“A dad’s gotta do what a dad’s gotta do.”
The statement came at the end of an ad that first aired during the Super Bowl, showing a father following his daughter around on a date—showing up at the movies, the carnival, and even hanging from a helicopter to make threatening gestures to his daughter’s date—all in the name of “protection.”
Starring Kevin Hart, the ad is funny and the premise is one that is as old as time, but it is also a premise far past its prime.
The overprotective dad—we see it in sitcoms, in running jokes (“Have a son and only worry about one penis; have a daughter and you worry about all the penises”), in social media memes (remember that viral photo of the dad who implanted himself in his daughter’s prom photos?), and television commercials (like this Kevin Hart ad).
Like many stereotypes, it is funny because there is a grain of truth in it. Ask almost any dad, and he will tell you that he feels a fierce protectiveness for his daughter. But also like many stereotypes, there is a point at which the joke crosses the line between funny and outdated, between innocent and damaging.
We have crossed that line.
My problems with this outdated joke are twofold. First, as a mom to boys, it breaks my heart to think that regardless of how respectful, kind, and considerate my boys might be, there may be people out there who assume they do not have good intentions. There will be members of their own gender who assume my sons would be hurtful, conniving, or manipulative. It saddens—and angers—me that boys, who will certainly become hostage to raging teenage hormones one day, are presumed to be incapable of controlling those hormones. Our boys deserve to be held to a higher standard than that.
Second, at its core, the joke is saying that our daughters—young women—are incapable of taking care of themselves, that they need someone—a man no less—to protect them. And that assumption, quite frankly, is hurtful, offensive, and damaging. Since the beginning of time, women have been told, whether explicitly or implicitly, to play hard to get. And in doing so, our sexuality and autonomy is diminished. This societal role of women as the pursed is sending dangerous messages about sexual identity, control, and personal boundaries. Women—young women included—are capable of making these decisions for themselves. No means no, and yes means yes. End of story.
As a mom to only boys, it is true that I will never know what it is like to raise a teenage daughter, but I do know what it was like to be a teenage daughter. Growing up, my parents were strict in many respects, but one of the best things my dad did was take a hands-off approach to my dating life. Did he love all of my boyfriends? Absolutely not. In fact, there were a few that he downright hated. But never once did he forbid me from dating anyone or interject himself in an effort to “save me.”
Rather, every conversation we had about boys and dating was focused on me and my own control over the situation. Was this guy right for me? Was he bringing out the best in me? Was he complementing me, or was he constraining me? There was never any doubt in my dad’s mind that I could take care of myself.
Through my dad’s lack of control over my dating life—and somewhat nonchalant, almost disinterested, attitude toward the boys I dated—I was empowered and trusted to make my own decisions, secure in the knowledge that I was capable of taking care of myself. Did I make some horrible decisions and spend a lot of time dating the wrong guys? Of course. But isn’t that part of the process? And when I eventually met my husband, I was confident in my ability to decide for myself that he was without a doubt The One—not because my father would approve, but because I did.
Maybe instead of messages of the overprotective dad, we need more messages about respectful young men and independent young women.
After all, isn’t that what we expect our children to be? Isn’t that what they already are?