The Fantasy of the Fun TV Dad

In the first episode of “Bluey,” the Australian children’s series about an animated family of blue heelers, the mama dog, Chilli, drives off to work, leaving her husband, Bandit, to care for the pups. They play a game requiring Bandit to freeze in increasingly silly scenarios — fingers in his nose, sock on his tail, garden hose blasting him right in the face. Much of the series is a showcase for Bandit’s virtuosic performances in his daughters’ imaginative schemes. In subsequent episodes, he serves as their beleaguered hospital patient, beleaguered robot, beleaguered horse.

“Bluey” has been praised for its rare and complex depiction of parents, and Bandit has been commended as an exceptional father. Tribute is paid in Bandit Facebook groups, Bandit memes and custom Bandit fan merchandise. He is a fun dad who does housework, too. In one episode, he dances into the kitchen, shouts “What’s up, party people?” and plops a basket of freshly folded laundry on the floor.

I don’t know how he keeps house, works as an archaeologist and serves as a full-time prop artist to his daughters, but he does it all while only feigning complaint. He is not only a good father — he is a fantasy, one crafted to appeal to adults as much as to children.

As I watch the show over my 3-year-old son’s shoulder, I wonder what Bandit says about the latent desires of the parents queuing up the show. (More than 100 episodes are streaming on Disney+, with more arriving in January.) After all, when I turn on “Bluey,” I am being very un-Bandit — I am not engaged in focused play that follows my child’s imagination wherever it leads. I am cleaning. My son is staring at a screen.

Gone are the days of sitting a child in front of the television, selecting Nickelodeon or PBS and hiding the remote. Streaming has turned children’s entertainment into a self-serve buffet, which also can make it feel like a constant referendum on parental values and tastes. On any given afternoon, my son could be watching a vacant C.G.I. nursery rhyme on YouTube, a competent Disney musical from my own childhood or a genius Miyazaki epic. Now that we have so many choices, our selections have come to seem important, especially since they are made under a cloud of ambient judgment for pacifying our kids with screens at all.

It’s typical in children’s stories for parental figures to be obscured or even absent, especially the mothers. The Disney movies I grew up on — “The Little Mermaid,” “The Lion King” — featured authoritarian fathers who, following the untimely deaths of their wives, ruled their children from a distance while outsourcing their child care to a crab or a bird. My son’s favorite show is not “Bluey” but “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” in which Mickey’s parentage is irrelevant. He is a godlike figure who answers to no one. That is a fantasy for children — total parental obsolescence.

So Bandit’s omnipresence is odd, and striking. He is like Mary Poppins, stitching together a family with creative prop work. Or he’s the Cat in the Hat, leading children in controlled chaos while their mother is out. His closest analogues in children’s media are not other parents, but the fools and tricksters that children encounter when they are allowed to roam unsupervised. Bandit represents a parent freed of drudgery, one whose central responsibility is delighting his kids.

I wonder if one of the upsides of “Bluey,” from the parent’s perspective, is that it works to absolve our guilt over screen time. If we feel bad for ignoring or subduing our children, “Bluey” at least offers a simulation of boundless parental attention. As my son watches it, I’m not neglecting him, but I’m often doing the laundry that Bandit miraculously folds offscreen. I’ll admit to my own “Bluey” fantasy: I tell myself that the show takes place exclusively within the 10 daily minutes of focused playtime that various Instagram experts suggest that parents spend with their children.

When I heard that Bentkey, The Daily Wire’s conservative children’s entertainment company, had created a transparent “Bluey” rip-off, I was curious what it would do with the dad. If Bandit is the idol of progressive fatherhood, what are the attributes and habits of his conservative doppelgänger?

“Chip Chilla,” the Bentkey show, copies the “Bluey” color scheme, animation style and premise — animal siblings with weirdly present parents — with a few key differences. One, the show is about chinchillas, not dogs. Two, the show is so lazy and pedantic, it feels like Wikipedia should get a co-writing credit. Three, the chinchilla children are home-schooled, and the father, Chum Chum, is their instructor. He crafts zany play-based history lessons using silly voices and creative household items. He is a highly involved father and unrelenting jokester who rarely seems to have to work. Basically the same guy.

“Why does it matter?” Jeremy Boreing, the co-founder of The Daily Wire, asked rhetorically when he teased “Chip Chilla” to a crowd of supporters last year. “It matters because kids go to school 40 hours a week and then they engage in pop culture for 40 more hours every week. That means for 80 hours of a child’s week, you are turning them over to the left.”

With “Chip Chilla,” conservative parents can fulfill a fantasy of their own, combating the perceived indoctrination of public school by screening home-school-themed content afterward, featuring lessons about dead white people and classic texts. In “Bluey,” the puppies lead the games, but in “Chip Chilla,” it is the dad who is in charge, directing his compliant kids to role-play “Moby-Dick” and the fall of the Roman Empire. I suspect that Bentkey made Chum Chum the schoolteacher not because it’s a modern choice, but because it puts male authority at the center of the show.

It’s a weird time for father figures. On Instagram and TikTok, I’m constantly being served memes and posts that mock dads for not knowing their kid’s birthday or for taking endless bathroom breaks to scroll through their phones. In one persistently circulating joke, the dad stands uselessly in the kitchen, right in front of the drawer that the mom needs to access. I don’t actually know any fathers like that; in real life, the fathers I know are much like the mothers I know, and we’re all competing for private toilet time.

This online character feels like a throwback to the lazy sitcom dad glued to the living room couch watching television, though on social media he inspires an intensified level of resentment. Dads who don’t pull their weight are shamed for it now. But dads who contribute still get praised.

The moms in “Bluey” and “Chip Chilla,” Chilli and Chinny, don’t get the classic Disney-movie treatment: They are allowed to live. They get to join in the fun, too, though Chilli is more levelheaded than her husband and Chinny is stern. Both mothers are granted supporting roles in their children’s imaginative worlds, though they are somewhat sidelined by their plots, often because of their work outside and within the home. In “Chip Chilla,” Chinny is the one stuck holding the laundry basket.

The “Bluey” family feels progressive, “Chin Chilla” traditional, but their vision of paternal whimsy is shared. It is harder to construct a fantasy mom that way. The perfect mother must be a lot of things, and few of them are very fun. The base line expectation of selfless devotion leaves little room for experimentation. This is why so many children’s stories must get her out of the way in order for the child to experience risk, adventure, failure and growth. Dad can hang around through all of that, though. And if he does, he can be a star.

Back to top button