Fathers in the Media

By Gary Kerr

This is an intriguing assignment. Having majored in Broadcast Journalism, I have always considered myself a “media freak”  a term coined by one of my college professors. I grew up in the “golden age” of television. So, I feel qualified to discuss media fathers.

The Early Years

Like many of you, I grew up watching fathers on television, and for the most part, they were good role models. Can you identify these TV fathers? If so, you are probably a “media freak.” Steve Douglas, Andy Taylor, Ward Cleaver, Rob Petrie.

How did you do? Did you recognize Steve Douglas as the father on My Three Sons? Andy Taylor as Opie’s father on The Andy Griffith Show? Ward Cleaver as father of the Beaver? Rob Petrie with Laura and Richie on The Dick Van Dyke Show? These men were role models whether consciously or unconsciously for many who grew up in the 50s and 60s. They were typical of the way television portrayed fathers during this era. They shared several character traits in common.

Moral Purity. They were depicted as men of strong moral character. Two of the four (Steve and Andy) were widowers. We cannot imagine either of them being involved in an illicit sexual affair. Imagining Rob or Ward cheating on their wives is equally impossible.

Leadership. All of these men were unquestionably the heads of their houses. They understood that it was their duty to provide for their families, and they took that responsibility seriously. We do not see these men wasting their paycheck drinking, gambling, or neglecting their families in any way. They took good care of those for whom they were responsible.

Love. These fathers loved their families unconditionally. Ward and Rob loved their wives. They all loved their children. They were not afraid to show that love. Hugs, kisses, and other demonstrable displays of affection were common.

Having said that, let me add that the portrayal of TV fathers in the early years was not all positive. I have noticed something about the conduct of these men as I have grown older. I must admit that I missed it when I was young, and even now, I am inclined to ignore it. They were prone to use “situation ethics” in solving family problems. Andy is my favorite. It pains me to acknowledge that he would frequently “stretch the truth”  to be honest, he often lied  to teach some life-lesson to Opine. Situation ethics played a prominent role in the lives of most TV characters in the golden age. As you view reruns, watch for the number of times that situation ethics comes into play in the solution of problems. It might just shock you.

Times Have Changed

Television’s depiction of fathers has certainly changed since those days. Now, even in those shows that present “positive” portrayals of the family, the role of the father has been transformed.

First, television is at the forefront of the liberal movement in trying to redefine the family unit. The “nuclear” family is a relic. Single parents are less likely to be widows or widowers, and more likely to be unmarried (i.e., Murphy Brown). Homosexual characters have also begun to pervade the family settings of many of today’s TV series. Many of today’s TV “moms” and “dads” are divorced, and living with their second, third, or fourth mate.

A few programs do try to portray fathers in a positive light. Let us notice, though, how that “positive” depiction has changed.

Fathers in today’s programs are likely to be characterized as bumbling, weak, unenlightened men. One of the most popular sitcoms of recent years is The Cosby Show. It introduced us to a medical doctor, Heathcliff Huxtable, who was obviously not the head of his family. He had poor social skills. He was constantly being corrected about his parenting decisions by his wife. He was a totally uncoordinated moron when it came to making repairs around the house. The family leader was Heathcliff’s wife, Clair, an attorney. This depiction of the father as a weak, politically incorrect buffoon has continued, and is now the predominant TV picture of the father in the home. The vast majority of today’s media presentations of the family elevate the woman/wife/mother to the role of strength and leadership, and leave the father to the role of family clown. The popular show Home Improvement, with father Tim “the Tool-Man” Taylor, is a classic example of this shift.

Concluding Thoughts

This special issue of Guardian of Truth contains articles depicting the proper role of the father. Perhaps the most important lesson we learn from the media’s characterization of fathers is that we should not look to the media for our examples. Even in the golden age of television, the best of fathers were likely to engage in activities such as situation ethics. When all is said and done, Ward, Steve, Rob, Andy, Heathcliff, and the “Tool-Man” do not give us good examples of how to be fathers. If we want to know how to be godly fathers, we are going to have to read and study God’s word.

Guardian of Truth XLI: 12 p. 21-22
June 19, 1997