On the “Protective Dad” Trope

I went back and forth about whether or not I actually did want to write about this, and I’ve obviously landed back on the decision to do it–I basically thought, “Ah, fuck it, no reason not to.”

Maybe you’ve heard about the dad who told his daughter’s homecoming date, “Whatever you do to my daughter, I do to you,” and took a funny posed picture with his daughter’s date. Maybe you haven’t. Either way, this reaction to it perfectly echoes my own.

My first thoughts when I saw an article about it for the first time were something along the lines of, “Ugh, not this overprotective dad shit again. This is weird.”

I think part of me is just bored with it. I’ll be honest, I think the picture itself is actually pretty funny, but I’m uncomfortable with the concept of girls needing protected by their fathers in this context. Sure, women can face a lot of dangers and a lot of threats, but their homecoming dates generally aren’t one of them–and this is never framed as an issue of consent, either. It’s never about respecting the daughter’s wishes, whatever those may be, or respecting boundaries. It’s always about what the father wants and completely ignores the daughter in this situation. Daddy may not want a boy to so much as look at his daughter, but what if she’s into him? What if she wants attention from him? What if she wants to go to a dance or kiss or hug or do more? She’s allowed. Her father doesn’t own her any more than the boy does.

And this absolutely depends on the girl, her father, and their relationship, because no one seems to consider what it’s like actually have your dad play that role.

Personally, I hated it.

I only really ever remember my dad doing it twice. The first time was when Stephanie’s brother used to work at McDonald’s and my dad took my brother and I through the drive-through, coincidentally while Steve was working. Steve  had a habit of playful flirting–which continued on through college, pretty much–and he said, “Hi, Janelle,” in kind of a sing-song voice as we were slowly driving away. My dad slammed on the brakes and in a husky, deep, mostly put-on voice said, “How do you know my daughter?!”

The second time was in a mall shortly after he got back from Iraq, where we again saw someone I knew who happened to be working. This time, I was in high school and the guy was a slightly older male friend, and we chatted a bit–completely platonically. There was never even a hint of anything between us, and I’m almost positive nothing in our interaction suggested otherwise. But my dad took it upon himself to say, “I’ve killed before, and I’ll kill again.” It was a little funny at the time, but not all my feelings about it were positive.

Like I said, I hated it. Rather than feel protected, I felt embarrassed that he was butting in and apologetic that he was being rude to either my friends or my friends’ siblings. And especially now in retrospect, I don’t even believe he was honestly looking out for me–the way he acted out of character and modified his voice seemed more like a bullshit macho move, a put-on to look like a hardass. Maybe I’m wrong–I can’t read my dad’s mind–but I think it was more of a pissing contest than it was a sincere concern for the guys’ intentions or what might happen between us. I’m not saying my dad didn’t give a shit about me or something, I’m just saying showing dominance was more important.

On top of all of that, I was a shy, insecure teenage girl who, despite never really expressing this at the time, desperately wanted to date. Guys seemed uninterested and I was too shy and scared to make a first move, and even if I was uninterested in both of the guys my dad went into papa-bear mode over, he could’ve easily done it to a guy I was interested in if the opportunity presented itself. And the last thing a teenage girl looking for love wants is her dad poking around and possibly interfering or sabotaging her chances. And unfortunately, for some girls, this sort of overly masculine meddling doesn’t end with the teenage years. It’s also not limited to fathers and daughters, but all you need to do is read around on this blog a bit to get an idea of the other mother/son end of it.

My dad may have kept it to two dudes in my teen years, but my godfather was a little more extreme. I never really dated before my current boyfriend, Paul, and maybe Uncle Clark was just waiting for his chance the whole time. But he threatened Paul over the phone when we first started dating–albeit jokingly, but all my previous points still apply. Paul fortunately saw it more as concern for me, and in Uncle Clark’s case, I am more inclined to take it that way, but there’s a point where the “touch her and you die” joke stops being funny. It stops being funny when your godfather says, “Don’t touch her below the collarbone” without considering that maybe you want your first serious boyfriend to touch you, well, everywhere. It stops being funny when your godfather meets your boyfriend for the first time with a gun by his side while he’s drunk, even if it’s not loaded. It stops being funny when you can’t sit next to each other without being told you’re too close. It’s nice to know people care about you and don’t want to see you get hurt, but it’s frustrating at best when that gets taken to the extreme of your feelings for the guy in question being completely disregarded.

Funnily enough, the guys my dad and godfather deemed in need of a threat were never the guys that were a problem.

When my mom used to complain about my dad–or she used to chime in when I started the complaining first–one of the stories told frequently was a short, sweet anecdote about a dinner my parents had with my dad’s parents early in their relationship. My grandma said to my dad some variation of, “Denise is gonna get tired of the jokes just like I did.” And she did. Whether they should be or not, my parents are still together, and one of her biggest complaints is how everything is a joke. One of my brother’s biggest complaints is how everything is a joke. One of my biggest complains is how everything is a joke.

My dad’s sense of humor can be very childish. He’ll make the same jokes over and over again, and just like his own mother predicted, it gets old. But the more annoyed you get, the funnier he thinks it is, so asking him to stop is useless. It just makes the joke funnier. He likes to see people get wound up and angry, and sometimes, if you snap a little sooner than he expected, he’ll make another crack about you being “sensitive” or “touchy.” He’s one of a very, very few people I’ve ever encountered who just can’t honor a person’s requests to lay off the jokes because they’re getting annoying or hurtful.

I have a former friend I’ve written about a few times who is notorious among our (former) mutual friends for disrespecting women and their boundaries, for being a compulsive liar, and for very clearly using and manipulating women for sex, except almost every single one of us was smart enough to know what he was doing. Not only did I end our friendship over this, but I was once genuinely afraid of what he would do to me if he had the chance.

One of my dad’s favorite jokes is how because this guy is in the military, he surely can’t be guilty of any wrongdoing is a nice guy. And even though my dad knows every single thing this guy’s said and done to me–I’ve made it very clear and even been quite vulgar to get the point across, saying more than once “I thought I’d wake up pregnant with his dick in my mouth”–he still thinks this is an appropriate and funny joke, and I know the more I argue otherwise, the funnier it’s gonna be to him. And don’t get me wrong, this is an entirely an issue of my dad being a downright asshole, but this is exactly why I don’t believe he truly was protecting me when he threatened guys in the past. Maybe the fact that he threatened guys who were not, in fact, threats is pure coincidence, but the fact that he makes jokes about a guy who was a threat certainly is not a coincidence.

So, dads, listen to your daughters and consider what they actually want and what you’re actually doing when you put on the macho, “don’t you dare” act. You may think you speak for them, but you don’t.

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