Sorry if the title of this post threw you off a bit – if you clicked hoping for a bit of juicy gossip, I’m sorry to inform you that you will be severely disappointed. This misleading heading actually refers to something I like to call the ‘Daddy’s Girl Complex’: a phenomenon I have disconcertedly noticed more and more in novels, films, television and real life. Whilst not an actual term used in popular culture (something I have, kind of pretentiously, coined myself), I consider this to encompass various nuances regarding the portrayal of father-daughter relationships and the implied hangovers of patriarchal domination often found within these.
This first occurred to me whilst reading schmaltzy, melodramatic YA fiction and watching cheesy rom-coms: however, it is not exclusive to these formats. I have found evidence of this concept in all manners of artistic representation, as well as reality TV and reality itself. There are multiple branches that I have identified that can be categorised on the Daddy’s Girl Complex scale, two of which I will dissect in greater detail.
I’ll begin with my qualms towards the representation of parental relationships in art, primarily films or books. A consistently emerging theme that I couldn’t help but notice several times was this ‘good cop’ motif. Often media portrayals of mother-daughter relationships are depicted as dysfunctional: female protagonists often resent their relentlessly nagging mothers, with blazing rows being triggered by the slightest wrong word or movement. Such tempestuous and precarious relationships are certainly true to life in many cases, particularly during teen years – this is not what I have an issue with. What I find uncomfortable is the stark distinction in artistic representations between daughters’ relationships with mothers and those with fathers.
Whilst often daughters are irked by mothers’ seemingly innocuous and well-meaning actions, dismissing them with irritation and frustration, fathers receive a strikingly different reaction. They are often idolised, portrayed as a welcomed saviour from the pestering mother – this is what I mean when I refer to the ‘good cop’. I have seen various representations where, despite the mother’s tireless and slavish devotion to her daughter, the father receives unquestioning and abundant praise and admiration whilst the mother’s work goes unnoticed and without thanks. Again, I feel this reflects reality: women, including mothers, regularly receive a fraction of the recognition that men receive for doing double the work.
However, the frequency at which I have observed this dynamic in fiction perpetuates this injustice – not to mention that the excessive reinforcement of the turbulent mother-daughter relationship simply reiterates the grossly unfair stereotype that women struggle to harmoniously get along with each other without hostility and conflict. To add insult to the injury, some of these father characters are actually pretty dire.
I recently read a novel in which the father not only did significantly less than the mother for his daughter (the protagonist), but actually treated both her and the mum rather poorly. Nonetheless, the protagonist failed to recognise her mother’s efforts for both her and the family, instead hero-worshipping her father as the fun and carefree antithesis to her supposedly boring and restrictive mother. Why are parents depicted in this way? I am not here to decide once and for all whether mothers or fathers deserve the ‘best parent’ title (every family experience is vastly unique, subjective and incomparable), but I must question why authors or filmmakers consistently defer to this somewhat tired stereotype. If this is a representation of reality (and I’m genuinely unsure whether it is), it reveals a serious injustice in the way women and mothers are perceived in society and how valuable their efforts and work are deemed.
On that note of reality, the latter branch of this concept is relevant to discuss the protective and dominating father relationships I have often heard girls mention. I am specifically referring here to notions of fathers imposing strict guidelines upon daughters regarding boyfriends, clothes, dating and similar things which are somehow affiliated with romantic or sexual activity. Countless times I have heard girls (including people I know in real life and often on TV, particularly shows such as Love Island)say “my dad would never let me leave the house wearing…”, or “my dad would kill me if he found about…”, usually referring to some kind of dating shenanigans or scandals.
Never in my life have I heard a boy say this about their dad, implying that men are unthreatened by their sons’ romantic or sexual antics. Why do different rules have to apply to daughters? To give the benefit of the doubt here, I might suggest that perhaps it is purely a result of fear for their daughters’ safety; to ensure they are not placed in a dangerous situation with a man. To be honest though, I must admit I genuinely don’t think this is the reason (and even if in some cases it is, it uncomfortably echoes sentiments of victim blaming – monitoring girls’ clothing or behaviour is NOT the approach that should be used to tackle sexual harassment or assault).
When I have heard girls say this in the past, I always suspect that notions of pride, shame and honour are the motivations behind this controlling behaviour. Perhaps fathers feel they must protect their daughters’ ‘honour’ (most likely translating as sexuality in this case) because, in some warped way, it reflects on their own personal status or cachet. Sounds pretty medieval to me – just another way for men to assert domination and authority over female sexuality in an attempt to curb it.
Women’s sexuality has historically been bartered and bargained for thousands of years, overwhelmingly by men. Take the example of a dowry: fathers provide their daughters’ husband and his family with a sum of money upon their marriage. This is a transaction between two men which commodifies a woman to a mere product to be traded for their benefit rather than hers. If that doesn’t reveal how female sexuality can be manipulated and exploited, we can also look at the traditional Christian wedding ceremony. The bride wears a white dress to symbolise her ‘purity’ (virginity) and her father literally GIVES her away to another man at the altar – she goes from being the possession of one man to another, assuming her husband’s name in place of her father’s.
One way this has evolved a step further (which has successfully outlived the dowry) is attaching sentiments of honour, pride and shame to female sexuality in order to force women to co-operate. Whilst in the modern world we would hope not to spend our days emblazoned with a red A to signal our wantonly ways to the world, I feel as though this “my dad would never let me…” attitude is a hangover of this transactional attitude towards female sexuality being used as an indicator of male status and pride. Why else would men be so concerned by their daughters’ sexual activity if they did not feel it reflected badly on themselves?
I am not attempting to suggest all fathers are like this, nor am I criticising the girls I have heard mention these things. I just feel that it reflects a consistent theme of repressing female sexuality in an alarmingly possessive or dominating way. By failing to acknowledge their daughter as an autonomous adult with the capability to live their own lives and make their own choices (in a way sons’ behaviour is never monitored – this is the key point I am emphasising here), patriarchal notions of male control are reiterated and perpetuated. Why must fathers have one rule for daughters and another for sons, when they are both their children and presumably reflect upon the father equally? The answer lies amongst thousands of years of commodification of female sexuality: sentiments of respect, pride or honour are simply not attributed to male sexuality in the same way.
To tie together my two rather diffuse branches I have discussed in this post, the father-daughter relationship is potentially a problematic one in its depiction in both popular culture and wider society. Whilst this is definitely not the case for all fathers and daughters, it is just unfortunate I have happened to notice these sentiments crop up on multiple occasions. I can’t help but feel that, for all our 21st century progression towards female emancipation and equality, there is an insidious feeling that such attitudes are thwarting our development by grounding us in outdated, archaic and frankly misogynistic values.