The Changing Culture of Fatherhood in Comic-Strip Families: A Six-Decade Analysis

By LaRossa, Ralph; Jaret, Charles et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, May 2000 | Go to article overview

The Changing Culture of Fatherhood in Comic-Strip Families: A Six-Decade Analysis


LaRossa, Ralph, Jaret, Charles, Gadgil, Malati, Wynn, G. Robert, Journal of Marriage and Family


A content analysis of 490 Father's Day and Mother's Day comic strips published from 1940 to 1999 indicates that the culture of fatherhood has fluctuated since World War II. "Incompetent" fathers appeared frequently in the late 1940s, early 1950s, and late 1960s but were rarer in the late 1950s, early and late 1970s, early 1980s, and early 1990s. Fathers who were mocked were especially common in the early and late 1960s and early 1980s but were less common in the late 1940s, early and late 1954s, and early and late 1970s. Fathers who were nurturant and supportive toward children were most evident in the late 1940s, early 1950s, and early and late 1990s, with the longitudinal pattern resembling a U-shaped curve. Differences between fathers and mothers also oscillated from one decade to the next.

Key Words: comic strips, culture, fatherhood, gender, motherhood, social change.

How do popular portrayals of fathers in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s compare with popular portrayals of fathers in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s? Have the portrayals improved? Have they gotten worse? Is there any variation at all?

The issue here is not whether the conduct of fatherhood has shifted, but whether the culture of fatherhood has changed (LaRossa, 1988). When it comes to conduct, studies have shown that with the increase in the number of dual-earner families, more fathers are spending large blocks of "quality time" with their children, although men still lag behind women in this regard (Pleck, 1997). On the other hand, because of the long-term escalation in divorce, many nonresident fathers have only minimal contact with their daughters and sons. The behavioral picture of the contemporary male parent thus can be said to have both a good side and a bad side (Furstenberg, 1988).

What about the culture of fatherhood (i.e., the norms, values, beliefs, and expressive symbols pertaining to fatherhood)? How much change can be discerned here? Scholars may be better equipped today to answer this question than they were 15 years ago, but a careful examination of the four studies that have directly tested "the changing-culture-of-fatherhood hypothesis" (Day & Mackey, 1986; LaRossa, Gordon, Wilson, Bairan, & Jaret, 1991; Atkinson & Blackwelder, 1993; Coltrane & Allan, 1994) indicates that much still remains unknown.

In the first effort to systematically tackle the question, Day and Mackey (1986) compared single-panel family cartoons published in the Saturday Evening Post between 1922 and 1968 with similar kinds of cartoons published between 1971 and 1978 to see whether "the role image of the American father" in popular culture had been transformed. They found that up to the late 1960s, fathers were significantly more likely than were mothers to be characterized as incompetent (e.g., as "awkward," "unhandy," or "gawky"), but in the 1970s, the incidence of incompetence for men and women was statistically similar. Because of the convergence in how cartoons portrayed fathers and mothers during the second period in contrast to the disparity of their portrayals in the first, Day and Mackey concluded that the 1970s marked a paradigmatic shift in the culture of fatherhood. As they saw it, the percentage of mothers in the labor force, the decline in birth rates, and the fervent advocacy of gender equality in the 1970s (brought on by the feminist movement) had prompted the traditionally minded Saturday Evening Post cartoonists to reduce their satirical attacks on fathers. A new, improved version of fatherhood had come on the scene.

Social scientists have long recognized that humor can reveal patterns of stratification (e.g., see Mulkay, 1988; Wilson, 1979), hence the premise that the incompetence level of cartoon characters could be used as a barometer of social trends does have validity. Nonetheless, were Day and Mackey (1986) correct about the 1970s? Had the image of the American father basically been consistent until then? …

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