This article is dedicated to my brother, whose approach to fatherhood, domestic work and loving his child gives me hope for humanity.
In Understanding Comics, creator Scott McCloud uses art history and philosophy to explain why comics are so compelling: “The cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled … an empty shell that we inhabit which enables us to travel in another realm. We don’t just observe the cartoon, we become it.”
McCloud argues that the more abstract an image is, the more likely we are to experience this pull. The less articulated the image, the more space there is for viewers to project themselves onto (or into) the characters on the page.
Because of this, there is a thin line between understanding ourselves in-person and understanding ourselves through cartoons. We must then contend with the idea that, as much as we shape cartoons in our image, they shape our concepts of ourselves. This is why animated television is such prime territory for understanding our relationship to the concept of fatherhood.
(It is important to note that there is a distinction to be made between fatherhood as the lived experience of being a father, and just being biologically involved. When adopted children speak of their family, they often delineate between their biological father and the members of their parental unit. For the purposes of this article, fatherhood is concerned with the familial, not necessarily biological, relationship between father and child.)
The first show that brought animation to prominence in American (and international western) society was of course The Simpsons. Thus if our cultural understanding of fatherhood was ever shaped by western animated television, it was shaped first by the form of Homer Simpson.
Over the twenty-eight seasons of The Simpsons there has been a gentle shift in the character of Homer Simpson. In the earlier series, Homer was most often depicted as being naïve and hopeless, which arguably lent itself to endearment. Over time, however, Homer’s character shifted towards a type of willful ignorance and negligence that was deeply troubling. This shift retroactively coloured Homer’s loveable origins in a darker light.
Creating effective satire – that is, satire that works to expose the dark underbelly of human existence – is a risky business. If you miss the mark, you create a work that reinforces the very problems you are trying to undermine. And when it comes to satirising American nuclear family structures – in particular the role of fatherhood within those structures – The Simpsons failed with the character of Homer Simpson. The gack-ack-ack-ack of Homer choking Bart, for example, is instantly recognisable as a Simpsons motif. Yet to ascribe “domestic violence” to the noise would likely unsettle a lot of viewers.
The darkness of this relationship is something that the creators understand, and have made some attempts to remark on. In The Simpsons Movie, Bart starts to compare Homer (who at the time is treating an adopted pig more lovingly than his son) to Ned Flanders. Sensing Bart’s discontent, Ned offers to take Bart fishing. Once on the lake, Bart gets a bite, but loses Flanders’ best fishing rod into the water. Bart starts gagging instinctively, though no one is strangling him. “Huh?” he says to Flanders, “You’re not strangling me.” Flanders reassures him, then goes to pat Bart on the back. Bart flinches like he is going to be hit, then cautiously asks to be patted “once more”, as though he is trying out this wholly new sensation of friendly touch.
The Simpsons Movie is actually littered with these self-aware comments about Homer’s abuse. This may be due to creator Matt Groenig’s own development as a person. The family of The Simpsons is at least partly derived from his own childhood, with Lisa and Maggie being named after his siblings, Springfield, Oregon, being the inspiration for Springfield and Homer being inspired by Groenig’s own father.
The problem with Homer as a work of satire is that instead of seeing a reflection of our own violent abuses in Homer’s actions, we just see Homer. He is close enough to our reality that we relate to him, but not close enough that we are unsettled by his actions. In The Simpsons Movie, it is as if the writers of The Simpsons understand the cultural icon they’ve created and are trying to redirect the viewers’ apathy or willful ignorance about Homer’s abuse, making efforts to right the cultural phenomenon they accidentally created.
Set in the fictional town of Arlen, Texas, King of the Hill is also a satire of the nuclear family in America. From it’s naïve but dogmatic conspiracy theorist, Dale Gribble, to its virtually incomprehensible ‘yokel,’ Boomhauer, King of the Hill is a love-letter to the complexities and contradictions of working class, bible-belt America.
Hank Hill, the show’s protagonist, is an all-American father and a fervently devoted salesman of “propane and propane accessories”. Sitting between conservative stances (such as struggling with the concept of sex education being taught at school) and liberal stances (like believing in climate change), Hank is a complex and incredibly three-dimensional character that shirks left wing stereotypes of the south.
In the first episode of King of the Hill, Bobby, Hank’s son, gets hit in the face with a baseball during a game. After some townsfolk cast aspersions and gossip runs wild, Social Services get called. Bobby uses the ensuing scrutiny that is leveled at his father to make Hank walk on eggshells.
Yet when Bobby’s abuse of power comes out, it does not lead to violent retaliation. Instead there is a tender moment where Hank struggles, finally stating that he loves Bobby unconditionally. Almost as a counterweight to Homer’s two-dimensional violence, King of the Hill actively sets out to define Hank Hill’s anger as being bluster but not brute.
Crucially, Bobby also dismisses gossipy aspersions about Hank and his anger. When Bobby’s friend asks him if Hank ever hit him, he vehemently denies it. “You know him. He’s all bark.” This is the reverse of the set-up in The Simpsons, in that when you scratch the surface of Homer, his anger becomes more sinister. When you scratch the surface of Hank, his expressions of anger become less so.
What’s more, Hank’s own difficulty expressing emotion to Bobby is juxtaposed with the lack of tenderness his own father showed to him. Cotton Hill is the worst kind of man. Brutally sexist, when left alone with his grandson, he teaches Bobby to sexually assault women. He refers to Peggy only as “Hank’s wife”. He goes on racist diatribes. He is disdainful of Hank’s lack of service in the military and takes pleasure in deriding Hank for his narrow urethra.
These aspects of Cotton Hill make his character more comparable to Homer than to Hank. When Bart waltzes around in high heels and a wig, Homer’s response is immediately to control. He deeply misunderstands Bart’s exploration of femininity by conflating genderplay with sexuality, and then goes out of his way to enforce masculine ideals. The end point of this campaign of control is Homer pushing Bart towards murdering an animal.
Watching Hank approach his own son with a tenderness he himself did not experience, we can see how a son can choose to accept or reject the roles and structures of fatherhood that were passed down to him. Abuse does not have to be cyclical. What is more, King of the Hill is deeply concerned with definitions of violence, abuse and love. That the social worker who opens the file on Hank is from the city shows how expressions of emotions can be misunderstood due to factors such as culture and class. As conservative as Hank may be, he offers a fatherhood that has space for gentleness, love, growth and compassion.
At first glance, Bob from Bob’s Burgers—father of three, husband to Linda, proprietor of the best burger joint in Bog Harbor—might not feel like much. Like Hank, he is a flawed, awkward character whose limitations are genuinely relatable and a source of endearment. Unlike Homer, that relatability comes from internal conflict that usually stems from acute self-awareness. When Bob is propositioned by the deli-guy, for instance, he is genuinely tempted at the fantasy of running away with him.
That desire to flee stems not from a flaw in Bob’s character, but from a relatable reaction to Bob’s tenuous, stressful circumstances. Financially, his business is constantly rocky. Emotionally, he can be exhausted by the role of father and husband. Creatively, he feels under-recognised – emblematic of which is the fact the pun names he give his burgers seem to always fall flat. In a society that not only links masculinity to social success, but also financial responsibility to fatherhood, that Bob’s Burgers can satirise Bob’s mediocre business prowess without having the joke be about his manliness feels like nothing short of a miracle.
What we are seeing in the character of Bob is replicated in the character of Greg from Steven Universe. Greg lives in a van and runs a mediocre car wash. Following the narrative arc traditionally reserved for women, Greg gives up his career to settle down with Rose Quartz and even spends time as a single parent after Rose Quartz ceases to exist. Once Steven is grown up, however, Steven lives with Amethyst, Garnet and Pearl – not with Greg.
Greg is a joyful reclamation of the loser dad trope, the absent father. While Greg is not there for the day-to-day involvement in Steven’s life, or even the financial support of Steven (at least until his manager is forced to give him royalties), Greg is an unending source of emotional support to his son.
Both Greg and Bob offer us alternative representations of fatherhood that do not set up working class fathers to fail. They give breadth and space to the concept of fatherhood.
Satire, when done well, can push us towards acknowledging the parts of ourselves that we would rather remained hidden. In Hank we are offered a space to navigate gentleness in ways that were never offered to us. In Bob we are afforded a space in which to struggle with fatherhood; to be frustrated, exhausted, irate; to be tempted to run away with the deli guy. In Greg we can see how non-traditional familial set-ups can be consensual, considered and perfectly functional.
In this space away from the jarring contradictions of bad satire, we are invited to release our grips on our definitions of fatherhood – or rather, the traditional definition of fatherhood releases its grip on us.