You may be unfamiliar with the term “doofus dad”, but it’s more than likely you’ve seen him in action.
The doofus dad is that clueless and slightly-crap-at-everything dad who inhabits every second children's TV show. He has a good heart but is incapable of performing the simplest of domestic tasks, especially if they involve caring for children.
King Thistle in Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom is one such character. He’s thick as a log and a complete push-over to his kids and even the neighbour’s pet.
Peppa Pig’s Daddy Pig is another famous doofus dad. He’s a little more intelligent than King Thistle, and more involved in family life, but just as self-important and is constantly being humoured by his wife, and even his own kids. Pappa Bee in The Hive is pretty much the same character in flying insect form.
As kids get older, the script for fathers doesn’t change that much. Think Homer in The Simpsons and Peter Griffin in The Family Guy.
Typically, a female character has to come to the doofus dad’s aid, to be his moral compass, dispense a little life lesson, save him from his own idiocy — or all of the above.
Dr Janice Kelly, Department Chair of Communications at New York’s Molloy College, says that the doofus dad emerged in the 1970s as men’s roles started to change as part of broader economic, social and cultural changes.
“During the 50s and 60s, fathers had a certain place in the family,” says Dr Kelly, who has written extensively about representations of fathers in the media. “But after the 70s we transfer the humour on to the father, and then we give empowerment to children and wives.”
Dr Kelly says the media persists with the Doofus Dad because they don’t know how else to portray fathers.
“And that's a problem, because families have changed. Fathers are at home as a partner, raising children, and we still are using the slapstick buffoonery character that doesn't represent the fathers at home,” says Dr Kelly.
All of which makes Bluey, the new Australian-made show about a family of blue heelers, a breath of fresh air. Not only is it genuinely funny — my girls are squealing with delight watching as I write this —the father, Bandit, is not a fool.
In fact, he’s one of the few father characters that reflects the type of father that I want to be.
Bandit is an engaged and playful father, taking part in imagination games of his daughters Bingo and Bluey. He’s funny without being a doofus.
But more than that, Bandit manages to engage in full-spectrum parenting, doing household chores and child rearing, while also holding down a job.
In one episode, his daughters ask him why he sits at his computer desk on a yoga ball rather than a chair. “Because I wrecked my back changing your nappies,” he replies.
The writers also managed to avoid the opposite extreme to the doofus dad: the Super Dad who never tires of his kids. Bandit doesn’t pretend to be thrilled with every little precious moment with his daughters. He prefers games where he gets to lie down and have a rest, such as being the patient in a game of hospital. In another episode he prefers playing the game “Dad Reads the Paper” while waiting for his takeaway food order.
But unfortunately, even the makers of Bluey don’t escape the gravitational pull of the doofus dad entirely. One episode follows Bandit taking his daughters to the pool in which he forgets to bring sunscreen, hats, goggles, floaties and food for his kids. Eventually Bandit and his kids are saved by the more capable mum.
Why then does the Doofus Dad persist?
Dr Sarah Hunter, Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide’s School of Psychology says that her analysis of stay-at-home dads suggests that positioning men as inept at domestic work is a way to protect traditional notions of masculinity and feminity.
“With stay-at-home dads, people found them endearing because they're trying to take on this role, but they’re not doing it well. It’s like, ‘Oh, look at you trying hard doing this thing, but of course you can't do it as well as a mother because you'll never be a mother. But it's nice you're trying.’”
Perhaps the Doofus Dad character on our TV persists because creators of media shows can both acknowledge the changing roles of men, while stopping short of re-writing the rules of masculinity.
“It's like saying, ‘It's okay to be doing these feminine things, but doing it poorly means you're still masculine’,” says Dr Hunter.
While many might take these portrayals of fatherhood in popular culture with a grain of salt, Dr Hunter suggests they are missed opportunities to expand the repertoires of what is normal with fatherhood.
“The media reflects reality and also constructs reality,” says Dr Hunter. “I think it's a two-way street with the media writing about what's happening. And then also, we refer back to what's happening in the media to make sense of what we're doing.”
Janice Kelly suggests that presenting the father as an incompetent klutz’s isn’t good for children either — particularly for children in families where dad is the primary carer.
“Like it or not, the portrayals that are on television create the schemata of how kids see family life. And if they don't have something to compare, this becomes their comparison”, says Associate Professor Kelly. “If you don't have the real McCoy in front of you, you're going to look at television as if this is some reality.”
While mothers are statistically more likely to be primary carers of children, fathers are performing more household tasks than ever before, and many of us are actively involved in our children’s lives.
We need to update the models of fatherhood on our screens to reflect our realities. In 2019 there is is no place for the doofus dad on our screens or in our homes.