Why do we love to poke fun at fathers?
It’s time we had the talk, about where dads come from. We are living in the Age of Dads: “dad” is used these days as a modifier as much as it is a generalized proper pronoun: “dad rock,” “dad humor,” “dad bod.” But what exactly are we talking about when we talk about dads? Dads can’t possibly be a new “thing,” first and foremost because the very last thing dads are is of the moment. Dads have been celebrated, profiled, and explored in pop culture, especially on TV and in movies. This is in part because the shift over the past half century toward gender equality has resulted in some pretty entertaining scenarios for dads — think: Don Draper, Ross on Friends, Three Men and a Baby, Mrs. Doubtfire, Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor, Bob Saget, RANDY QUAID. Dads are eternal; this is why dads are such a powerful trope: dads are self-evident. Dads don’t warrant explanation, but they do invite exploration. Join me.
Dads have never not been in the news, because one of the defining characteristics of dads is that they’ve just…always been that way, for as long as we can remember. It’s an election year, so of course our favorite kinds of dad memes are political in nature. Our current flavor of the week is Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s pick for vice president. Over at The Daily Dot, dad expert and Awl pal Jaya Saxena wrote about the “dadification” of the Virginia senator, whose dadliness connotes likability and trustworthiness. At first, Kaine appeared to be a sleepy, boring choice, with good ol’ American everyman appeal. And then dude opened his mouth, and he became a dad one-liner generator:
I’m pretty sure everyone at that Black church Tim Kaine goes to describes him as “That nice man.” He’s a sitcom dad.https://twitter.com/politico/status/760552561820700672 …
Let’s start at the beginning, i.e., the second edition of the OED:
dad, n.1 colloq.
[Occurs from the 16th c. (or possibly 15th c.), in representations of rustic, humble, or childish speech, in which it may of course have been in use much earlier, though it is not given in the Promptorium or Catholicon, where words of this class occur.
Of the actual origin we have no evidence: but the forms dada, tata, meaning ‘father’, originating in infantile or childish speech, occur independently in many languages. It has been assumed that our word is taken from Welsh tad, mutated dad, but this is very doubtful; the Welsh is itself merely a word of the same class, which has displaced the original Celtic word for ‘father’ = Ir. athair.]
1.1 A childish or familiar word for father: originally ranking with mam for mother, but now less typically childish. Cf. daddy.
2.2 Used as a form of address to a person, not necessarily elderly, other than one’s own father. colloq. (esp. in Jazz talk).
A deformation of God, in asseverations: now dial. or U.S. (Cf. adad, bedad; also dod.)
A DEFORMATION OF GOD!!!! Let’s just move right along.
We also love political dads in the off-season. In July of 2009, President Barack Obama threw out the first pitch at Busch Stadium in St. Louis for Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. He received near-instant ridicule in the media, not for his perfectly serviceable left-handed lob, but for his faded, wide-leg, slightly too-short Levi’s. The blue jeans were immediately nicknamed “dad jeans,” echoing “mom jeans” — the high-waisted, tapered, and wildly unflattering denim pants lampooned in a memorable Saturday Night Live sketch in 2004. Obama later admitted “I’m a little frumpy,” but he defended himself, saying “those jeans are comfortable.” (He later implied that Michelle retired the offending pair.) But the public never really let go of the caricature of Casual Obama: riding his bike on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, a dorky All-American dad more concerned about his teenage daughters’ safety than seeming cool.
It’s not like dad jeans were a new concept; indeed, Obama’s jeans looked about fifteen years old. (To say nothing of Bill Clinton or George W. Bush before him.) Two years ago, the New York Times claimed dad jeans were making a comeback, as though they had never left. But what are dad jeans anyway, except denim pants, half a generation out of style, kept in the back of the closet because why would you throw away a perfectly good pair of twenty-dollar Levi’s? But the article was notable more for its tone, “Don’t donate those Jerry Seinfeld jeans to the Salvation Army just yet.” The jeans were almost beside the point, which was light praise of the uncool — the new trend is un-trend. So have dads become cool, or did it just become cool to make fun of dads?
Judging by very recent history, it’s more of the latter. Last year, Scaachi Koul had a short humor piece published under The New Yorker’s Shouts & Murmurs rubric, titled “Dad Restaurant,” which is a “restaurant with a name that will be easy to remember the next time someone asks you where you went for your birthday.” GQ’s video department for some reason featured a day in the life of a “GQ dad” — move aside, dudeitors; now we have daditors. We also have Twitter dads (a personal favorite), which are users who, with varying levels of frequency, embody and/or tweet about the travails and the spirit of dadhood. An investment analyst on CNBC once called Twitter “a tool for dads,” claiming it is more aimed at businesses and older users. It’s a bit simplistic a divide, but Twitter is a space for verbal jokes — brevity and wit — where Facebook is a place for more emotionally earnest content — viral videos, charity, and kidposts. Men tweeting about their kids is forgiven as charming and even humanizing, whereas women have been taught to compartmentalize the shit out of their working lives.
Hey #dadtwitter: on a scale of 1 to like, Randy Quaid, how crazy would it be to drive cross country solo with a 1-year-old?
As moms and dads begin to share more equal responsibilities, we’ve embraced The Domesticated Dad. And we are in a moment of real celebration, encouraging the flourishing of the dad persona. Last year, a group of BuzzFeed staffers were “The Founding Dads” for Halloween. The Internet is flooded with compilations of “epic dad saves,” mostly catching babies or toddlers with one hand with a beer or a baseball in the other. There’s a real dad magazine and a parody dad magazine. There’s a whole genre of faux-complaint: crying “Ugh, dad!” as a reaction to things that make us cringe, from Drake’s dancing style to Martin O’Malley’s acoustic rendition of a Taylor Swift song. Is it a very gentle way of poking at the patriarchy? Buzzfeed said, “Bridge of Spies is going to be your dad’s favorite movie” (does that make it good or bad???). The bar is pretty low for dad content, because somehow, after all these years, we find it charmingly newsworthy that a celebrity dad should get covered in his celebrity baby’s shit.
I spoke to Jaya Saxena and Matt Lubchansky, the creators of “Dad Magazine,” a series that ran on The Toast that consisted of poorly Photoshopped magazine covers with dad-like cover lines, such as “Thinking About Buying a Boat? (Us Too)” and “Bulk Shopping!” (It was also released as a book earlier this year: Dad Magazine: America’s #1 Magazine for “Pop” Culture). I asked Lubchansky the million-dollar question: Are dads cool?
The two uncoolest things are age and responsibility, which dads both have (even young dads). But also, the coolest thing you can do is not care if you’re cool or not, and dads certainly don’t care! So it’s a tricky middle ground they inhabit. There’s sort of a specific “dad cool,” where they don’t care, they unapologetically like the things they like, and that’s something everyone wants.
But what should account for the flourishing of dads, except the ascension of moms into the ranks of professional employment? Dads discovering and embracing domesticity, in all their hapless glory, have half a century of social progress behind them. They’ve been ushered into a brave new world of interacting with their children on a consistent and regular basis, who can blame them for entertaining themselves and us while they do so? In many ways, dads are not unlike young children, discovering facts about the modern world as they bumble through it. how else can you know the GoPro is filming backwards unless you give it a whirl?
So if dads are the flip side of the mom coin, then how come we don’t make fun of modern moms? It’s easier to poke fun a a man in a house than a woman in an office, but the sooner we can make fun of cringeworthy things women say and do and not have it be considered sexist, the closer we’ll be to a certain kind of quality. Humor should be an equal-opportunity sport, and characters like Leslie Knope on “Parks and Recreation,” Selina Meyer on “Veep,” and Leslie Bream on “Silicon Valley” are just the beginning. Where we’re going, we’ll need a critical mass of women in power. A woman is currently running for President of the United States — we’re close.