Fathers have a long and storied history in our media. Unlike mothers, who are only sometimes around in our hero’s stories, fathers are usually the rock of the family and play a large part in our protagonist’s character development. At least, that’s true if the protagonist is a guy. If the protagonist is a girl, however, fathers exist more often to protect their daughters than to raise them, giving rise to omnipresent tropes like the Overprotective Dad and the Papa Wolf. As Taken’s Liam Neeson says, if you hurt his daughter, he will look for you, find you, and kill you.
Disney stories are typically stories of kids growing up and learning valuable life lessons, and it’s here that we can find some clear examples of how this trope comes into play. In The Lion King, Mufasa teaches his son Simba how to hunt and is always ready to bail him out of sketchy situations and drop some morals on the way. Even after he dies, he’s ever-present in Simba’s mind as a moral authority. Similarly, Zeus in Hercules also guides his son to become a True Hero, telling him to find Philoctetes the satyr for training and encouraging him in his exploits—he’s always ready to listen to Hercules’s blow-by-blow accounts of his accomplishments.
However, the Disney princesses of Disney stories aren’t given this same guidance by their fathers. Aladdin’s Jasmine is kept in the palace by a father who ignores her intellectual and emotional needs, causing her to sneak outside dressed as a peasant. Despite her insistence that she’s “not a prize to be won”, her father disregards her wants. Pocahontas, similarly, is treated as a possession by her father—he insists that she must marry Kocoum, even though that’s not what she wants to do, and demands that she take her place among their people. (The only way she can do this, apparently, is by marrying who her father wants her to marry.) Even Mulan is similarly constrained by her parents, though in her case it’s more a reflection on Chinese cultural norms than it is on her father. However, all three examples show similar things. Even if these fathers don’t believe that their daughters should be warriors, it doesn’t change the fact that they show no interest in any of their daughters’ other interests or intellectual and emotional growth. You don’t see these fathers teaching their daughters to be good people, only telling them what they should do.
The trope isn’t only found in movies for the children’s demographic. In Pacific Rim, we see the case of Stacker Pentecost and his adoptive daughter, Mako Mori, in stark contrast to the Australian father-son Jaeger team of Herc and Chuck Hansen. Jaeger pilots work, or Drift, together in teams of two (or more) to fight dangerous aliens called kaiju. Herc used to Drift with Stacker Pentecost, but after Pentecost retired and became the jaeger program’s Marshal, Herc trusts his son enough to Drift with him and brave numerous kaiju encounters together. Pentecost, however, refuses to let his daughter Mako take part in jaeger training, despite her excellent test scores. When fellow pilot Raleigh insists that he will Drift with no one but her, Pentecost still refuses.
Raleigh: Sir, what are you doing? She is the strongest candidate by far. […]
Pentecost: Mako is too inexperienced to reign in her memories during combat.
Raleigh: That’s not why you grounded her. I was in her memories. I saw everything.
Pentecost: I don’t care what you think you saw.
Raleigh: I know what she means to you. I saw it. I—hey! Hey!
Pentecost: This conversation is over!
Raleigh: Marshal, can we just talk about this for one second?! You rescued her. You raised her. You’re not protecting her now. You are holding her back.
It’s only when Raleigh and Mako’s jaeger is the last jaeger remaining to them that Pentecost lets the two of them pilot the jaeger together. Contrast this with Herc, who, during battle, eagerly shouts at his son to follow him and “do something really stupid”. When the final battle is about to happen, Pentecost tells a crying Mako that now is her time to protect him; Herc, in comparison, doesn’t tell his son to protect anyone, just implies that he loves him.
In many cases, this trope reflects outdated ideals of what a woman can or should do. The idea that women aren’t meant to be leaders and succeed their fathers or the idea that women can’t or shouldn’t be warriors all helps contribute to the incorrect idea that women can only help their families by making a good match and bearing children. However, all of these movies are fairly recent (even the Disney movies are from the 90s), and using these old ideals in movies reflects only the biases of the creator.
Many times, it seems this trope has been kept around only to manufacture some conflict for the female lead. The father misunderstands or neglects the daughter, so the daughter sneaks out of the palace or off to war. The father is unable to protect the daughter, so the daughter goes off to protect him by making herself the Beast’s prisoner or fighting sea aliens. This means that the girl almost always becomes a hero thanks to some action of the father’s. Meanwhile, sons are allowed to become heroes for the simple reason that they try hard or they care a lot or they just want to. Girls need a reason to fight and to improve themselves, and guys don’t.
Stories inspire and are inspired by our everyday lives, and this trope in particular is indicative of a dangerous double standard in our society. Studies show that parents encourage boys in physical activity and discourage girls, and mothers in particular believe their daughters to be far less physically capable than they really are. People who watch these movies and become fathers may similarly take their cues from these movies, creating another generation who believes in the same outdated social norms as the previous one. If we can change the stories being told to us, if we can create better ones, maybe we can change the conversation.