom audiences, more often than not, are still being encouraged to laugh at dads' parenting missteps and mistakes.
Fueling an inferiority complex?
The degree to which entertainment media reflect or distort reality is an enduring question in communication and media studies. In order to answer that question, it's important to take a look at the data.
National polls by Pew Research Center show that from 1965 to 2016, the amount of time fathers reported spending on care for their children nearly tripled. These days, dads constitute 17% of all stay-at-home parents, up from 10% in 1989. Today, fathers are just as likely as mothers to say that being a parent is "extremely important to their identity." They are also just as likely to describe parenting as rewarding.
Yet, there is evidence in the Pew data that these changes present challenges, as well. The majority of dads feel they do not spend enough time with their children, often citing work responsibilities as the primary reason. Only 39% of fathers feel they are doing "a very good job" raising their children.
Perhaps this sort of self-criticism is being reinforced by foolish and failing father portrayals in sitcom content.
Of course, not all sitcoms depict fathers as incompetent parents. The sample we examined stalled out in 2017, whereas TV Guide presented "7 Sitcom Dads Changing How we Think about Fatherhood Now" in 2019. In our study, the moments of problematic parenting often took place in a wider context of a generally quite loving depiction.
Still, while television portrayals will likely never match the range and complexity of fatherhood, sitcom writers can do better by dads by moving on from the increasingly outdated foolish father trope.
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Scientists used CT scanning and 3D-printing technology to re-create the voice of Nesyamun, an ancient Egyptian priest.
- Scientists printed a 3D replica of the vocal tract of Nesyamun, an Egyptian priest whose mummified corpse has been on display in the UK for two centuries.
- With the help of an electronic device, the reproduced voice is able to "speak" a vowel noise.
- The team behind the "Voices of the Past" project suggest reproducing ancient voices could make museum experiences more dynamic.
Howard et al.<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"While this approach has wide implications for heritage management/museum display, its relevance conforms exactly to the ancient Egyptians' fundamental belief that 'to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again'," they wrote in a <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-56316-y#Fig3" target="_blank">paper</a> published in Nature Scientific Reports. "Given Nesyamun's stated desire to have his voice heard in the afterlife in order to live forever, the fulfilment of his beliefs through the synthesis of his vocal function allows us to make direct contact with ancient Egypt by listening to a sound from a vocal tract that has not been heard for over 3000 years, preserved through mummification and now restored through this new technique."</p>
Connecting modern people with history<p>It's not the first time scientists have "re-created" an ancient human's voice. In 2016, for example, Italian researchers used software to <a href="https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/hear-recreated-voice-otzi-iceman-180960570/" target="_blank">reconstruct the voice of Ötzi,</a> an iceman who was discovered in 1991 and is thought to have died more than 5,000 years ago. But the "Voices of the Past" project is different, the researchers note, because Nesyamun's mummified corpse is especially well preserved.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was particularly suited, given its age and preservation [of its soft tissues], which is unusual," Howard told <em><a href="https://www.livescience.com/amp/ancient-egypt-mummy-voice-reconstructed.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>.</em></p><p>As to whether Nesyamun's reconstructed voice will ever be able to speak complete sentences, Howard told <em><a href="https://abcnews.go.com/Weird/wireStory/ancient-voice-scientists-recreate-sound-egyptian-mummy-68482015" target="_blank">The Associated Press</a>, </em>that it's "something that is being worked on, so it will be possible one day."</p><p>John Schofield, an archaeologist at the University of York, said that reproducing voices from history can make museum experiences "more multidimensional."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is nothing more personal than someone's voice," he told <em>The Associated Press.</em> "So we think that hearing a voice from so long ago will be an unforgettable experience, making heritage places like Karnak, Nesyamun's temple, come alive."</p>
Inequality in wealth, gender, and race grew to unprecedented levels across the world, according to OxFam report.
- A new report by global poverty nonprofit OxFam finds inequality has increased in every country in the world.
- The alarming trend is made worse by the coronavirus pandemic, which strained most systems and governments.
- The gap in wealth, race and gender treatment will increase until governments step in with changes.
People wait in line to receive food at a food bank on April 28, 2020 in Brooklyn.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Credit: Oxfam International
A supernova exploded near Earth about 2.5 million years ago, possibly causing an extinction event.
- Researchers from the University of Munich find evidence of a supernova near Earth.
- A star exploded close to our planet about 2.5 million years ago.
- The scientists deduced this by finding unusual concentrations of isotopes, created by a supernova.
This Manganese crust started to form about 20 million years ago. Growing layer by layer, it resulted in minerals precipitated out of seawater. The presence of elevated concentrations of 60 Fe and 56 Mn in layers from 2.5 million years ago hints at a nearby supernova explosion around that time.
Credit: Dominik Koll/ TUM