Tag Archives: Married With Children

My Frustrations And Fondness With Bumbling Dad Tropes

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We know them, love them, laugh at them, and cringe at them every now and then. They entertain us. They educate us. They amuse us in any number of ways, both with real-life antics and those only possible through animation. They are the clumsy, bumbling, oafish father figures of popular culture. Compared to many other tropes, they make up a sizable chunk of the overall comedy footprint in our media landscape.

Don’t get the wrong idea. I don’t write that with disdain or dismay. In fact, I’m quite fond of the bumbling father figures that make up a sizable chunk of sitcoms, animated shows, and movies. I grew up on a steady diet of “The Simpson,” “Family Guy,” and “Married With Children.” Characters like Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, and Al Bundy have had a profound impact on my world and not just in terms of laughter.

As I get older, though, I find myself scrutinizing the dynamics of these faltering father figures more and more. I also find myself paying more attention to the context and circumstances surrounding them, especially as our media and culture evolves in accord with changing trends, some less positive than others.

Maybe it’s because I’m an adult now. Maybe it’s because, as both an adult and a man, I have too much experience with the larger complexities of the world. I can still laugh every time Homer does something foolish or Peter does something stupid. However, a part of me can’t help but contemplate the larger implications of bumbling dads.

Some of it has to do with double standards, which I’ve talked about many times before. Some of it deals with the struggles/inexperience in developing complex fatherly characters who aren’t blatant rip-offs of Superman, John McClane, Jack Baur, or Ward Cleaver. Most of it simply reflects a sentiment that I find frustrating at times.

Think, for a moment, about the dumbest, most hilariously idiotic antics in a show featuring bumbling dads. “The Simpson,” alone, should give plenty of content to draw from. With those antics in mind, contemplate what those antics say about the bumbling dad as a character and what it says about male characters, as a whole.

Whether he’s Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, or a guy you know in real life who once threw up in a kiddie pool after doing shots of habenero sauce on a dare, the themes are fairly consistent. At the heart of every conflict in the story is a selfish, moronic, thick-headed guy who, if he didn’t have his wife and kids, would’ve been dead by now.

The bumbling dad isn’t just the catalyst for most of the conflicts in the show. He basically embodies the inherent ineptitude of men, as a whole. Whereas strong, independent women are celebrated as a trope of their own, the bumbling dad acts as a case study as to why men can’t function on their own. Unless they have a woman and a family to restrain them, they’ll collapse under the weight of their own stupidity.

It doesn’t just reflect poorly on male characters. It sends a pretty frustrating message to female characters as well, saying that women basically have to act as referees on top of being spouses and mothers. Their role, in the context of the bumbling dad trope, is to either clean up the mess or reign the man in before he does some serious damage.

In a sense, the bumbling dad is the catalyst for the nagging woman, a character not nearly as hilarious that can be every bit as frustrating. One causes all the chaos and problems in a story. The other whines about it and tries to limit the damage, often while failing to teach the bumbling dad any meaningful lessons that’ll help him be less bumbling.

Granted, there are some exceptions to that dynamic. Compared to Marge Simpson and Lois Griffin, Peggy Bundy from “Married With Childrencompletely subverts this trope. Then again, that whole show went out of its way to undermine every standard sitcom trope that ever existed. As I noted before, it’s the kind of show that could never be made today.

Those exceptions aside, the bumbling dad represents another point of frustration that has more to do with the implications of character development, as a whole. It’s a frustration that even plays out in other forms of media that don’t involve idiot married men who only still have their limbs because their wives won’t let them near fireworks.

When you take a step back and look at the kinds of roles bumbling dads have in so many narratives, you notice a number of recurring themes that don’t just reflect poorly on them as men and fathers. They also help enable a lot of the themes that reflect poorly on certain female characters as well.

Essentially, the bumbling dad is allowed to be an idiot with flaws, ineptitude, and shortcomings of all kinds. It’s okay that he make a fool of himself, getting hurt and causing all sorts of damage with his antics. When Al Bundy and his idiot male friends keep falling off a roof, it’s funny and entertaining. If a female character did that, though, that just wouldn’t have the same impact.

Even in shows like “Married With Children,” the female characters were never allowed to fall off a roof, get hurt, or get into fights of any kind. Even when they’re not nagging or trying to be the voice of reason, the female characters are treated as more fragile, needing to fill a more specific role rather than explore the vast array of buffoonery that their male counterparts get to experience.

A female character can’t be bumbling, idiotic, or self-destructive. That would imply she has too many flaws. Even in the days before the recent push for more female representation, that was considered taboo.

A female character can’t be the catalyst for a problem either, unless it involves the moral crusades of Lisa Simpson. The idea of a female character causing anywhere near the problems as a man would just trigger too much outrage for daring to hint that women can be as flawed as men. That last sentence was sarcasm, by the way.

This, essentially, is the driving force behind the frustration. The bumbling dad trope basically gives the impression that men are the only ones who can be foolish, self-destructive, unreasonable, and unlikable. Women can occasionally do those things, but never to the point of the bumbling dad.

In terms of character development, that’s limiting to characters of any gender. It means all the conflict, plot twists, and memorable story elements have to come from the male characters. All the female characters ever do is react, recover, or rebuild from the male character’s antics.

The bumbling dad basically sets up the expectations alongside the comedy. We expect them to do something stupid. We expect them to make a fool of themselves, get hurt, and not think things through. We also expect the women to basically bring them back in line again because without them, they just couldn’t function.

Beyond the expectations, the bumbling dad is basically the crash test dummy for all the chaos within a plot. They’re the ones that get hurt. They bear the brunt end of the physical comedy, be it a slap in the face or constantly falling down a cliff. The idea of women getting hurt just as much, even in an era where the push for tough female characters has never been greater, still doesn’t sit right with audiences.

That says as much about lingering gender norms as it does about bumbling dads, as a whole. Beyond just relegating the comedy and the personal journey to a particular male character, it gives the impression that women aren’t capable of doing foolish things. Anyone with a stable internet connection knows that’s just not true.

Again, this is not to say the bumbling dad trope is inherently “toxic.” I’ve already made clear how much I despise that terminology. There will always be a place for bumbling dads and the comedy they inspire. There’s also plenty of room for non-male, non-dad characters to be foolish as well. When it comes to gender, age, race, and sexual orientation, stupidity is the ultimate egalitarian.

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Five TV Shows That Could NEVER Be Made Today (Thanks To Political Correctness)

It’s amazing how much our culture can change in such a short period of time, relatively speaking. It wasn’t that long ago that mixed-race couples were considered scandalous, depicting a toilet on a TV show was taboo, and Bill Cosby was a respectable public figure. Whether it’s decades, years, or just a few weeks, things can change quickly.

That change, however, isn’t always logical or in the right direction. Hell, I’m still trying to figure out the appeal of fidget spinners. While I like to think that most change in society is progress, I don’t deny there are instances where we all take a step backwards and sometimes fall on our asses.

This brings me TV, an undeniable catalyst for cultural change. For more than a half-century now, TV shaped, re-shaped, and upended our culture in all sorts of ways. From Elvis’ scandalous hips to the rise of music videos to shows like “Breaking Bad,” TV has been a force for better, for worse, and for just pure entertainment value.

There have been any number of shows, specials, and moments from TV that have come to define our culture. However, there are some shows that, if they happened today, would generate a very different response than they did when they first aired.

I’m not just talking about shock value or controversy either. I mean that if some these shows debuted in the current year, they would generate the kind of outrage, whining, and protests that flood social media and spur the kinds of debates that can only ever end with someone comparing someone lese to Nazis.

These are sensitive times for reasons I don’t think I have to articulate. We’ve made progress in some ways, but may be regressing in others. Some blame feminism. Some blame toxic masculinity. Some blame greed, bigotry, or political correctness. Some even blame the illuminati, but that may be pushing it.

Everyone seems to see something wrong in the culture of the past and the present. Everyone likes to blame someone or something different. More often than not, it’s a confluence of forces that make certain TV shows of the past ill-fit for the present.

Some of that is due to seriously outdated views and stereotypes. It’s entirely understandable why those shows would never work today. Most sensible people wouldn’t argue that. There are some shows, however, that would generate enormous outrage for petty, asinine reasons.

What follows is a list of classic TV shows that, whether due to content, style, or theme, would never air today. It would just be too controversial and not necessarily for the right reasons. It may reflect a lot about the sensitive nature of our culture today, but in many respects, it also shows just how erratic our collective tastes can be.


“All In The Family”

This one should be pretty obvious. “All In The Family” was already controversial in its day. It subverted the whole idea that a father figure in a sitcom should be respectable, upstanding, and just. Archie Bunker is none of those things and the show was memorable because of it.

Much of the show was built around Archie being a bigot, but a lovable bigot. In this day and age, that sounds like an oxymoron. At the time though, the early to mid 1970s to be precise, it worked for the same reason Sheldon Cooper works in “The Big Bang Theory.” You can be an asshole in a sitcom, but you can still be lovable.

Unlike Sheldon Cooper, though, making Archie’s bigotry lovable today is next to impossible without making him a B-list villain in a Tyler Perry movie. In nearly every episode, he says a line that would’ve caused legions of anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-bigot crowds everywhere to erupt on social media. Anyone who even pretended to laugh at that show would be crucified as a Nazi sympathizer.

Beyond Archie Bunker’s bigotry, though, the overall themes of the show would be enough to make it too controversial for TV. The show routinely mentions “the good old days.” Today, though, that idea has been taken to mean the days when people could be assholes to minorities and get away with it. However anyone may feel about the show or its message, it just would just cause too many shit storms to air today.


“South Park”

I know this seems odd because “South Park” is still on the air, having just completed its 21st season. However, even long-time fans of the show can probably appreciate why it should be on this list, especially when you consider how different the show was in its early days.

Even back in the late 90s, this show generated more than its share of controversy for its vulgarity, profanity, and tendency to kill Kenny every episode. It’s the finer details of those controversies, though, that ensure the “South Park” we saw in those earlier seasons could never air today.

Eric Cartman alone would’ve made the show too controversial. Like Archie Bunker, his overt racism, anti-Semitism, and attitudes towards the poor would’ve triggered plenty of outrage. Add depictions of sacred religious icons and characters like Big Gay Al to the mix and the show wouldn’t have made it past the first episode.

The fact that “South Park” is still on the air is less a testament to its staying power and more a testament to its ability to adapt. It is not the same show it was when it debuted in that it doesn’t confront controversy the same way it used to. Even with that adaptation, it still couldn’t debut today, not with someone like Eric Cartman on the cast.


“Two And A Half Men”

This is another show that ended in 2012, which isn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things. Even so, a lot has changed since “Two and a Half Men” debuted in 2003 and not just with respect to Charlie Sheen’s public persona. In terms of the premise and structure of the show, it could never air today without generating way too much backlash.

This is one of those shows that would enrage both feminists and men’s rights activists, alike. Beyond Charlie Harper’s blatant womanizing, treating nearly every female character a disposable sex toy, there’s also his overly emasculated brother, Alan. In addition to having an ex-wife who routinely screws him over, Alan is needy, submissive, and constantly mooching off of everyone around him.

Even by beta-male standards, Alan Harper is an affront to any man with any measure of self-respect, just as Charlie is an affront to any woman with a shred of feminist inclinations. Granted, that didn’t stop the show from being funny. I admit I loved this show while it was on, even after Charlie Sheen got replaced by Ashton Kutcher. However, its brand of humor would just never work if it aired today.

That says nothing about the depiction of the dim-witted kid, Jake Harper. His depiction would come off as more tragic than lovable than it did in 2003. In terms of the sheer volume of people this show would offend in the current year, “Two and a Half Men” is in a league of its own.


“Baywatch”

First off, I need to make clear that I’m not referring to the sub-par movie that never should’ve been made in the first place. I’m referring to the original “Baywatch” TV show that debuted in 1989, much to the joy of straight heterosexual males everywhere. The show, with its premise built around beautiful women in bikinis and David Hasselhoff’s chest hair, had plenty of appeal.

That appeal is still there today. There’s always appeal for beautiful women and manly men. However, these days it’s become distressingly taboo to admire beautiful women in any capacity that isn’t associated with Wonder Woman movies. We’re at a point where just looking at a beautiful woman is considered harassment by some people.

It’s for that reason that “Baywatch” would never work today. I can already imagine the various angry protests it would incur. People will claim the show contributes to female objectification, rape culture, toxic masculinity, and all sorts of buzzwords meant to make anyone feel guilty for committing the terrible sin of admiring a beautiful woman.

I’ve made clear how absurd this trend is. However, I don’t see it changing anytime soon. As a result, “Baywatch” would just be way too controversial and would probably draw the ire of every feminist or uptight religious zealot with internet access. It’s sad that this world would deny us a show that so nicely depicts Pamela Anderson’s bouncing breasts, but that’s the world we live in.


“Married With Children”

Once again, this show finds a way to be relevant on this site. I’ve mentioned it before in breaking down other topics. I’ll probably mention it again because it touches on so many important aspects of men, women, and family life. Despite that relevance, there’s no denying that “Married With Children” could never be made today.

The list of people this show offended, beyond the angry woman that tried to get it canceled, is as vast as it is comprehensive. This show cracked jokes about women, teenagers, marriage, genitals, animals, fat people, minorities, transsexuals, homosexuals, and pretty much every other minority group you can imagine.

It cracked these jokes in the backdrop of a sitcom that went out of its way to subvert every feel-good family drama that ever existed, so much so that it was originally called “Not The Cosbys.” In many respects, “Married With Children” went even further than “South Park” and “Two and a Half Men” in crafting a sitcom around every offensive trope in the book. It did this with a bravado and glee that you can’t help but respect.

That kind of antipathy to everything that’s supposed to make a sitcom endearing is a big part of what made “Married With Children” so successful. It came along at just the right time to subvert existing trends in TV, creating characters and icons that were raw, unfiltered, and offensive. That timing is also why it could never be made today.

Between the fat jokes, Al joking about shooting his wife, and Kelly Bundy being a stereotypical dumb blond, “Married With Children” would find a way to upset everyone. However, I still think those same upset people would laugh at the show. It was just that funny. It’s a big part of why the show still ranks as one of my personal favorites.

Even if “Married With Children” could never be made today, it still reflects an attitude that I think many people feel whenever anyone gets upset over a TV show. In a sense, it serves as the model for how a show can be so offensive, yet so funny. The fact we’ll probably never see anything like it again makes it all the more special.

 

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Al Bundy Syndrome: The Face Of Learned Helplessness

Some concepts are so vague that it’s hard to put a human face on it. I suspect that’s part of why many people suck at math. You can’t personalize it, humanize it, or imagine it on a pair of breasts. Even things that directly affect people, like learned helplessness, are hard to grasp.

That’s why if you find a way to put a human face on a serious issue, you jump at the chance. It doesn’t just make it easier. It makes them memorable in an unexpected way. I consider the concept of learned helplessness a serious issue that affects our personal lives, our professional lives, and our sex lives. It goes beyond the world of an aspiring erotica/romance writer. It’s way bigger than we’re comfortable admitting.

That’s why, in the interest of putting a human face on a serious issue, I’d like to present the greatest personification of learned helplessness in the history of media. Some of us grew up with him. Some of us were appalled by him. He’s a myth, a legend, and an icon in his own tragic right.

His name is Al Bundy, the hapless husband and father of the Bundy family from the Fox classic, “Married With Children.” To those who have watched every episode and love the show as much as I do, you already understand why Al is the perfect embodiment of learned helplessness.

For those who aren’t familiar with “Married With Children” or why it was such a groundbreaking show, I feel sorry for you. For most people under the age of 20, they have no idea how much this show shook our collective understanding of modern television.

Say what you will about the trash currently on TV now, but before “Married With Children,” it was much worse. By worse, I mean they were boring. Most sitcoms were bland, generic, feel-good stories that tried to paint the world in an overly-rosy picture. Every one of them basically tried to capture the spirit of “Father Knows Best” or “Leave It To Beaver.”

Married With Children” saw that and decided to do the exact opposite, so much so that when it was in development, the title of the show was called “Not The Cosbys.” It was a show where all the conflicts weren’t solved at the end. It was a show where the world wasn’t idealized, perfect, or fair. In other words, it was more in line with the real world.

In that world, Al Bundy gets dealt a worse hand than most. At one point, he was a high school football star with a promising future. Then, he got hit with a streak of bad luck that effectively crushed his spirits.

He got injured and lost his football scholarship. He got involved with Peggy Bundy, a woman I’ve cited before as a character that men should rightly dread. He eventually has two kids that don’t respect him and works a dead-end, low-paying job as a shoe salesman.

While other sitcoms glorify the innate dignity of working class men like Ralph Cramden, Archie Bunker, and even Homer Simpson, there’s nothing glorious about Al Bundy’s life. There’s nothing noble about his poverty. He doesn’t even try to come off as sympathetic. His life doesn’t raise the bar or embody an ideal. If anything, it reminds ordinary people just how bad things can get.

Whereas other TV sitcoms try to uplift an audience by showing how loving, functional families solve their problems in a simple, 30-minute show, “Married With Children” sent a different message. It presented the audience with a level of dysfunction so extreme, so exaggerated that even if you’re home life was a mess, you could take comfort in the fact that you were not the Bundy family.

What makes that message so powerful is also what makes Al Bundy such a perfect example of learned helplessness. Fittingly enough, the actor who played him, Ed O’Neill, actually drew inspiration from someone in his own family.

In a sense, Al Bundy was built around the idea that he was just resigned to his fate. He realized how much his life sucked, that his family didn’t respect him, and that his best days were behind him. Dealing with all that in addition to working a dead-end job effectively destroyed his spirit, so much so that he stopped trying to better his situation.

That perfectly reflects some of the early experiments done about learned helplessness, namely those involving a poor dog that just stopped trying to avoid painful shocks. Al Bundy is basically that dog after it has been shocked so many times that it just doesn’t bother anymore. It accepts that it will suffer and doesn’t try to avoid it.

In a sense, it becomes a mentality akin to a psychological illness. In the spirit of caveman logic and excuse banking, I’ll give it a name. From here on out, let’s call it “Al Bundy Syndrome.” That’s a much more memorable name than the overly-technical term, learned helplessness. With Al Bundy Syndrome, the condition has a name and a face that Ed O’Neill made iconic.

Given that we already have weird diseases like restless leg syndrome and walking corpse syndrome, which I swear is a thing, I don’t see why we can’t create a syndrome out a fictional character. In fact, it wouldn’t even be the first time.

I’m not a doctor, nor do I claim to be an expert in anything that doesn’t involve telling sexy stories, but it’s for that reason that I feel it’s so important to put an actual face on an issue that’s hard to understand. Psychology is tricky, complicated, and messy. Al Bundy is simple, crude, and crass. One is innately funnier than the other.

In that sense, it’s easier to see the signs and symptoms of learned helplessness, so long as you frame it in Al Bundy syndrome. Watch any old episode of “Married With Children” and the symptoms reveal themselves. They include feelings like:

  • Being hopelessly numb to the misery around you, like Al Bundy
  • Making little to no effort to improve your situation, like Al Bundy
  • Assuming the worst in every situation, like Al Bundy
  • Having an extremely cynical outlook, like Al Bundy
  • Not caring about whether the world likes or respects you, like Al Bundy
  • Having no shame or filter about what you say, like Al Bundy

The list goes on, but there are too many to list and watching old episodes of “Married With Children” is probably far more informative than any list, not to mention funnier. It’s a show that probably couldn’t get made today, due to how politically incorrect it was, even for its time. That makes its impact all the more vital.

I doubt that Ed O’Neill or the producers of “Married With Children” intended Al Bundy to be the poster boy for learned helplessness, but sometimes the connections are there and all we have to do is make them. So, moving forward, if you want to know what learned helplessness is and how to avoid it, just remember this face. It may save your life, your marriage, and your soul.

For that, I thank you Ed O’Neill.

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