Here’s something that’s been in my craw for a long time. Only recently, however, have I discovered that people have been writing about it for a while. I call it “the idiot TV dad syndrome”. Here is a link to a great article where they refer to this phenomenon as “the bumbling dad“ trope.
I think I first picked up on the bumbling dad trope in the late 90s. For a long time, I didn’t pay it too much mind. I thought that I was just being a stereotypical, angry, young white man. Of course, even that in and of itself is a trope that stemmed from a culture that has mutated from being politically correct, to wokeness, to cancel culture.
Like so many things in our society , the bumbling dad trope is the result of a fundamental shift of the proverbial pendulum, from one outdated view of the American house to the more modern,contemporary American woman. In the early days of television, the father was the head of the nuclear family. He was seemingly all-knowing and all-wise. So prevalent was this view once that there was a Radio (and later television series) that was literally called “father knows best”.
As culture and our society changed over the course of the next 60 years or so, Women left the kitchen and entered the American workforce. They went to college. They established professional careers. With the shift in our culture, it makes sense that the way that women were portrayed on television changed as well.
Enter a sitcom like “the Mary Tyler Moore show“. Its main character was a single, independent, working woman. The show portrayed her trials, tribulations, relationships and even experiences in the workplace. It was considered groundbreaking at the time because it was such a drastic departure from the June Cleavers and Wilma Flintstones that came before her.
Somewhere along the way, however, writers got lazy. It wasn’t enough to just portray women as equally competent and as ambitious as men. television writers decided that in order to emphasize the independence of women, they had to devolve male characters into immature, inept man children. Enter The Bumbling Dad Trope.
In my opinion, the most glaring example of the Bumbling dad trope is Tim Allen’s portrayal of Tim “the tool man“ Taylor on home improvement. This focuses on Tim, the host of a DIY program on local TV – his wife and 3 sons.
He is very much the stereotypical man. He likes sports, muscle cars and power tools. He likes his muscle car strong and his power tools even stronger. So much so in fact, Tim’s catchphrase on the show is “more power“. He likes to soup up his muscle cars and make his power tools stronger than they’re designed to be. Furthermore, he is usually his own crash test dummy, which leads to the majority of the shows humor: Tim in several, injury prone slapstick moments.
I think I was a little older than the target audience for home-improvement when the show aired. I never so much is correct a smile at any of the shows gags. I understand where the show was trying to re-create the more traditional, nuclear family, dynamic: one son goes through his EMO phase in one episode, another son gets a haircut that only increases the generation gap in another. The younger son of course was a teen heartthrob. So he never really did much on the show besides standing around and look cute for the teenage girls.
But my biggest hang up with home improvement is the fact that Tim was made to be such a buffoon. This was in part I think to provide a stalker contrast between he and his wife Jill, quite literally a “Jill of all trades“. Was naming her Jill an actual attempt at humor by the writers? Tim’s shenanigans made it virtually impossible to take his character seriously during those “a very special episode” moments.
Is it really this difficult to write competent, confident, how-eight-haul Women? Do you writers really need to make men look like idiots in order to make women look like they have it together?
Tim Taylor, of course, isn’t TV’s only bumbling dad. He just happens to be the one I most despise. Homer Simpson, Ray Barone from everybody loves Raymond, and of course my all-time favorite, Steven Keaton from family ties
Who are some bumbling TV dads that spring to your mind?