“She’s got you wrapped around her finger”: fathers, daughters, and a variation on the myth of male weakness

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.

27 thoughts on ““She’s got you wrapped around her finger”: fathers, daughters, and a variation on the myth of male weakness

  1. interesting take, i kind of saw the father-daughter relationship a bit differently. i always thought (because this is what my dad told me) that it’s more along the strain of “because daddy knows what boys really want” and their attempt to protect their daughter knowing more about life experienced through a girl’s view which they become entwined during the girl’s development and sympathizing with the female burdens that other men will place on them later in life.

    the whole “daughter using feminine wiles on daddy” sounds just wrong. i think more of it was a daughter taking advantage of her father’s sympathy-but i’ve found with most people, such advantages gained are rare and infrequent at best.

  2. The whole “Daddy knows what boys really want” is, again, part of the myth of male weakness. Daddy doesn’t believe, for example, that men are capable of self-control. And think of the creepy undertones! If Daddy knows what boys really want, is it because that’s how Daddy thinks too?

    Jeepers. Toxic, toxic, toxic.

  3. Hugo, why on earth would a father have to think the same way as [his mental representation of] the average adolescent boy? I work with sex-offending adolescent boys right now; I know how they think; that doesn’t mean I think like they do! (The same could be said of me w.r.t. adults with anxiety disorders!)

    Why can’t a father impart to his daughter the notion that boys and girls are not taught the same things, on average, in most societies, about relationships and sex? I certainly want my baby girl to grow up having a clue to the effect that her notions may not be his … and that’s if she grows up heterosexual, which I have no way of predicting.

    (Maybe you should go back and read that comment again.)

    My take, since my daughter is about the same age as yours: I get the same comments and I think they’re sweet but kind of dumb. My daughter definitely has me “wrapped around her finger” in that I will always love, adore, and sympathize with her. But no — she won’t get away with murder, or quite a few other things, on my watch.

    I think PART of the myth here is that men don’t parent, and particularly don’t parent little girls. Moms do that, right? This is kind of like how when I’m with my baby and without my wife, people call it “babysitting” [!]. Or how when my brother and I went to breakfast with our tiny daughters, the waitress said, “Oh, you’re both Mr. Mom today.” [!!] Now THERE’s a marked category for you.

  4. Oh and one more thing:

    Are you really tempted to play the doting-Daddy role? That doesn’t really fit the idea I have of you. (I can’t imagine myself playing that role. It seems pretty alien and, yes, weak, to me. I LIKE parenting and plan to do quite a bit of it.)

  5. I have always viewed the relationship I have with my daughter as a one of showing her that men should be loving and not thought of as totalitarian dictators that say, “boys don’t cry” and “girls should wear dresses.” The fact that I tend to “give in” to some of my daughter’s requests does not make me weak, but simply a good actor in making my daughter “think” she is, indeed, getting her way. In setting the record straight, I “give in” to my son on an equal basis. My hope for my daughter is that she grows up learning to stand on her own two feet, but also understands the importance of having a relationship with a man that understands the value that a woman brings to his life. I will always know that the example I set for my daughter will, hopefully, teach her what kind of man she should, and will, expect.

  6. Men who outsource the kid’s boundary setting to moms might hurt the boys too. I think it might make it harder for boys in later life to accept female bosses and leaders. They might see women leaders as the all-powerful, scary, criticizing mommy, who must be opposed at all costs. (Whereas daddy figures are nice and fun.)

  7. Hugo,

    I also think that father-daughter relationships cannot usually be described with the same dynamic as male-(non-daughter)-female interactions can be described.

    I wonder about the term “myth” though. You always present “the myth male weakness” in this respect as though it would be absolutely clear that everyone believing this kind of thing has been brainwashed into seeing the world through the red pill, while you took the blue one. Yet you never supply any evidence that men are inherently not more vulnerable to temptation and manipulation than woman. Not saying men are weaker, may be there actually *is* a myth of male weakness and not real male weakness that led to the creation of common “wisdom” – it’s just that you present the opposite assumption as fact without offering much of support for the assertion beyond your saying so.

  8. Good for you Hugo – I, personally, am sick to the back teeth of men, and women, who buy into this myth, and there are plenty of both of ‘em… Some men seem to buy into the feable woman/girl/damsel in distress myth, and so do end up manipulated, and then resentful, and then become woman/feminist haters…

  9. Boy, this thread proves the point. The fatherly overprotectiveness sends these messages to girls:

    1) Daddy loves you because he doesn’t see you as a being who has sexuality. Ergo, women who have sex aren’t loveable.
    2) Boys who see you as a potential sex partner cannot love you—they only want “one thing”.
    3) I know you don’t want sex, because if you did, I couldn’t love you.
    4) I don’t love your mother/stepmother. Not really. Men don’t love women they see as sexual.

    No shit that’s toxic.

  10. SamSeaborn, I think Hugo means “myth” in the sense of “rape myth”, i.e. a self-justifying storyline. It doesn’t mean there aren’t weak men, but that internalizing a self-concept of weakness is a way to let one’s self off the hook for the temptations that do arise. Fatalism isn’t good for either gender.

  11. Jendi,

    I do get that. I’m just saying that both assertions (myth of male weakness / fact of male weakness) don’t come with a lot of evidence to back the claim up. The “fact of male weakness”-claim has popuplar support, the “myth of male weakness”-claim has feminist support. I don’t know if men are – essentially – easier to manipulate sexually than women. But Hugo’s basically saying they both *are easier manipulated* by just because they’re a victim of a cultural *myth* doesn’t help solve the question. These are mutually exclusive hypotheses about behavioral foundations. And just *saying* one is right doesn’t actually *make it right*.

  12. Oh, Amanda, there’s all kinds of toxic shit to unpack from that mess.

    5) Mommy doesn’t know what men “really want”, because as a mother, she was never a sexual being and certainly was never a cute little thing like you, with boys wanting to get into her pants.

    6) It’s a man’s job to fend other men off the women in his household. Mommy’s useless on this one.

    7) Girls don’t want sex, which is why Daddy has to protect his teenage daughter from all those boys – there’s no WAY that she could possibly want to have sex with them too.

    8) Daddy is dumb and prone to manipulation by females, whereas Mommy is way too smart to fall for any of that.

    The stupid, it burns.

    Sam, why does Hugo have to prove a negative?

  13. Hugo: “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.”

    Okay, I can accept that some men overdo the “fun Dad” thing in order to be the popular parent and leave Mom to be the one to say “no,” but what about mothers who see their children misbehaving, and turn the father into the ogre by saying, “Just WAIT ’til your father gets home”?

  14. You mean traditionalist women who believe that the man is the head of the household? I don’t think Hugo was talking about them. His point was that if it is true that Daddy is a big helpless galoot who is putty in his daughter’s hands, then the effect is to make Mommy the disciplinarian who set limits not just for daughter, but for Daddy (since Daddy obviously is too brainwashed by his daughter to do so).

  15. Thanks, Mythago and Jendi.

    And Sam, one way we disprove the myth is to look at history; the Puritans ascribed licentiousness and lack of self-control to women rather than men, whom they saw as altogether less lustful and less morally weak. (The Romans felt rather the same way.)

  16. Hugo,

    fair point. Still, rational or not, the basic behavioural element which all social organisation seems to have always based on was: Control women so you can control men(‘s potentially sociopathic sexuality) – because of “the female seductive prowess that will lead onward into doom” (Faust/Goethe). I think “the grain of truth” in the myth deserves a much harder look.

  17. Having grown up with a father who treated me like a princess until I grew boobs, I so identify with what you describe here.

    It’s taken a long time for me to start to trust my Dad, who I continue to believe has a fantasy daughter he wants more than he wants a real flesh and blood person as his child.

  18. And Sam, one way we disprove the myth is to look at history; the Puritans ascribed licentiousness and lack of self-control to women rather than men, whom they saw as altogether less lustful and less morally weak. (The Romans felt rather the same way.)

    Hmm, Hugo, that the Puritans and Romans believed an opposite myth doesn’t “disprove” anything. It’s perfectly plausible, perhaps even likely, that the adoption of such a myth among those two examples was compensatory and defensive, a sort of “othering” of women who were not in much of a position to dissent by saddling them with that stereotype. Comparing these myths tells us nothing about how either accords with actual behavior or not.

  19. Oh, I agree it’s “othering” — what it tells us, though, is that our perceptions of what each sex can and can’t do are largely culturally constructed rather than rooted in immutable physiological truths.

  20. Oh, I don’t know about that Hugo. As I recall, you once pointed out that women are demonstrably better than men at caring for children for the first nine months after conception. I think that perception is probably pretty sound.

  21. Very late to this but this posts – the doting dad – describes my relationship with my father to a T.

    But then he sexually abused me.

    And that’s why love is impossible for me, even after all these years. Because I cannot separate love and disgust, love and self-loathing. Especially when everyone tells me, “oh but he loves you so much…”

  22. Great post.

    I remember being surprised, as a teenager, that my dad *didn’t* do the protective dad thing. But then I was a good girl and a geek – I think my parents just couldn’t actually imagine me doing anything ‘bad’ that most teenagers do.

    ‘our perceptions of what each sex can and can’t do are largely culturally constructed rather than rooted in immutable physiological truths.’ Absolutely. And good point about the way gender roles worked with the Puritans/ Romans. My impression is that Arab culture, too, sees woman as morally weak, licentious, etc. – hence having to cover up. Although I suppose it sees both sexes in that way, since part of the point of that is to prevent men from being tempted, too.

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