TV Sitcom Dads Portrayed as Foolish, UMass Amherst Researcher Says

AMHERST, Mass. - Fathers in contemporary television sitcoms are more likely to be portrayed as foolish bumblers than their counterparts in the 1950s and 1960s, and the trend is even more pronounced if they are from the working class, according to a recent study by Erica Scharrer, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts. Scharrer’s findings were published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media’s winter 2001 issue.

"Fathers on television sitcoms have gone from ‘knowing best’ to knowing little, particularly if they are blue-collar or working class," Scharrer says.

Scharrer studied top-rated sitcoms that featured a family, and that ran for at least five years from the 1950s through the 1990s. She found that father figures such as Ward Cleaver of Leave it to Beaver in the 1950s were less often the butt of jokes than, for instance, either the Cliff Huxtable character in the 1980s The Cosby Show, or today’s Homer Simpson in The Simpsons.

Two factors appear to affect how television dads are presented, Scharrer says. "Class predicts the foolishness of the father figure, but so does time," Scharrer says. The research measured the relative frequency of jokes told at the expense of the father, she says. As the roles of real-life mothers and fathers changed between the 1950s and 1990s, and more women entered the workforce, fathers were less often the sole breadwinners for sitcom families. During the same period, sitcom fathers were increasingly the subject of jokes and portrayals as buffoons, Scharrer says.

And in sitcoms where the family was middle- or upper-class, the father figure is more likely to be portrayed as wise, perhaps because of a larger bias against the working classes on television due to an advertiser-based system that favors those with more expendable income, Scharrer says.

The key to the research, Scharrer says, was measuring the relative "power" of the mother and father figures based on humorous exchanges. She says previous studies show that the initiator of a joke typically enjoys the greater amount of power and status than the subject of the joke.

Erica Scharrer can be reached at 413/545-4765 or scharrer@comm.umass.edu.