(and how they can’t raise kids)
by Whitney Brennan
For some TV shows, it takes more than one to raise a single dad’s kids. I mean, we all know that men can’t raise children. Right?
Well, if you look at television shows, the answer is that they can—just not on their own. So, as the stereotype goes, parenting comes naturally to women, and men need help. And in some cases, the help comes in the form of a wilder, more rebellious male. Not only can the seemingly responsible guy not take care of kids on his own, but he enlists the help of someone even less capable than himself. Bumbling fathers make for great entertainment, but what does this say about men as single parents?
How many people does it take to raise a single dad’s kids? On “Everwood” (now on the long list of cancelled shows), single dad Andy relies on at least three others to nurture his son and daughter. His neighbor Nina, his doctor friend Harold and Harold’s mother all dispense advice to a parentally challenged Andy. Occasionally, older son Ephram steps in.
And, surprisingly, today’s shows about single fathers aren’t that much different from the ones we watched years ago.
Remember “Full House”? It was a half-hour comedy that ran from 1987 to 1995. Danny Tanner’s wife is killed by a drunken driver, so he must raise his three daughters. Danny’s best friend Joey and his brother-in-law Jesse move in with the Tanners and end up being two extra dads for the girls. Jesse later marries Danny’s talk show co-host Rebecca, who also helps with raising the kids. Danny is clearly the most capable of the group, yet he still needs help. And help comes from aspiring comic Joey, who wears cartoon character pajamas, and from Uncle Jesse, a rock musician (allegedly) who wears black leather and is very interested in women.
“My Two Dads,” a show that ran from 1987 to 1990, was about two men raising one child—hence the title. When teenager Nicole’s mom dies, she leaves her in the custody of Nicole’s father, whom Nicole has never met. However, Mom also leaves Nicole in the custody of another former boyfriend, Joey. The strange decision to leave a daughter with two former boyfriends upon death is not the point—although it’s probably the reason for the show’s short life span. The point is that one caretaker isn’t enough when it’s a man. Michael, Nicole’s father, needs the help of Joey and a female judge—who oversees the upbringing—to raise his daughter. Joey is a carefree artist who has many lady friends. And this message that single dads can’t fly solo continues to pervade TV.
“Two and a Half Men” is about two men, Alan and his brother Charlie, who raise Alan’s son Jake—most often on weekends. Alan’s ex-wife Judith usually keeps their son during the week. Grandma Evelyn also helps with the parenting. The wild Charlie is busy living the life of a wealthy bachelor when his brother comes to live with him in his beach house. Charlie becomes a caretaker of sorts, but parents Jake in a way that only a stereotypical male would.
In the series’ pilot episode, Charlie bonds with 10-year-old Jake by letting him play at his poker games and taking him to meet girls. In a season two episode, Jake is in danger of getting suspended from school for giving his teacher the finger. Charlie tries to save the day by wooing the teacher. Although Jake’s father Alan is not as wild as Charlie, in one episode, Alan asks a woman to marry him after knowing her only three days. Charlie, the brother who usually causes the trouble, is the sensible one in this situation and tries to convince Alan that he shouldn’t marry.
When Judith goes on vacation in a season two episode, weekend dad Alan becomes full-time dad. He finds it difficult to take care of Jake and forgets to pick his son up from soccer practice. When Alan discovers he has to go to the Internal Revenue Service, Charlie must take care of Jake—and he’s not any better at parenting. The brothers’ antics are entertaining, but as dads, they are each a beer belly away from being a couple of Homer Simpsons.
When the show is not a comedy, the wilder, rebellious male surrogate disappears because the stereotype is mainly for humor—but others still help with parenting in dramas. On “Everwood,” Andy must raise his two children when his wife dies in a car accident. He moves to Everwood, Colorado, because his wife had said she’d been there once and it was “‘just like heaven.'” Sure, that’s a good enough reason to pack up two children and move them across the country away from everything they’ve ever known after they’ve just lost their mom. Not a good first single dad move. But it gives oldest son Ephram another reason to hate his dad, which makes for some good father/son shouting matches.
Ephram often parents his younger sister Delia and seems to know her better than his dad does. This is probably because when their mother was alive, neurosurgeon Dad was never home. In one episode, 8-year-old Delia picks out a movie for the family to watch: “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Ephram tells his dad that he shouldn’t let her watch it. His dad asks, “Am I missing something?” His son responds, “Eight years of raising her. She can’t watch that movie. It upsets her.” In another episode, Ephram again brings Andy’s poor parenting skills to his attention the Ephram way—with an attitude. His dad asks how things are going with Ephram and his friend Amy, and Ephram tells him that he hasn’t talked to Amy lately. His dad asks, “When did this happen?” Angry teenage son responds, “A while ago. You were too busy being clueless.”
Ephram is not the only person who pitches in with parenting. Andy occasionally seeks help from Edna, an older woman he hired to work for his practice as both nurse and office manager. He also discusses parenting issues with Edna’s son Harold, who is also a doctor and Andy’s business partner. Harold is married and has two children of his own. But Andy most often seeks help from next-door neighbor Nina, who is raising a son on her own. Although Andy has been a parent longer than Nina—since her son is younger than Andy’s oldest—he always asks Nina for advice. She never asks him for parenting advice. Maybe this is because she overhears all of those father/son shouting matches. But what does this say about a man’s ability to raise children? Why do the two single parents not share parenting advice? Why is it that women are supposed to know how to raise kids, but men aren’t?
To compare the portrayal of single moms with single dads, just look at the WB sitcom “Reba.” In the beginning of the series, Reba’s dentist husband of 20 years, Brock, leaves her for his much younger and more blond dental hygienist Barbra Jean, whom he got pregnant. Reba’s 17-year-old daughter, who is recovering from alcoholism, learns she’s pregnant and decides to marry the father. Second daughter Kyra moves in with Brock and Barbra Jean. Reba also deals with her last child Jake moving into adolescence.
Reba confronts issues of single parenting alone. She cannot rely on her ex-husband and his new wife for parental support. Dad tells Kyra to quit school and focus on her music career, and Barbra Jean takes on the “dumb blond” role better than Jessica Simpson. But imagine if the show were about a single dad. Faced with so much dysfunction, he would need at least a next-door neighbor to dispense parenting advice.
What about “Gilmore Girls” (which ended last year, upsetting millions of women the world over). Yes, toward the end of the show’s life span, single mom Lorelai asks for advice on raising daughter Rory, but for almost five seasons, she parents alone. At the end of season five, Rory convinces her boyfriend to steal a yacht for a night of fun, and both end up in jail. Then Rory tells her mom she is dropping out of Yale. Lorelai goes to her parents for advice and then to boyfriend Luke. But “Gilmore Girls” is different from “Everwood” in that Lorelai is portrayed as a very capable single mother. She and her daughter are best friends. Rory makes a few mistakes, as most kids do, and Lorelai seeks advice, as most parents do. But on “Everwood,” Andy consistently has trouble relating to his kids, and he always needs advice on how to raise them.
Progress has certainly been made on TV regarding single dads. To have single dads at all on TV is a step forward. Back in the day, “The Donna Reed Show” and “Leave It to Beaver” depicted the “normal” family as consisting of a mother and a father. So, shows that are more realistic and portray single dads are welcomed. But now we need to see more capable single dads to combat the pesky stereotypes that men aren’t good at raising children and that women are born with a child-rearing gene. Let’s add “good with children” to our culturally defined list of what being a man is. I know there are men who are better at parenting than some women. For example, Will Smith or Pamela Anderson? My money’s on Will.
And think about this: Would TV shows like “My Two Moms” or “Two and a Half Women” ever exist? Of course not. Two women parenting a child is superfluous; one gets the job done.