On Father’s Day, A Look at the Cult of the Male Breadwinner

5 years ago

In the 2009 Shriver Report, subtitled A Woman’s Nation Changes EverythingSusan J. Douglas talks about the discrepancy between media portrayals of women in both news and entertainment programming and the realities most women face. She states that:

“Women’s professional success and financial status are significantly overrepresented in the mainstream media, suggesting that women indeed “have it all.” Yet in real life, even as most women work, there are far too few women among the highest ranks of the professions and millions of everyday women struggle to make ends meet and to juggle work and family.” She goes on to say, “...virtually unnoticed by the media [news and entertainment] are the enormous changes in family life wrought by massive male layoffs and more women becoming breadwinners; the increasing, pressing need for child care and quality after-school programs...” [i]

Not to take away from women’s struggles to be good parents while working outside the home or being the breadwinner of their family—they are very real, as the Shriver Report and my personal experience demonstrate—but I have to ask, what are pop culture and the media saying about men’s struggles for balance between work and family life? And what is the impact of pop culture portrayals on people’s perceptions of men as parents?

Discussing the men’s side of this issue was not Ms. Douglas’ mandate, but it is mine, so I decided to borrow her words and, with a few key changes, apply them to men:

Men’s desire and ability to be involved and engaged parents are significantly underrepresented in the mainstream media, suggesting either that men are less interested in their children than their careers or that men are just not as good at parenting as women. Yet in real life, many men indicate that they want to be more involved with their children but find little support in the workplace. Virtually unnoticed in the media are the conflicts men face between work and family life, and the many benefits to be realized by both mothers and fathers from better initiatives for work/life balance, like flexible hours, telecommuting, improved parental leave options, and affordable, high-quality child care.

In short, men also contend with issues of work/life balance and the media is failing them in this regard, just as much as women, to the detriment of all of us.

The organization A Better Balance published a study in June, 2011 outlining the challenges men face in achieving work/life balance. According to the report, nearly 85% of male respondents feel pressure to be both a good provider and an engaged parent, while 75% believe their jobs prevent them from being the kind of parent they want to be.

At the same time, many men feel there is a stigma for asking for time off to take care of family responsibilities. Even if there were flexible work policies that allowed more family time, many men would not take advantage of them, with 50% of survey respondents worrying that they would be seen as less committed to their jobs and 40% concerned that they would be marginalized or stigmatized. Some had even experienced that stigmatization firsthand, being asked how badly they wanted to keep their job and having their priorities questioned when they asked for time for their families.[ii]

Why would a man’s commitment to his job be questioned just because he wants time off to take care of a sick child or attend a baseball game? Because, despite all the gains made by women in the workforce and the recognition of the important role of fathers in a child’s life, the cult of the male breadwinner remains in our culture. I made note of this in my book:

Men feel consistent pressure to take on the role of provider. They are socialized to see their careers as the most important aspect of their lives and taught to believe that full-time employment is a sign of “successful masculinity”—a belief that many women share. Those who do not conform to the stereotype of the male breadwinner can experience a drop in self-esteem and a feeling that they have failed to become “real men.”[iii]

Ideas about what it takes to be a “real man” are shaped, in part, by the popular culture that surrounds today’s boys and young men—the fathers of the future. According to most pop culture portrayals, the ideal man is emotionally detached or even cold-hearted and stoic, unless expressing aggression. He is not affectionate, gentle, and capable of expressing love. He nearly always works outside the home and is far less likely than his wife to take care of his children.

I talked about how kids’ pop culture portrays fathers in a post I wrote last year: On Father’s Day: Mr. Popper and Hollywood Depictions of Dad.

According to recent research, the images shown in pop culture may be affecting boys’ attitudes. A January 2012 report by Women’s Network PEI referenced a 2011 study conducted by Plan International of Canadian boys aged 12-17.  It showed that one-third of Canadian boys believe that a woman’s most important role is to take care of her home and family, and to cook. Forty-eight percent of the boys surveyed said that men should be responsible for earning income and providing for their families. That’s right. In 2011, nearly half of boys in Canada still believe that men should be the breadwinner of the family. As the next generation of fathers, what will they think of men who prefer to work less so they can spend more time with their children, or those who are content to stay home more while their wives take on the role of breadwinner?

Beyond just fathers, other portrayals of men and boys send the message that men are not suited to parenting.  The Women’s Network PEI report cites a Children Now study outlining how males are depicted in the media children see: almost three-quarters of children aged 10-17 describe male characters on TV as violent, while more than two-thirds describe them as angry. The Plan International study, referenced earlier, notes that nearly half of the boys surveyed believe that to be a man you have to be “tough.” Seventy-seven percent of boys felt they would be ridiculed by their friends if they were seen crying. [iv]

Children who have an engaged and involved father in their lives are certainly at less risk of believing in or living out the traditional gender roles so often presented to them in our popular culture. For children who do not have such a positive male role model in their lives, the impressions left by pop culture will have a much greater impact: studies have shown that exposure to stereotyped gender portrayals in the mainstream media increases support for traditional views of gender, including traditional occupations and activities. [v]

What can be done?

Ms. Douglas concludes her essay by noting that when women as breadwinners are not seen in the media, their needs are not acknowledged. She suggests that our society would be better off if we made the role of women as breadwinners more visible, while also exposing sexism in the media and increasing media literacy for children.

Absolutely true, but I would make the same argument for men as caring and involved parents—if they are not seen in pop culture, they will not have their needs discussed or addressed.

In addition to seeing more female breadwinners in pop culture, we need to see more men depicted as loving and competent fathers. Along with fewer sexist portrayals of women, we need fewer sexist portrayals of men as hard-hearted, disinterested, or clueless parents. And we need to hear more talk about the issues both women and men face in trying to parent their children while under pressure to make ends meet.  Only then are we likely to hear about and see enacted solutions that work for men, women and, most importantly, their children.

[i] Douglas, Susan J. “Where Have You Gone, Roseanne Barr?” in The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything” edited by Heather Boushey and Ann O’Leary. Washington: Center for American Progress, 2009. 282, 291. http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2009/10/pdf/awn/a_womans_nation.pdf

[ii] Bakst, Dina et al. Beyond the Breadwinner: Professional Dads Speak Out on Work and Family. A Better Balance, June 2011. 3,15. http://bit.ly/KJeXh7

[iii] Lee, Christina and R. Glynn Owens. The psychology of men’s health. (Buckingham: Open University Press, 2002), 73-76.

[iv] Women’s Network PEI. What About the Boys?: Understanding and Addressing the Challenges of Developing Healthy Masculinity. Although PEI is a very small province, the study done by Women’s Network PEI offers a very thorough investigation of narrow definition of masculinity available to boys and young men today. I highly recommend this report, which can be obtained at http://wnpei.webnode.com/news/womens-network-pei-releases-findings-on-pei-attitudes-of-masculinity/.

[v] Ward, L. Monique and Allison Caruthers. “Media Influences,” in Vol. 2 of  Encyclopedia of Women and Gender: Sex Similarities and Differences and the Impact of Society on Gender.  ed. Judith Worrell. (San Diego: Academic Press, 2001), 696.


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