Fathers, on pause

Whether longing...

affectionate...

ambivalent, firm or slouchy...

most dads have a relationship with the sofa

June 18, 2006|By STEPHANIE SHAPIRO | STEPHANIE SHAPIRO,SUN REPORTER

THE OLD, CURVY, AT LEAST TWICE- reupholstered couch at the center of the Hamilton home where Danny Mydlack, his wife and two young children live has come a long way. Or, as Mydlack whimsically puts it, the couch is "kind of a big elephant we ride along on."

"This big beast," he says, "we schlepped from Los Angeles to Baltimore. It's been this big creature who has sort of lumbered us through the years."

Whatever significance a couch holds for a man, it changes radically with fatherhood, Mydlack says. "Before you have kids, you're so worried about the look of the couch, its style and what it says about you," he says. "The couch is a kind of a trophy. Boy does that fly right out of the window after having kids."

With the arrival of offspring, a couch is judged in more humble terms -- by its ability to hold infants and whether it is "spit-up proof," Mydlack says. By those standards, the deep-blue couch strewn with red roses that enfolds him, wife Caroline Chavasse and their brood is a perfect specimen, one that begs a timeless question:

Which came first -- the dad or the couch? For those who believe in evolution, the answer is obvious. And yet, the patriarchs who inhabit pop culture's living rooms appear to have materialized on the scene attached to their intelligently designed couches -- leaving the general impression that all fathers, if given a choice, would spend all quality time in repose.

In truth, though, the dad and the couch question is a bit more complicated.

When taking stock of the sofa and the countless paternal still lifes that it conjures, cliche and reality overlap, kind of like a pile of giggling kids on a snoozing dad's belly. Mydlack's affection for his pet couch adds a refreshing dimension to an iconic prop that has served iconic fathers from Dagwood Bumstead to Bill Cosby to Homer Simpson.

Hear his story, and the sofa breaks from type to play a unique role in his household. "It's the couch I wedged a 2-by-4 into to prop up the old springs just to see if 2-year-old Louis would bounce higher when he sprung up for the letter 'J for jump' in his ABC Symphony video," says Mydlack, a film professor at Towson University.

Get up, ladies

Well before it became a playground, community center and Sunday nap central for papas from Maine to Hawaii, the sofa served in more ceremonial capacities.

In ancient Rome, upper-class dads (and other male elites) dined on banquet couches while women sat on chairs or did all the cooking, according to different historical accounts. Briefly, women got dibs on the couch, as Constance King explains in An Encyclopedia of Couches: Sofas became "superb fashion accessories for the crinoline-clad ladies of the 1850s and '60s, and provided an excellent setting for receiving visitors."

As couches turned plump and comfy and able to hold ashtrays and drinking glasses, women were ejected from their decorative perches to make way for a nascent generation of couch potatoes. "From the 1840s, when sprung seats came into general use, writers on deportment tended to grumble about the lounging attitudes of men, who were often seen sprawling on sofas -- even in the presence of ladies," King writes.

More than 150 years later, the ladies have been left standing, at least in media portrayals of domestic life. As she researched the history of the remote control, Kathy Newman, a professor of television and radio at Carnegie Mellon University, found countless images of men (usually bald) ensconced in their easy chairs, remote at the ready.

Women are often depicted in these cartoons and ads as annoying interference to their husband's leisure time, whether spent in a Barcalounger or a couch, Newman says. The underlying fear that "women would sit down to watch television and none of the housework would get done" also came across in these visuals, she says.

Have those stereotypes seeped into real life? "That relationship between the image and reality is always a hard one to call," Newman says. "I guess I still see a cultural trend toward allowing men a privileged space for relaxation that women are not entitled to, even when they are working outside the home."

On screen, the couch is a cultural signifier that beams a character's economic status, disposition and familial role, says Patty Williamson, who teaches at the Central Michigan University School of Broadcast and Cinematic Arts.

"In terms of male stereotypes, [the couch has] become a real convention of sitcoms, especially these days," Williamson says. Such shows paint a portrait of the "lazy, somewhat overweight, but lovable father who is also funny. You tend to see him on the couch a lot with a beer in hand or soda, watching the game. It tends to be a cliche that television dads fall into.

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