The “Deeply Flawed” Father Meme (And Why We Need to Counter It)
Richard Dawkins introduced the term and concept of “meme” in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. A “meme” is an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. Anyone who pays close attention to popular culture can easily see certain memes there. They are not necessarily tied to any reality, but they create a perception of reality by repetition.
One meme all too prevalent in popular culture in the last several decades is the “deeply flawed father” meme. I’m tempted to call it the “evil father” meme but it doesn’t have to involve images of sheer evil to have its negative effect.
And what is this meme’s negative effect? One way to “feel” it is to think about the effect the word “mother” has in most people’s minds. Most people “feel” the word “mother” as comforting, uplifting, supportive and good. Most people “feel” the word “father” as at best complicated—a mixture of positive and negative emotions—even if their own father is or was good. That’s because popular culture tends to revel in images of bad fathers or at least deeply flawed fathers. And I would suggest this has become a kind of “self-fulfilling prophecy” phenomenon. When any group of people is singled out for disproportionately negative portrayal in popular culture the effect can be that group’s tendency to fit the image.
I am old enough to remember a time—the 1950s—when popular culture by-and-large celebrated fatherhood. Our family did not watch a lot of television; when we had a working television is was mostly off. But one weekly situation comedy was a family ritual—mostly because my stepmother loved it: “Father Knows Best.” Feminists later made it into an anti-women and even anti-children symbol, but, as I recall the father in the series, he was often wrong and had to change his mind in response to his wife and children. I think the creators of the show meant the title to be ironic. Although he was a good father (strong, supportive, intelligent, involved), he did not always know best. And one thing that made him a good father was that he was willing to admit his mistakes. He was far from the image of a domineering patriarch. There were many other positive images of fatherhood in popular culture in the 1950s.
I can’t pinpoint when the meme changed, but I suspect it had to do with the cultural revolutions of the 1960s that really began to have their effect in popular culture in the 1970s. Suddenly (so it seems) fatherhood was being portrayed different, mostly negatively (with some notable exceptions) in the 1970s and 1980s. Suddenly (so it seems looking back) the concept of “fatherhood” was surrounded by images and thoughts of abuse, absence, neglect, betrayal, stupidity and even insanity (“The Shining” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”).
One person on whom I pin much of the blame is Stephen Spielberg who, in a television documentary, admitted that many of his early movies portrayed families without fathers and even deeply flawed fathers because of his own image of his father—until his later years when he discovered the truth about his parents.But, of course, the burden of blame rests not on any single individual but on a subtle cultural shift of consciousness largely driven by the popular meme of “the deeply flawed father.”
I know parents who will not read certain books to their children, or permit them to watch the cartoons based on the books, because they believe (rightly, in my opinion) that the meme is so prominent there. The father bear comes across as ineffectual and just plain dumb whereas the mother bear is strong and always right. What’s missing is balance—in this piece of popular culture as in popular culture generally—about fathers and mothers.
Of course there are also many images in popular culture of flawed mothers, but that is not a cultural meme in the same way “flawed father” is.
Yes, there were notable attempts to offer an alternative to the “flawed father” meme of popular culture. But what’s interesting about them is how they stood out in popular consciousness precisely because of their going against the stream of the flawed father meme. The most notable one was The Cosby Show. The father, played by comedian Bill Cosby, was not always right, but he was at least well-intentioned and mostly wise. In my opinion, it was an attempt to revive the “Father knows best” theme without the 1950s cheese.
Also, yes, today there are some notable attempts in popular culture to redeem fatherhood; there are many well-intentioned fathers in television programming, for example, but if you pay close attention you cannot miss that they are usually wrong and end up having to change their minds and apologize to their wives and children. The best you can say about them is that they are well-intentioned and willing to admit they have been wrong. Few of them are truly admirable people that someone would really want fathers to emulate. Stereotypes still abound: fathers as emotionally distant, ineffectual, confused and preferring to golf or watch football over spending time with their children or helping with house work (until they’re guilted into it).
In contrast to the cultural meme and stereotypes I am personally aware of many especially young fathers (many of them my former students) who are spend much quality time with their children, share the house work and child care with their wives, and still work full time and love sports.
As a culture we put fathers in a tight spot. We expect much of them and openly decry their absence, neglect or abusiveness but show them almost no realistic images of good fatherhood in the popular culture. I am convinced that the movers and shakers of popular culture are social engineers—whether they admit it or are even fully conscious of it or not. By reveling in the theme of flawed fathers, whether absent, abusive or ineffectual, they tend to reinforce the reality.