In the comments on a video entitled “My Dad When I Was Young,” the top post last month on r/DadReflexes, the prevailing mood is one of nostalgia, tenderness and admiration. “THIS IS SO CUTE,” one user comments. “He seems like such a great father!” Meanwhile, another chimes in, “I love how he’s trying to be there for the both of you without neglecting the other. Awesome dad.” While a debate does eventually break out about the fatherly credentials of the man featured in the video — it is, after all, a comments section on the internet — the vast majority of comments are full of praise for his swift reflexes, gentle tolerance and careful balancing of attention between his two young children.
Last week, r/DadReflexes was the number one trending community on Reddit. With a membership that currently numbers more than 439,000 users, hundreds of new members join every day to partake in its wholesome, funny GIFs and videos involving dads in domestic scenes. The rules of the community are simple: only post dad reflexes, i.e. a father’s reaction to some happening; don’t be a tiresome reposter of popular videos; and don’t be a dick. The dad reaction can be “bad” — that is, it can involve a miss or failure — but the quintessential r/DadReflexes post involves a heroic leap to save a young child from a fall, animal or collision and demonstrates the tender relationship between a father and his kids. The dads don’t even necessarily need to be human, as this video of a polar bear saving his cub attests.
Interest in the dad reflexes phenomenon has increased in recent years. Apart from being a recipe for heartwarming viral content, the topic is compelling from a scientific perspective, too: having babies and bonding with them increases the amount of the hormone prolactin in the brains of new parents, causing the generation of new neurons that help turn dads from schlubby middle-aged men into superheroes with ninja reflexes. In other words, dad reflexes are a real thing, and fathers in the comments of these videos often discuss the physical and emotional changes they went through when they had children and bond over the experience of fatherhood.
Yet there’s nothing really new about any of this, so why the sudden interest? Why are communities centered on wholesome dad content burgeoning in number in 2019? One answer is that there’s perpetual demand from internet users for uncomplicated, heartwarming cuteness. In an online space often dominated by Donald Trump tweets and news about war and climate change, social media accounts like Cute Emergency and Just Cute Babies enjoy followings of hundreds of thousands, and even millions. The internet can be a perpetually negative, combative and draining place, and sometimes you just want to veg out to a short video loop of a litter of sleeping puppies or a father preventing his bouncing daughter from falling off the couch.
But the simple yearning for cute content isn’t all there is to it. In the immediate wake of the #MeToo movement, there has been an exponential interest in the concept of “toxic masculinity.” Search volume for the term reached a crescendo earlier this year, and a concept that was once relegated to women’s studies tutorials is now a water-cooler talking point and fodder for razor commercials. What’s more, the trending (and controversial) phrase “men are trash” has become a rallying cry on social media for those fed up with the various manifestations of shitty male behavior. It seems we have never been more aware of men’s failings and the harm that traditional conceptions of masculinity cause men and everyone around them. Basically, masculinity is having a moment of reckoning.
Jeff Perera, an educator and speaker seeking to inspire positive masculinity amongst men and boys, tells me that he’s noticed an increased interest in the work he does at Higher Unlearning since the mainstreaming of the #MeToo movement. “I’ve definitely had a lot more people reach out, both professionally and personally, wanting to explore what it looks like for men to do better when we have been disappointing, caused hurt or harm,” he tells me. “My hope is to help men and young men find and give one another permission to embrace traits like empathy, emotional literacy, expression of love and compassion as human versus exclusively ‘feminine.’ I think some [young] men retreat to these con-man/grifter right-wing voices like Jordan Peterson who encourage surface-level change but let men off the hook by blaming women versus getting into the mud and doing the hard work of emotional growth.”
For those who resist the pull of the manosphere, there does seem to be an increasing appetite for models and examples of masculinity that are pro-social and nourishing. Celebrities like Timothée Chalamet and Ezra Miller have been praised (perhaps excessively) for their “‘fuck toxic masculinity’ power,” and there’s renewed scientific and social interest in the concept of positive masculinity. Researchers working in this area have identified 11 potential domains of positive masculinity: male self-reliance; the worker-provider tradition of men; men’s respect for women; male courage, daring and risk-taking; the group orientation of men and boys; male forms of service; men’s use of humor; and male heroism. In other words, even without re-writing what it means to be a man and taking traditional masculinity as a starting point, there are masculine qualities worth encouraging and upholding.
“Rather than measure a man by what he can demonstrate, own or produce, we can measure a man by how he serves, lives and gives,” Perera tells me when I ask about his own vision of positive masculinity. “Today’s slippery slide for men and young men into the sewers of the manosphere can be stopped with an embrace of accountability, empathy and love.”
Which brings us back to the dad reflexes community. While there’s still sometimes the same one-upmanship and pedantry that can be found in any Reddit comment section, r/DadReflexes is rare in that it’s a masculine-centric space on the internet mostly characterized by softness and warmth. The featured videos are textbook examples of positive masculinity, each with some combination of male courage and risk-taking, service, heroism and even men’s use of humor.
A recently posted video is an illustrative example, featuring a girl taking part in a cooking competition. As the minutes are ticking down, she struggles with a jar lid so tight she can’t even wedge it off with a meat cleaver. Eventually she rushes it to her dad, who loosens it with seeming effortlessness. “There would be no jar tough enough for that Dad in that moment,” one user suggests, receiving 467 upvotes. “He’d rip his own hands off trying to open that sucker.”
“I remember seeing this before I became a dad, and thought, ‘Hehe, that’s pretty cute,’” reads the most upvoted comment in the thread (1.1k). “Now I have a daughter, and seeing this nearly brings a tear to my eye.”