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A new model of masculinity is emerging on TV among America's cartoon dads

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

There might not be a more well-known or beloved TV dad than Homer Simpson. Since 1987, the yellow cartoon patriarch has been coming into our living rooms with a less than perfect example of fatherhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Why you little...

RASCOE: But in a recent article in The Atlantic, "The Strength Of The Soft Daddy," culture writer Adrienne Matei points out that the beer-guzzling, son-strangling cartoon dads we've come to know and love might be on their way out. She writes that we've entered a new era and that we're now seeing TV dads who are emotionally available, empathetic and even affectionate toward their families. Adrienne Matei, welcome to the show.

ADRIENNE MATEI: Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: You call this new kind of character the quote, unquote, "soft daddy." Who are some of the best examples on TV right now of that phenomenon?

MATEI: The idea for this piece was really inspired by the character of Elliot Birch from the Netflix adult animated sitcom "Big Mouth." Elliot is the dad of Nick, who's one of the main characters, and his personality is just an over-the-top sweetie pie, vocal feminist, loves his wife and kids. He doesn't prescribe to some conventional boundaries, but he's always trying to extend kindness to the people around him in his own way.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BIG MOUTH")

FRED ARMISEN: (As Elliott Birch) What a good big brother. I am mesmerized by you, Judd.

JON DALY: (As Judd Birch) Nope.

ARMISEN: (As Elliott Birch) I get it. Not everyone's a cuddle bug like me.

RASCOE: Why are these characters different, I guess compared to, like, Homer Simpson or, you know, "Family Guy" Peter? They were more of the lovable lout.

MATEI: Yeah, totally. You know, actually, if you look at the first ever cartoon sitcom dad, Fred Flintstone...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FLINTSTONES")

ALAN REED: (As Fred Flintstone) Wilma.

JEAN VANDER PYL: (As Wilma Flintstone) Hi, Fred.

MATEI: ...His character was inspired by Ralph Kramden from the sitcom "The Honeymooners." And he was the guy who was famous for always threatening to punch his wife, like, pow, right in the kisser. Lots of characters, though, who came after Fred, like Homer Simpson, were kind of inspired by him in a way. So there was almost something in the DNA of these characters for a long time where even if they're not bad men, they'd play up negative male stereotypes that can be alienating to the people around them.

RASCOE: You mentioned in the article that animated shows are particularly well-positioned to challenge gender norms. Why is that?

MATEI: Well, cartoons aren't constrained by the necessity to be plausible, so they're really able to use exaggerated situations and personalities to make their social critiques or positions very clear. Cartoon characters also tend to be really legible. So in, like, a prestige drama, you may expect a character who has lots of contradictions, but a lot of animated sitcoms are located in everyday kind of dramas that viewers can identify with, even if they're a bit over the top.

RASCOE: I would imagine that even with a very inclusive father figure, the idea is that you still want someone that's funny, that can make you laugh, right?

MATEI: Yeah, absolutely. And, I mean, I think that a coo of a lot of these shows is that they are really funny without being pollyannaish, you know? And their humor just kind of comes from the surplus of empathy that these men have. And there are lots of examples, you know, like, Owen Tillerman from "Central Park," obviously, Bob from "Bob's Burgers."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BOB'S BURGERS")

JOHN ROBERTS: (As Linda Belcher) Oh, Bob, made yourself ugly to save Tina's party.

H JON BENJAMIN: (As Bob Belcher) Yes, Linda, this is why I didn't want to do it. But, you know, it's worth it if it means Tina will be a happy teenager.

MATEI: Greg Universe from the show "Steven Universe" and even Tatsu from the anime "The Way Of The Househusband." These are all guys who are mining their humor from a bit of a different source. And that's part of what makes them feel so fresh and fun to watch.

RASCOE: Adrienne Matei - her article is called "The Strength of the Soft Daddy." Thank you so much.

MATEI: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.