Jonathan deBurca Butler
There I was one Saturday, standing at the kitchen sink in my slippers, jocks and bathrobe furiously washing dishes and pots when out of nowhere I heard this little voice giving out to me.
“Silly Daddy!” said the voice.
I looked around to see a two-foot version of myself staring up at me with an accusatory veil on his face and frown above his big blue eyes. I was oblivious to what I was guilty of.
“What is it Fionn?” I asked feigning insult.
“No Daddy. Silly Daddy. No.” and off he went to paint a picture. I continued with my chores and wondered where this latest little outburst had come from.After I cleaned some cups, I cleaned a blue plastic beaker and laid out to dry beside a plate which had a picture of a little pink pig playing happily with her father.
“Schweinhunt,” I said to myself realising where Fionn had got the inspiration for his latest denouncement.
Peppa Pig celebrated ten years on air this year. The cartoon depicts everyday family life as seen through the eyes of a five-year-old piglet named Peppa and her two-year-old dinosaur loving brother George. The children live in a house on a hill with Mummy Pig, who works from home, and Daddy Pig, who works as an engineer…sometimes. The series is seen 109 different countries and as a result has made its creators Phil Davies, Neville Astley and Mark Baker multi-millionaires.
The three programme makers say they chose an animal to get around issues of race, class and background and they made the protagonist female because there were very few central female characters at a time when the likes of Postman Pat, Bob the Builder and Fireman Sam were the main little men in toddler TV.
All very commendable but after Fionn’s reproach I began to watch the series with a more discerning eye. It soon became apparent that not only was Daddy Pig silly but he was also a fat, lazy, unshaven cake-lover who spent a lot time either sitting on the couch or failing at things that he claims to be “a bit of an expert in”.
Simple things like reading a map, finding an engine in a car or hanging a picture on a wall are all tasks that seem beyond him and he is as Neville Astley claims the figure of fun in the cartoon.
“He is the funniest one,” Astley said in an interview with Esquire earlier this year. “Kids love to laugh at adults. But dads can handle it. Of course, a lot of people complain it’s really horrible to all men, that we put men down and that they need a bit of a helping hand. Sometimes, we’ve actually put the humour onto Mummy, but we find it harder, especially because most of the writers are men.”
Daddy Pig is just the latest in a long and colourful line of silly daddies that have featured in cartoons. Ever since the creation of Fred Flinstone and his dopey pal Barney Rubble the dozy and sometimes indolent father-figure has become something of a staple. Homer Simpson and Pete Griffin in Family Guy spring to mind. Even outside of cartoons the same stereotype prevails. Pete Brockman in BBC sitcom Outnumbered is something of a cynic and downbeat while Phil Dunphy, the father in Modern Family, is depicted as a downright fool.
While the creators might argue that their programmes are there to entertain and make people laugh some are uneasy with what is seen as an incessant portrayal of fathers as figures of fun and eejitery.
In 2013, well-known website, Netmums, carried out a survey on depictions of fathers in children’s television. 93% of the 2,150 respondents, claimed children’s shows did not represent real-life fathers, while 46% criticised, books, adverts and television shows like Peppa Pig “for portraying fathers as lazy or stupid.” Over a quarter felt there was a “subtle form of discrimination against dads” while almost a fifth believed that portrayals of fathers made children think them “useless”. They also acknowledged that were the same treatment meted out to mothers there would be uproar.
“I’m not so sure [that television] the biggest influence on the child,” says Ann Campbell, a family therapist and member of the Family Therapy Association of Ireland. “I’m at the granny stage now but back when I had children it was Felix the Cat going around or Tom and Jerry and the kids didn’t go around beating each other up. They don’t interpret that as being the way that humans interact with each other and the biggest influence on the individual is the child’s own parents. They understand how the world works by how their own mum and dad work and how they work together. They do have the sense that this [cartoon] is fun; that it’s a story. I don’t think there are formative influences that lead them to believe that all dads are bungling or not involved in serious or important things. I think the most important thing to remember also is how you as a parent respond to it. You have to help them to sift through all the influences that are coming at them.”
While television may not influence children as much as parents fear, Campbell wonders if art is being truly reflective of family life.
“Obviously there’s been a big change in parents’ roles in society now with mum and dad working and children being looked after by friends or family or in a creche,” she says. “And I don’t think that reality is really represented in children’s TV at all. I think both mums and dads are expected to be all singing, all dancing, able to do everything, able to work, have a big and beautiful home. And I think expectations are massively high and I don’t think that’s reflected. With that in mind, I don’t think that portrayal of the lazy, distant father is fair. I don’t think it reflects the role of dads at the moment. They’re much more involved and hands on.”
There is the other side of the debate which suggests that the fathers in many of these cartoons and family shows are a paragon of imperfection and therefore are a grounding vehicle. While, for example, Daddy Pig ticks all the boxes of a negative stereotype he does have some very positive attributes. He is a good listener and is encouraging without being overbearing. He is remarkably selfless; more often than not he ends up giving his bread or cake to the ducks when the family are out for a picnic. He rarely gets angry and he is also full of surprises. As well as being a wonderful drummer, Daddy Pig is a very good diver and also holds a world record for jumping in muddy puddles. While he might spend most of an episode either doing sod all or making a mess of things more often than not he ends up being something of a hero.
Not a bad place to be for a silly daddy.