A mother attempts to help her son with his homework, and fails. The son is annoyed with his mother's ignorance, and turns to his father with a look which says "obviously females can't do math--get her out of here." The father tells the mother to go wash the dishes. When she is slow to comply, he orders her away from her son, and then he yells at her.
Is it a Public Service Announcement from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence? A clip from a documentary about life in the 1880s? No, it is a regularly aired commercial from one of America's largest companies. The difference is that in the real ad it is the father who is portrayed as ignorant and useless as he tries to help his daughter.
This week 2,000 of my radio show listeners sent letters to Verizon Communications protesting the insulting portrayal of the father in its commercial "Homework." Our protest has been covered by over 250 newspapers and media outlets. The Verizon ad's message is clear, and it's a common one on the TV screen--dad is dumb, dad is useless, mom is smarter than dad, hell, even an eight year-old girl is smarter than dad.
One ad would not elicit such fervent responses from so many men and women of all ages were it not symptomatic of a larger problem in our society--the denigration of males in popular culture, and the decline of fatherhood.
Some letters have been from boys as young as twelve who see and are disturbed by negative portrayals of males. One grandmother wrote of her seven year-old grandson, who announced one day that "mothers are smart, fathers are not." When the surprised grandmother asked him where he learned that, he replied "on TV."
Other supporters are men who shoulder a male double burden rarely mentioned--working long hours to be the family's primary breadwinner, yet at the same time struggling to play a substantial role in their children's day to day lives. One of these fathers told Verizon, "when I look around I see men working 50 hours a week or more to support their families, and still managing to help their children with their homework, read them bedtime stories, and be fine role models. Why can't I see any men like that when I turn on the TV?"
Still other protests have come from divorced or separated fathers who have been pushed to the margins of their children's lives. The image of a father being berated while trying to help his child with homework--and then of the child siding with the mother in their mutual contempt for dad--struck a chord with many of these dispossessed dads. Today one out of every three American children lives apart from his or her father.
The fact that the father is being humiliated by and in front of his daughter also fuels the fire. One father sent me his letter of protest to Verizon, adding "I never knew what love really was until I had a daughter." I understood. Of all the bonds between family members, those between fathers and daughters are often the most tender. Yet at the same time, these bonds can be the most tenuous. Many protesters have written to me of the father-daughter bond that was, but that didn't survive divorce, separation, or time.
Some of my critics, such as radio personalities Tony Snow and Dori Munson, say that it's only a commercial, and that we're overreacting. Yet we all agree that it's harmful to portray women as incapable of doing men's jobs, or blacks as being unable to achieve what whites can achieve. Why would the same principles not apply to the denigration of fathers? It is with this in mind that many mental health professionals have publicly endorsed our campaign and condemned the ad.
Susan Lee of the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board accuses me of "working with a really outmoded notion of patriarchy." But is it "patriarchal" to respect a mother's or father's parental authority and dignity?
As I told my listeners when I announced the campaign, I'm sure that Verizon does not mean any harm. Like many, they have developed a moral blind spot towards disparaging males. Our campaign seeks to change that.
©2008, Glenn Sacks