There is a strange relationship that exists between fathers and daughters, one in which no matter how old daughters grow, there always seems to be a certain amount of infantalisation. She’ll always be, they say, daddy’s little girl, and they don’t seem to consider the fact that this is a deeply creepy and ugly statement, one which implies both ownership and lack of maturity, social status, the ability to navigate the world freely. Such attitudes are, of course, deeply socially embedded and they have very long cultural roots, but I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately as I watch the young women around me grow up, as I interact with people in my peer group who are decidedly adults, yet the women are treated as children by their parents while the men are treated as men.
Particularly when it comes to fathers and daughters.
There’s often an assumption that parental bonds are universal, that all families look the same, that children and parents always have the same kinds of connections. We know this not to be true: families take many shapes, some children are estranged from their family members, some parents are gone or dead or abusive or any number of other things. Even this supposedly ‘pure’ and ‘simple’ relationship, that of father and daughter, is rarely as clear-cut and easy as people seem to want to make it out to be.
I’ve written before about the proprietary attitude many men seem to have about the bodies of their daughters; anger about women growing into adulthood and making choices about their lives and bodies that their parents may not approve of. Fathers get angry about tattoos, about sexuality, about having children (or not), about daughters making independent health decisions without consulting their parents, about women striking out on their own.
There’s always a sense that a woman is a child, even when she has a successful career, a professional degree, a family of her own. Not a child in the sense of someone connected to a family through bonds of blood and her own relationships, but a child in the sense of an infant, someone helpless, someone who needs to be protected from the world and not just protected but also isolated, kept apart, and that the responsibility for this falls to fathers. Fathers must keep their daughters from the evils of the world, must maintain women in a state of suspended animation forever—or, at least, until they can be handed off to another man who can take up the responsibility of taking charge.
These attitudes often manifest in subtle ways. It’s not that women are necessarily sat down at the table and lectured for having visible tattoos, for example, although they may find themselves subject to disapproving glances and throwaway comments clearly aimed at them. Sometimes it’s something as subtle as unwanted touch; parents and family members often assume that they have the right to touch each other without securing consent because of their blood bonds and closeness, and when adult women try to assert boundaries, they’re called ‘bitches’ and penalised for it by family members offended at the thought that not everyone wants to be touched, not all the time, not without warning.
Some people might say they can’t imagine a situation in which a friendly pat on the back or similar gesture might be unwanted, that the very idea of consent is changed in familial situations. But that suggests that daughters lack bodily autonomy, that they don’t get to decide who touches their bodies, when, and how. Unwanted touch isn’t just about sexual touching, but about any kind of touch, no matter how affectionate and well-meant it may be. It’s about the sense that someone is invading your personal space, and the assertion of dominance and assumptions that come with it; of course I can touch you, you’re my daughter, I made you, you’re mine.
Suddenly that gesture seems more loaded, and can feel especially so to young women who are just starting to leave their homes, to grow into themselves, to become adults who negotiate life on their own terms. Daughters, as do other children, grow and change once they leave the family home. That’s the nature of the world, because they’re finally having a chance to interact with the outside world both on their own terms, and without the supervision and pressure of their families behind them. That changes, thus, the way they interact with their families, and it’s a change not everyone is prepared to adjust to; the daughter becomes alien, frightening, in her difference, in her newfound sense of self and her boundaries.
A father who loves his daughter deeply and wants every success and happiness in the world for her can still oppress her, and sometimes it is the most loving fathers who are the most oppressive, though they do not mean to be and might be horrified to have it pointed out. All too often, love can start to seem more like ownership than anything else, can become an assertion of rights over the body, soul, and being of another person rather than an expression of mutual respect and an acknowledgment that as a daughter ages, so too the relationship between her and her father must shift.
Fathers don’t own their daughters at any age, and the belief that they do is a major contributor to the social status of women, who often seem trapped in a ping-pong machine where they’re expected to bat about at the will of an external operator who bounces them from father to husband and back again. Nowhere here is there room for agency, independence, the ability to be a free woman.