Stop calling dads incompetent

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Photo: Getty

"Men aren't capable of caring for children the way we are," a colleague confided to me when I was pregnant. "It's just not in their nature. I wouldn't trust a man to look after my baby."

If this were true, then the male human, despite all his evolutionary advantages, is less advanced than your average king penguin when it comes to parenting. Daddy penguin shares responsibility with the mother for looking after the egg, often incubating it for days on end by balancing it on his feet, while mum goes off to be the fishy breadwinner.

My colleague isn't the only one who thinks that men are less capable of childcare than sub-Antarctic birds.

Playskool, the maker of Mr Potato Head and Sesame Street toys, recently perpetuated the fathers-are-crap-at-parenting myth by tweeting: "Does Dad ever have a day where he's in charge?"

The fact that they didn't anticipate a social media backlash from such an outdated and demeaning stereotype suggests that the company may be more Oldskool than Playskool.

But they aren't the only company who thinks it's funny to depict fathers as bumbling Mr Bean types.

A recent Huggies commercial in the United States sparked outcry — and a swift apology — after it suggested that men, despite usually being portrayed as gadget fetishists, aren't up to dealing with nappy technology.

The give-mum-the-night-off commercials which imply that dad's cooking skills extend as far as a takeaway, and the don't-tell-mum that I broke the window/let you watch too much TV/fed you cereal for dinner/<insert other clueless father behaviour> ads are all too common.

Last December, the Australian Advertising Standards Bureau received a complaint about the Tip Top The One commercial which portrayed a father as being so useless he couldn't even choose a loaf of bread. The bread-selection crisis was resolved by another woman stepping in to save the poor dear by making the choice for him.

The complaint was dismissed by the bureau on the basis that the ad was humorous and consistent with many families' shopping experiences.

While we may laugh at dads on TV being too incompetent to change a nappy, cook dinner or buy a loaf of bread, in real life it's not so funny.

The distribution of domestic work and childcare in families remains grossly unequal. And while regressive stereotypes favoured by advertisers aren't the reason for this inequality, continually implying that men are incapable and can't be trusted certainly doesn't help.

Despite what some evolutionary psychologists might believe, domestic and childcare skills are not innate. They are learned.

When I became a parent, for example, I was just as clueless as my husband, Chris, about how to take care of our daughter. In some ways, more so. Prior to giving birth I had never been responsible for caring for a child; I'd never even been in the same room as a child without a responsible adult present.

And despite popular belief, an instruction manual written in secret women's language did not pop out with the placenta or miraculously materialise like breast milk. I, like most other parents, had to figure it out the hard way.

Chris and I bumbled along together as we worked out this whole parent thing and continue to do so as our daughter develops and requires different parenting techniques and practices.

As such we are both equally capable in caring for our daughter. If I had subscribed to the men-are-useless-don't-let-them-near-the-kids school of thought, then Chris would not have been able to learn to parent and grow in confidence the way that I have.

If we want men to step up and take responsibility for childcare and domestic work then we need to stop telling them that they can't, or reducing them to the butt of jokes when they try.

Advertising and media that depict men as clueless insult those who are involved and active fathers. It also creates a gendered escape route for the men who want to shirk childcare and domestic responsibilities, by perpetuating the notion that it's a woman's domain.

Kasey Edwards is the author of Thirty-Something and The Clock is Ticking: What Happens When You Can No Longer Ignore The Baby Issue.

kaseyedwards.com

61 comments

  • Thank you Kasey Edwards! I have noticed this trend for such a long time now. Do a test - Have a look at some of the "stupid male" ads around and imagine if the genders were switched. The outcry would be enormous. We males are instead told to suck it up and stop complaining - it's only a joke. I am completely capable of looking after my 2 young boys alone, and have equally shared the caregiving with my wife from the day they were born. Women need to give men a bit more credit in the same way they have demanded it through the feminist movements of the last few decades. Equal rights are important to everyone - not just women or minorities.

    Commenter
    Macca
    Date and time
    April 03, 2013, 6:08AM
    • I dont know of any stupid male ads that say men cant look after their children for a whole day by themselves. I think you are probably just taking it too personally and need to lighten up.

      Commenter
      Rachael
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 03, 2013, 9:42AM
    • I empathise Macca, but don't fall into the trap of proclaiming women 'have it all' now, thanks to feminism. On balance women still have it much harder and men have it much easier in all facets of life, and while the prejudice that Kasey highlights is real, it can also be seen as the exception (ie. that men are dumb at some things) that proves the rule (that women and "minorities" face far more prejudice and discrimination every day).
      So get angry, get upset and do something about it- but don't blame just women for this- the whole of society sustains this myth. And if you want to get technical, men still dominate society's institutions, including advertising companies, so complain to them.
      Oh and lastly, do you think women who care for their children get credit for that? Of course not- because the same advertising industry (who merely mirrors society's norms) regards it as 'natural' and 'normal'. Isn't that just as prejudicial as the admittedly uncommon 'men can't care for kids' stereotype?

      Commenter
      Ron
      Location
      Brunswick
      Date and time
      April 03, 2013, 10:22AM
    • Thanks Rachael. By telling me to "lighten up" you just totally proved my point about being told to "suck it up" whenever we take people to task on gender stereotyping. At what point does it become a problem and not just something we should "get over"?

      Commenter
      Macca_at_work
      Date and time
      April 03, 2013, 12:47PM
    • To be clear Ron. I did not suggest for one second that women have it all thanks to feminism. There is still a long way to go for their equality, which includes overcoming the stereotype of them being protrayed as the typical stay at home mum who looks after the kids; housework etc.
      My point is that by maintaining such stereotypes as the bumbling Dad or the devoted stay-at-home Mum we are restricting any hope of seeing any real gender equality.
      That said, you hear a lot more outrage over anything remotely sexist towards women than you do when the shoes on the other foot. There is a double standard that is detrimental to any movement toward equality. Women's alarm bells should be ringing the same way ours does when a stereotypical sexist comment is made, or a sexist commercial is made - or should we just "man up" and "lighten up.....".?

      Commenter
      Macca_at_work
      Date and time
      April 03, 2013, 1:12PM
    • So Rachael reads an article about a stupid, incompetent Dad and she can't think of an ad that shows a stupid, incompetent Dad. Even further examples in the Comments doesn't ring a bell for her.
      Says it all.

      Commenter
      Ron
      Location
      Brunswick
      Date and time
      April 03, 2013, 1:13PM
    • Bravo, Ron! Love your post! :)

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      April 03, 2013, 2:13PM
    • Ron
      "On balance women still have it much harder and men have it much easier in all facets of life"

      So why do so many young men commit suicide, Ron? Four out of five suicides are men, particularly young men. Because they are privileged? Why do men have a shorter life expectancy than women, Ron? Because they are having such a great life?

      The facts do not support your generalised assertion, Ron. Why are only four out of ten graduates male, Ron? Because the boys are having it so much easier than the women? Or because the balance between privilege and discrimination is no longer as simple as 'all women are victims" and "all white men are privileged"?

      Commenter
      Nogbad
      Location
      Death Watch
      Date and time
      April 03, 2013, 2:57PM
    • The 'dad is dumb' image can be seen in literally every single sitcom, it doesn't just extend to advertisements. It's refreshing to see Daily Life, which publishes many excellent articles, looking at things from both sides of the gender divide.

      And ignore Rachael, she's a serial commenter that's exhibited some pretty sexist opinions on a regular basis.

      Commenter
      late1
      Date and time
      April 03, 2013, 3:19PM
    • OK Macca, you HAVE fallen into the trap- or to be generous, you have started on your long journey to understand the world from a woman's point of view.
      However, sexist attitudes towards men are not the same as sexist attitudes towards women. Firstly, they are miniscule in relation to the sexism women encounter EVERY DAY in EVERY ASPECT of their lives. (Sorry you'll have to do your own homework to prove that- as a starter I suggest you open your eyes and ears, and you'll get it soon enough.)
      Secondly, we can afford to laugh off the occasional direct sexism towards men such as the above, precisely because at the end of the ad men will still be higher paid, more respected, have more choices and benefits in life, and generally have a higher status than women. It is the exception that proves the rule. It's (bitterly) ironically funny.
      So if there's a lot more outrage about sexism towards women, I'm glad- because it will be one tiny step towards making it not OK. Meanwhile, the very few times you are ACTUALLY discriminated against in your life, get outraged- but don't blame women if they are too busy fighting their own fights to join your outrage. (By the way, there will always be more women who share your rage against all kinds of sexism than men- and yet you only blame women for not joining your cause? Where's the double standard there?)
      I suggest you are hyper-alert to sexism towards men because you have chosen to live differently from other men. That's great- but in the big scheme of things, remember you're still in the privileged class.

      Commenter
      Ron
      Location
      Brunswick
      Date and time
      April 03, 2013, 3:39PM

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