"At the very least, obliviousness of one's privileged state can make a person or group irritating to be with." -- Peggy McIntosh, Wellesley College, 1988, "White and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women's Studies."
Men -- dads -- are not under cultural siege. Let's get that out of the way up front. If you believe otherwise, please read the 1988 Peggy McIntosh essay on white and male privilege.
Here's the thing, though. Knowing male privilege is real, that 21st century Western society remains slanted in favor of men in many ways does not mean that dads should stay silent in the face of (yet another) mass media depiction of fathers as buffoons or secondary actors in the complex dance of parenthood.
Why, though? What difference does it make if a brand like Huggies (circa 2012) or Similac pokes fun at dads or fails to adequately acknowledge the statistical reality that more fathers are engaged, caring, competent parenting partners than ever before?
More on that in a minute. First, a quick look at the recent (and welcome) movement away from stereotypical "doofus dad" depictions in U.S. commercials, TV shows and movies.
In the wake of a handful of high-profile dad-oriented Super Bowl commercials -- Toyota, Nissan, Dove Men+Care and Doritos covered that ground with varying degrees of success -- we saw an outpouring of heartfelt responses on Twitter and Facebook. Before the game, Zach Rosenberg of 8Bit Dad analyzed the coming wave of dad-centric advertising and explained the economic reasons why brands might be more willing to lean toward realistic -- or at least non-cartoonish -- depictions of fathers in ads.
As social media buzzed Sunday night with all the "feels" being elicited by these largely sentimental appeals to our emotional common denominator as parents, I began to notice dissenting voices. Which... of course. That's how the Internet works:
Fictional Tweeter One: "Oh, man, what a great commercial! Nissan really gets the pain of separation a traveling parent feels!"
Fictional Tweeter Two: "Are you kidding? The dad in the Nissan commercial was a jerk! He chose to be a race car driver instead of being home with his kid! The commercial was stupid."
FT1: "You're stupid!"
FT2: "No, you're stupid!"
And then came the inevitable backlash against the comments celebrating the depictions of fathers as real people, as opposed to idiots or cold-hearted jerks. I say inevitable, because there are those who believe that dads who speak up against unrealistic portrayals of fatherhood in commercials are "whiners" or, in some cases, blind to the existence and ongoing effects of male privilege.
More than once Sunday night and Monday morning, I saw post-Super Bowl comments on social media intimating that people who appreciated the non-cartoonish depictions of fathers seemed to seek some sort of bizarre validation through those depictions.
I was compelled to post a backlash-against-the-backlash comment on the DadScribe Facebook page. Here's an excerpt of my Monday morning screed:
"Why is it important for big brands to present a realistic depiction of dads in commercials? Because to do otherwise insults the entire family, not just men. I don't get mad when a bumbling dad makes it into a modern commercial or TV show, but it does make me wonder whether the people who made the ad or show know what they're doing. Commercials don't drive reality or give dads permission to be engaged and emotionally vulnerable. They reflect reality -- which is that more dads want to be engaged and are willing to be emotionally vulnerable."
That's what it's about for me.
It's also about economics and selling things, sure. Brands would not make the shift unless they knew it was in their financial interest. The Washington Post's Wonk Blog broke it down well on Monday morning, and nailed the headline "The Super Bowl ads were right: Dads in America really are changing their act."
Men are not under siege in America, in spite of what certain Fox News talking heads might proclaim about the "insidious" effects of the movie Frozen on the Masculine Ideal. I believe most dads understand that male privilege exists, that the influence of centuries of patriarchal dominance in Western society won't disappear overnight.
I also know that it's not easy to reconcile the fact of male privilege with the fact that more men today are embracing their roles as caregivers -- unapologetically, enthusiastically, competently. Praising Super Bowl ads that show good dads in action is not about seeking validation. It's not about stroking egos.
It's about the welcome acknowledgment that there are men -- dads -- who recognize that society's hard-carved gender assumptions need no longer apply. It's about acknowledging that the definition of masculinity has evolved, and fatherhood has evolved along with it.