Good representation is a win, but single fathers are human

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Growing up, I felt a bit out of place without a mother. I knew plenty of people raised by single mothers, and a few people with two dads, but nobody with a single father. Luckily, I was also minorly (majorly) obsessed with “Star Wars” growing up. I remember watching “Attack of the Clones” as a middle schooler and thinking that Boba Fett was just like me: he only had a dad, and he certainly had plenty of siblings as well. Fortunately, my father was not beheaded by Mace Windu when I was a child like Jango Fett was. 

That was when I discovered the importance of representation. If I didn’t have anyone in real life who was like me, it made me feel less alone to see a fictional person in the same situation I was in. It wasn’t surprising that I didn’t know anyone else raised by a single father until high school; while 23% of U.S. children under the age of 18 live in a single-parent household, only 16% of single-parent households are headed by single fathers.  

The first appearance of a single father in a television show was “My Little Margie,” a sitcom that aired from 1952–1955 on CBS and NBC. It was about a widowed father who shares an apartment with 21-year-old daughter Margie and mainly focused on Margie’s attempts to find a new wife for him. This format continued through the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s with shows like “My Three Sons,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Diff’rent Strokes.” These shows were almost always about widowers raising their children, as divorce was seen as immoral, and often featured help from a “stand-in mom.” Single-father shows were particularly prominent during these decades, as they were seen as the only option for showing single parenting; mothers were told by society that they couldn’t be both the “breadwinner” and the “caretaker,” but fathers were praised for it.  

Single-father representation has continued to improve throughout the decades, with a notable improvement since the late ‘80s with the introduction of smash hit “Full House.” After the death of his wife Pam, Danny Tanner must raise his three young daughters with the help of his brother-in-law and childhood best friend. 

“Full House” shows three father figures who certainly have faults but try their best to be physically and emotionally available, and who practice open communication with their kids. Bob Saget, who portrayed Danny in the series, said that he wanted to break stereotypes and set a good example by giving his character a preoccupation with cleaning and having him always hug his family.  

For my fellow college students, “Finding Nemo” and “Hannah Montana” are good examples of single-father representation from our childhoods. Recently, there has been a renewed interest in portrayals of single fathers on TV, which I attribute to shows such as “The Mandalorian,” “The Witcher,” and “The Last of Us.” Although these shows are set in fantasy or alternate universes, their depiction of a fatherly relationship with a young child is a focal point of their character development and can mimic the struggles of single fatherhood in real life. In watching these particular shows, however, I have noticed a strange narrative in popular culture: the romanticization of single-father relationships. 

When I tell people I was raised by my dad, I usually get a response about how it’s “cute” or “wholesome,” and I’ve even seen comments popping up online of people wishing they were raised by a single father. This feels not only bizarre but wrong to me. I’ll be the first to admit that my father’s parenting has many flaws, only some of which are due to parenting five kids by himself. He always made an effort, but I was raised by my oldest sister when I was young, and I didn’t see much of him until the majority of my siblings had moved out. To his credit, from middle school onward, he was at every concert, every musical and every cross-country race, but I was left to fend for myself in most other areas.  

It’s very telling that I’ve never heard anyone say they wished they were raised by a single mother. Portrayals of single fathers in popular TV shows definitely have something to do with this difference in attitude and outline an undercurrent of sexism within single-parenting representation. Single mothers are often shown as worn-down and overworked. They are touted as a cautionary tale of how a home can fall apart without a father. Single fathers, on the other hand, are mostly represented as financially stable with enough time to look for love. Viewers can swoon over them as men that can do it all; enjoying both a thriving career and raising their children, all by themselves. Sure, they might miss their dead wife, but they’re doing just fine on their own. This is a clear double standard. 

Would single fatherhood be a trendy television plotline if it was set in the real world, showing the daily struggles of single fathers and their children like most shows focused on single mothers do? As the child of a single father, I can tell you that the answer is no.