As the only girl in a family where I was lucky (?) enough to have three brothers, I recognised early on that I was treated differently to them in a lot of ways. Some distinctions were nice, like always being given my own bedroom, while they generally had to share. But my gender mostly entailed a familial procession of double standards, especially when my younger brother was given permission to do things I was not allowed to. Was this due to the fact that my parents couldn’t allow me out at night with friends, because I was a terrifying 14-year-old goth determined to infiltrate the underground punk scene, bite heads off bats and have sex with every boy in town? No, I was a total square and secretly a lesbian, only determined to read the most books during the MS Readathon and beat everyone. And yet, I was treated differently – simply because I was a girl. My only recourse was to blare No Doubt’s Just a Girl with lyrics like ‘I’m just a girl, living in captivity’ over and over again in the bedroom I didn’t have to share. That would show everyone.
Still on the topic of no doubt, there is no doubt that an overprotective parent is better than a parent who couldn’t care less what their child gets up to. And there is no doubt that most overprotective mums and dads are well-meaning. But being protective is very different to displaying ownership. This difference was perfectly demonstrated recently when a photograph went viral of a muscular father standing with his daughter, who looks to be in her early teens. He is laughing, while she is stony-faced and wears a t-shirt with his flexing, half-naked, muscle-bound image on it, surrounded by the words ‘Stay Clear Boys, This Is My Dad’. The t-shirt’s message seemed light-hearted, but it was shared and praised widely enough that it was obvious its sentiment was appreciated by a lot of people. It’s the same sentiment behind every ‘You’ll have to get the shotgun out to keep the boys away’ Facebook comment left on photos of my eldest brother’s five daughters. The same sentiment motivates viral internet posts, like this Navy SEAL’s strict rules for boys hoping to date his 2-year-old daughter when she is older, complete with reference to a chastity belt to which he will hold the key. The implicit message is clearer here: paternal ‘protectiveness’ shticks often boil down to fathers not wanting their daughters to have sex, and by extension, get pregnant.
Besides the fact that it seems strange for any parent to focus on the future attractiveness and sexual desirability of their children, these comments almost without exception also promote and reinforce heteronormativity. They emphasise that boys need to be kept away from girls. If you grow up as a secret lesbian, you may find this works in your favour, as parents who might stop their daughters from sneaking out to be with boys will turn around and happily allow those same daughters have female ‘friends’ sleep over unattended. More seriously however, this common thread of dads threatening physical violence to protect their daughters, even as a joke, surely reinforces to boys that the only reason they should respect women is because there is a threat of male violence against them if they don’t. It emphasises that a man has power over a women, unless her father or another man is protecting her. This plays out into adulthood, when men will disregard a woman saying she is not interested, until she tells him she has a boyfriend – which has become a surefire tactic even single women use to stop men bothering them.
This sort of thing never happens in reverse. No dad has ever put a t-shirt on their son that says, ‘Girls stay away, my mum is Xena’. These light-hearted comments that many people find cute are tied up in the archaic idea that women are property, and that a women’s purity (i.e. virginity) needs to be protected by her father until she can be handed over to her husband on her wedding day. But the t-shirt, and other efforts by fathers to ‘protect’ their daughters, can actually backfire and have the opposite of their intended effect.
Girls are taught that they exist as a prized possession to be won and kept by a man in his trophy room; that their body is the most important thing about them; that they should always let a man have control over them. And boys are taught that girls and women exist solely to be pursued, and then protected, by men. It reinforces to boys the idea that girls don’t have their own agency, when surely these are the sorts of attitudes that girls actually need to be protected from.
Instead of trying to take control of girls’ decisions about what they want to do with their bodies (and I say trying because I went to a Catholic school and I can tell you that strict parenting like this often doesn’t work anyway), the best way to ensure that your daughter makes smart decisions, and stays safe, is to ensure she knows that she is in complete control. She does not need anyone to make decisions about her body for her; she is nobody’s possession, and anything that happens will happen because she explicitly wants it to. Teach her that her personal choices cannot be made by her father and his shotgun or bicep guns, or by any young man. You can be a supportive parent and a loving father without asserting ownership over your daughter. In reality, the best way to make sure everyone’s daughters stay safe and protected is to educate both boys and girls about safe sex, consent, and respecting every individual’s ownership and right to say what happens to their body. Put that on a t-shirt and take a photo.