Who's Your Daddy?
Like Seth MacFarlane’s other parody of “family values,” American Dad! opens each week with a musical number. While Family Guy‘s recalls Edith and Archie Bunker’s duet, American Dad!‘s indexes contemporary knee-jerk patriotism. As CIA agent Stan Smith (Seth MacFarlane) begins his day, he sings repeated variations of “Oh boy it’s swell to say / ‘Good morning U.S.A.!’”
The number raises the ghost of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign slogan, “It’s Morning Again in America.” The Reagan juggernaut’s television ads featured Leave it to Beaver-esque visions of (white) suburban America getting ready for the day: Dad getting the paper, Mom making breakfast, both getting the kids off to school. American Dad! offers similar images to launch a critique of the current administration’s obfuscations and lies.
American Dad! skewers its all-American dad Stan to impel its critique of Bush America. One major fault of the show in this regard is that the critiques are often (perhaps overly so) simplistic. The episode “Stan of Arabia” saw Stan, with family in tow, reassigned to a position in Saudi Arabia. He quickly became enamored of the country’s fascistic regulation. The point was clear. The distance between a fundamentalist Islamic state and a fundamentalist, Patriot-Act America is small indeed.
Such easy targeting is perhaps appropriate for a moment when the dominant political rhetoric is steadfastly simplistic as well. Despite the complications of his black and white worldview that arise in each episode, Stan insists on maintaining it, violently if needed. If there’s one modus operandi of the current political order, even while Rome burns, it stays on message.
Again and again, American Dad! uses its pater familias as a stand-in for the current “father” of the nation. Stan’s job as CIA secret agent recalls not only Bush II and Bush I, but also Reagan (again) in their covert operations and Teflon surfaces. But the show also engages with current struggles over the meaning and definition of fatherhood. Consider that one of Laura Bush’s major activities at the start of her second term was to promote the importance of nuclear families and the production of normative masculinity in boys through the influence of their fathers. Mrs. Bush has spoken to the press, at the White House Conference on America’s Youth, and at the United Nations, on the importance of revitalizing traditional fatherhood. Stan’s effort to reassert such tradition informs his ongoing difficulties with the “feminine” independence represented by his uber-left daughter Hayley (Rachael MacFarlane). It’s hard to be a good daddy when your authority is challenged at every turn. Stan reacts as expected of a good old-fashioned father, with denial and discipline that keep his daughter in order.
The struggle over fatherhood extends beyond the internal world of the show, involving the Fox network as well. During this first season of American Dad!, Fox has been sued to stop the patenting of “American Dad” by a Boston-based online community resource for fathers, operating since 2004 (a year before the show began airing). Americandad.com describes itself as “a site for the complete man… a site for guys as Dads and Dads as guys.” Such legal wrangling over the patenting of something called “American Dad” points to the current status of fatherhood in the U.S. as contested and seemingly compromised.
An even creepier engagement with the definition of fatherhood is the Fox-sponsored contest on vMix.com (a non-pirated video-sharing site) called “The Search for America’s Hottest Dad!” Entrants submit videos or slideshows demonstrating how their dads are “hot,” to win a Season One DVD set of American Dad!, and possibly a new DVD player. Entries so far run the gamut from the banal (working-class daddies at Christmas, upper-class daddies on yachts), to the positively queer (one is titled “Sergeant Hot Daddy” and pays close attention to said father’s hot body, another extols the hotness of David Hasselhoff). For all its simplification, daddy politics is awfully complicated.