It’s January of 2020 and, in typical Saturday-morning fashion, I am lying on the living room couch next to my father. He’s peering over my shoulder as I hop from social media app to social media app. We giggle along to funny videos and debrief the political ones. It’s a tradition so old that we’ve been doing it since the days of Vine. Our morning is complemented by two toasted bagels that my father picked up for us before I even woke up. While aimlessly scrolling, I stumble upon videos of Kobe Bryant talking about how he is proud to be a “girl dad.” I make eye contact with my dad and smile. The words “girl dad” rang true for me when I first heard them, as my dad is about as enthusiastic a father as one could be. He was the only father in a room full of moms at PTA meetings, he always made time on weekends for late-night pillow fort construction followed by a 10th viewing of “High School Musical” and there was never a practice, rehearsal, game or performance he did not eagerly attend.
However, over time, as the term “girl dad” slowly crept into society’s everyday vocabulary, I grew weary of trend. Fathers everywhere began anointing themselves a “girl dad,” whether that be through social media posts, T-shirts or other paraphernalia. I tried to piece together the logic behind the movement, but I kept becoming frustrated: Not every dad can be a girl dad! I questioned what all these men were doing to earn and keep such a title. Do they actively support feminist causes in order to foster a better world for their daughters? Or do they just own a pink t-shirt and know how to sculpt their daughter’s hair into a basic ponytail? Most popular social media posts under “#GirlDad” would, unfortunately, suggest the latter. A trending TikTok post under the “girl dad” hashtag with 20.6 million views displays a father giving his daughter flowers for Valentine’s Day. Another video, also of a father giving his daughter flowers and a kiss, is filled with hundreds of comments like “I am sobbing,” or “this literally made my day.” I am astonished by how these minimal acts receive such major applause. I am not heartless, of course — these videos are cute! But these men are receiving “girl dad” praise from millions, yet we have no clue if they actually show up for their daughters aside from flowers on a random holiday. Furthermore, even if they were huge feminists doing the work to pioneer a more equitable society — dare I ask — is that praiseworthy? Shouldn’t that be the bare minimum?
Praising fathers for the bare minimum is not just a phenomenon contained to “girl dads”; it is a plague that infiltrates nearly every household as it quietly nourishes the patriarchy. A mother can spend all day caring for a baby without a word of admiration from others, yet when a father changes a single diaper, he is met with acclaim. In an article on SheKnows, writer and author Rachel Garlinghouse shared her experiences with the societal habit, detailing how people would give her husband verbal accolades for his “sacrifice” of getting up and feeding their children at night. Garlinghouse responded, “Why wouldn’t he get up and feed them when they are hungry? Isn’t feeding your children a basic responsibility?” The casual imbalance of parental expectations is something every person has witnessed or lived. Whether that be through exclusively moms chaperoning a class trip (and being shocked when a father does), the lovesick reactions a man gets when simply holding a baby or when a highly sought-after male celebrity spends time with their kids garnering a glorifying headline like “Devoted dad David Beckham takes daughter Harper for sunny stroll in London.”
Let me be clear though, I am not entertaining a frivolous feminist rant that aims to belittle men. The discussion at hand goes way beyond my annoyance at the “girl dad” trend. Our collective desire to award fathers translates into a critical economic issue. The way we view fathers alters people’s livelihoods: Julie Kmec, professor of sociology at Washington State University, leads research that empirically explores the concept of our society’s “fatherhood bonus,” a phenomenon in which men become more valuable employees and receive promotions when they become fathers. Conversely, but unsurprisingly, women suffer from the “motherhood penalty” and are either devalued or fired once they become a mom. Women are subject to punishment despite their exhibition of the same “pro-work behaviors” as fathers and non-parents in the workforce. Despite the fact that many women’s job activity levels remain the same when a child enters their lives, the expectation that women will focus more on parenting causes companies to no longer view new mothers as ideal workers. Kmec explains how men are oppositely rewarded for fatherhood because the same companies subscribe to the traditional idea of a father: someone who dedicates long hours to their job and does not waver in their work output due to responsibilities in their personal life. Our capitalist society thereby jumps for joy when ideas like “girl dad” come along. The trend praises men just enough to distract people from the fact that men are, oftentimes, not showing up for their children in the ways that truly matter. Viral internet celebrations then enable fathers’ lackadaisical behavior as society normalizes the act of getting a bouquet of flowers for your daughter as peak-father behavior.
And yet, despite all of this, I must admit that I still itch to label my dad a “girl dad.” I’m eager to celebrate him and how he raised me. I love how he can recall, in detail, the first time I heard a One Direction song, and I adore how, despite working all day, he was always free to drive my friends home after we hung out (a two-hour endeavor that wove through every NYC borough). Additionally, I love that my dad is a “girl dad” who did not pigeonhole me into gender stereotypes. I was free to like whatever I enjoyed. In my childhood, that meant musicals. Then, in an unexpected turn of events during early adulthood, it meant football. No matter if it was watching MTV’s recording of “Legally Blonde: The Musical” or the last New England Patriots game of an unsuccessful season, it is my dad’s consistent care and presence that I cherish beyond anything else.
Others have asked me how my father’s presence in my life has shaped me. Most ask with an emphasis on the fact that a man raised a daughter. It must have made me different, right?
I credit this to the fact that my father didn’t alter his behavior to compensate for our gender differences. He operated with the mindset that I was a human (albeit a little smaller than him) with emotions, and he was a human with emotions too. That’s all we needed to connect and understand one another.
The idea of “girl dad” rejects my father’s ethos and forces us to comply with the gender binary. The term “girl dad” is detrimental to women, as the popular images, videos and actions associated with the term define what girls — and only girls — are supposed to do. In the first video that comes up under the search “girl dad” on TikTok, a father sits with his daughter in the bathtub as they both wear face masks, play with dolls and sing along to “Frozen.” The presumed charm of this video rests in the fact that the father is cheekily dipping his toes into perceived feminine activities. If he is to be praised, it should be for the time he is taking to bond with his child and experience the things she likes, regardless of whether they are deemed masculine or feminine and regardless of the child’s gender itself. I think it might be way more unlikely to see a viral video, let alone dozens, of a dad watching sports on the couch with his son. At least, the concept probably wouldn’t garner millions of views and comments like, “Wow, he’s really committing to the bit.” Being a “girl dad” is seen as commendable because people think fathers are brave for earnestly engaging with the things their daughters like.
Admittedly, my eagerness to label my dad as a “girl dad” proves that the mentality I critique is alive within me too. I want to bestow my dad with that title in order to paint the most accurate picture of him to others. I want people to know he didn’t care about his image of masculinity when playing Barbie with me, that he always stayed up late with me to finish a science project and that he encouraged me to wholeheartedly follow my dreams. Yet, in spite of all these wonderful mushy-gushy memories of him, I have to let go of the “girl dad” outlook and admit that perhaps some of the spectacular things he did for me are, in reality, just facets of basic parenting. He’s not a “girl dad”; he’s my dad, and that’s an honorable enough title for me. Society does not need a term to indicate whether a father is good or not, let alone specifically toward his daughter. The word “dad,” within itself, should come along with a baseline set of expectations for love, respect and presence in children’s lives.
Lastly, with all this talk about parental imbalance, I have to shout out my mother! Thank you, Mom, for teaching me how to have a voice and making this article possible in the first place.
Statement Columnist Mary-Kate Mahaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.