Some Dad Jokes Are Darker — and More Political — Than Others

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Yes, dads are having a moment. But after reading Anna North’s recent New York Times post, “What it Means to Be a ‘Dad’” — as well as many of the pieces it cites — I can’t shake the feeling that much of this dad stuff is lumped together injudiciously. It’s not all the same.

What I mean is that there are two distinct approaches to the “dad phenomenon” at work, and they are not mutually inclusive.

The first seeks to poke fun at or gently malign or even celebrate dads for their aloofness and weirdness. The paragon of this “dad humor” is Dad Magazine, a co-authored project by Jaya Saxena and Matt Lubchansky for The Toast. The hilarious “content” of Dad Magazine, which is really just a monthly magazine cover with taglines, ranges from tags like “5 Emoticons ‘UR’ Daughter Will Love ;-)” to (the slightly more critical) “The Market: We Talk About It.”

Jaya Saxena, writing about the phenomenon for The Daily Dot, describes her project in terms of weirdness and earnestness, but not critique. “Dad humor,” she writes, “has no edge, no agenda other than laughter and groans. It comes from a place of purity and maybe slight ignorance.” Saxena makes it clear that this “dad humor” is drawn from the “ideal dad” and not deadbeat or abusive fathers: “But with the good dad, the ideal dad embraced by this zeitgeist, there is no joke to be ‘in’ on. There’s just a benevolent figure we can trust.”

Saxena goes on to describe the ideal dad in terms of his self-assured, unselfconscious navigation of adulthood. In particular, she contrasts this confidence generationally with our own lack of it:

Many of us will never be entirely confident in adulthood. We can contribute to IRAs and buy homes and have kids, and still feel like frauds. But the dream of the dad is someone who has stopped giving a fuck about all that. Someone who is the model of how not to try, how to just be, who doesn’t understand why you’d make fun of him for wearing socks with sandals, who makes you the weird one for thinking it’s an issue.

But for other writers, this “slight ignorance” or unselfconsciousness of dads is a red flag. In an essay for The Baffler called “Dads of Tech,” authors Astra Taylor and Joanne McNeil frame the structural inequality and gender discrimination of the tech industry in terms of its “economically and educationally privileged white men” or “Dads.” (Of course, it’s not that they’re literally dads. The authors are making a point.) Where aloofness and ignorance are, for Saxena, trademarks of the amusing “ideal dad,” they are for Taylor and McNeil symptoms of a willfully narrow-minded patriarchy:

The stereotypical Dad, insulated from divergent perspectives, lacks the necessary understanding of how social problems and power inequities persist—and how these problems get amplified in a networked society.

Taylor and McNeil eloquently form their essay around a quote from Audre Lorde: “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The house, in the case of this piece, is the Internet as a technology that was “built by Dads, for Dads” and that “sells most of us short.” What to do with such a house? Dismantle it:

The master’s house might have a new shape — it may be sprawling and diffuse, and occupy what is euphemistically referred to as the “cloud”— but it also has become corporatized and commercialized, redolent of hierarchies of yore, and it needs to be dismantled. Unfortunately, in the digital age, like the predigital one, men don’t want to take it apart.

This approach to the aloofness of the economically successful “dad” figure diverges sharply from Dad Magazine’s. The most obvious difference: Taylor and McNeil would (probably) locate symptoms of patriarchy precisely in Saxena’s “ideal dad.” And they would want to dismantle that dad’s metaphorical house.

So, I’m not sure these dad jibes are just different registers of the same thing. I’m fairly certain that they’re two different things entirely. One looks at the aloofness of “successful” or “ideal” dads as a source of agenda-less humor; the other sees it as the self-justification of patriarchy. Of course, humor and critique can co-exist peacefully in the world, but maybe there is value in recognizing them as separate entities.