What we can learn from cartoon dads

The latest season of Netflix’s animated comedy Big mouth explores the mysterious world of father figures and emerges with a revelation. Middle schooler Nick’s father, Elliot Birch, is keeping a secret: He was once a formidable competitor in the macho martial art of “Scottish nipple-twisting.” Elliot is a cutie, a family man who takes the concept of being a lover-not-a-fighter to the extreme. He’s a vocal feminist, kissing his male friends on the mouth and hydrating himself as generously as he praises his wife. So what’s up? Elliot explains to Nick that he only ever got into martial arts to earn his own hypermasculine father’s approval. Eventually, Elliot left that life behind. “I swore to myself that I would be the opposite of father,” he explains to Nick. “You mean like a soft daddy?” asks Nick. “The softest and the daddyst,” says Elliot.

Elliot has kept his vow: he’s probably the gentlest daddy there is. And not just up Big mouth, but probably in contemporary cartoon canon – which is saying something, because the married men of today’s comics are not the patriarchs of the past. For decades, animated sitcoms often relied on cynical depictions of bad dads to make their audiences laugh: think Fred Flintstone’s rudeness or family Guyis Peter Griffin. Today’s “soft daddy” is a different – and welcome – archetype of domestic masculinity.

Owen Tillerman, the soft father of central park (Apple TV via Everett)

Soft papas are the new men of the cartoon world: gentle, communicative, thoughtful. They are central park‘s Owen Tillerman shopping for his daughter Tatsu from the anime bra The Houseman’s Way leaves the yakuza to cook croquettes for his wife Greg Universe, whom Steven co-parents with three space aliens. Soft dads aren’t caricatures of beer-soaked lust, anger management issues, and unrelated laziness with their children and wives. you are not South Park‘s Randy Marsh drunkenly fighting at his kid’s Little League games, Homer Simpson strangling Bart, american father‘s Stan Smith posing as a school bully to torment his own son. Sure, gentle fathers make mistakes and have moments of frustration and buffoons—they aren’t bastions of unimpeachable good, any more than their predecessors aren’t consistently flawed. But in general, their world can be counted on to feel safer and more united.

Animated shows are particularly well positioned to challenge gender norms. That’s partly because cartoons can use caricature and exaggerated situations as vehicles for social criticism without being constrained by plausibility, as Valerie Palmer-Mehta, a communications professor at Oakland University, points out in her essay The Wisdom of Folly: Disrupting Masculinity in king of the hill.‘ Hank Hill, the sad-eyed patriarch of king of the hillillustrates the medium’s ability to explore changing values.

Hank is a character caught between the noisy dads and the gentle dads, and a man ill-suited to either role. The show, which aired in the late ’90s to early 2000s, captured the tension between “old” and “new” manhood through the ambivalent relationship between Hank and his sensitive son, Bobby. Hank strives for an idea of ​​”male” stoicism—he’s the kind of guy who resists medical care despite being constipated—but Bobby’s indifference to traditionally male activities like exercise regularly drives Hank to irritated neuroticism. Both Hank and Bobby are played for laughs, but Bobby’s ridiculousness stems from his eccentric enthusiasm – he becomes, say, a rodeo clown or a ventriloquist – while Hank stems from the distress he causes himself by convincing himself that his “boy is wrong”. .” Frequently, king of the hill ends on a conciliatory note, where father and son reach a deeper understanding of one another—until the next episode, when Hank tenses up again.

in the Bob’s burger– in a way a spiritual successor of king of the hill, with executive producer Jim Dauterive collaborating on both – Bob Belcher approaches his own eccentric son, Gene, with respectful curiosity rather than anxious disapproval. Bob doesn’t need regular life lessons to learn how to better empathize with his family, and he doesn’t socialize his children to have patriarchal values ​​— he seems to operate from a softer place by default. Bob may not be the best businessman, but he is an emotional provider. His gentle upbringing and ability to both work and have fun with his wife Linda bring a sense of security to the series despite the family’s precarious existence on the poverty line. Not least because of his affectionate patriarch, Bob’s burger creates a rare achievement in the age-old sitcom genre: a depiction of a family that is functional and loving, yet still funny.

Part of the gentle father’s role is to emphasize that a gentler manhood is both a choice and, at times, a challenge. This season of Big mouth reintroduces Elliot to his father and their old dynamic, where love can only be expressed through wild nipple wrestling. (“There’s a new sheriff in town, and he’s rough on boobs!” proclaims Elliot, and yes, the irony of performatively straight men obsessing over one another’s vain nipples is very strong at play. ) Meanwhile, Nick’s friend Andrew’s father, Marty Glouberman, causes his wife to leave the family home by being too controlling and argumentative to pursue her interests outside the home sphere. Both men need help breaking through emotional blocks to keep their families together, and their difficulty in doing so underscores that being angry and alienated is far easier than being compassionate and empathetic. Transitioning from familiar, albeit harmful, ways of being can be a daunting prospect on a societal or personal level, and especially both at the same time. With characters ultimately choosing softness, the arc of these stories suggests that toxic masculinity is a weakness that needs to be overcome and that as a result one is better able to give and receive love.

Soft fathers convey love to the woman in their lives by enacting what Jane Ward, professor of feminist studies at UC Riverside, calls “deep heterosexuality.” As Ward writes in her 2020 book, The tragedy of heterosexualityHusbands should not see their wife as a trophy to impress other men with and/or a mother figure who is caring, but as a multidimensional human being with her own desires and aspirations. Tatsu, the anime house husband, communicates his love for his wife, Miku, by supporting her career and providing her a restful feast when she’s exhausted from overtime. Bob Belcher potty trained three kids when Linda didn’t have the courage and he bravely took part in one Downton Abbey–like LARP because she wanted to leave.

Hank Hill and his son Bobby in King of the Hill.
Hank Hill and his eccentric son Bobby king of the hill (20th Century Fox film via Everett)

Such acts of spousal care seem natural in any marriage. But many women, animated or not, might find themselves in a difficult spot by acting, in the words of writer Melanie Hamlett, as “best friend, lover, career counselor, stylist, social secretary, emotional cheerleader.” [and] mom” to men who do not return this support. Created by the artist Soolagna Majumdar Marge Simpson animean unofficial webcomic from 2017 about the Simpsons Housewife strives for a new life to explore the liberation of a character whose “whole identity” was “formed by patriarchy,” she said Vice. On The simpsons, Marge’s existence – full of duties and betrayals – could be seen as tragic. However, Linda and Miku seem happy: their husbands see them as people.

Gentle fathers’ negotiation of modern masculinity can also lead to jokes, such as when Elliot asks why anyone would find the label “pussy” offensive. “Since when is it an insult to be called a beautiful genital?” he wonders aloud. But if people laugh at Homer Simpson and his ilk for their martial incompetence, the humor here lies in Elliot’s excess of empathy. If a subtext of The simpsons is that American society has low expectations of its men, the observation underlying the soft daddy archetype is that men actually have so much more to offer. That’s perhaps what really separates the soft daddy from other cartoon dads: he’s comedic and ambitious too. As funny as Homer Simpson is, I’d rather have Elliot Birch as a father.

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