Politics & Policy

The Father of All Bad Ideas

Fox defines fatherhood down.

Of those everyone loves to hate, few can compete with the deadbeat dad for longevity.

How much do we hate him? While we’re counting the ways, Fox TV may try to help America organize its contempt and put a face on this loathsome character.

Bad Dads, redundant in these male-bashing times, is the name of a new reality show Fox is considering. While the network reviews the pilot, outraged fathers’ advocates are trying to nip this bad seed before it buds.

As proposed, the show features a bounty hunter sort of character, which is not an entirely fictional device. Bounty hunters do exist and pursue noncustodial parents who are behind in child support payments — for a cut of the proceeds, sometimes as much as a third.

In the pilot, Jim Durham, director of the National Child Support Center, tracks a struggling mother’s wealthy ex, whom he confronts at a country club. According to the program’s description, showdowns typically would be preceded by phone calls urging Dad to be a do-right man.

When appeals to conscience fail, Durham investigates assets and does whatever is necessary — getting mortgages foreclosed and cars repossessed — until everybody gets paid.

Executive producer J. D. Roth describes his creation as “justice.”

“It’s a show that depicts the sacrifice and heartache of incredibly brave women on behalf of their kids and then ends in the most gratifying way possible.”

Really? How gratifying can it be for children watching television to see fathers humiliated in front of the world? Not much is an easy guess.

For that reason, among others, fathers’ advocates are justifiably outraged at this new exploration of human prurience. Glenn Sacks, a Los Angeles-based dad advocate and radio personality, along with Fathers & Families and the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, has launched a pre-emptive strike against Fox on his website.

Chief among his objections is the potential harm of this image to children, who already have suffered broken homes — and especially to the few who might actually see their fathers publicly characterized as someone who doesn’t love them.

Bad Dads is just the latest insult to men and especially fathers who feel, appropriately, that they’ve been maligned and minimized through television programming and advertising. In sitcoms, men are typically buffoons. And fathers, if they exist, are inept and unreliable, while Mom is a paragon of virtue and competence. Television executives and advertisers may profit from such “entertainment,” but who’s having fun? Apparently, women are. Four out of five network sitcom viewers are female.

More to the point, Bad Dads reinforces a stereotype that is neither accurate nor fair. The rich pig who leaves his wife and kids for a pole-dancing aerobics instructor — or who enjoys extended martini lunches with his golf pals — is far from the norm.

The more accurate picture of a deadbeat dad is an unemployed or underemployed bloke who sees more jail cells than golf courses. A common sequence of events for the poorest deadbeat dads goes something like this: Fall behind in child support, get arrested and put in jail, lose your job, fall further behind in child support.

Not exactly a formula for rehabilitation or future employment.

One does not have to excuse irresponsible men who abandon their children to recognize that the deadbeat dad story is sometimes more fable than fact. People who work in the child-support loop know that the biggest barrier to child-support payment is unemployment, yet this message seldom seems to penetrate the zeitgeist.

Clearly, some men are sinners and some women are saints. But sometimes the reverse is true. In fact, noncustodial mothers are 20 percent more likely to default on child support than noncustodial fathers, according to U.S. Census data. But we don’t see a reality show aimed at humiliating moms.

Is this because women, who have had fewer opportunities historically, are viewed as more deserving of the benefit of the doubt?

Or is it because civilized people would strenuously object to the public ridicule of moms whose children may be watching?

It’s preferable to imagine the latter. The question is why we feel no such decency toward men and the children who love them.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group


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