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Explaining Fathers and Daughters in Popular Culture

By Alyssa Rosenberg on June 3, 2011 at 4:27 pm

"Explaining Fathers and Daughters in Popular Culture"

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Long-time readers know that I have a particular interest in fathers and daughters in pop culture; it was the reason that, despite formidable other objections, I really sort of loved Kick-Ass and am excited to see Hanna when I get a chance. So when I interviewed Tamora Pierce for the series on young adult fiction I put together for The Atlantic this week, one of the things I zeroed in on was the relationships her female characters have with their fathers and father figures:

Lots of your female heroines have wonderful father figures.

My dad was the one who got me started writing, and encouraged me to write. He shared a lot of his books with me when I was a kid and we were growing up. I still think my dad walks on water. My interest in military history is due to him, my interest in the American past is due to him. He was just very influential in my life…Especially if you’re going to have a daughter who is going to push her way forward, there’s nothing more important than a father.

That last sentence in particular crystallized some things I’ve been mulling for a while about a new book by Dr. Peggy Drexler, Our Fathers, Ourselves. The book isn’t, as Drexler puts it, “a process based on impersonal science…using statistical analyses to extract facts and figures and draw conclusions based on numbers.” Instead, Drexler presents the patterns she saw in interviews with 75 highly successful women about their relationships with their fathers, setting the table for a conversation about a dynamic that’s hugely ignored in a world that focuses much more on the impact fathers have on their sons.

What struck me about Drexler’s book is that way the fathers in it made it safe for their daughters to take risks by treating conflict and disagreement as if they were natural rather than a sign of failure. One woman she interviewed said “As a kid, I remember when we would play games—Monopoly or anything like that—he would never let us win, my brother or me. He always played the best he could…I remember beating my dad at checkers for the first time at seven years old and I was very satisfied with that because I knew I’d won it fair and square.” Another broke with her father’s religious traditions: “I’m sure it upset my dad. It was really his family that was more religious. But I felt like he let me make that choice for myself and to this day, I still drive [on the Sabbath].” As a result, these daughters have been able to do what Pierce said was important, push their way forward without fear of hurting someone. Their relationships aren’t brittle.

And as a result of that outward approach, Drexler’s interviews suggest that these women who have strong relationships with their fathers are also able to process their mixed emotions about those interactions fairly well. They could grow to see their fathers more clearly but not have good memories tainted by the flaws that emerged, or they could hope that they would marry men who would parent differently without feeling that they had to reject their fathers and the models they set completely. Daughters may, in some cases, be more aware of potential difficulties: “The ambivalence didn’t originate with the fathers as much as with the daughters, whose elevated financial status catapulted them to new heights of emotional and familial complexity. It also seemed that the higher a daughter lept, the greater complexity she encountered.” But the women Drexler talked to also don’t seem to have held themselves back from achieving: they can confront those emotions and manage them rather than back away for fear of triggering them.

And how is this useful in a fictional context? First, all the things Drexler’s describing make for great characters: breaking boundaries, working through complex emotions, doing things you’re afraid of or that cause conflict. Second, what’s interesting about the boom in Daddy’s Deadly Little Girl movies—we’ve already got Kick-Ass and Hanna, and a Matt Damon project about a father-daughter crime spree is on the way—is part of the trend is that fathers encourage daughters to break boundaries, but in ways that are essentially deviant. I don’t know if that’s a gendered trend, as if having a father mentor a daughter is inherently weird and likely to cause trouble, or just a specific trend that will either flicker or give rise to a more nuanced wave of father-daughter movies. Either way, I’m glad we’ve got Big Daddy and Hit-Girl’s relationship on screen.

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