Little Heloise Cerys Raquel is indeed an enchanting baby, at least in the eyes of her doting parents. Now seven months old, her delightful personality emerges more and more each day — or so it seems. One of my favorite things about being on vacation this summer was the chance to be with her virtually every second; as I type this in my office, I note the hours (about five) until I will be home to her.
When we’re in public and Heloise is in my arms, we invariably get the same remarks: “She’s got you wrapped around her finger already, doesn’t she?” Or, “Watch out, when she gets older, you’ll have to watch the boys like a hawk!” My wife frequently gets told how much our daughter takes after her, but never receives anything like these comments. (When we were in Britain over the past few weeks, we got almost the same comments as we do here in the States.) And as a male feminist and father to a daughter, I find the subtext of remarks like these troubling, even as I honor the innocuousness of the intent behind them.
The bit about a daughter having her daddy “wrapped around her finger” repeats the old myth of male weakness. The myth of male weakness suggests that men are inherently vulnerable to temptation and manipulation. Men, the myth insists, have a much harder time practicing fidelity than do women, as men are biologically less capable of resisting sexual temptation. Heterosexual men are easily seduced by women, or so the trope goes, and thus women can use this weakness to flirt their way out of, say, traffic tickets or into jobs and marriages. The parental corollary, I’ve been realizing, is that daddies are far easier for daughters to manipulate than mommies. Fathers, the myth suggests, are powerless to say no to the pleas of their infant (or adolescent, or grown) female children.
Fathers, like other men, are supposed to be at least somewhat aware that they are being manipulated. I’ve gathered already that if I say “Yes, she’s already got me right where she wants me”, I’ll get indulgent smiles and teasing warnings about what she’s going to be like as a teen. And if I say — as I have said in one way or another several times — “I adore my girl, but she’s not going to get away with murder on my watch”, folks tend to shake their heads in real or mock pity at my stubborn refusal to acknowledge my own obvious frailty in the face of my daughter’s feminine wiles. A great deal of homosocial cameraderie is built and sustained on the theme of genuine or feigned exasperation at the supposed male inability to resist the charms of “hot chicks and pleading little girls.”
I’m not particularly offended on my own behalf. I don’t have much invested in proving to the world that I’m not easily manipulated. (And one exhausts oneself trying to prove a negative.) But for the sake of both my family and feminism, I’m not willing to dismiss the “wrapped around her finger” narrative as charmingly harmless. First of all, I’m viscerally disgusted by the ways in which father-daughter relationships get framed in contemporary Western middle-class culture as quasi-romantic in nature; that revulsion has grown considerably since Heloise was born. (I’ve written of the horror of the Purity Ball before.) We do, tragically, live in a world where the sexual abuse of little girls by their fathers or father figures is all too common; the last thing we need to do in the face of the reality of abuse and incest is to see anything cute or appealing about “Daddies dating daughters” or the like.
When a daughter hits dating age, and begins (presuming heterosexuality) to show an interest in boys, the discourse suggests that a father ought to feel threatened and worried. Indeed, countless women have noted that when they hit puberty, their fathers’ attitude towards them shifted radically. Faced with the reality that their daughters were sexual beings — complete with boobs — far too many fathers withdrew both their affection and their adulation. Little girls who have been set up to be “Daddy’s little princess” not infrequently find their fathers to be suddenly remote and/or hyper-critical. Many father-daughter relationships take years to recover, and the impact on young women’s lives — right at the moment that many of them begin to explore their own sexuality — is sometimes devastating.
I’m also troubled by the message this version of the myth of male weakness sends to girls. It encourages the noxious idea that men are loveable but easily led, and that “pretending to be weak” or “dressing real cute” are better strategies for young women to use to get what they want than simple forthright candor. In a very real way, it teaches little girls that manipulation is preferable to directness, and that good looks and feminine wiles are the most valuable tools a woman can possess. Above all, there’s a sinister reality that undergirds this whole discourse: if men are easily manipulated, than they can never fully be trusted. If a Dad can’t say no to his daughter, he sends her a message (however subliminal) that men are fundamentally unreliable. Whether in families or in boardrooms or in bed, one basic rule of life is that you can never, ever trust anyone who doesn’t have the strength and the agency with which to tell you “No”.
And of course, one other infuriating dimension of the “wrapped around her finger” discourse is that it outsources all of the tough stuff to the mothers of daughters. If I can’t say “no” to my little girl, then it follows that her mother will be forced to take on the role of disciplinarian. I get to become the all-too-familiar “fun Dad” who is really little more than an overgrown son to his exhausted scold of a wife/mother. We’ve all seen the noxious dynamic in which Dad allies with the kids against Mom. Though plenty of men don’t outsource all the boundary-setting to the mothers of their children, far too many fathers do just that, adding not only to women’s burden but unnecessarily complicating — perhaps even poisoning — the mother-daughter relationship. The high drama that we associate with the mother-daughter dynamic in our culture is, at least in some instances, exacerbated by the absence or abdication of far too many fathers.
I love my daughter with every fiber of my being. I’m learning every day what it means to be her papa, grateful beyond words to all the young people in my life who’ve helped prepare me for this, and grateful too to the splendid example of my own late father. But I’m quite clear that despite the culturally-conditioned temptation to play the role of the indulgent, doting, easily manipulated Daddy, I owe it to Heloise and to the world in which she will grow up to be loving, to be strong, and to be an equal partner with my wife in setting and maintaining boundaries.