My Two (and Three) Dads: Full House, Fuller House, and 1980s Sitcom Families

Curator's Note

On February 26, Netflix made available Fuller House, a thirteen-episode spinoff sequel of ABC’s 1987-1995 sitcom Full House, and on March 2 announced renewal for a second season. Fuller House tells the story of a single mother whose sister and best friend move in to help her raise three sons – a gender inversion of the original series, which featured three men raising three girls.

The original Full House was broadcast alongside a number of other sitcoms in the 1980s that depicted alternative family units, including Charles in Charge, Who’s the Boss, Mr. Belvedere, Kate and Allie, The Golden Girls, and My Two Dads. As conservative politics championed “family values,” these series were quick to assert that family can take many forms. In this clip, a trailer for the DVD release of My Two Dads, Michael and Joey’s inexperience with children is supposed to serve as a source of comedy, but the two men soon take to their roles and even thrive. Michael’s declaration that they are collectively “father of the year” affirms their success at performing domestic duties, like child-rearing, that were traditionally handled by mothers.

While 1980s alternative family sitcoms did not depict explicit homosexuality within the central characters, today’s queer TV parents, like Mitch and Cameron from ABC’s Modern Family, clearly find their roots in these series. Fuller House capitalizes on the same themes of family togetherness, but it lacks the progressive depictions of masculinity. Three women, who are naturally adept at child-rearing only for the reason that they are women, have replaced the three men who, in early seasons, had to learn how to take care of children (much like Michael and Joey of My Two Dads). With same-sex marriage legislation, greater numbers of men serving as stay-at-home dads and primary parents, and greater numbers of LGBT characters on TV, Fuller House’s premise feels weirdly conservative. Although we often think of 80s television as a period of wholesomeness, we can thank that decade for laying the foundation for contemporary television about queer families.


I'm so glad you bring Fuller House into the fray here! What's so interesting about this show is how heavily it leaned on the nostalgia I'm sure viewers felt for its predecessor, yet check out the cast's appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. (It's worth the six minutes of your time, I promise) I agree that this spinoff with three women taking care of three boys is "weirdly conservative"-even regressive. However, on The Tonight Show, the cast of Fuller House appears in a skit that places Donald Trump in Michelle Tanner's usual role. It's clever to do this since everyone appears one by one (to the audience's delight) to comfort the whining Donald who is afraid of being a loser. Yet, the promotion of this conservative show is couched in the very clear disapproval of the Republican front-runner in the race for presidential candidacy. In this way, at least one element of Fuller House--the late night promotion--is delightfully progressive.

Thanks for your comment, Molly. I'll be sure to check out the sketch from Jimmy Fallon. I didn't have much space here to really develop my argument about Fuller House's regressive politics. I especially attribute this to an interview with Candace Cameron Bure, who has several of her own children, having them younger than many of her generation. Certainly Stephanie somewhat fulfills the clueless swinging single trope (she's like Samantha from Sex and the City babysitting Miranda's baby, only not at all like that), so it's not true that they are ALL natural childcare providers. But I do think the switch is an indication of a kind of nostalgic regression that the use of laugh track, tired sitcom plot tropes, and overabundant references to the original also signal.

Mr. Belvedere the butler was coded as a gay man of size, fulfilling domestic duties in an apron with an English accent, no romantic partner, and a queeny dry sarcasm. There is definitely a supressed and coded queerness to many of these alternate 80s family. Fuller House is indeed regressive. People have argued how the reboot fails to account for current San Francisco gentrification and the tech boom. But the original completely erased LGBT and people of color from a multi-ethnic gay mecca. I mean a show about 3 men raising kids together in SF but they're all straight? And their heterosexuality was constantly reinforced through romantic partners and character affect.

You make a good point about the location of the series, Gabriel. In many ways, Full House would have been more believable in the Midwest. Mr. Belvedere, of course, was in many ways coded as gay, though this queerness is rendered "okay" through his British identity. He's affete - that's okay, he's British. He's domestic - that's okay, the British are less rugged. Etc. This is why, I think, I'm fascinated by My Two Dads and Full House, where the domestic dads are American. Often depicted as heterosexual, yes, but still with a latent queerness.

Gabriel, after reading something about queerbaiting in contemporary dramas, I wonder if you and I might think about this concept in relation to 1980s domestic sitcoms with alternative families. While we didn't use that term then, and I'd argue putting together alternative families was not intended by show creators to serve as queerbaiting, I do suspect that these kinds of families and programs might not be as successful now because we would call it that. I'm thinking here about the revamped Odd Couple that came out last season, and how bizarre it seemed in an era where two men on television should just be gay if they're gay. I suspect your example of Mr. Belvedere's queerness might work as an example of this. Do you think the contemporary audience would find Mr. B offensive or off-putting because he's not out?

I'm curious about the heternormativity of "Full House." While that is certainly the dominant part of the narrative, I wonder if considering the star texts of John Stamos and Dan Saget in particular might help put some pressure on this aspect of the series. Anecdotally, I know many queer youth found Uncle Jesse/Stamos to be an object of (quasi)-erotic fascination. And of course Saget has spent the subsequent years undoing and deliberately working against his nice-guy/slightly queer persona that "Full House" put on such display. Seen in this light, I think we can see a slightly erotic queer edge to both "Full House" and its 2016 progeny, at least as far as Stamos is concerned, and I wonder how seriously we can take Danny's straight-laced image in the wake of Saget's subsequent work.

I argue against a reading of Full House as heteronormative in my larger research; I see it as a fully queer family construction that reiterates the 80s fascination with the tension between normativity and queerness. Full House is one example in my larger argument about 80s sitcoms. But I like your suggestion of how to understand the series through star readings. Although John Stamos has the aura of sex appeal that is often concomitant with hetero-virility, he speaks with kindness of his gay fans and with pride about his 2006 movie Wedding Wars, in which he played a gay wedding planner who refused to work if marriage discrimination laws were passed. (Hello Prop 8.) So I'd agree that Stamos has an aura of queerness that works in tandem with Uncle Jesse's abiding heterosexuality. What do you make of Dave Coulier, though? I'm not sure there's as much to read into his star persona as there is with Saget and Stamos.

The idea that shows like My Two Dads and Full House, etc. laid the groundwork for contemporary TV's queer families is a fascinating premise. Do you propose, when you say that these 80s shows laid the groundwork, that they prepped American culture to adopt more positive attitudes toward non-heteronormative family formations? Or, was American culture changing in the 1980s and 1990s and these shows reflected that? Or, is it some combination of both? Or, did the creators and talent of these shows actually work on both era's family series, thus reflecting some kind of artistic progression/evolution? Maybe they were just big fans of the old sitcoms and the 80s shows influenced the way they wanted to make shows like Modern Family?

Hi Zach, I'm sorry I didn't see your comment TWO YEARS AGO! Thanks for giving me some different ways to think about the relationship between television and society. Since I've posted this piece, I've expanded my study to consider how television in the 1990s often depicted explicit homosexuality (see Ron Becker's comprehensive study). I think in many ways the "alternative family" sitcoms of the 1980s were the precursor to this that tapped into a changing social order and started to move the television barometer while also depicting family values in a way that was congruent with the Moral Majority, etc. These 1980s sitcoms strike me as a reaction against 1970s sexual liberties but also an embracing of the values of reconstructing family that would come a decade later.

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