“Daddies mean fun, mommies mean business,” says the mother in Disney’s 'Honey, I Shrunk the Kids' films.
The central plot device – a creative, risk-taking, careless father exposes his children to danger while a hard-working, grounded, sensible mother has to save them – is typical of the way dads are portrayed in films and advertising, even today.
Fathers are jokey, absent, “bad” parents; mothers are homemakers, workers, carers.
But to many who grew up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the idea that mothers did everything at home while fathers worked was already passé. Statistics from across the globe show that women were becoming more engaged in workplaces while fathers took on more household chores.
While filmmakers and advertisers have been slow to capture this trend, research from Disney may now help to change how dads are seen on screen.
Goodbye ‘bad dad’?
Dads have been stereotyped for at least a generation, according to Anna Hill, Disney’s chief marketing officer, announcing research based on discussions with 160 dads in the UK, Germany, Spain and Sweden.
The study found that families did not relate to the stereotype of absent or overworked fathers, but found what it called “emotional drivers” behind modern fatherhood such as “ the desire to bond with, protect, help and entertain their children”.
“We shouldn’t just stereotype them, which I think as a generation we probably have done,” Hill said. “Dads are becoming househusbands and the main caregivers. They are a source of protection, comfort, enthusiasm for their families. So I think it’s important for us that we tell new stories.”
“Bad dad” stereotypes, from Mr Banks in Mary Poppins, to Mufasa in The Lion King and Darth Vader in Star Wars, have featured in many Disney films.
Meanwhile research from Brigham Young University (BYU) in the US found almost 40% of fatherly behaviour on TV shows for 9-14-year-olds, such as Disney Channel’s Good Luck Charlie and Girl Meets World, could be considered ridiculous or buffoonery.
“But,” BYU says, “what is truly eye opening is the on-screen response of children to their fathers ... 50% of it is negative. Child actors were often seen reacting to their screen dads by rolling eyes, making fun of them, verbally and non-verbally criticizing them, walking away and expressing annoyance.
“Every 3.24 minutes, a dad acts like a buffoon,” the report author added. “This behavior, especially on Disney shows, has become the norm to such a degree that parents regularly tell me they don’t allow their children to watch the channel.”
BYU adds that while humour was once useful for making “the powerful” in household relationships “powerless”, today that on-screen balance has shifted.
Dad joke or bad joke?
The number of times a mother told a joke at the father’s expense increased from 1.8 times per episode in the 1950s to 4.29 times per episode in 1990, a 2001 University of Massachusetts Amherst study found, noting: “The initiator of a joke typically enjoys the greater amount of power and status than the subject of the joke.”
Mothers in today’s shows are often successfully juggling work tasks with parenting, while once-authoritarian fathers are portrayed as incompetent at both traditional male roles and tasks previously deemed to belong to women, such as cooking.
Meanwhile, advertisers and marketing professionals are making changes they attribute to “millennial lifestyles” by portraying dads in a more positive light, although they are reflecting changes that have been gradually taking place over recent decades.
Advertisers and marketers are out of touch with modern families, according to a Saatchi & Saatchi survey of dads, who said their on-screen depictions do not reflect modern fathers’ roles.
Brands embracing “dadvertising” include Dove Men+Care, stockcube maker Oxo, the BBC – which had a Christmas TV promotional campaign based around a dad and daughter taking part in shared activities – while Disney has pledged to drop “bad dads” along with other gender stereotypes.
Other research suggests media can have a profound influence on young people and that greater discussion and mediation by adults of screen images would benefit children and families, and perhaps help prevent such discrimination.
The beneficial effects of promoting dads in a better light could be many. For example, studios and marketers might become more open to more positive images of gay parenting, while men spending more time with children could help boost workplace diversity by allowing women to pursue careers.
But those most likely to win are the children. One study found that both mums and dads were spending more time with children than their counterparts in the 1970s.
However, while those from more educated backgrounds would spend time on activities such as homework, parents without higher or further education were less likely to spend time on learning.
Stereotypes may play their part here, too. As the 2001 Amherst study reported, middle and upper-class fathers were more likely to be shown as wise, “perhaps because of a larger bias against the working classes on television due to an advertiser-based system that favours those with more expendable income”.