“Fatherhood isn’t easy like motherhood”: representing fatherhood and the nuclear family on popular television
Burton, Jack David
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This thesis investigates the way in which tensions between the discursive dominance of the nuclear model and an acknowledgement of the plurality of family forms has been embodied in popular representations of fatherhood. Based on assumptions of gendered spheres of experience that define the domestic sphere as primarily ‘feminine’, fathers occupy an uncertain position within the discourse of the nuclear family. It is this ambiguous position, when contrasted with an assumption of their ultimate dominance, which creates confusion between the symbolic figure of the absent patriarch and the literal presence of the father within family life. Television, in particular, has regularly been forced to confront this dynamic between discursive absence and literal presence, due to the centrality of the nuclear family in both the commissioning and scheduling of programmes. Television’s representation of fatherhood regularly re-asserts or undermines patriarchal privilege by representing the father as a threat to the coherence of the family unit or as an overgrown adolescent who ultimately acquiesces to the ‘natural’ domestic authority of the female. In this way, popular television is able to continue restating a model of the patriarchal nuclear family, while simultaneously acknowledging its contested status as a norm of family life. As highly negotiated attempts to move beyond these common models have proven, however, this approach threatens to replicate a limited discourse of family life through incorporating variation into a single model, rather than broadening available representations. Through an analysis of the representation of fatherhood in the domestic comedy, this thesis begins by investigating the genre’s ability to invert traditional power relationships, allowing it to explore the limits of representing a coherent model of the nuclear family. Progressing to an analysis of the representation of fatherhood in television advertising, it goes on to examine the relationship between an acknowledgement of these limitations and idealised representations of family life within consumer culture. Incorporating a close reading of the ‘Adam’ series of adverts for British Telecom, their representation of a non-nuclear family unit and the role of the father within this unit, this work also considers the potential challenges and rewards of representing alternative models. Exploring both popular and academic discourses of family life throughout, this thesis concludes with a discussion of the possibility of imagining new forms of family that successfully include the father, and the threat to this process posed by their current incorporation into pre-existing representational models.