Oh Father, Where Art Thou? – The Sunday Independent

Date: July 9, 2011
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Name of story: Oh Father, Where Art Thou?

Name of journalist: Janet van Eeden

Name of publication: The Sunday Independent

Date: 19 June 2011

Country: South Africa

Theme: Sex roles

Skills: Language, perspective, portrayal, sources

Genre: Feature

GEM classification: Blatant stereotype


Father’s Day has a different meaning to different people. For some it is a commercial venture, whereas for others it is a day when children yearn for their absent fathers. This article is about how children need father figures to teach them constructions of masculinity and identity. The story focuses on the need for young boys to have a father figure, without making any mention of young girls. This is a gender-blind perspective as it ignores female children on the basis of their sex. The writer also blames fathers for the high rates of gender violence because they are not present to teach their children how to behave in moral ways. While the writer presents the importance of fathers in boys’ lives, the journalist fails to provide evidence of her speculation that young men become abusers and rapists because they do not have fathers. The journalist insinuates that mothers cannot teach their sons moral behaviour because they are not men.


“Oh Father, Where Art Thou?” This is yearning call, a search for a father. 51% of children in South Africa do not have fathers and on Father’s Day, they may wish they could, like other children, celebrate the presence of fathers in their lives. This headline alludes to the absence of fathers and takes an empathetic stance with the children who feel this absence the most. This headline is appropriate because it serves as an introduction to the story. The writer argues that fathers are needed by their sons to be taught how to become men.

There are three professionals used as sources, two of whom are women: Chitra Ranchod, a Masters graduate at the University of KwaZulu Natal and Linda Richter, Human Sciences Research Council’s Executive Director. There is one male source, Graham Lindegger, who is a Professor in the Psychology Department at the University of KwaZulu Natal.

The number and gender balance of sources in the article seems fair. The journalist used three professionals of both sexes whose qualifications relate to understanding the needs and behaviour of children. However, since Father’s Day is a day celebrated by everyone, the view of the public on the issue would have made this article stronger. Quotes from single mothers who can explain what it is like to raise a child without a father would have been a good start in enriching the article’s sources. The writer could have also spoken to children who do not know their fathers as they could explain, first hand, how it affects them and whether they would want to know their fathers in the first place. Fathers who have been separated from their children could also have been interviewed to share their feelings about Father’s Day. Since fatherhood is an issue that affects everyone, more sources should have been included.

Although the article was about absent fathers, which affects children regardless of their sex, the language only referred to the effect on boys and not on girls. The journalist should have used the gender-neutral term “children” instead of “boys” so that girls are not excluded from this story.

Visual image
There is a large image of Brad Pitt carrying his son, RL on his back. This is a picture from a movie they acted in called The Tree of Life. The message this picture sends is that when a son has a father in his life, he feels happy and complete. The child is carried by his father, which signifies an element of care-giving and support. This image can be seen as appropriate for the article because it depicts a positive relationship between a father and a son. The image promotes the essence of Father’s Day, which is about children celebrating the significant roles their fathers play in their lives.

Story angle and perspective
This article makes a strong point about absent fathers and the reasons why men need to take up the responsibility of this role. However, a blatant stereotype is perpetuated in the process. The journalist may have had good intentions in writing this story, but she missed the gender perspective. We hear from her that boys are crying out for their fathers because they need to be taught how to become good men. A gender-sensitive perspective would consider that girls may also need the care of their fathers. Although the author intended to increase her readers’ knowledge on fatherhood and masculinity issues, she failed to acknowledge that girls can also learn from their fathers.

The writer says, “fathers are important to boys.” A gender-sensitive perspective would discuss the importance of fathers to girls too. Although the absence of fathers may affect boys and girls differently, the effect on both sexes needs to be considered. Another subtle stereotype that the article puts forward is that “a man carrying a child is an example of gentleness. I asked my husband to take a picture of that.” Fathers carrying or walking with their children in parks might be unusual but that doesn’t mean it should be applauded or that it necessarily shows signs of gentleness. A father just like a mother should be able to carry their children and this should be seen as normal.

The article argues that boys need their fathers to help them understand the roles they need to play as men in society. It implies that boys will never realise the essence of being a man because they do not have fathers. Furthermore, the story tells us that the reason there is such a high rate of assault, rape and HIV is because these young boys are not taught how to care for the opposite sex. This may be true, but it does not mean that mothers cannot teach their sons how to be moral and upstanding citizens who care for the opposite sex. By making these claims, the writer is perpetuating a subtle stereotype that women are not able to effectively mother their sons. When making such claims or assertions, it is important to provide sufficient evidence and the writer did not do so.

Placement and positioning
This story is placed on the seventh page of the newspaper. The article received prominence of the full page as it was published on Father’s Day.

Training exercises

  • Could the journalist have used a different angle to tell the story?
  • Which other sources would you include for the story?
  • Discuss the difference between the event and the issue around Father’s Day. How would you have written the story?

Other training resources

African Fatherhood Posters by African Fathers Initiative

Opinion and Commentary Service: Celebrating fathers, let’s hear about the role models by Trevor Davies

Clipping: The importance of being a father – Sowetan

Clipping: Give fathers a chance – Botswana Gazette



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