Why Does Hollywood Think Men Caring For Children Is Hilarious?

On the eve of The Sitter, we examine one of Hollywood's laziest concepts.

By Alex Heigl

This week, Jonah Hill will become The Sitter. He will somehow be duped or forced into caring for small children, and hilarity will ensue. There will probably be a diaper joke, and the F-bomb will most likely be directed at a young child. Now, I won't see this movie, mostly because I don't like laughing at the ghost of fat Jonah Hill knowing I have a sad skinny Hill to return to in real life, but also because I'm protesting. I'm protesting the fact that Hollywood, time and time again, has proved that their idea of comedy is to put men in charge of children.

The Sitter explores but one spin on the "men caring for youth" concept. There are several, ranging from Hill's "idiot puts down remote/game controller, picks up baby" to the other end of the male spectrum, best exemplified by films from The Pacifier to Mr. Nanny, which suggest Hollywood finds it unspeakably amusing to put men who are otherwise capable, handy, murder-machines in charge of small children. Apparently, their thinking is something like, "Look at how priceless it is to watch this man who has committed unspeakable atrocities in the name of his country struggle with a diaper." But, aside from the fact that it's not actually all that funny unless you've suffered a blow to the head, it speaks to an irritating conceit: that men are somehow incapable of caring for, dealing with, or otherwise raising children in any capacity that doesn't involve violence or typically "masculine" activities. 

There's another, less extreme but possibly more offensive version of this, and it's that even regular, working-class joes should never, ever be left alone with their children. In these cases, it's not that the men are simply tired from a hard day fighting grizzlies and fixing Dodge Chargers. In Daddy Day Care, Eddie Murphy's titular Daddy isn't a cage fighter or Marine: he's in marketing. And yet, he's hilariously inept when it comes to child-rearing. TV Tropes has a series of cliches related to this phenomenon, but they're all just variations on a theme. Men are bad at cooking, cleaning, and caring for children. 

But it's not even that men are portrayed as having skill sets that preclude them from being charged with the safety of a child: it's that they're twisted bastards if they express an interest in it. Wikipedia helpfully illuminates this with the following sentence from its synopsis of Daddy Day Care: "At first, the local moms are suspicious of men wanting to work with children (mainly because they think they're homosexual or child molesters)." Men are not only incapable of working with children, but should their urge to care for them manifest in any capacity other than pure "heterosexual" hunting/gathering, it's sick.

It's really an extension of the basic pop-culture cliche that men are slovenly pigs wallowing in their own filth, and that any basic level of hygiene or order in a man's house implies femininity or a less-than masculine character. (Seen recently in this past season's immediately cancelled attempt to make Kevin Dillon palatable, How to Be a Gentleman.) Raising children generally requires hygiene and order, after all, and neither of those is the domain of real men

And I don't need to point out (but I will anyway) that it's an inaccurate stereotype as well as a demeaning one. "House husbands" are a very real thing. In 2004, the Census Bureau identified just over 100,000 stay-at-home-dads in the U.S. population; by 2010, that number hit 150,000. Single-father homes are the fastest-growing type of household in the U.S. My dad mended nearly every article of clothing I had as a kid at some point, either by sewing machine or needle and thread, because he was great at it. I didn't think it was weird; I just thought it was awesome that my Spider-Man sweatshirt had two sleeves again.

So why does Hollywood return to this well over and over again? Because it's easier? I suppose that has something to do with it — after all, seven of the top ten highest-grossing movies of 2011 were sequels, so I'll spare you the boilerplate ranting about the death of creativity. Because it's funny? In movies like the aforementioned Mr. Nanny, the laughs come from the juxtaposition of raw power and masculinity being applied to something as "feminine" as child care, but surely there's something primal and powerful about being able to care for your young, even if that's channeled into something as simple as keeping them from running into a busy street. 

A recent study showed that testosterone levels in men drop after the birth of a child, causing them to be more caring and less aggressive. This makes it seem like evolution has hard-wired men to fall naturally into the role of caretaker — there's no skin-shedding, or painful loss of horn-like protrusions, just a gradual shift in demeanor and priorities. Suddenly, working on your abs becomes less important than making sure there's no hard edges near your child's cranium. If that's so natural, why is it constantly played for laughs?

Ultimately, I don't have any real answers, and to be fair, I'd take two sequels and a TV series based on The Sitter if it meant the death of just one of the dozens of other profoundly obnoxious (and much more harmful) stereotypes that Hollywood revels in. But to the stay-at-home dads and house husbands out there: aren't you sick of this? There are a lot of you who are absolutely raising the fuck out of your children, and don't you think it's time we all stop collectively laughing our asses off at the very idea of that situation?

Now if you'll excuse me, I have grizzlies to kill and children to hilariously endanger. Wait, who put my killin' knife right next to my huggin' knife?

Commentarium (37 Comments)

Dec 05 11 - 3:49am

I've seen a lot more great, warm depictions of single-fatherhood (or being the father of a child of divorce, told entirely from the man's perspective) than single-motherhood on television, and single motherhood is a hell of a lot more common. Oh, and I can off-hand think of three pairs of gay fathers currently on television, and not a single pair of lesbian mothers. So I would say television, at least, still has quite the affinity for fatherhood.

Dec 05 11 - 4:34pm

Just read my name. Thanks.

Dec 05 11 - 6:01am

At the risk of sounding misogynistic; America culture is 'women-centric'. Chick lit, chick flicks, everything in retail, fashion, you name it. When couples live together 90% of the time, it's the woman not the men who pick the film. As a result of this, we have a predominately feminine culture. (The "male" culture is porn, sports: largely retarded and shame-based forms of entertainment). The sad thing is this whole P.C. push has driven straight men into a more feminized role: totally P.C. totally "soft", super-polite, prissy, zero backbone. (Contrast this with Black male culture: they do what they want; they say what they want- of coarse, the white culture politely dismisses this behavior as "Ghetto" but they're more real in as much as they don't affect a 'sensitive' persona to convince anyone how 'in tune' they are to social causes.)
These are big issues and sweeping generalizations and this is a comment board, not a dissertation but it's sad that we live in an emasculated culture. Compare the current culture to the culture of the 70's and 80's when things were more balanced and it becomes even more clear: America is gay.

Dec 05 11 - 11:23am

I hate to be the one to go there, but...u mad bro?


Dec 05 11 - 2:04pm

Uh, no? Not sure if you're saying I've been trolled or i am trolling.

Dec 05 11 - 3:27pm

I agree with nope. While I agree there is a significant trope for single fatherhood being a "hilarious endeavor. " I think there is also a substantial amount of single fatherhood being more serious in movies and tv shows like Millions, Dan in Real Life, Finding Nemo, Andy Griffith Show, The Pursuit of Happiness, Definitely Maybe, Love Actually, and My Neighbor Totoro. That is just what I could think of off the top of my head.

Dec 05 11 - 7:44pm

@nope that video wasn't for you...it was for another troll comment that seems to have been deleted.

Dec 07 11 - 9:29pm

Well, JCB, I see what you meant.

Mar 14 12 - 1:27pm

@GayAmericanCulture... Well good thing someone was willing to risk sounding misogynistic. And racist. And homophobic. Plus strangely condemning of porn and sports.
I'm always a little baffled when I read comments like that on Nerve. Interesting how the right wing redneck can make itself a cozy little nook from which to spew hate in even the most liberal spaces. Very hardy little vermin, they are.

Dec 05 11 - 6:28am

Perpetuating the myth that looking after children is a feminine activity doesn't only hurt men - it also hurts women by maintaining the status quo that childcare is women's work. This perpetuates the expectation that women will give up their careers - or damage them, but leaving the office early and when the child is ill - every time in preference to a male partner doing so.

Dec 05 11 - 4:05pm

thank you

Dec 05 11 - 8:44am

Excellent article Alex. Men's only purpose on the big screen or regular TV is to be put down in any number of ways. (Lazy, incompetent, or just plain irrelevant.) Unfortunately, these issues are prevalent in real-life also. I'm watch the whole Mindy McCready situation with great interest. As of yet, no charges has been filed against her. If the father had taken the child in the same manner, he would have been hunted down, arrested, and thrown in jail already. Disgusting

Dec 05 11 - 8:46am

You cited TV Tropes - WIN.

Dec 05 11 - 11:37am

Counterpoint: Three Men and a Baby is a timeless classic.

Dec 05 11 - 3:25pm


Dec 05 11 - 4:10pm

And Mrs. Doubtfire went to ridiculous extremes to be with his kids because he wanted to be a good dad and part of his kids lives - so far that he has to completely feminize himself to be accepted as a suitable caregiver. But then this was a sloppy article that didn't look to hard for other examples to discuss, or the difference between movies where a guy is in charge of kids vs. when a couple is.

You don't even take into account how all these movies end: After the dad/sitter bumbles through his learning curve he comes out the other side confident in his abilities to take care of kids. (Also, I think it's worth making a distinction between a man taking on the role of dad vs. babysitter, since babysitter is just a job, and all you really have to do is keep the kids alive and unmolested to be successful.) These movies show that yeah, you can fuck up with kids, but it's not the end of the world.

Comedy exists by subverting expectations in a given scenario. These movies play up the difference between a woman who nurtures kids and want to take care of their scrapes vs a man who might tell them to get up and walk it off. Also, it looks like Jonah Hill gets his ass handed to him by his kids, and "fatty fall down" comedy is always funny to a certain group of people. So what?

Hollywood makes movies that make money, and this genre does that. They could give a fuck if it's really that funny.

Dec 05 11 - 12:43pm

Yes, men have unconscious/preconscious anxiety about children and it manifests itself in men writing roles which exentuate and overcompensate for it in television/films. Just like men aren't all action heroes, playboys, star athletes, etc. Films and television are idealized fantasies of our rote and predictable, responsibile fatherly lives. This isn't particularly shocking, is it?

Dec 05 11 - 2:36pm

To lift your spirits, Alex, there's a sitcom on NBC called Up All Night featuring a working mother and a stay-at-home dad. Admittedly I've only seen a couple of episodes, but it was entertaining because both parents were unsure of how to handle their new status. It's also interesting to watch the shift in typical gender roles and see how the father adjusts to home-life. He may be seen as a little forgetful and bumbling at times, but it is not so much because he's a guy as it is because he's in a situation he's not used to and is still figuring things out.

Raising Hope is another TV show - on FOX I think - featuring a single dad. I haven't actually seen this one, but I think the premise is he's a late teen or early 20-something who got his girlfriend pregnant and ends up being the one to raise the baby, with the help of his family. Neither of these necessarily show the men in a particularly strong role as they're trying to navigate fatherhood, but again I interpret this to be more related to the newness of the situation than they are men who just don't know what they're doing.

@Nope, The Kids Are Alright is a recent movie featuring a lesbian couple with children from a donor father, so this is not entirely absent as you would have us believe. However, I wish you'd give some examples of these numerous TV shows, the ones I gave are the only ones I can think of. And Alex is referring more to Hollywood movies, of which there aren't too many with positive single father roles besides Disney movies. In that case, though, the female "mother" type role is typically evil (Snow White and the Witch, Cinderella and the evil step-mother).

Furthermore, my boyfriend works in education and ultimately wants to be a house husband. I find this incredibly attractive and very masculine. You're not alone and the idea is coming along in the media, albeit slowly.

Dec 05 11 - 6:30pm

I think I made it clear that I was talking in terms of television, not film. Honestly the portrayal of alternative families in film is so rare I'm happy whenever it pops up. And I'm not saying lesbian moms have been entirely absent from TV -- Queer As Folk and Friends come to mind -- just that I can't think of any shows with them right now, as opposed to Allen Gregory, American Dad, and Modern Family.

And sure I can give some examples. These aren't all currently running but they're the ones I thoguht of: The Venture Brothers, Arrested Development, The Critic, Two and a Half Men, Home Movies (a single dad and a single mom, to be fair), Better Off Ted, Louie.

Dec 05 11 - 3:39pm

Indiana Jones was raised by a single father, that's all I need to know.

Dec 05 11 - 3:49pm

I hear you, but once a dad, getting upset about mass-media representation of dad's in childcare becomes a pointless indulgence. Who's got the time to watch shit TV and derivative B-grade comedies, let alone merit it with the attention of a sociological discourse? Hell, I'm engaged in raising my kid, and enjoying doing it - who gives a shit what anyone else thinks.

Dec 05 11 - 6:41pm

I'm right there with you Russo. Let's face it ladies and gentlemen: if you over-analyze ANYTHING you're going to find it extrememly easy to have it ruined for you. If the only show we're "allowed" to watch is one with every ethnicity, gender, and orientation thrown in then shit would be just as boring as the current whitewashed state of TV.

Dec 05 11 - 4:21pm

Why do they make these movies?

Because they're incredibly popular in red states. They're "family-friendly" and cater to the mindset of the heavily religous right-wing voter who loves country & western music, Nascar and talk radio. They reach the heart of those who cherish "traditional" values of gender and family. They're reassuring to people to are very, VERY afraid of where this country is headed and DEEPLY wish that the country would go back to whatever wonderful time it was that led us directly to where we are now. Also, unlike all the other films Hollywood makes these days, they won't turn their kids gay.

Dec 05 11 - 5:32pm

Dude. Who gives a fuck? Men are awesome & everyone knows this regardless of some fat shmoe's dumbass movie. You sound like a whiny little girl.

Dec 05 11 - 6:56pm

my daddy used to make all my old Halloween costumes, admittedly he attempted to explain that it was a MACHINE and therefore ok to use but he was good at it, sewing, cooking and general child raising.So a movie about guys who can't look after kids at first gets made....so did the human centipede. I like to have faith in humanity and believe that people know that it's just fiction

Dec 05 11 - 6:58pm

to quote Marteinson or wikipedia: " ... characterizes the essential agon of comedy as a struggle between a relatively powerless youth and the societal conventions that pose obstacles to his hopes; in this sense, the youth is understood to be constrained by his lack of social authority, and is left with little choice but to take recourse to ruses which engender very dramatic irony which provokes laughter."

Shouldn't we see films like The Sitter - may we like them or not - as a depiction of a struggle in the development of a new understanding of the role of genders in the raise and care taking of children?
In exaggerating the problems of child raising the relevance of this work in contrast to the believe of our ancestors in the "working" men and the "home staying" women, "only" tanking care of the children is depicted. The reflection on the problems of the menfolk on what has been the live and work of women for centuries, is primarily a bow to the activities and work of raising children. As an ongoing struggle in reaching equal status between genders, "Irony is the gaiety of reflection and the joy of wisdom" (Anatol France).

Dec 05 11 - 9:48pm

Can I say that I just recently seen a picture of Jonah Hill and he has lost weight... he looks GOOD. mmmm. I know this has nothing to do with the article. Ha

Dec 05 11 - 11:02pm

Nurturing, caring men are sexy as hell. Nothing feminine about it, as far as I can see. Haven't met a woman yet who can resist a man who treats her children with (noncreepy) interest and care.

Dec 06 11 - 9:55am

This spills over into real life Hollywood too...how many times have you seen TMZ reporting that Angelina is making Brad "babysit," or cooing over some celebrity dad taking his kids to the park. " Like, those are *his* children so I'm pretty sure that's not babysitting... actually it's just called "parenting."

Dec 06 11 - 12:41pm
Mr. Mom

It's just Hollywood using another stereotype. The guy who can't take care of his kids because he doesn't do it daily. (Let me add... "Role Models" "The Game Plan", neither of which I have seen) The woman who can't fix the car, computer, or put together the disassembled item. Anything by Tyler Perry. The salesman who is ripping off his customer. etc. etc.

Dec 06 11 - 4:06pm

It's been fashionable, lately, to portray men as buffoonish klutzes, in any situation. It's not PC to portray women in any way except as the honorable, competent, brilliant, sane, and compassionate type that goes about saving us men from our testosterone driven, knuckle dragging, drooling folly. Honestly, the real reason is that no one in Hollywood has the balls to stand up to the shrill quarter.

Dec 07 11 - 12:28am

Because, as much as we like to think we are progressing toward some non gender society, many men who actively enjoy being around young kids turn out to be weird and worse turn out like Sandusky. Not saying this means all men taking care of kids are creeps, but it certainly should raise a flag.

Dec 07 11 - 6:19am
Michael Steane

Single motherhood can be just as funny. Go to your local shopping centre and watch them cajoling and threatening their offspring who respond by pushing more buttons. The threats and swearing spiral ever upwards.
Not funny at all really. Just like the way men looking after children are portrayed.

Dec 07 11 - 6:13pm

I think they should have stopped that meme after "Mr Mom" (starring Michael Keaton IIRC) which was actually funny and pretty much covered the bases, except for the F-word in front of small child gag.
The idea men can't handle kids would have annoyed my conservative farmer Dad, who did his share when needed. Favorite Dad quote, on a day when Mum was off looking after Granny and he was changing my little brother, "Oh Christ, now I've got calf shit on one trouser leg and baby shit on the other".

Dec 09 11 - 4:43pm

Right up there with so many kids movies where a dad or boy gets hit in the testicles. How much outrage would there be if women got punched in the breasts or kicked in the vagina in these movies?

A lot.

Dec 10 11 - 2:43am

You have made some fine points and I agree with a lot of them but I own "The Pacifier" and I have a soft spot for "The Game Plan" why might you ask when these films make fun of as you put it men who have committed "horrible atrocities for their country" taking care of children? Simple. Because I'm pretty sure my dad had no idea what to do with me.

Oh not saying the diaper thing or a bottle- and as far as I know he was only attacked by a goose because my brother provoked it and he was trying to get the moron outta there- but there are those moments in a parents life (regaurdless of gender) where they go "what the hell am I going to do with this kid?!" it could range from the pink hair phase to the all black phase to the other end of the spectrum UBER HOLY OHEMGMAN RELIGIOUS thing.

I'm the youngest of 3, so clearly my dad was a good one but you put my Amazon All American Athlete straight A student sister, my Tall, Dark, Handsome, Golden Boy brother and me... the pale freckled chubby artist (...also I'm the "midget" of the family at only 5'6'' my sister being 6'1'') and my dad had no idea how to relate to me.

Daddy was an 'inactive' SEAL turned USCGR and a success in the business world. He worked hard to get everything he provided for us. He had been a star Athlete all his life and well, look at Tom Sellek- add 2 inches of height? S'mydad. Seriously....here comes along a daughter with learning disabilities, the nuns call "retarded" at the fancy school I went to and all I want to do is draw.

These movies are the "fish out of water" type of story you see them all the time it's something Hollywood has used for YEARS. You take these very neat, tidy type A men and turn their world upside down- kids aren't always neat. Kids get into a lot of stuff and you have to explain privacy to them. You want to see a key example that the kids in "The Pacifier" were lucky? Did any of them get their mattresses flipped for the bed not being made right? Did they get doused in icy water for sleeping in? Did they get woken up to revalie at 0500? No? Then take it for what it is. 2 hours of Vin Deisel who's entire career has been war movies, cars, or badassery getting his butt handed to him by a bunch of kids and a Ukrainian house keeper.

Do I think that the film industry needs to CHANGE so we see more involved dads? ABSOLUTELY!!!! Last film I can remember seeing with an "involved" father? Uuuh... give me a second... OH! HAIRSPRAY! yeah let's go with Hairspray, oh Walken you silly man you. But seriously- the men pictured in these movies are usually the "never wanted kids, hate kids" type and by the end of it they have warmed to the idea which might, sadly give girls hope that their man might be the perfect dad under all that... ick.

It's not a perfect system. It is what it is. Some will see it, some won't. I personally won't mostly because I'd rather go spend my money on something else... like food or art supplies.

Aug 26 12 - 10:19pm