Dads Finally Get Fair Shake in the Media

By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

The media image of fathers–long portrayed as bumbling, inept and irresponsible–is changing. This has been a good year for dads in the media. One example is Sony Pictures’ new movie The Pursuit of Happyness.

Happyness stars Will Smith as Chris Gardner, a homeless, hard-luck single father with a five year-old son. Through sheer force of will, Gardner raises his boy and pulls them out of poverty, eventually becoming a multi-millionaire. The movie is based on a true story and co-stars Smith’s eight year-old son as Gardner’s son Christopher.

As Gardner, Will Smith strives to create a "normal" environment for Christopher, even when the two were spending their nights on the floor of a public bathroom in Oakland. Gardner explains:

"We may not have known where we were going, where we were going to eat, or where we were going to sleep, but we were together every day. There are probably a lot of folks whose children live in million-dollar houses who can’t say that."

Appearing recently on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Christopher, now 25, paid his father the greatest compliment any parent could receive:

"I didn’t know we were homeless. I just remember that we were doing a whole lot of moving. I just know that when I looked up, he was there. I looked around, he was there."

Ford Motor Company’s controversial "Bold Moves" divorced dad ad was another step forward for fathers. The ad begins with a stereotypically happy family taking a trip to the beach in a Ford Freestyle SUV. At the end of the commercial comes an unexpected twist–the car pulls into a housing complex, and dad gets out. He hugs his kids, tells them he’ll see them next week, tells his ex-wife, "Thanks for inviting me this weekend," and waves goodbye.

The ad does more than give heretofore invisible divorced dads some needed visibility; it also provides an important image of a divorced couple working to preserve their children’s relationships with both parents. Dad remains involved, and his ex, instead of putting forth her new husband as the children’s "new dad," invites him along.

The controversy over PBS’s documentary Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories is an example of fathers’ ability to directly impact the way the media portrays them. The film stereotyped divorced fathers as abusers and molesters who were routinely winning sole custody of their children and driving mothers out of their children’s lives.

After the film aired in October of 2005, fatherhood groups responded with a storm of protest, and over 10,000 protestors called or wrote PBS. PBS responded by agreeing to make a new, balanced documentary on divorce and custody issues. Ken A. Bode, the Ombudsman for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, stated that this fall PBS "made good on its promise," airing a film which emphasized that "children want and need both parents and that two-parent involvement after a divorce is important."

The surprising success of Tim Russert’s book Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons was another positive development. In 2004, Russert published Big Russ and Me about his father, and received an "avalanche" of letters from men and women who wanted to tell him about their own dads. Wisdom is largely a sampling of those 60,000 letters. It was an unlikely runaway hit, reaching #1 on both the New York Times bestseller list and on Book Standard’s Overall Bestsellers Chart.

In heartwarming and heart-wrenching stories, Russert’s readers remember their fathers as strong, devoted and honorable. Perhaps the book’s most striking feature is the overwhelming outpouring of love from women towards their fathers. One explains "growing up in a rural area of the Deep South could have been a harsh experience for a little black girl, but I was insulated by his love and tenderness." Another describes how her dad who worked twelve-hour shifts to support his family but always set aside time for a special, early morning father-daughter coffee date.

While the "Father Knows Best" depiction of dads was always a distortion, the "Father Knows Nothing" media theme of the past couple of decades has been a far greater one. Dads deserve a media rehabilitation–hopefully 2006 was its beginning.