Like some sort of seasonal infection, the Man Cave signs and car-branded stubbie holders have popped up on store shelves again, promoting a brand of hyper-masculinity that hasn’t changed since the Hawke government. When I wrote [this piece] last year about how strange Father’s Day advertising felt as a non-binary Dad, I thought the gap was between my gender and the assumptions made of me as a Dad. But as I see the same slogans pop up all over again, it feels like the problem lies in the way we talk about fatherhood.
Father’s Day has always been built on masculinity, and a very narrow definition of it at that. Now more than ever, though, the holiday feels like a relic of a lost civilisation. I’m 35 now, and I’ve been a parent for more than three years, but all the Father’s Day promotions I see are still pitched at my father, not me. Those Bathurst cars, wrench sets and tie clips don’t just feel like products of a bygone era—they’re radically out of touch with the way millennial families view parenting roles.
The concept of a Man Cave is laughable to a generation who share parenting duties and rent two bedroom townhouses, but that’s still how we think of capital-F Fathers. Economic shifts have made the patriarchal concept of Dad-as-breadwinner untenable for a lot of families, with multiple incomes being more or less necessary to raise a child. Factor in changing social attitudes to gender roles, as well as broader recognition of family structures that don’t fit the restrictive nuclear model, and the millennial parenting landscape looks very different to the world we were raised in. Even ‘mother’ and ‘father’ roles feel vestigial—when any parent is capable of earning an income and caring for children (the twin pillars of the parenting gender binary), what’s the point in distinguishing between parents based on their gender? Maybe my bias as a non-binary parent who’s ambivalent about being ‘Dad’ is showing, but allowing all parents to share responsibilities equally seems like it benefits everyone in the family, adults and children alike.
For all my conservative-baiting gender-neutral parenting theories, Dads as a social group aren’t being wiped off the map. Decoupling fatherhood from masculinity means re-writing what it means to be a Dad from here on out, and I’m excited to see what shape it takes. I know a lot of young fathers who are fully engaged in the messy business of raising children in a way that would’ve been incomprehensible to our parents, taking their children to Mummy And Me classes while their partner is at work. Others work with their partners to juggle the parental duties around their two jobs, a high-wire act that involves a level of teamwork and cooperation that’s radically different from the one-sided structures that raised us.
Even better, this new version of fatherhood is starting to turn up in pop culture, reinforcing and role modelling healthy parenting to new Dads who might be daunted by the legitimately-terrifying task of raising children. The playful father on ABC Kids’ Bluey looks a lot more like the fathers I see at child care drop-off—sweet and caring, Bandit’s love for his kids is clear in every silly, imaginative game that he plays with them. Whether he’s frozen by the magic xylophone or checking into his kids’ bedroom ‘hotel’, Bandit invests all his energy in fostering their imaginations and helping them grow into more rounded people. In the same way, the hyper-buff Sgt. Terry Jeffords (played by Terry Crews on Brooklyn Nine-Nine) can try to put a princess castle together, and have the joke be on him for struggling so much with a kid’s toy rather than emasculating him for even touching a ‘girl’s toy’. Role models like this show us all, parents and non-parents alike, what dads can look like when they’re more emotionally open, more engaged in caring for children, giving us a stronger base from which to build our own definition of dadhood.
It’s a small start, but maybe with the help of Terry and Bandit, and a generation of vulnerable, tender, engaged Dads, we’ll eventually be able to enjoy a Father’s Day that’s not all about Super Cheap Auto gift cards.