Father's Day cards: Instead of saying 'I love you, Dad,' society tells us to make a fart joke | Opinion

Father's Day cards, like these on sale at Target in West Philadelphia, are billed as funny but perpetuate sexist stereotypes about dads.

In the blue-toned paper jungle that is the Father’s Day row of the Target greeting-card section, I am presented with a dilemma: Do I want to tell my dad that he’s the world’s largest source of natural gas, or that he has “daditude,” a phrase that seems to mean he is “a guy who may not know what the plan is”?

It’s hard to decide. How best to insult my dad with one of these ludicrously gendered cards?

Store displays, ads, and gift guides for Father’s Day always seem to be an explosion of manliness. The selection gives the impression that it’s necessary for children across America to reaffirm their fathers’ masculinity through cards that remind him he likes stereotypically male things like steak, tools, and big trucks. Every year, I wonder why nearly all of them say things like “He doesn’t always drink beer, but when he does… . Just kidding, he always drinks beer.”

Camera icon Family Photo / Justine McDaniel
The reporter and her father in 1991.

The few that do have a message meant to be heartfelt are so overwrought that they’re equally comical. Why can’t I just get a simple “You’re awesome, Dad, thanks for everything!”?

When we dumb down our dads to “world’s number-one farter,” we reduce fatherhood to something less meaningful than it is — and we reinforce tired gender stereotypes that give men two choices: Be macho and manly or be inept and clueless.

Yes, Dad may like to grill. He may like to golf or eat bacon or go to the hardware store. I love dads who love those things — and I’m glad for their kids, who probably don’t stress at all about card-buying. But fathers also like to do other things, many of which define their worth as parents far more. (And let’s not forget that Mom might be the grilling, golfing, bacon-eater of the family.)

My dad, like many, can’t be defined by many of the stereotypical activities that retailers use to celebrate Father’s Day. He doesn’t want the portable air compressor for car tires that Bed Bath & Beyond told me was a “POP-ular pick for his big day,” and he’s not so hot on barware accessories, either, Pier 1.

The way dads are portrayed in Father’s Day displays isn’t frustrating only because I can’t find a card that wouldn’t make my parents wonder if I know them at all. It’s about what the cards and gifts concocted by retailers represent. Lurking between the lines of all these stereotypes is one other deeply ingrained, sexist idea about men: that they shouldn’t show emotion. And that’s precisely why Hallmark won’t let us express emotion about them. Instead of saying, “I love you, Dad,” society tells us to make a fart joke.

The cards and gift guides fit into the bigger picture of what’s wrong with gender roles in this country. If we can’t imagine that fathers might have more interests beyond watching the game, how are our sons going to imagine that they can be artists, teachers, or nurses? If we characterize our dads simply as dudes who can’t follow directions and have lower standards than moms, how are our daughters going to have equal marriages? And how can we create a world that’s inclusive of same-sex couples and transgender or gender-nonconforming parents when retailers aren’t able to capture the spirit of a holiday without falling back on sexist, gendered tropes?

My dad didn’t teach me how to fish, but he taught me to love music, taking me to piano lessons every week for 13 years. He showed me the constellations and planets in the night sky; taught me about the beach, the redwoods, and the mountains. We sat in the coffeehouse with backgammon and played old Microsoft DOS games on the computer. He fostered my pursuit of the arts, from ballet to acting to writing.

Retired, he was the stay-at-home parent. He was the one who was waiting for me when I got out of school each day. He chaperoned every school field trip. He made lunches for me and my mom every day. My dad instilled in me a love for hiking and camping, a passion for grocery shopping, and the importance of finding meaningful work.

No dad can be summed up by one gift or card. But it would be cool if we as a society could acknowledge dads in other ways. Old perceptions of gender roles are dying, and the gift industry should evolve along with the rest of us.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Instead of an all-in-one bottle opener-flask-grill spatula-fishing rod combo, I got you this column. I love you.

Justine McDaniel is a staff writer for the Inquirer and Daily News. She loves sending and receiving greeting cards even though buying them can be a chore.