Daddy’s Little Girls

TV has located the perfect family structure: apparently, it’s an accomplished, sexy father, and a pert, cute tween or teenage girl.  Ex-wives/mothers can be occasional guest stars, but the focus is on the Dad, who is both virile and understanding, and the daughter, who still needs guidance, but can also help dear old Dad understand the softer side of life by explaining things like emotions to him.   I found this model instantly annoying when I encountered it recently in a show I can’t remember the name of–it was billed as House with lawyers, and focused on a star criminal attorney who decided to become one of the good guys, but it’s much more recent than The Guaridan (if you know the name, please comment!). But I began to get more seriously annoyed when I found it repeated in other up-and-coming money-maker shows, Castle and Lie to Me.  In fact, the tween daughters of Castle (Alexis) and Lie to Me (Emily) look quite a bit alike, except for the striking red hair of Castle’s daughter: they are both notably elfin, with big round anime eyes.

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Emily in Lie to Me

Alexis in Castle

Alexis in Castle

Why does this pattern give me the willies?  First of all, it relies on one of my most hated of cultural tropes, The Enlightened Dad.  I’ve got nothing against dads changing diapers; what I hate is how they are lavished with praise for being even minor participants in child rearing.  A man tenderly dandling a baby makes everyone smile and sigh; a woman doing the same thing is just par for the course.  Both Lie to Me and Castle show their heroes’ softer sides through this sort of nonsense: they can be tough and arrogant, but don’t worry, they will be redeemed through their status as Good Dads!

What’s more troubling, though, is the kind of fantasy family these shows create. In effect, father and daughter replace husband and wife, offering a new couple that gets rids of the sort of things that make trouble in a real heterosexual marriage, particularly in the wake of feminism   Without a female authority figure at home (Mom), we get a family that boils down to the big sexy in-control male figure and amusingly willful yet ultimately sweet subordinate female figure.  No need to worry about who works, since the daughter doesn’t need to earn money; in fact, no need to worry about equality at all, since the roles are polarized by age and family position.  In other words, the father-daughter model recreates the sort of husband-wife family we imagine we used to have before women got all uppity.

Part of the satisfactions of this model are purely Freudian: getting rid of Mom so Dad and Daughter can pursue their own family romance is one of those omnipresent, barely masked cultural fantasies; it’s not for nothing that our fairy tales are filled with evil step mothers who try to keep worthy daughters from marrying the prince.  And certainly this model has a history on TV beyond Disney fairytales (anyone old enough to remember Family Affair?).

But I think the reinvigoration of the Dad-Daughter pattern now has more to tell us about the cultural fantasies of post-feminism than the Freudian fantasies of the family romance.  For one thing, both Lie to Me and Castle belong to a larger pattern of shows that pair men who possess almost supernatural powers with feisty, street-smart professional women who are never quite able to best them.  In Castle, it’s the tough female cop who supervises a team of male detectives.  In Lie to Me it’s the ‘uneducated’ Latina with a raw talent for recognizing micro-expressions.  In Life it’s the Persian-American cop with a history of substance abuse, and the African-American lawyer/ex-Olympian runner.  In Burn Notice, it’s the Irish mercenary with a penchant for violence.

In every case, the women in question are clearly figures of the post-feminist present–that is, they belong to a cultural landscape that assimilated certain palatable aspects of feminism, and jettisoned the rest.   These characters are all  tough professionals who expect equality and have  a kind of sexy swagger that borders on the butch.  And, in every case, they are either overtly mentored by or consistently bested by their borderline-omnipotent male counter part.  In cases like Castle and Lie to Me, proving the woman wrong becomes a key plot point in many episodes. What’s palatable, apparently, is the sexy, savvy woman who can almost beat a man at his own game.  What got jettisoned was the whole equality thing.

That three of these characters are women of color (two in Life, and one in Lie to Me) gives the whole process a sick twist: both shows suggest that their heroes are somehow progressive in pursuing this close relationship with a woman of color, at the same time that they consistently show them up.   That Life gave its hero another tough woman-of-color partner when its lead actress went on maternity leave suggests this pattern is no coincidence.

Once upon a time–I think it was the ’80s–having women characters like this in books and TV shows seemed to mean something was shifting.  Women who were tough, who carried guns, who kicked ass, were certainly a breath of fresh air, a little gust that seemed poised to blow away some elements of the status quo.  But, as it so often does, popular culture found a way to have its cake and eat it too: as shows like Lie to Me, Castle and Life make clear, we can now enjoy the sight of an ass-kicking woman (it helps if she’s beautiful, of course) without there being any real threat to male supremacy.

It makes sense, then, that the father-daughter family occurs in the some of the same shows that feature the tough female mentored and/or topped by the brilliant man: in both cases, we can have all the smarts and savvy we want provided we stay daddy’s little girls.

jke

9 Comments

Filed under feminism, girls, mainstream media, TV, Uncategorized, work

9 responses to “Daddy’s Little Girls

  1. Masculon the Powerful

    I think there’s an equal number of television shows that have a strong, attractive, intelligent wife and a stupid, fat husband. All television plays off stereotypes, either supporting them or contrasting them. It’s the name of the game. Inevitably, some of the characters are going to be shown in a very bad light, some in a very good light. You can’t make a show entirely out of positive role-models, it’d be a snooze-fest.

    • jke4

      Actually, I don’t think a strong, attractive, intelligent wife married to a stupid fat obnoxious guy is any more of a feminist model.

  2. rosessupposes

    Doctor Who fits into the category of smart women being edged out quite a bit by a man (albeit an alien man–but we’ve never seen a “Time Lady” to complement the “Time Lords”). I do enjoy the newest incarnation of the Doctor, but I could never understand why Billie Piper’s character was the favored companion. Of any of the three recent ones, she seemed the least intelligent. Then Catherine Tate actually briefly became the Doctor, and it was brilliant to behold. But they solved that plot device by taking away her mind and memories. Terribly sad.

  3. jke4

    Bummer re: Doctor Who. I don’t watch it (never watched the original, so I think the charm of the remake is lost on me) but sadly I’m not surprised to hear it fits this model!

    I hadn’t really thought about it specifically in terms of intelligence, more in terms of power, until I read your comment, and it’s an interesting point. I’m trying to think of a show that’s not a comedy where the woman is consistently presented as smarter than the male partner. The Closer, I guess?

  4. flyovermiss

    Hmmm, maybe Bones?

    Dr. Brennan (female) is presented as more intelligent than Agent Booth (male) in Bones, but her intelligence is limited strictly to matters of scientific inquiry; she’s presented as tone-deaf to matters of emotion and interpersonal relations, in which Booth excels. While the contributions of both characters are often required to solve the crime at issue, Brennan’s insensitivity to emotional nuance leads her to appear almost as a precocious child who needs Booth’s quasi-parental interpretation of adult emotions and relationships in order to function.

    So, no, maybe not.

  5. jke4

    You just described what annoys me about Bones to a T.

  6. Kimberly Springer

    @masculon’s : it’s important to keep in mind genre. why, for example, is the smart, attractive often bossy wife couple with the overweight, usually working class husband in comedy? sitcoms have a different purpose than dramas as jke is pointing out. just because an opposite stereotype exists in another genre doesn’t make the point any less valid.

    @jke: anime eyes! now that’s all i’m going to see mooning at me. this is good context for my Veronica Mars viewing, but might be confounded by Californication. featuring another anime-eyed daughter, the producers have to keep the mom in the show since the dad’s a sex addict and having solely him raising his daughter would invite the icks.

    do any of these shows attempt to have the smart, but not as intuitive woman mentor the daughter?

  7. kkhart0414

    I have felt this way about my tween daughter’s relationship with my ex-husband. I used to think I was alone with my feelings. Thank you for posting this!

  8. consciousnessrazor

    I really have to disagree–at least as far as the critique of Castle goes (I’m not familiar with the others). Your critique seems to be based on assumptions that fit your theory rather than a theory that flows from the actual content of the show.

    First of all, nobody’s pretending there’s anything “enlightened” about Richard Castle. He’s a goofy writer that nobody takes too seriously. Det. Beckett is neither “overtly mentored by” nor is she “consistently bested by” her “borderline-omnipotent male counter part.” She’s constantly besting him and proving him wrong. There may not be a mom at home, but there is a female authority figure–the grandmother. Castle isn’t just redeemed by showing his “softer side” as a father–through the series so far we’ve seen him making different choices as a result of his relationship with his daughter, seeing women as human rather than sex objects once he makes the connection that these young women are no different than his own daughter. I’ve heard men in real life remark that they began to recognize their own sexist behavior once they had a daughter. Where’s the bad in that?

    I was one of those girls who had a horrible mother who was not always in the picture, and a loving, nurturing, and extremely flawed father. Part of the reason I’m drawn to the show is the sweet father-daughter relationship! I think it’s a little overly simplistic and kind of twisted to reduce affectionate father-daughter relationships to a replacement of hetero marriages.

    I also think it’s great to see men in roles as loving, nurturing, affectionate fathers. There are far too few of these around. Liberating women involves liberating men as well.

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