Dads Through the Decades: Thirty Years of TV Fathers


This article originally appeared in Issue# 48

At first, Dad seemed to reign supreme in sitcom country -- or at least in its better neighborhoods

On the bulk of those shows set in the suburbs, Dad's authority around the house appeared to be the whole point of the spectacle. It was this implied paternalism that made most of those "comedies" so unamusing: Dad's status was, back then, no laughing matter. Despite their laugh tracks and bouncy themes the real , spirit of those shows was expressed in their daunting titles: Make Room for Daddy and Father Knows Best were pure and simple threats.

As the apparent ruler of the world, Dad, pushed around by no one, somehow deflated all of his inferiors -- and all were his inferiors. Since we almost never saw him working, we had no sense that there was any class above his own: and he had no competition from below.

On those old sitcoms set among the proles, the husband and provider -- like Riley or Ralph Kramden -- wasn't competent enough to lord it over anyone, but was himself, in fact, the eternal jerk, a hapless fatso doomed to live in squalor, always trying to rise above it, always ending up worse off, not only just as poor but "in the doghouse" too.

In his well-appointed suburban home, on the other hand, Dad was subject to no such snideness, but was himself the ironic judge of all below him. He kept his underlings in line by setting an impossible example of self-possession, probity and sound judgment -- the virtues of small business.

On the bulk of those shows set in the suburbs, Dad's authority appeared to be the whole point of the spectacle. Those shows featuring Dad's wife and kids were tellingly named, with half titles that took Dad's point of view, expressing his permanent exasperation at the foibles of his underlings: Leave It to Beaver (to screw things up), My Little Margie (needs a punch in the mouth), and I Love Lucy (in spite of everything).

Father restored authority by assertion of his superior Dadness and his chilling summons to "a little talk." These methods were unfailing and oddly terrifying, primarily directed against Dad's son, who was a permanent victim. We always knew that young Ricky, Rusty, Bud or Wally was going to try to prove himself -- and the effort would backfire disastrously, leaving the poor schmuck shamed and lectured, taught a lesson by his serene and ever-watchful Dad.

The early sitcom also held Dad's other underlings in place. Mrs. Dad, for instance, was always trim, erect, loyal, like a well-bred whippet; but even she sometimes made trouble and had to be reminded how to roll over and play dead.

While the flattering images on those old shows concealed the truth about the father's plight, they also contradicted the prevailing bureaucratic trend with an inadvertent protest. Dad did not control his little world but only haunted it, as a specter from the early days of capitalism. Dad's impulses and desire to keep his family in one piece were opposed to the consumerist imperatives that now began to overrun our culture. With his emphasis on prudence, sobriety, self-discipline and thrift, he stood for the old ideal of self-denial that had sustained Our Way of Life since the 17th Century and that now threatened to impede it. That Puritan ethos was a boon as long as workers only had to earn and try to save, laboring to produce commodities for an upper class of buyers. Since World War I, however, the market had also demanded those same workers to buy and buy. Clearly, something had to give, and it would soon be Dad, the personification of an outmoded ideology and now an obvious drag on consumption.

In any event, the paternalistic moment soon passed. Long before Norman Lear, TV began to champion Dad's wives and kids on programs now contrived to please the actual wives and kids who watched the ads. By the mid-'60s, the titanic burgher of the early years was remarkably reduced, to be succeeded by pleasant nullities like the Dads of Patty Duke and Dennis the Menace, or mere straight men, like Samantha's husband on Bewitched.

Vanishing Authority

The early white-collar Dad was therefore utterly unlike the real white-collar workers in his audience. And Dad's real counterparts were no less insignificant around the house, now that the wife and kids were out shopping or bopping with ~ their friends, taking their guidance not so much from father (who in real life could rarely be at home) as from the newspapers, the magazines, the movies, other wives and/or kids -- and (more and more) from television.

Today, of course, the old Dad-centered universe has become the biggest and easiest joke on television, with yesterday's paternalistic vision the standard object of burlesque. In simply laughing off early sitcoms, however, we overlook their true perniciousness, as well as their implicit critical potential.

First of all, they did not serve to bolster any extant paternal authority within the middle class, but helped to conceal the fact that by the 70s such authority had all but vanished. In fact, the virtues of small business as personified by Robert Young were becoming passé. It was already necessary then (as it still is) to get by on "personality" rather than through diligence and thrift, to negotiate with charm and savvy the subtle crosscurrents of an immense and impersonal bureaucracy. The '60s clearly revealed Dad's threatened prerogative, not by any rise in real authority among women, but by the rising influence of TV itself and its corporate advertisers. In the culture of consumption, a man's home is not his castle but a temporary storage unit. A still housebound and subservient Mom was more powerful than her predecessors, like Jeannie the genie and Samantha the witch. Dad who in the 50s answered to no one, was now presented as an underling like Jeannie's master, an army major pushed around by senior officers. Between Dad's wife and bosses, there was always an implicit understanding: Both they and he were eager to see Dad swallow his yearnings and strive for another raise.

This complicity carried over into the commercials, where the wife, sharing a little secret with the advertiser, would tip a wink to the camera when hubby wasn't looking, thereby demonstrating that her heart really belonged to General Mills or Proctor & Gamble. Here was the beginning of TV's pseudo-feminism, which now pervades prime time.

While today's female heroines are turned into cool young men, wearing suits and carrying major credit cards (yet still laboring under the requirement of being impossibly good looking), what today's comedies have done to men is more subtle. The post-'60s sitcom deflates not just the working-class father but every would-be patriarch. Clayton on Benson, Frank on M"A"S"H, the boss on 9-to-S, Dan Fielding on Night Court, are all laughable to the extent they presume to act like fathers. The only father figures who are not ridiculous are those who know enough to downplay their status and thereby blend in with the kids, like Michael Gross of Family Ties and Tom Bosley of Happy Days, a 70s version of a '50s patriarch who looks like a nice bear in a cartoon. And yet power in the real world has not changed hands but remains precisely in the same unseen and collective hands that have gripped it throughout this century. Once purified of Dad's stern image, TV was perfectly resolved to carry on the advertisers' long campaign for our absolute surrender.

At first glance, the most beloved of TV Dads, Bill Cosby's Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, seems a special case. In his perfect brownstone he never raises his hand or fist, but retains the complete devotion of his wife and kids by making goofy faces. In fact, the happy Huxtables nearly vanish amid the porcelain, stainless steel and mahogany fabric of their lives. In this milieu, Cliff's blackness, although unstated, serves an affirmative purpose. "Look," he shows us, "Even I can have it all." Like the early fathers, Cliff always wins, but this modern Dad subverts his kids not by evincing the sort of calm power that once made Jim Anderson so daunting but by seeming to subvert himself at the same time. This Dad is the playful type who strikes his kids as a peach until they realize, years later, what a subtle thug he really was.

In short, the point of TV comedy is that there can be no transcendence. Such is the meaning of Dad's long decline since the 70s. Because he would have stood out as an archaic model of resistance to the regime of advertising, Dad was reduced from a complicated lie to a simple joke. But more subtle and therefore more dangerous is the incorporation of the commercial message into Dad's own ethos and being, as on the Cosbv show. Such a Dad wins all battles by appearing to be a kid -- and he does it among a world too crammed and lustrous to seem like his, or anyone's, personal achievement. The lesson of commercialism has been incorporated into the role.

Author Bio: 

Mark Crispin Miller is a Professor of Culture and Cummunication at New York University. His books include Boxed In: The Culture of TV; Seeing Through Movies; The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder; Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheyey: New World Order; and Fooled Again. He is also the General Editor: American Icons, a book series published by Yale University Press. This essay is from Watching Television edited by Todd Gitlin. Copyright 1986 Mark Crispin Miller. With permission.