First published by Daily Review, 24 September 2015
Another Monday night, another hour thrashing out the issues de jour: gay marriage, IVF, the privatisation of public assets*, all delivered with cleverly scripted lines. No, I’m not referring to Q&A: I’ve tried watching that program lately, but I usually end up passing out on the couch, thankful I’m not poor flu-afflicted Simon Sheikh, slamming my head down on the panel mid-show with no one but Sophie Mirabella as my first responder. No, I refer, of course, to the much better use of a televisual hour: the delightful House Husbands.
For those who haven’t been watching, here’s a quick cheat sheet. House Husband’s fourth season kicked off last month with two parallel storylines, both involving triangles of two men and a woman. In one story, a widowed, disgraced former football star is raising three children alone. As the season opened, he discovered his daughter might be the product of a liaison his late wife had with his former manager (really, it’s not as tragically hilarious as it sounds).
In the second storyline, a gay couple discuss plans to have a biological child (they are already raising two non-biological children). But things get off to a bad start when one of the pair secretly arranges to donate his sperm to the single lesbian who runs the school tuck shop, a woman on the wrong side of 40 who wants to satisfy her own biological yearnings.
So far, so soap opera. But what’s so interesting here is the almost casual way the show is turning inside out arguments about nature, nurture and what makes a family. The heterosexual father, previously so sure of his children’s provenance, realises everything he thought about his family might not be true (not that he loves his daughter any less). The gay couple, once they move past their inept first attempts at child bearing, decide to go down the IVF route with tuck shop lady and a surrogate. They are choosing to have children in a more deliberate and thoughtful fashion than many straight couples can claim to (and by involving a lab and a battery of medical tests every step of the way, they will, not incidentally, have more certainty about any eventual child’s biological origins than many straight families).
While gay dad no. 1 has been a natural parent from the very start – he’s the one parent on the show who intuitively understands the learning difficulties of one of the show’s children – the football star, meanwhile, comes to fatherhood via a rockier path: through a history of drugs, strippers, separation and, finally, his wife’s death. Functional and dysfunctional families have nothing to do with sexuality or biology, the show implicitly seems to say. In fact, it’s making such a cogent argument for gay families surely it’s only a matter of time before the NSW education minister declares a fatwa on Channel 9 and production company Playmaker.
We’re used to our soap operas dealing with matters of life and death. But male characters’ relationships to life and death are usually carried out at one step removed from their personal lives: in their roles as doctors, policemen and emergency workers. There’s a tradition of family dramas featuring widowed fathers (My Three Sons, The Nanny, Diff’rent Strokes): fathers thrust into nurturing roles normally reserved for mothers. But a show like House Husbands, where men have intensely ticking biological clocks, where they are at the centre of all the life stories, and where they are the emotional and social lynchpins of their communities – running the P&C, patching up the small broken hearts and bruised skin – is a new thing entirely. While the mothers of House Husbands aren’t exactly peripheral, they’re not exactly central either.
The show didn’t start off so promisingly. Season one seemed to be playing the idea of dad at home mostly for laughs and eye rolling, look-at-what-goes-wrong-when-dads-are-left-in-charge-moments: in early episodes children left in care of fathers went missing, or ended up behind the wheels of a runaway bus. The show’s working mums bore the other end of the cliché: too busy to notice her daughter is being bullied/falling badly behind at school/her husband is about to have an affair with their child’s teacher.
But as the show has aged, the clichés have given way to some complexities. By the fourth season the four friends have had tiffs and reconciliations, they’ve bought and sold a pub together, they’ve helped each other through separation, death and court appearances. These guys are close. They don’t just lend their tools to each other, they lend each other their partners’ uteruses (and what makes that more sweet is that it’s the most old school dad, Lewis, who gives his blessing for his wife to be a surrogate for the gay dads).
Sure, it’s still mainly a white middle class world, where the families live in bungalows a bit nicer than ours, with public school-going children who look a little bit better groomed than yours or mine. But such criticisms are picky in a show that is funny (Lewis mansplaining breastfeeding to his middle daughter’s mothers’ group) and cathartic for the working mother (who can watch Mark supplicating himself to his horrible boss for paternity leave). And it’s poignant: when disgraced footballer struggles with a shared custody order, his mates wait with him in a day-long vigil outside the house where his daughter is on an access visit. Lovely. Just lovely.
In a year that has been dominated by weekly news of the after effects of the most murderous consequences of male violence, a show where men are the central life forces, where gender roles are upturned, feels exactly like what we need. It’s become the fashion lately to point to male disadvantage to explain male violence – the evidence is, at best, inconclusive, and it doesn’t explain why privileged men are perpetrators, while disadvantaged women, by and large, are not. You don’t need to be Andrea Dworkin to realise that it’s persistently rigid and unequal gender roles, the unequal power relationships between men and women, not men and men, that are at the heart of the problem. And as much as you might want to airily dismiss the power of a TV show to transform culture – and you might be justified – there’s also something undeniably compelling about the opposite idea: that you can’t be what you can’t see – even if that does sound more than just a little bit naff (and yes, of course it’s been used before, by a White House campaign to encourage little girls to become leaders – I checked).
House Husbands lets us see a fantasy about new men that also feels more than a little bit true. And on a Monday night, after another day of the work-life juggle, watching Firass Dirani run a team of kids through an exercise training session while Gyton Grantley hands out home made meals to mums, House Husbands functions as a kind of cultural crack for stressed out mothers.
After Karl Stefanovic’s recent year-long feminist performance art piece – wearing the same blue suit every day to see if anyone noticed (it seems no one did) – Channel 9 is almost starting to look like the go to institution for some of the most incisive cultural commentary going around. Who would have thought it? The world has turned upside down.
*I refer, of course, to the privatisation of a school canteen.