The first time we see Bill Sanford in Coyote Ugly, his daughter Violet is cooking him egg whites and urging him to stick to his diet. The first time we see Mel Horowitz in Clueless, his daughter Cher is telling him to drink his orange juice and reminding him about his doctor’s appointment that afternoon. At different times, both of these men act like overprotective fathers uncomfortable with their daughters’ sexuality, but that isn’t the primary dynamic in either of these stories.
No, these young women are daughter-wives, or maybe daughter-moms. Their relationships with their fathers are based around the idea that (relatively healthy, able-bodied) men need looking after by their daughters. Sure, Clueless is satirical, but so are 10 Things I Hate About You and Suburgatory, both of which feature girls of around the same age, and fathers who act like an actual parents.
Cher insists on managing her dad’s diary, packing his suitcase for business trips, and co-ordinating with their cook about his diet: not just responsibilities a 15-year old shouldn’t have to take on, but ones which treat her father like a child.
It’s true that the Horowitzes are upper class, and thus a rule unto themselves, but Violet and Bill Sanford don’t share that excuse. She’s moving from their home in South Amboy, New Jersey to a slummy apartment in New York City, but like Cher, isn’t sure her dad can cope without her. She stocks the freezer with diet meals, puts batteries in the TV remote, and tells him not to operate the washing machine because she’ll do the laundry when she comes home every weekend. (!) “Have I missed something here? I’m the father,” Bill says, but in-between reciting New York crime statistics and asking Violet not to leave.
At least Bill makes the effort to protest his independence, albeit weakly, but the fact that he turns up to Violet’s best friend’s wedding not wearing socks and has a heart attack (partly as a result of going AWOL with his diet in Violet’s absence) belies his protestations. But not to worry: he starts a relationship with a nurse he meets in hospital, meaning he might never have to learn to take care of himself.
Violet naturally grows away from her self-appointed responsibilities as she makes a life of her own (and her dad has another woman to do his bidding), and if we’d followed Cher Horowitz into her twenties we’d probably have seen the same thing. But although she has a good relationship with her dad and, despite his gruff exterior, is able to talk to him about her love life, his encouraging advice is based on her stereotypically female behavior.
When she tells him that a boy she likes doesn’t like her back, he says he’s not sure he wants her wasting her time on someone that stupid. But when he lists her good qualities, they comprise of her beauty and the fact that she looks after him so well. “I have not seen such good-doing since your mother,” he tells her, which she seems to consider the highest compliment, but which comes off a little creepy, as if Mel only values the women in his life by what they do for him. (It’s worth noting there are no women in his life who don’t run around after him.)
It doesn’t bode well for gender equality in Cher’s future relationships, either. When she realizes she’s in love with Josh, her voiceover tells us that she’s thinking: “Josh needs someone with imagination… someone to take care of him.” Earlier, Josh’s college psych classes gave him the insight that Cher was giving Tai a makeover because she’s never had a mom. “You’ve acting out on that poor girl like she’s your Barbie doll,” he says. Teen girls giving each other makeovers? Problematic. Acting as their dad’s helpmeet? Totes normal.
None of the men in these films seriously question the young women’s actions, suggesting them taking care of their dads is normal and desirable, rather than gendered and unnecessary. This plays into gender essentialist ideas about women’s “nurturing instincts” and presents a one-dimensional view of men as hopeless creatures who don’t know what’s best for themselves.
Obviously these are just two examples of this type of father-daughter dynamic (and two all-white examples at that), but women taking on responsibility while men are useless or oblivious is something we see too often in pop culture and the world at large. In movies and TV, images of women as overbearing mothers, nagging wives, and (to a lesser extent) wife/mom-daughter hybrids have become normalized — a huge problem in a world where women still do the majority of domestic tasks and stereotypes of us as the only “natural” carers are everywhere.
What’s more, even though Coyote Ugly and Clueless feature and are marketed to young women, men and their needs are central to both stories, perpetuating the patriarchal lie that how we act around men and what men think of us should be central to the choices we make.