In the 1980s, domestic sitcoms on television proliferated with examples of men who performed domestic labor. In response to the women's movement, these “Mr. Mom” sitcoms liberated women from the domestic sphere and enabled men to claim it as their own. This article examines the potential impact of these series’ foregrounding of men and masculinities. In particular, it examines how the domestication of Mr. Moms highlighted the tensions between “new man” ideology persisting from the 1970s and 1980s Reagan-era machismo. The increasingly progressive attitudes toward women's work exhibited by Mr. Mom characters, coupled with the ultimate excision of the wife-mother character, resulted in complex, potentially queer, depictions of masculinity that help reveal feminist and antifeminist anxieties about the changing structure of the American family in the 1980s. This article won the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Women's Caucus Graduate Student Writing Prize in 2016.
Laid off from his executive position at a car manufacturing company, Jack (Michael Keaton) becomes the stay-at-home parent while his wife, Caroline (Teri Garr), lands a job as an advertising executive. The title of this film, Mr. Mom, indicates the gender role reversal on which much of its comedy is predicated. Jack performs the traditionally feminine labor of cooking and cleaning, badly, while becoming increasingly obsessed with daytime soap operas. The housewives in the neighborhood are charmed by his willingness to serve as a stay-at-home dad; one even attempts to have an affair with him. Meanwhile, Caroline is a natural at advertising because her homemaking experience offers insights into the minds of women consumers. She rises through the ranks at the ad agency, only to have her success undermined when her boss tries to seduce her. These plotlines characterize the dangers of gender role reversal as principally sexual. Outsiders in homosocial spaces, Jack and Caroline are targets for sexual aggressors. Before an infidelity destroys their marriage, order is restored: the car factory summons Jack back to work, and Caroline resigns in fury and resumes her role as homemaker. As this conclusion to the film makes clear, men are better equipped to handle the wolves that prey in the business world, and wives are safer and happier when ensconced in the home. Nonetheless, the experience of switching roles has given Jack and Caroline greater appreciation for each other's contributions to the family.
Released in 1983, Mr. Mom received mixed reviews but was reasonably successful at the box office. The film grossed more than $64 million domestically and led to a three-picture deal with Universal for writer John Hughes.1 Critics were mild in their praise, not because the gender role reversal was too cutting-edge but because, as Roger Ebert put it, the narrative hinged upon the “manufactured, artificial situations inspired … by memories of old TV shows” in which husbands and wives trade places with disastrous but comedic results.2 At a time when more American men were becoming “Mr. Mom”—a phrase that entered the vernacular—the film's tidy resolution restored family order at the expense of exploring the many complexities of changing family dynamics.
Ebert's complaint that the film is too reminiscent of old television is demonstrated in sight gags and physical comedy in which Jack fails at performing domestic labor. He is, for instance, unable to control the vacuum cleaner, which takes on a life of its own and chases the family around the house (fig. 1). This could easily be a scene from the 1952 episode of I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951–57) in which Desi Arnaz's character, Ricky, has a miserable time serving as housewife while Lucy (Lucille Ball) goes to work in a candy factory.3 But Mr. Mom's connection to television extends beyond allusions to TV plots. Television producer Aaron Spelling was billed as executive producer for the film, and several television writers assisted John Hughes with script revisions.4 Additionally, the film coincided with a new trend in domestic sitcoms that depicted men in charge of the home.
Shortly after the film's release, other Mr. Moms flooded the prime-time broadcast schedule. While not a direct result of the film Mr. Mom's box office success but instead a product of the same sociocultural context, Mr. Mom sitcoms were broadcast networks’ attempt to cash in on the changing dynamics of the American family, especially the increase of working middle-class mothers. Taken individually, any one Mr. Mom narrative might be worthy of closer investigation for its relationship to the changing social landscape. However, given what sociologist Todd Gitlin describes as television's “recombinant culture,” in which one successful series spawns copycats and spinoffs, the proliferation of series with domestic men is a compelling subject for analysis.5
This essay examines three different kinds of Mr. Mom sitcoms and how they responded to changing dynamics among middle- and upper-class American families. The first, exemplified by series like Family Ties (NBC, 1982–89), The Cosby Show (NBC, 1984–92), and Growing Pains (ABC, 1985–92), featured families with two working parents who shared household duties. Although marital egalitarianism was sometimes more an ideal than an achievement among the couples, dialogue and plotlines emphasized the need for men to be “participant fathers,” actively involved in family matters.6 Second, on series like Who's the Boss (ABC, 1984–92), Charles in Charge (CBS, 1984–85; syndication, 1987–90), and Mr. Belvedere (ABC, 1985–90), male domestic workers were hired to maintain the household while women worked outside the home. These “domestic dads” proved to be as skilled at household labor and parenting as the wife-mother, if not more so. Finally, series premiering later into the 1980s, like My Two Dads (NBC, 1987–90) and Full House (ABC, 1987–95), eliminated the wife-mother entirely through depictions of households run by “lead dads” and “helper dads.”
As in the film Mr. Mom, the humor in these series stems from the juxtaposition of masculinity and domesticity. The opening credits to Who's the Boss, for example, feature housekeeper Tony (Tony Danza) vacuuming the drapes by lifting the vacuum cleaner in an overhead press that reveals his bulging biceps (fig. 2). Unlike the film Mr. Mom, however, the narratives of these series do not culminate in a logical return of the woman to the home. Instead, across multiple episodes, the gender role reversal is shown as complex, often with frustrating side effects, but also as bringing about family harmony. As the 1980s progressed, Mr. Mom sitcoms demonstrated that men could be viable caretakers for home and children, first alongside the wife-mother but increasingly in lieu of her. By the early 1990s, domestic harmony was depicted as possible to achieve with the excision of the wife-mother from the family altogether.
Television scholarship has continuously attested to the complex ways in which sitcoms have challenged gender and family construction since the dawn of prime-time broadcasting. Women-oriented programs in the 1980s especially brought attention to feminism by acting out its many tensions and iterations.7 This emphasis on women characters and prime-time programming for women stemmed from television executives becoming “increasingly sensitive to the need to appeal to working women as a key television audience.”8 Women had long been the target of television advertising, since they were perceived as the primary household consumers. In the 1980s middle-class career women became particularly valued for their disposable incomes, making them a hot new market for advertisers.9 Network executives created a battery of programming intended to appeal to this “quality audience.” As examples of what Bonnie J. Dow calls “prime-time feminism,” sitcoms like Kate and Allie (CBS, 1984–89), The Golden Girls (NBC, 1985–92), and Designing Women (CBS, 1986–93) offered fantasy worlds in which women's relationships with men were secondary to their relationships with one another.10 Even dramas like Cagney and Lacey (CBS, 1981–88) depicted families of women as central character groups. As Julie D'Acci chronicles, this depiction was an active choice on the part of network executives and producers to appeal to a “quality women's audience.”11,Cagney and Lacey had relatively mediocre ratings because it was less successful with broader audiences, including men. Its ability to remain on the air was a result of its appeal to a “highly prized demographic” (working women aged eighteen to fifty-four); high ratings among the target “quality audience” made up for lower ratings overall.12
Series that did not have the “quality” label but were popular on prime time offer a different account of what television was invested in. First-run syndication was beginning to achieve more attention and becoming more lucrative, and broadcast networks were competing with a swiftly growing cable market; these changes resulted in series with other kinds of nontraditional families finding their way to the television grid in an attempt to lure audiences. By the fall of 1987, one could see an alternative family on television every night of the week.13 African American children adopted by wealthy white parents were at the center of Diff'rent Strokes (NBC, 1978–85; ABC, 1985–86) and Webster (ABC, 1983–87; first-run syndication, 1987–89). Alien characters joined human families on Mork and Mindy (ABC, 1978–82) and ALF (NBC, 1986–90). Perfect Strangers (ABC, 1986–93) featured a household forged of two culturally divergent cousins. Many of these series continue to be rerun, demonstrating the popularity and pervasiveness of the nontraditional family.14
As social and political discourses during Ronald Reagan's administration urged a return to “bedrock values” of faith and family, Mr. Mom sitcoms challenged the composition of the traditional nuclear family while still valorizing the family as the central unit in American society.15 Similar to women-oriented series like Kate and Allie and Designing Women, Mr. Mom sitcoms addressed concerns about women in the workforce but did so by foregrounding men's, rather than women's, experiences. Putting Mr. Mom at the center of the family also revealed anxieties about possible effects of the women's movement on men and hegemonic masculinity. Mr. Moms served as corollaries to working women characters by taking up the traditionally feminine role, and as fictional corollaries to real-life working women who watched these programs. They are descendants of the 1970s “new man,” who was “conceived as a ‘nurturing’ figure seemingly in tune with the demands of feminism and women in general.”16 Almost never is the audience asked to laugh at Mr. Mom for being engaged in matters of the home, and rarely does he express frustration that the wife-mother is unable to fulfill the domestic role.
As responses to the women's movement, Mr. Mom sitcoms offered increasingly progressive depictions of masculinities that highlighted the tensions between “new man” ideology and Reagan-era machismo. By the end of the 1980s, Mr. Mom sitcoms were less concerned with the feminization of men and more invested in celebrating men's many proficiencies, in contrast to political discourses that sought to preserve traditional gender roles. However, what was progress for masculinity—and intended as an idealized fantasy for women—often resulted in regressive depictions of wives and mothers. Elsewhere on the prime-time schedule, women thrived in all-female environments, but on Mr. Mom sitcoms women's success outside the home came increasingly at the expense of her role within it. As women were liberated from the domestic sphere, men were liberated to claim it as their domain of expertise. In this way, Mr. Mom sitcoms reveal many of the feminist and antifeminist anxieties about the American family.
PARTICIPANT FATHERS: AT THE CENTER OF THE FAMILY CIRCLE
In the first version of Mr. Mom sitcoms, the husband-father engages in “participant fatherhood,” an active form of parenting that became idealized in the late 1970s and more practiced in the 1980s.17 A participant father was usually a man in a two-income household where the wife had limited time for child care because of her employment. On The Cosby Show, Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby) is an obstetrician, and his wife Clair (Phylicia Rashad) an attorney. Despite how time-consuming these professions are, Ella Taylor observes that the Huxtables have “all the leisure time in the world to spend ‘quality time’ with their offspring.”18 Andrea Press and Terry Strathman similarly see Cliff as an “idealized family man” who remains “intimately involved in his family's home life.”19
Steven Keaton (Michael Gross) of Family Ties is the paradigmatic participant father. Debuting in 1982, Family Ties was pitched as a series about the generation gap between liberal baby boomer ex-hippies and their more conservative children. It was initially given the time slot following The Facts of Life (NBC, 1979–88), one of NBC's highest rated programs about another alternative family, a group of young women and their housemother at a fictional boarding school.20 In the initial premise for Family Ties, Steven and his wife Elyse (Meredith Baxter Birney) were the focus of a series rife with nostalgia for their hippie roots. The original opening credits featured images of them as barefoot flower children, and in the pilot they force their children to watch a slide show chronicling their participation in the 1963 March on Washington. This culturally liberal past positions Steven as a “new man.” Kenneth MacKinnon defines the “new man” who emerged from the 1970s as a “middle-class professional, white, heterosexual, aged usually between mid-twenties and forties, with a female partner—not necessarily a wife—who has imbibed feminist ideas” and cultivates “non-oppressive relationships with women, children, and other men.”21 Steven is sympathetic to his wife's self-actualization outside the home and cares for his children as a nurturer, rather than an aloof breadwinner.
Steven's oldest son, Alex (Michael J. Fox), is a paradigmatic Reaganite. As the character Alex grew more popular, executive producer Gary David Goldberg, who had loosely conceived Steven in his image, shifted the series to tell stories from Alex's perspective. As Michael Saenz notes, the show's “largely liberal writers usually depicted Alex's ideology ironically,” leaving the audience to laugh at Alex, but this laughter was sympathetic, and Alex emerged as a “model of the clean-cut, determined yet human entrepreneur.”22 The series’ ideological shift from liberal to conservative meant Steven's new man became a nostalgic figure, but one whose value Family Ties repeatedly attested to.23
The narrative of the pilot examines Steven's participatory parenting. Alex goes on a date with an affluent socialite to a country club that excludes minorities. When Steven learns of this, he feels compelled to stop Alex. He bursts into the club in a casual baseball jacket, embarrassing Alex. Steven explains that his father was not very involved in his life and was emotionally distant, which Steven translated as a lack of care. He struggles to reconcile participant fatherhood with Alex's need for freedom to make his own choices. The episode concludes with father and son on the sofa, side by side, so that it is no longer clear who is the adult and who is the child (fig. 3). As they embrace, their generational and political differences temporarily subside, thanks to their deep familial bond. This resolution illustrates a change in the portrayal of fatherhood from “father knows best” to “father is trying his best.” In embarrassing Alex, Steven demonstrates that participant fathers may have the attention for the job, but not always the right methods or answers. Likewise, Alan Thicke's character Jason Seaver from Growing Pains “helped liberate TV dads from the prison of always being right and always being serious.”24 Because participant fathers weren't omniscient authoritarians, they didn't always have their children's respect, but they also didn't demand it.
The fallibility of participant fathers contrasted with Reagan-era discourses of supreme leadership through strength. In the case of Family Ties, the absence of a father who projected total confidence left a void to be filled by Alex. For his portrayal of Alex, Fox was nominated for an Emmy each year between 1985 and 1989, with three wins; the character was so popular that his name is still invoked in Republican discourse.25 Though Alex may have embodied political and economic values contemporary to the 1980s, he was often a mouthpiece for outdated social values. Alice Leppert describes him as an “Archie Bunker” type of character, a regressive contrarian whose politics are cut down by his parents.26 If Family Ties is, as Jane Feuer alleges, one of the “crucial Reaganite sitcoms,” it is not because of its pure celebration of Reagan-era values but because of its repeated unveiling of the contradictions that existed between political conservatism and social progress in American society at the time.27
Family Ties never abandoned its core message that political and generational differences can be overcome through familial love. Any possibility for “energizing friction” between liberal and neoconservative politics is always smoothed over by the “cozy warmth of domestic affection.”28 Steven's demonstrations of love, especially his participant fatherhood, are made possible by his class status. He works as the manager of a local public television station, a job that reiterates his liberal values and middle-class status. His wife Elyse, an architect, serves as the primary breadwinner in the family, and episodes often contrast her hectic work schedule with Steven's commitment to carpools and homework. When Birney missed several episodes of the third season due to giving birth, Gross's role increased, so that Steven appeared not only a participant father but the primary parent.
Other participant fathers in Mr. Mom sitcoms also have white-collar jobs that grant them the ability to decide when to dedicate time to their families. Jason Seaver and Cliff Huxtable own medical practices and can mostly set their own schedules. In Cliff's case, the untimely delivery of a newborn is an occasional plot twist that creates tension between his desire to be with his family and his commitment to his patients. Their affluence enables participant fathers on Mr. Mom sitcoms to achieve an ideal desired by many. A 1979 survey by the men's magazine Esquire found that a “resounding majority of childless young men want to have children, and most of those who have children want more.”29 But having children was not the end goal; men wanted to be involved in the daily household affairs. A survey from Better Homes and Gardens in 1983 found that 42 percent of husbands were more active in household chores than they had been in the five years prior.30
Although the 1980 US census removed the term “head of household” in its questions to recognize greater shared responsibilities between men and women, men still felt social pressure to fulfill this role.31 By 1989, national opinion polls indicated that many men felt the women's movement had made life more difficult for them as a result of their increased responsibilities at home without decreased responsibilities at work.32 According to a survey of dual-income couples by Fortune in 1990, the promise that women's liberation would relieve men of the burden of breadwinning did not pan out. Instead, men in white-collar jobs felt pressure to earn more than their newly successful wives, despite the fact that men's wages decreased in the 1980s, necessitating women's earnings to maintain the family income.33 Men's respect for their working wives was at odds with their deepest desires to “come home and have everyone greet the returning hero,” since in a two-income household there was a struggle to determine who the hero was.34 Among the couples surveyed by Fortune, marital harmony was achieved by avoiding discussions of work and income. Men in corporate America were “routinely not offered options when it comes to negotiating issues of work-family balance” such as paternity leave or flextime.35 While increased household income and personal satisfaction were incentives for women to enter the workforce, men had little incentive to leave wage-paying jobs to take up the unpaid task of childcare.36 Given this, E. Anthony Rotundo wrote in the 1980s that “there are more women who advocate participant fatherhood than there are men who practice it.”37
Social commentary tried to reconcile this sense of men's discontent with women's economic self-sufficiency. In The Hearts of Men, published in 1983, Barbara Ehrenreich claimed that men's complaints about the “breadwinner trap” preceded the women's movement, and that one of the forces leading to the women's movement was the unpredictability of life dependent on a separate wage provider.38 Carol Tavris found that Ehrenreich's argument “falters in its conclusions” because the relationship between men's and women's roles was too entangled for a causal claim.39 In 1991 Susan Faludi tied men's discontent to media that depicted neglectful wives and mothers.40 Other feminist critics took umbrage with Faludi for oversimplifying issues of race and class.41 The criticisms faced by Ehrenreich and Faludi from within different factions of the feminist movement speak to the difficulties in unpacking inherent contradictions in an evolving social landscape. Many men wanted to support their wives but also resented women's engagements outside the home. Many wanted to be good fathers but were driven to succeed at endeavors that took them away from their children.
Television grappled with these contradictory aims through weekly stories about men's experiences. As domestic sitcoms, the focus of Mr. Mom series was the home, which foregrounded men's participation there to the exclusion of women. Although Elyse Keaton, Maggie Seaver, and Clair Huxtable were working professionals, Bonnie J. Dow argues that in their shows “viewers see only the mother's home life,” to the detriment of representations of working women.42 Faludi similarly deems the attention paid to women's jobs negligent: “The wife in Family Ties has a ‘career,’ but regular viewers would be hard pressed to name it.”43 By referring to Elyse as “the wife” without a name, Faludi duplicates the antifeminist agenda she is critiquing. Of The Cosby Show, she writes that Clair Huxtable “may be the first attorney to hold down a full-time job without leaving home; when she does ply her trade, it's only to litigate domestic disputes in the family living room.”44 But in fact, women's experiences at work do occupy the narrative for certain episodes. In the first season of The Cosby Show, three of twenty-four episodes hinge upon Cliff managing the house while Clair works.45 NBC president Brandon Tartikoff celebrated Cosby's portrayal of Cliff as a return of strong masculinity to sitcoms, a testament to Cliff's authoritarian-style leadership that neglected his comedic failings at fatherhood, as well as his repeated submissions to Clair.46 Ella Taylor likewise describes Cliff as a character whose “prodigious charm overlays a subtle menace: Father knows best, or else.”47 Outside the series’ narrative, Cosby touted the respect the child characters had for Cliff as one of the show's strengths.
Admittedly, Cliff attempts to wield more authority than Family Ties's Steven or Growing Pains's Jason, but his attempts are usually framed as moments of comedy. In the 1985 episode “Slumber Party,” Cliff corrals eight screaming children by making them stand in line and answer questions.48 His militaristic approach to childcare in this scene reveals a lack of confidence and naturalness at serving as the primary parent, yet the children are soon having fun. Alongside Clair or in her absence, Cliff doles out advice, attends his children's sporting events, and babysits his grandchildren. Any stern exhibitions of masculinity are tempered and overcome by Cliff's deep involvement in family life.
Participant fathers on Mr. Mom sitcoms were television's response to changes within the American middle-class family. Their participation was not always easy and did not always result in success, and participant fatherhood on television remained as it did in middle-class America—more of an ideal than a reality. Nevertheless, these series were significant for their depictions of greater flexibility for fathers’ roles.
DOMESTIC DADS: MASCULINIZING DOMESTIC LABOR OR FEMINIZING MEN?
Beginning with the 1984–85 season, television executives made a conscious choice to depict more women in prominent roles in the workplace, building on the previous season's successes of Kate and Allie and Cagney and Lacey among women aged twenty-five to fifty-four.49 CBS senior vice president Harvey Shephard described this as a deliberate attempt to reflect sociological changes.50 The corollary to prominent career women were “domestic dads” in series like Charles in Charge, Who's the Boss, and Mr. Belvedere. These series suggested a more extreme consequence of the women's movement: that men would take up the traditionally female role within the family.
The idea of a man responsible for the home was not new to television, but prior to the 1980s, men who performed domestic labor were used to demonstrate the family's affluence and class privilege or to provide humor as “fish out of water” characters performing women's work. On My Three Sons (ABC, 1960–65; CBS, 1965–72), widowed father Steve (Fred MacMurray) relies on his father-in-law and later an uncle to take care of domestic duties. On Family Affair (CBS, 1966–71), Mr. French (Sebastian Cabot) is a personal valet thrust into the role of nanny to two small children who come to live with his employer, Uncle Bill (Brian Keith). In both series, the death of a woman in the family necessitated a man's fulfillment of the domestic role, and both eventually added adult women characters to restore traditional gender roles. These series demonstrate the necessity of someone managing the household, and in the absence of a wife-mother, a man may do it—but this arrangement is comically unconventional and often impermanent. Thus, the narratives and themes subtly reinforced traditional gender roles.
It is not the absence or death of women in the family that leads to the employment of “domestic dads” in Mr. Mom sitcoms but the strain of the wife-mother trying to “have it all.” Charles (Scott Baio), Mr. Belvedere (Christopher Hewett), and Tony of Who's the Boss are hired because of commitments the wife-mothers have outside the home. Charles, a college student, benefits from free rent in exchange for caring for three children. Mr. Belvedere, a British immigrant, needs a place to live and a job to maintain his visa. Both men serve as nurturing mother figures and disciplinarian father figures to the children of the family far more often than the children's actual parents do.
Domestic dads masculinize domestic labor, even as they don aprons and bake cupcakes. Because child rearing and housekeeping have long been duties of the wife-mother, domestic dads are also outside the usual boundaries of hegemonic masculinity. At the same time they function as household managers, rather than subservient employees. R. W. Connell observes how in late capitalist societies “forms of masculinity organized around direct domination” have been challenged by and currently coexist alongside “forms organized around technical knowledge.”51 Domestic dads perform their masculinities by securing the children's obedience and through their expertise at chores like removing laundry stains. Their work is a combination of managerial leadership and technical proficiencies that coincides with unwavering nurturing and love. Existing between gender polarities, domestic dads masculinize domestic labor as much as they are feminized by the performance of this labor.
Men employed as domestic dads on television may have been an especially appealing construct at a time when popular media gave alarming accounts of day care being hazardous to children's psychological and emotional development, even exposing them to physical or sexual abuse.52 Reagan's administration played to these fears and further accused working women of abandoning their children. One military official declared that mothers who sent their children to day care were “weakening the moral fiber of the Nation.”53 Later research indicated that many of these stories were exaggerated, if not fabricated, and that children who attended day care tended to be better socialized, less at risk for domestic violence, and more socially progressive.54 Nevertheless, television's domestic dads were an attractive fictional alternative who could be trusted to care for the children with the same (or more) devotion as their parents.
Concerns about the potential risks posed to children by their absent, working mothers were nearly always allayed through the domestic dad's deep love for the family, of which he is a surrogate member. In a Christmas episode of Charles in Charge, the Pembroke family's grandmother visits and intends to stay in Charles's bedroom while he visits his parents.55 When a winter storm prevents his travels, Charles is dejected at the thought of having no family to spend Christmas with. The grandmother, played by Rue McClanahan, is openly hostile toward Charles for his role.56 She asks her son how he can be married to a woman who neglects her children. The Pembrokes insist that Charles is indeed a member of the family, an assertion that resolves both conflicts. His role as childcare provider is not a negative reflection on Mrs. Pembroke but a positive addition to the family dynamic. The criticism lodged by McClanahan's character calls attention to a common interpretation of the women's movement as selfish. After flagging ratings forced NBC to cancel the series, Charles in Charge resumed in first-run syndication with a revamped cast. The Pembrokes were gone, though Charles and the set for the house remained. A new family moved into the house, this time a single mother and elderly grandfather, along with three children. These changes resolved many of the problems from the NBC run, since a single mother “deserves” help around the house more than a married working mother.
In the case of Mr. Belvedere, the Owens family is in turmoil when mom Marsha (Ilene Graff) begins law school. Daughter Heather (Tracy Wells) must interrupt her teenage gossip sessions on the phone to make dinner, and son Kevin (Rob Stone) is told to get his driver's license so he can take his siblings to school and sports practices. Both children find this unfair, and the obvious solution is to hire a full-time, live-in housekeeper so that all family members will be free from the burdens of domestic work. While Marsha and her husband George (Bob Uecker) work, Mr. Belvedere cooks, cleans, and offers counsel to the children. Alice Leppert sees the opening credits as visualizing Mr. Belvedere's role bringing the Owenses together “at a time when many socioeconomic factors were pulling the nuclear family apart” (fig. 4).57 In a season 4 episode, the family takes an official portrait, rendering the image from the credits as diegetic and solidifying Mr. Belvedere's role (fig. 5).58
In the pilot to Who's the Boss, Tony arrives on the suburban Connecticut doorstep of Angela, a single mother (Judith Light). Tony, whose dream of playing professional baseball was thwarted by an injury and his wife's death, announces that he is there to begin work as the housekeeper. Angela is a woman in a man's world, a vice president at a large New York advertising firm; nevertheless, she is initially hesitant to accept a man in the woman's world of housekeeping. Tony has left his home in Brooklyn because his daughter Samantha (Alyssa Milano) was getting into fights with other children in the neighborhood. He recognizes that life in Connecticut, even with him working as a second-class domestic, will be better for her. Angela's mother, Mona (Katherine Helmond), has hired Tony, and she persuades Angela of his fit for the job by listing his many redeeming qualities, including involvement in his church and his commitment to single fatherhood. More importantly, Tony can serve as a role model for Angela's son.
The theme of many episodes of Who's the Boss is the difficulty Tony and Angela have in their respective jobs because of their genders. In the pilot, Angela is promoted to president of the advertising firm, but later her promotion is at risk when she is accused of receiving it because she was sexually involved with the CEO who appointed her. Tony initially feels like an outcast because he is the only male domestic worker in the neighborhood. Eventually, like Jack in the film Mr. Mom, he befriends the neighborhood housewives and maids, who find his physique and personality appealing.
Tony replaces Angela as an at-home mother more than he replaces an absent husband-father. When Angela's estranged husband Michael (James Naughton) briefly returns, he becomes jealous of Tony's close relationship with Angela and her son Jonathan (Danny Pintauro) and asks Tony to leave.59 Tony finds employment in a wealthier household where he serves as a supervisor to the domestic staff—a job that is more masculine than his hands-on role dusting and cooking for Angela. But the rekindled nuclear family arrangement proves temporary, and Angela and Michael decide to divorce for good. Michael likes to travel to exotic locations for his research, but Jonathan needs and deserves stability, and Angela does not want to forfeit her own career. With Michael gone, Tony returns to the house. Instead of replacing Michael, as Michael feared, Tony brings about domestic harmony by performing those motherly duties Angela is unable or unwilling to perform herself. Though the two-part episode must conclude with Michael's departure to restore the episodic narrative, this conclusion has interesting repercussions. In choosing Tony over Michael, Angela attests that what working women want is not a masculine husband but a wife. The traditional nuclear family has lost its value to the gender-swapped surrogate family Tony and Angela have forged.
Although domestic dads can be hired because of the family's disposable income, socioeconomic class continues to be a source of tension between the domestic dad and the family. Tony and Samantha's working-class roots in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood are at odds with the affluent Connecticut suburb. Their Italian heritage is played for its ethnicity in contrast to the vanilla, Waspish identities of their new neighbors. Mr. Belvedere is British and has worked as a butler for heads of state; the Owenses, by contrast, are a relatively ordinary, midwestern, middle-class family. Mr. Belvedere is off-put by father George's crass nature just as George finds Mr. Belvedere snooty. Indeed, the family members nearly always refer to him as “Mr. Belvedere,” an unusual use of an honorific in the casual Midwest that speaks to their reverence for his higher cultural status. It becomes Mr. Belvedere's unspoken project to civilize the Owenses. His different cultural and class background colors how George especially perceives his gender: Mr. Belvedere is effete and therefore closer to feminine than masculine. (His rarely used first name, Lynn, attests to this.) His in-between gender preserves the nuclear family in that he is not a rival for Marsha's affections, nor is his place in the family emasculating to George.
Domestic dads on Mr. Mom sitcoms challenged traditional gender roles within the home while also reiterating masculine authority as manager of the household. The “problems and uncertainties” domestic dads experienced could be, for Amanda Lotz, “predominantly traced to difficulties in negotiating women's changing gender roles.”60 The sitcom's neat narrative resolution ensured that the tensions were secondary to domestic harmony. Reflecting a conservative emphasis on the family, domestic dad sitcoms foregrounded gender problems but solved them through a simplistic reassurance of love and understanding among the family, which included the domestic dad.
By 1985 domestic sitcoms saturated the prime-time market, usually formulated to sell in syndication.61 They helped fill the schedules of independent stations in need of programming and provided appropriate family entertainment before prime time, though the glut of sitcoms on prime time and in reruns by the late 1980s concerned some within the industry.62 As predicted by ABC's vice president of marketing and research, Marvin S. Mord, these domestic sitcoms were a necessary response to the changing structure of the American family and, by extension, changing markets for advertisers.63 The flood of Mr. Mom sitcoms was partly responsible for NBC president Brandon Tartikoff's assertion in 1986 that “the fathers in sitcoms were wimps” and that “the audience has shifted in its taste from Alan Alda–esque heroes, who wore their sensitivity on their shirt-sleeves.” Citing the prevalence of male hard-body action heroes in Hollywood cinema as an indication of audience desire, Tartikoff touted Bill Cosby for having “brought masculinity back to sitcoms.”64 In fact, market research indicated that Tartikoff was not entirely correct; “men in domestic roles” were “universally attractive to women in the 19–54 bracket, regardless of [the women's] occupational status.”65 Tartikoff's comments ignored potential readings of sitcom fathers like Cosby's Cliff as new men and neglected the reality that variations on Mr. Mom themes stretched across prime time and syndication. A generation of American children grew up watching domestic dads on television exhibit a range of masculinities that helped foment family bliss.
LEAD DADS AND HELPER DADS: MANNING THE ALTERNATIVE FAMILY
While participant fathers and domestic dads persisted on television through the 1980s, a third trend in Mr. Mom sitcoms emerged later in the decade: series with households run by “lead dads,” sometimes aided by “helper dads.” On Silver Spoons (NBC, 1982–86; first-run syndication, 1986–87), Rags to Riches (NBC, 1987–88), and Empty Nest (NBC, 1988–95) the lead dads were single fathers, struggling to balance career and family. On series like My Two Dads (NBC, 1987–90) and Full House (ABC, 1987–95) lead dads lived with friends who shared household responsibilities. Although the presence of “helper dads” conveys the idea that men cannot raise their children alone, the message across lead dad sitcoms is that men can do it without women. With women liberated from the home, men broadened their gender roles; in doing so, they rendered the wife-mother superfluous to the family unit. Lead dad sitcoms were the logical extension of television's response to working mothers: from taking care of the household alongside her, to doing it for her, to finally doing it without her.
The male-led household lends itself to queer readings when the lead dad lives alongside helper dads. Male domesticity can be read as queer for its eschewing of traditional hetero-masculine roles (man as breadwinner or Darwinian wanderer). One of the cornerstones of hegemonic masculinity is, for sociologist Mike Donaldson, “about the winning and holding of power and the formation (and destruction) of social groups in that process.”66 The lead dads on Mr. Mom sitcoms are not interested in organizing home lives according to hierarchies of power; their relationships with helper dads are characterized by cooperation and collaboration. Donaldson argues that within hegemonic masculinity, “fathers do not have the capacity or the skill or the need to care for children,” since nurturing and caregiving behavior “is simply not manly.”67 Outside the bounds of heterosexual hegemonic masculinity, the father figures on My Two Dads and Full House are better described as having “queer masculinities,” which Robert Heasley suggests as an “expansion of the conceptualization of straightness and masculinity” rather than a queer (or homosexual) sexuality.68 None of the lead or helper dads identify as homosexual or queer, but their repeated, fervently asserted claims of heterosexuality call attention to their sexuality in ways that open up possibilities for questioning it. Alexander Doty argues that queer readings can exist in a “reception space that stands simultaneously beside and within that created by heterosexual and straight positions.”69 Through their assumption of responsibilities that were traditionally the province of women, their qualities of character that defy hegemonic masculinity's emphasis on authority and competition, and their homosocial living arrangements, lead and helper dads can be read as queering fatherhood and the domestic sitcom.
An early version of the lead dad premise is Jodie Dallas (Billy Crystal), an openly gay man whose brief affair with a female friend results in the conception of a daughter on Soap (ABC, 1977–81). Much has been written about the flawed portrayal of Jodie's gay identity and backlash from both gay advocacy organizations and the New Right.70 Far less has been written about the cultural significance of Jodie's role as father. When the baby's mother, Carol (Rebecca Balding), abandons the baby, Jodie quits his job to become a full-time father. Jodie's desire to be an active father is reflective of the times and of desires expressed by heterosexual men as well. During several episodes of the third season, Carol sues for custody. When it is his turn to testify in court, Jodie poignantly explains to the judge how devoted he is to Wendy's happiness and wins full custody.71
While this plotline is noteworthy for being one of prime time's first examples of gay parenting, it is equally noteworthy for being one of the first times a father of any sexuality was awarded custody of a child over a mother on television. By the mid-1970s, many states had abandoned “maternal presumption,” instead allowing judges to award custody based on a subjective assessment of the “child's best interests.”72 The film Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) grappled with this, along with the reality that divorce rates in two-income families were rising, a year before the provocative episode of Soap. Thrust into the role of primary parent when his wife leaves him, Ted (Dustin Hoffman) at first struggles but comes to adore participant fatherhood. The judge awards custody to his ex-wife, Joanna (Meryl Streep), but in the film's final moments Joanna recognizes that she is not the best nurturer and agrees to let Ted keep their son. Both Soap and Kramer vs. Kramer position the viewer on the side of a loving dad; in the case of Soap, the narrative positions the law in his favor as well.
Following Soap's run, the NBC sitcom Love, Sidney (1981–83) featured a gay man (Tony Randall) in the role of surrogate father to young Patti (Kaleena Kiff) and friend to her single mother (Swoosie Kurtz). Sidney's homosexuality was downplayed in response to protests from the Moral Majority and other conservative action organizations.73 The New York Times review of the series, for instance, made no mention of homosexuality but described Sidney as a “fussy, lonely man” whose main traits are his “sweetness, his fastidiousness, and his incorrigible desire to meddle in everyone else's affairs.”74 This description draws upon stereotypes of gay men (as neat freaks) and Jewish mothers (as meddlers), making Sidney less than hetero-masculine without identifying him as explicitly queer. Because of the subtlety with which Sidney's sexuality was depicted, Larry Gross argues it was “readily misunderstood by the innocent” viewer.75 Additionally, Sidney served as a father figure in the presence of Patti's mother. On the surface, at least, they resembled a traditional nuclear family with two parents of opposite sexes.
These early portrayals of gay fatherhood were contested and masked. In contrast, lead dads in later series pledged their heterosexuality, and the queerness underpinning their family composition was able to flourish in ways it couldn't for openly gay characters like Jodie and Sidney. The success of lead dad sitcoms on prime time and in syndication meant women characters were sidelined within a television genre that had historically been dedicated to depicting feminine labor. Lynne Joyrich sees My Two Dads and Full House as examples of domestic sitcoms that “promote male homosociality as their ultimate goal and reveal a disturbing desire on the part of men to appropriate women's reproductive and maternal roles.”76 Like Faludi, Joyrich sees these series as “sinister fantasies,” disturbing celebrations of patriarchy, the “negation of the feminine,” which become “the cause for both enjoyment and applause.”77 While I do not dispute a reading of these series as a denial of women's value in the domestic sphere, the affirmation of broader interpretations for masculinities and the invitation for men's greater participation in the home indicate cultural value to Mr. Mom sitcoms beyond labels of “feminist” or “antifeminist.”
The premise of My Two Dads is that a dead woman has left joint custody of her preteen daughter Nicole (Staci Keanan) to her two former lovers, whose friendship was fractured by their rivalry over her. Michael (Paul Reiser) is a successful financial advisor with the means to provide for Nicole, while Joey (Greg Evigan) is an artist with the sensitivity to care for her. Nicole may be the biological child of either or neither man, but they raise her together, in the same apartment, forming a family unit. Their interest in dating women, especially by Joey, asserts their heterosexuality and, by extension, their masculinity. Their nurturing and affection for Nicole, especially by breadwinner Michael, demonstrates their flexibility with gender roles. Their former rivalry for the affections of the mother is mitigated by their mutual love for Nicole. Without the child's mother present (as in Love, Sidney), NBC was initially concerned about potential scandal, not from queer readings of Michael and Joey but from Nicole's nascent puberty in a home with two single men.78 One of the series’ regular characters is the judge who oversees the custody arrangement, and her approval renders it unconventional but innocuous.
Full House similarly capitalizes on the death of a wife-mother to create an alternative family, this time a lead dad with two helpers. Following the premise of My Three Sons, lead dad Danny Tanner (Bob Saget) asks his deceased wife's brother Jesse (John Stamos) and his good friend Joey (Dave Coulier) to move in to help raise his three daughters. This arrangement allows Danny to continue his job as a television host while Jesse and Joey serve as helper dads who are primarily responsible for the children. The children on Full House are girls, so, as with My Two Dads, some humor stems from watching grown men help girls navigate adolescence and its gender-encoded problems. Jesse, the most outwardly macho, initially lives in one of the girls’ bedrooms, which has pink bunnies on the wall (figs. 6, 7). When Jesse marries and moves out in the fourth season, he is so sad that his wife, Becky (Lori Loughlin), moves with him back into the Tanner house, folding their new family and the twins they eventually have into the larger family unit.79 Jesse and Joey's lack of independence in the face of their desire to help Danny makes them parental versions of the “helper homosexual,” a term Alexander Doty uses to describe outwardly gay characters whose narrative life is limited to the ways they can serve or develop the main (heterosexual) character.80 Though explicitly heterosexual, Jesse and Joey have a life mission that enables Danny's happiness. This, along with Jesse's unwillingness to preside over his own nuclear family, enables queer readings of their characters and the Tanner household by extension.
Whereas My Two Dads was only broadcast for three seasons, it would be difficult to overestimate Full House's impact. The series lasted eight seasons, and, following a slow start, was consistently within Nielsen's top twenty programs.81 For much of its run, Full House was one of the principal shows on ABC's TGIF lineup, a two-hour programming block on Friday night that reiterated themes of love across a variety of family units. Full House continues to be rerun on cable; the network Lifetime aired a fictionalized behind-the-scenes account of the series’ production in 2015; and a sequel series, Fuller House, premiered on Netflix in 2016.82,My Two Dads and Full House depict the anxieties and joys men experience when they unexpectedly become parents. Both series coincided with the release of Three Men and a Baby (1987), a film in which three friends care for an abandoned baby one of them has fathered. As with the lead dad sitcoms, Three Men and a Baby finds its humor in how initially befuddled the men are (fig. 8). By the conclusion, the baby's mother has returned for her child, but the men ask her instead to forge an alternative household together. Three Men and a Baby became the biggest box office success of 1987; Americans liked seeing men become engaged fathers.83
By depicting family units with all male parents, films like Three Men and a Baby and sitcoms like My Two Dads and Full House showed that “strong family values” could be found in many forms of family. Indeed, by 1980, the traditional two-parent nuclear family constituted only about two-thirds of all living arrangements in the United States.84 American children were exposed to nontraditional families on television in an echo of a growing phenomenon in real life. Lead and helper dad sitcoms excised women from the family unit and, in doing so, participated in the media backlash to feminism Faludi condemns. Yet they also idealized men's involvement in a way that spoke to the same men who supported feminist causes.
THE NEW FAMILY VALUES
By the early 1990s, most Mr. Mom sitcoms had left prime time. Family Ties was canceled in 1989 to speculations that Michael J. Fox wanted to leave the show, though Fox asserted that it was a strategic move to end the series before it dropped in ratings.85,Charles in Charge and Mr. Belvedere ended in 1990, and in 1992 Who's the Boss, Growing Pains, and The Cosby Show followed suit. Despite its high ratings, Full House concluded in 1995 due to mounting production costs in addition to a shifting target demographic for networks.86 Mr. Mom sitcoms flourished in the 1980s when the working women's demographic was prized and prime time targeted them and family viewing. By the advent of the Clinton era, networks and advertisers began to capitalize on the growing number of young, single professionals, a demographic that favored hipper, edgier programming than the family-focused Mr. Mom sitcoms.87
The domestic sitcom's turn to wholesomeness in the 1980s after the scandalous, sex-filled 1970s was reflective of American culture as the “political activity of the New Right and the threat of AIDS seemed to augur a retrenchment in the behavior of many Americans.”88 Yet Mr. Mom sitcoms were hardly embracing of Reagan-era family values, since “family values” of the New Right in the 1980s included favoring two-parent (heterosexual) married households and skepticism regarding the benefits of women's work outside the home. Reagan may have proclaimed National Single Parent Day on March 21, 1984, but meanwhile he was cutting budgets to programs many single parents relied on, like public housing, food stamps, and Medicaid. In his February 15, 1986, radio address, he described a “crisis of family breakdowns” that “threatened to become a permanent scar” on American society: namely, single parenthood.89 Actor Michael Gross attributed the popularity of Family Ties to its contrast with Reagan's unfulfilled promises to the American family: “Our success was directly proportional to how poorly the American family was actually doing, at a time when the country was beset by economic and social hardship, divorce, drugs, you name it. I think the Reagan Era helped the show a lot.”90 On television, Mr. Mom sitcoms offered shining examples of single fathers, domestic workers supporting single mothers, and alternative family constructions whose bonds were unshakable, though their family compositions did not match Reagan-era ideals.
In spite of 1980s sociopolitical discourses that threatened the women's movement and marked a return of a cowboy ethos in the political sphere, the new man of the 1970s persisted into the next decade on domestic sitcoms. Week after week, Mr. Moms demonstrated their willingness to share in household responsibilities, take care of children, and respond to a changing world order. While John T. Caldwell describes Full House as “awkwardly linking multiple parents of the same sex together as surrogate parental figures” to preserve the “very myth, viability, and survival of the nuclear family,” Mr. Mom sitcoms also liberated men from their entrenched gender roles as emotionally absent breadwinners.91
With few exceptions, Mr. Moms were white, and their families were middle- to upper-class. This economic and racial privilege afforded men greater flexibility to engage in household affairs, but it meant a reinforcement of stereotypes that men of color and of the working class are not as invested in their children and families. Bill Cosby's Cliff Huxtable remains the most prominent example of a nonwhite Mr. Mom, but by and large, the new man ideology espoused on Mr. Mom sitcoms remained a privilege among men who could afford to have progressive values because they were at little risk for losing the means to support their families.
Nonetheless, Mr. Mom sitcoms are an important part of television history. Because the sitcom has always been a genre that evolves with different social contexts, its reconfiguration in the 1980s to increase the role of men in family life was a development that reflected the reality of more women entering the professional workplace, increased network interest in those women as audience members, and the changing nature of American masculinity in response to the women's movement. While many of these sitcoms did not survive beyond the early 1990s, they enjoyed successful runs during the 1980s, and their cultural influence has persisted in syndication, DVD sales, and streaming video. Jane Feuer claims that the 1980s “appear to have been a golden age, especially since most of eighties programming is still available in the form of syndicated reruns.”92 This is certainly true of Mr. Mom sitcoms, whose cultural legacy remains strong today.