Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

From Wise to Foolish: The Portrayal of the Sitcom Father, 1950s-1990s

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

From Wise to Foolish: The Portrayal of the Sitcom Father, 1950s-1990s

Article excerpt

The family structure in which the male is the sole breadwinner continues to erode as women become increasingly present and powerful in the workforce (Wilkie, 1993). This social trend is hypothesized in this study to be manifested in a power shift between the sexes on television programs as seen through joke-telling. The all-knowing, wise sitcom father of the past is theorized to have enjoyed a position above humorous criticism due to his economically crucial role to the sitcom family. That portrayal is hypothesized to have given way to a modern scenario in which the sitcom father is the target of a growing number of jokes and is portrayed in situations that make him look increasingly foolish.

This study contends that joke-telling by sitcom characters is a means of expressing power between the sexes (Sev'er & Ungar, 1997; Wischnewski, 1989). By analyzing the content of selected primetime television fare from the 1950s to the present, the study documents a changing portrayal of father figures from positions of wisdom and authority to roles in which their sensibility is called into question or mocked through foolish, humorous portrayals. The study also examines the class of the sitcom family as being an additional determinant of foolish portrayals.

Mothers and Fathers on Television

Conflict between male and female characters is often the foundation on which domestic comedies lie (Olson & Douglas, 1997; Rowe, 1995). Communication patterns between spouses are often echoed by the other members of the sitcom family (Skill, Wallace, & Cassata, 1990). In television sitcoms, humor is often based on negative emotions, with one character getting the better of another (Weiss & Wilson, 1996). The power struggle in joke-telling is often gender based (Dundes, 1987; Mackie, 1990; Sev'er & Ungar, 1997).

Previous research suggests the portrayal of gender roles can be fluid in nature, undergoing discernible changes over time. Dail and Way (1985), for example, discovered a contemporary trend toward more nurturing males in domestic sitcoms. Reep and Dambrot (1994) found that a sample of student viewers perceived that "non-current" sitcom mothers were more stereotypically feminine, deferring to a wise father's judgment more than "current" mothers. Olson and Douglas (1997) found domestic comedies after 1984 depicted more dominance and less satisfaction and stability in the family than those prior.

In addition to television's mothers and fathers, analyses exploring the roles of men and women in general on television suggest signs of progress that are best characterized as slow and inconsistent. Moore (1992), examining prime time content from 1947 to 1990, documented an increase in female characters working outside the home and found that very few families were portrayed as working class at any time. Vande Berg and Streckfuss (1992) found a slight increase in the heterogeneity of female occupational roles in prime time television, but also documented lower status and a lesser role in decision-making. Steenland and colleagues' (Steenland & Fujita, 1984; Steenland & Schmidt, 1985; Steenland, 1987) series of analyses of new television programs debuting in the mid to late 1980s reveals some progress in realistic struggles and challenges, a greater number of older female characters, and more leading roles for women. Atkin (1991) assessed the portrayal of the single female from 1966 to 1990 and found more women in managerial or professional positions and fewer in assistant, subservient occupational positions over time. Signorielli (1990) suggests a number of television programs have sporadically offered strong female roles and there has been an overall improvement in the last decade in the portrayal of women on television. Neither new seasons (Eaton, 1997; Greenberg, 1997) nor new cable channels (Kubey, Shifflet, Weerakkody, & Ukeiley, 1995) have substantially altered the presentation of gender on television. …

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