Throughout my teen years, I watched a good deal of the requisite movies and television shows targeted at adolescents and teenagers. It wasn’t until recently that I was struck with a revelation: when it came to portraying the ways in which parents pressure their children to excel academically, athletically, or otherwise, film and television are often rather limited—particularly in their gendered presentations of father-child relationships.
When I was fourteen, a friend and I had a sleepover at my house. I ordered pizza; she brought the movies, one of which was A Cinderella Story featuring Chad Michael Murray as Austin Ames.
In my mind, Murray's Austin Ames was the star—far more so than was Hilary Duff's character, anyway. To be sure, as a hairy, brace-faced teen whose West Asian-ness was (often enough) vilified by my white classmates, I found Duff-as-high-school-leper neither relatable nor realistic.
That, of course, is only a snapshot of my experience, but I am going to go out on a limb here and say that, like me, many other adolescents found (and continue to find) characters like Duff’s unrelatable. Many of them probably even less so than I did.
Throughout the movie, Austin butts heads with his father, who, ever the paradigm of the yuppie parent, insists that Austin must attend USC on his football scholarship. Unbeknownst to his dad, however, Austin's dream is, like nerdy, introverted Duff's, to go to Princeton. Although Austin’s father doesn’t know that he secretly wants to go to Princeton until the climax of the film, he ultimately allows his son to dictate his own future (at least as it relates to university).
It's worth noting that Austin’s star athleticism is far from central to his character. In fact, aside from his romance with Cinderella, his story arc is predicated on the mounting tension that exists between the two people he has the potential to become: either one that acts as a conduit for his father’s expectations, or one that recognizes his own agency as a burgeoning adult.
Ultimately, with his father's blessing, Austin chooses the latter path, ends up with Cinderella, and the film ends happily ever after: white boy at the Ivy League of his choosing and all.
On Degrassi: The Next Generation, Drake's character (then credited as Aubrey Graham) Jimmy engages in a similar struggle with his own father. (As an aside, if I write about Degrassi: TNG often, it's because I watched a truly unhealthy amount of it back in the day.)
After an extended hiatus from basketball due to his being recently disabled (and subsequently learning to adjust to his disability), Jimmy is slated to try out for a coveted spot on a reputable team. However, he quickly learns that his interest in athletics has waned.
During his hospital stay, Jimmy learns that drawing is a useful tool in coping with his PTSD (a classmate shot him in the back, paralyzing him from the waist down). Although he once derived a good deal of fulfillment from playing basketball for his school, he now finds solace in creating pen and ink illustrations and ultimately decides not to try out for the team.
Unlike Austin, however, Jimmy resolves his conflict with his father with far less timidity. When Jimmy’s father reasons that Jimmy’s talk of not wanting to be on the team is the result of his being under “a lot of pressure,” Jimmy bluntly lets his father know that he is the one pressuring him. After this exchange, Jimmy doesn't continue playing basketball, and his father ceases urging him to.
Of course, in film and television, triumph is doled out on a sliding scale. For example, it takes Jimmy telling his father to lay off exactly one time before his father does just that. One of Jimmy’s girl schoolmates, on the other hand, is not so lucky in countering her father’s expectations.
Manny (played by Cassie Steele) stands up to her father on numerous occasions, only to have her father call her a “slut,” kick her out of her house (at sixteen), and relentlessly pressure (years later, after they have reconciled) into pursuing a career in science when her long-established passion has been acting.
Manny’s response to the rigid expectations placed on her by her father is quite different from Jimmy’s: while Jimmy takes clandestine trips to art museums as a means of catharsis, Manny’s reaction to her father’s rejection is a cookie-cutter case of teen girl rebellion: getting wasted and removing her top on camera for her school's resident bad boy (who is really fictionalized-proto-Brock-Turner whom the writers inexplicably attempt to transform into a complex and sympathetic character despite his lack of accountability or remorse).
Many of us have struggled—and, into our adulthoods, continue to struggle—with the disapproval of our fathers. We grapple with their rejection, with their downright abuse and neglect, and with the many forms in which these attitudes and behaviors manifest. But too often, yearning for the paternal approval that may never be given is central to the fictional depictions of these struggles in the context of girl- or womanhood.
Some film and television writers seem to believe that this type of experience invariably leads down a similarly troubled road for all girls, women, and feminine-of-center people: that is, that their lives will become so derailed that their ultimate, shared fate is to forever struggle academically, professionally, and socially.
A much darker example than the one given above can be found in Dallas Buyers Club. Though the story is inspired by true events, the writers could not resist inserting a fictional trans woman (Rayon, so unfortunately played by Jared Leto, who is a cis man) into the film. (Per a 2013 article in Slate, the Rayon character was a "composite" of trans activists interviewed for the film and was written to give Ronald Woodruff, a real person played by Matthew McConaughey, a "dramatic challenge to his prejudices.")
Rayon's character is living with AIDS and struggles with substance abuse, so naturally, a visit to her wealthy father from whom she has been estranged for an extended period is in order. Of course, she must also don a suit and masculine airs for the visit, which—in addition to begging for money to give to McConaughey’s unabashedly queer- and transphobic character—involves laying herself emotionally bare.
Despite being given very little character development, Rayon’s act of self-flagellation before her father (not long before her untimely death, no less) is necessary to her story arc; after all, at the root of her lifetime of struggle is her father’s cruel rejection of her trans identity. Rayon goes so far as to apologize to her father (though it is not clear whether she is apologizing to him for being trans, for living with AIDS, or both).
As far as resolutions to father-child conflicts go, Rayon’s is undisputedly the most tragic in this essay. And while many trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming folks have spoken of the difficulties that come with transition, just as many have pointed to the feelings of joy and rightness it brings them.
As far as representations of girls and women with "daddy issues" go, characters like Manny are far more common than are characters like Rayon in mainstream entertainment media. Nonetheless, neither characters' reaction is unrealistic given their storylines.
Manny's above story arc typifies the film and television phenomenon wherein girls and women are necessarily forced to leverage their bodies in grappling with rigid paternal expectations—often at great costs to their psychic and/or physical well-beings.
In Dallas Buyers Club, on the other hand, viewers are invited to feast on a veritable buffet of Rayon's pain. She is going to die before the film's conclusion. Before she does, however, she must visit her long-disapproving father one last time. In going to him, Rayon seeks not just financial help, but her father's approval of her personhood. This final act of approval-seeking is painful to watch, and we the viewers are supposed to eat it up greedily.
Again, these fictional representations of girl-specific conflict speak to the lived experiences of many girls and women who are subjected to the abusive, cruel, or just plain strict attitudes and behaviors of their parents. However, when it comes to gendered conflicts that arise in father-daughter relationships, they should not the only ones that exist (nor should they comprise the majority).
The sensational overtones of the girl-or-woman-with-daddy-issues trope is, to be sure, a tired one. Father-son conflicts in film and television are not similarly littered with frame-after-frame of forlorn, watery-eyed faces, or weighed down with upstanding-turned-promiscuous boy protagonists.
However, the foundational issue with these girl-led narratives is not their chronically sensationalized representation of girls’ and women's reactions to their fathers. The issue does not stem from film and television writers’ laziness, evinced by their seeming unwillingness to draw from any well other than that of girlhood promiscuity, or worse, long-term brokenness, when addressing such matters.
Rather, the problem is that where they portray boy characters as self-determined, film and television writers choose to write girl characters as creatures who, from adolescence to adulthood, hinge their senses personhood on the approval and expectations of their fathers.
It is okay for these characters to grapple with insecurity, to falter and make mistakes—even for them to be unlikeable and actually immoral at times—on their realistically ceaseless journeys of self-discovery. It is even okay for them to seek approval from their fathers. Girls, women, and feminine folks, I'm sure, have long wanted and will continue to want realistically written and relatable characters.
However, it's also okay for girl and women characters to display legitimate self-governance. In fact, in the late 2010s, it's preferable.
This essay was originally published on September 10, 2017. It has since been revised for clarity.