When you’re a stay-at-home dad, you watch more children’s cartoons than you might prefer. It’s natural to start analyzing — some might say overanalyzing — them. Therefore, I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that the cartoon dads in Doc McStuffins and WordGirl both have stay-at-home dads.
It is worth mentioning that although there have been times when one or both of my kids have been obsessed with these shows, turning them on has never made me want to scoop my eyes out with a used plastic spoon. And I can hardly remember a time before most of my television watching involved unironically cheery animated characters.
Doc McStuffins, the more well-known of the two shows, is about a girl who fixes what ails stuffed animals and toys who come to life in her presence. WordGirl is about a girl who happens to be an alien (from the planet Lexicon, get it?) living with her adoptive parents and brother as her alter ego, Becky Botsford, but who battles villains as the superhero WordGirl.
Stay-at-home cartoon dads?
In most children’s programming, the juvenile stars of the show generally spend WAY too much time out of adult supervision. For example, if this were real life, Child Protective Services would have some really tough questions for the parents of Max and Ruby, the titular characters of a really annoying cartoon by the same name. These two anthropomorphic bunnies have a grandmother that pops by every once in a while, but I can only assume that their parents got fed up with Ruby’s condescending tone and left to pick up a pack of smokes at a convenience store three years ago with no intention of ever returning. Meanwhile, the parents in Doc McStuffins and WordGirl are around enough that even a casual viewer could tell they are a valuable part of a wholesome family dynamic. (Unlike you-know-which snooty bunny and her brother’s parents.) The mother in Doc McStuffins is a doctor and clearly an inspiration to her medically inclined daughter. The mom in WordGirl is a district attorney. The fathers in both shows just seem to be around, providing support, transportation,and occasional meals. It’s not something discussed or even really alluded to, but I don’t think my assumption that they are stay-at-home dads is nearly as wild as my speculation on the mysterious disappearance of Max and Ruby’s parents.
The fact that the cartoon dads’ “occupations” are never mentioned on these shows is all the more surprising when you consider how in your face stay-at-home dads are presented on primetime TV and movies. Just think of the thankfully short-lived Guys with Kids and Modern Dads, as well as Chris Rock’s character in Grown Ups and Eddie Murphy and Jeff Garlin’s characters in Daddy Day Care. Not only was the portrayal of these men as stay-at-home dads front and center, they were, with the possible exception of Modern Dads (to be honest, I didn’t make it past the pilot), either incompetent, miserable or severely judged by others. Not so on Doc McStuffins and WordGirl, where staying home just seems to make sense for Mr. Botsford and Mr. McStuffins, and nobody questions that decision.
Cartoon dads Dr. McStuffins and Mrs. Botsford both bring home decent bucks, but probably have to work some late hours. The option to stay home was available to their husbands and (although Mr. Botsford is kind of goofy and really should know that his daughter is WordGirl) the dads are good at what they do. It’s not a big deal for anyone … it just is what it is. Men (cartoon or otherwise) don’t stay home to make some sort of social statement. They stay home either out of necessity or because it is in the best interest of their family. No different than mothers who do the same.
Other cartoon dads of note
WordGirl and Doc McStuffins are far from the exceptions in the current crop of kid’s TV. There are great cartoon dads in a number of really smart shows. One of my favorites is Phineas and Ferb. The title characters are boy geniuses. Although not a stay-at-home dad, Lawrence Fletcher knows more about his sons’ scientific exploits than does his wife, who has the uncanny ability to overlook every death-defying invention her kids create. Mr. Fletcher does what he can to foster his sons’ creativity and is sometimes part of their adventures. Another example, for a younger audience, is the father of the Pteranodon family in Dinosaur Train. I don’t believe either of the dino-parents has a job in this show. The only person dinosaur who has a full-time gig seems to be the conductor of the magical train. In any case, Mr. and Mrs. Pteranodon are co-equal parents who teach their four children (including an adopted T-Rex) about different dinosaurs over various time periods. These fathers are a far cry from the old school depictions of dads, still found in some cartoons. In the Berenstain Bears, for instance, Papa Bear, though handy with a jig saw, is really nothing more than an overgrown child.
There is a lot of dumb stuff on TV and dads are not always portrayed in the most positive light. I’m glad to see that on many of the better children’s shows, the cartoon dads are active and involved. But, of course, why wouldn’t they be? Maybe there’s some adult programming that is just as forward-thinking when it comes to fathers. I hope so.
Unfortunately, I’m stuck mostly watching my kids’ cartoons for the foreseeable future. Like Ron Swanson said, “There is only Doc McStuffins.” It could be worse.