The Modern Dad Syndrome: father figures in media


Rachel Choi

Rachel Choi

By Rachel Choi, Illustrations/Graphics Editor & Chief Copyeditor & Social Media Manager

Recently, the entertainment industry has been oddly obsessed with single dads. From video-game-to-series adaptations like “The Last of Us” to the original “The Mandalorian,” modern entertainment seems to be in love with the idea of a rugged-but-loving fatherly hunk ready to slaughter the entire world if it means protecting their newly acquired children—and I’m eating it up.

But why the sudden flood of dads? 

To be fair, single father figures are no strangers to the media. The idea of a single man forced into fatherhood has been around since the earliest forms of entertainment—take the 1957 sitcom “Bachelor Father,” where a wealthy bachelor Bentley Gregg—played by John Forsythe—raises his niece Kelly after her parents die in a car accident. 

Fast forward and the rate of on screen fatherhood begins to rise, like with Sean Maguire from “Good Will Hunting” who plays a therapist and ends up solving genius Will’s daddy issues with the power of therapeutic fathering, the three potential fathers of “Mamma Mia” who grow to realize that biology is not what dictates fatherhood, or any “Batman” show, movie, game, and comic with Alfred the butler, who is the only caretaker in orphan Bruce Wayne’s life. This steady stream of sudden dads became a raging rapid as the clock ticked well past the 2000s. 

Most recently, we’ve been introduced to Joel from “The Last of Us,” Geralt of Rivia from “The Witcher,” Din Djarin from “The Mandalorian,” Captain Raymond Holt from “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and so on. The list of surrogate single fathers is impressively long. 

Just a few generations back, fathers were seen as “physically there but emotionally absent.” They were mentors and advisors, a figure to learn concrete skills from—emotional support was for the mothers. Fathers were the breadwinners, the stone-cold resilient heroes who had to keep the family afloat. The emotionally unavailable father is a cultural precedent that resurfaces in every generation.

Now, there seems to be a significant difference between the old and new era of fathers and father figures. The archetypal father has developed from an unfeeling disciplinarian to the empathetic caregiver. Consequently, the very framework of masculinity has changed as well; men are slowly but surely no longer expected to be threatening, stoic, and distant, but are encouraged to be intimate and emotional. This shifted tide in masculinity has led to new fathers representing a gentler, warmer, more intimately connected figure that a child can lean on—a trait previously attributed solely to women.

A great example is Modern Family’s Phil Dumphy, played by Ty Burrell, the modern (pun intended) representation of a dad and a husband. He is a real estate agent, ex-cheerleader, and magician who, for the most part, is the most loving and charismatic presence in his children and wife’s life. He is goofy, kind, and emotionally open—sometimes to a fault. All of these features are a stark contrast to the ‘ultra-macho’ father figures of past media. But why are we seeing these changes, especially on a show emphasizing the “modern” family dynamic? 

From 1948–2001, as women started to enter the workforce, employed women or women looking to be employed rose from 33 to more than 60 percent—as a result, men were no longer the sole provider for the family. The tradition of father-based breadwinning eventually aged out of the 20th century. Gender norms became more fluid, so did fatherhood.

This new dynamic of fathers spends more time with their children. Many are more engaged in their children’s lives, allowing for a shift that I like to call “the natural way” of becoming a parent: being present in your child’s life, not just physically, but emotionally. 

Modern-day parenting is not without struggle, but the ability to share parenting responsibility with one’s partner and being able to take on the role traditionally filled by women—a nurturer and caretaker— is only growing more commonplace.

It’s this shift in fatherhood that encouraged the torrent of father figures in media that do more than just sit on the sidelines or micromanage their children. Characters like Joel from “The Last of Us”—played by daddy of the century Pedro Pascal—are hardened and rough around the edges, yet emotionally connected to their surrogate child. 

The child in this case, Ellie, has Joel going far beyond the usual closed-off relationship traditionally associated with father figures. He’s not just providing physical safety by beating the shit out of anyone who threatens Ellie, but also giving her the emotional and mental stability she so desperately needs by showcasing vulnerability, engaging in personal conversation, and giving her a sense of agency. 

Even male-dominated fandoms like “Star Wars” are seeing this change. Compare the most well-known fathers of “Star Wars,” Darth Vader—the old dad—versus Din Djarin, who is once again played by Pedro Pascal—the new dad. If you take away the killing-innocent-people-thing, Darth Vader was the textbook father of his time: stoic, aggressive, and physically alive but emotionally absent. He leaned into anger among a myriad of emotions and became someone who only began to regret his lack of relationship with his child before he died.

In contrast, Din is a bounty hunter originally assumed to be a wordless, emotionless, gun-slinging badass who lives day-to-day in a hardened lifestyle. However, he almost immediately becomes father of the year to his alien son Grogu after taking him in as his own. He even rejected his own religious creed by removing his helmet multiple times for his son, and cried openly when it was time to send Grogu to what was essentially a Jedi boarding school.

Fathers are in a unique place in time where being vulnerable and emotionally expressive is not just expected, but welcomed. 

This newly emerging idea of what fatherhood should and could be in the media is attracting a large range of audiences. Producers and directors are combining familiar and popular character traits such as sex appeal—like Pedro Pascal’s gorgeous looks that captivate even my queer ass—or comedy, with the freshly emerging archetype of fatherhood.

Take for instance the character of Raymond Holt from “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” someone who stepped in as a surrogate father for talented-but-immature Detective Jake Peralta. His comedic timing and dry delivery made him an entertaining character, while his position as the chief of New York City’s Police Department made him stoic and serious. As a result, his developing relationship with Jake becomes that much more touching. He opens up to Jake and gives him a shoulder to cry on and also gives him genuine advice, not on just practical matters but matters of the heart, something traditionally unseen on screen for dads—or men for that matter.

It’s common to see maternal figures taking care of her children in the media or in real life, but it’s a new trend when it comes to seeing paternal figures doing more than just being strict or emotionally closed-off. It’s heartwarming to see a father love as vulnerably and as fiercely as a mother would have normally been expected to do, especially on big screens which many people look towards for comfort. Make no mistake—as heartwarming as it is, it’s about damn time men take up the role that should have been something expected of them eons ago. 

A dynamic where a man can cry, laugh, and smile for his child, where he can embrace his child, is now seen as a starting point for a flourishing relationship rather than wishful thinking. Creators are able to explore the what-ifs of fatherhood more freely than ever before, and it’s resulting in some insanely gratifying moments of curing many audiences’ daddy issues via parasocial parenting.

The evolving role of fatherhood is a welcome change in this frantic era of social reconstruction. It’s a heartwarming shift that will hopefully only continue to grow as the future brings new norms. I hope it will inspire younger boys who wish to become fathers one day to be open and loving to their future children.

Also, I hope Pedro Pascal continues to play single dads forever. There’s something about that scraggly man that hits the spot when he’s hauling ass to save the life of his reluctantly-adopted but fiercely-loved kid.