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Why we turned Dad into a meme

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The joke's on us


This Sunday is Father’s Day in the US. It’s probably the most meaningless holiday of the year; nobody cares about it, not even your dad.

While nobody really cares about Father’s Day itself, people do like talking about dads. Dads are everywhere in modern internet culture. There are countless memes, Instagram accounts, and Tumblr blogs about dads. You don’t have to spend much time on Twitter to see the #dad hashtag flash by, often accompanied by a pithy observation. The concept of the "dadbod" took the internet by storm just a few weeks ago.

This interest isn’t exactly positive: Dad is often the butt of the joke, portrayed as a middle aged, out of touch person with a severe lack of awareness or personal style. Making fun of Dad isn’t really new — Danny Tanner was often the punchline of the jokes on Full House two decades ago — but it’s everywhere you look today.

Instead of being thought of as a part of a family unit or as a supportive parent, Dad is more often associated with bad, embarrassing jokes; socks with sandals; and unironic use of a fanny pack. Many of the characteristics that make someone good at being a parent — frugality, responsibility, selflessness — have become punchlines for an entire generation when it comes to talking about dad.

As a parent of two young girls, I’m as much of a dad as my dad or any other father. But I’m also turning 30 this year, which puts me smack in the middle of the generation that has made Dad a joke. I’m not going to deny that I’ve often participated in making fun of dorky dad antics — after all, owning the joke is the best way to take the sting out of it.

The core of dad in 2015 is embodied in the dadjoke

The core of dad in 2015 is embodied in the dadjoke. The dadjoke (which can be deployed effectively by anyone, not just dads) is an inoffensive, often groan-inducing, pun-laden observation that’s less funny as a joke itself, but amusing in its existence. Telling dadjokes is often a self-deprecating move that’s both endearing and self-embarrassing. It’s admitting (often in a tongue-in-cheek way) that you’re out of touch, but without being mean-spirited. Dadjokes can make a fatherly figure less intimidating while having a little fun at the same time.

But when I step back and observe all of the ways the modern generation has found to make fun of the out-of-touch dad, it’s hard to see it as just another topic that people whip cynical jokes at on social networks. The dadjoke may be inoffensive and patronizing, but beneath the surface it reads as the manifestation of an underlying fear carried by an entire generation. For the millennial (or snake people, if you will) generation, it feels like the fear of becoming our parents.

Looking at the backlash against Dad (the dadlash?) through that lens puts a lot of things into perspective. There can be a lot of love in making fun of Dad, but it’s often laced with cynicism, which is more obvious when you’re both the target and deliverer of the punchlines. Youth has been the center of our modern culture for decades, but millennials have been fighting growing up and getting old with fervent abandon. You can see that in the numbers of people in their mid–20s that still live at home with their parents (including, yes, Dad, which provides ample material for making fun of him), or the average ages when people get married and have children, which are higher than they’ve ever been.

Millennials have plenty of reasons to fear becoming their parents

Millennials have plenty of reasons to not want to be their parents. They grew up in a world with skyrocketing divorce rates, broken homes, and crashing economies. They are entering or already in a workforce where pensions and opportunities to plan for retirement are virtually taboo. They are burdened with crushing student loans and face a housing market that offers bleak prospects for home ownership. Studies have shown that for the first time in American history, the current generation stands to be worse off than their parents in terms of financial stability and job security.

If blowing off steam about crummy employment opportunities or lousy housing market manifests itself in memes that make fun of Dad, that’s far from the worst that could happen. We are, all of us, saying "Oh Dad, You" as a way of accepting that keeping up with the latest trends is becoming increasingly impossible and that’s ok. No matter how hard we might fight it, eventually everyone does get old, grows up, and no longer lives at home with their parents.

Watch out snake people, because before you know it, guess what, the dad is you.