Daddy Issues: Clueless Dads and Daughter-Wives

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Diane Shipley
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Diane Shipley is a freelance journalist based in the United Kingdom who writes about pop culture for publications on both sides of the pond. Her bylines include the Guardian, Lit Hub, and the Washington Post. She loves podcasts and photos of miniature dachshunds. She tweets @dianeshipley.

Clueless DVD cover, showing three teen girls (Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash, and Brittany Murphy), holding cellphones, wearing designer clothes and looking snooty. Tagline: "Sex. Clothes. Popularity. Is there a problem here?"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.

Previously: My Two Dads and the Policing of Young Women’s Sexuality

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22 Comments Have Been Posted

And yet...

...cultural and social narratives also suggest or clobber women with the idea that men are better decision makers, logicians, motivators, etc. Men demand both care because they aren't much more capable than children, yet they do (and should) hold power. The danger is in continually ignoring this dissonant message. We should point out that a child-man should NOT have responsibility over others. We should point it out over and over and over again until it sticks.

Yes, you're right! Thank you

Yes, you're right! Thank you for making that dissonance clear.

It's so important not to repeat or perpetuate the idea that only men can be efficient, successful "breadwinners", just as much as it's important to not repeat or perpetuate the idea that only women can be caregivers.

Pretty in Pink?

I'm surprised a discussion of class issues and daughter/wives doesn't mention Pretty in Pink, which--to me at least--is a more class example than Coyote Ugly.

I was going to say the same thing!

Pretty and Pink is an interesting example because of links between class and parenting style/success: She's super-close with her dad and, yes, it's clearly a caretaking relationship, but the relationship painted as a desirable alternative to the absent, status-focused parents of her rich beau. She's more responsible and mature than her peers because of her duty to her father, but at the same time, she's held back because of her father's dependence on her.

(I may have seen this movie a time or two.)

You really do know your

You really do know your Pretty in Pink stuff! I think it might make a good comparison (for someone else) with Say Anything, in which I always found John Mahoney a tad creepy...

One thing I found interesting

One thing I found interesting the last time I saw Pretty in Pink (which must have been pretty recently, as I've had Booze Narratives on the brain) was how the movie hints that Harry Dean Stanton maybe drinks too much, but doesn't explore it very deeply. I think we only see him drinking once (on the lawn, midday, talking to Duckie about how much he still loves his ex) but it seemed like it was hinted at elsewhere. If he's not actually drinking too much, he's at least not very functional (mood swings, lying, skipping job interviews, etc.). Andie actually does have to take care of him, it seems. At the same time, she (and by extension the audience) interprets his strange behavior as a manifestation of his grief over his divorce. Strange that it never occurred to me that maybe his drinking and irresponsible behavior CONTRIBUTED to his divorce? (Not that abandoning a kid, with no contact or financial support, is a responsible choice, either, just that I'm embarrassed I was so willing to buy that Andie's mother was 100% The Bad Guy, even as her father puts her through a lot of shit a teenager shouldn't have to go through.)

Agreed that the father/daughter dynamic in Say Anything is a little creepy - even though as you point out, the protective father trope is SO common, Say Anything really stands out. Partly because he seems more noticeably JEALOUS of Lloyd, assumes he was the sexual aggressor, etc. But also because the only way Diane can have ANY kind of friendship with a person her own age is for her father to be revealed as a Really Bad Person and go to prison -- as opposed to just acting like a normal parent and letting her live her life.

Oh, that's so interesting,

Oh, that's so interesting, and I'm not sure I picked up on it when I saw Pretty in Pink, either. But that adds a whole co-dependency aspect to Andie's care-taking: she's genuinely worried about his survival, whereas in Clueless especially, her dad could cope without her, he just doesn't want to. And yes, the dad *does* seem jealous in Say Anything, to the extent that I feared he was going to be revealed to be abusive.

Well, I wanted to study two

Well, I wanted to study two movies that were set quite close together, and also made after '94, as I'm moving vaguely chronologically through this series. I also wanted to analyse more closely two films I enjoyed, which (don't hate me, but) isn't the case with Pretty in Pink, although you're right, it would also be a great example.


I wonder how much it matters that Clueless is based on Austen's Emma and is in part trying to stay loyal to the father-daughter dynamic that Austen builds. In Emma, Mr. Woodhouse is very rich but a hypochondriac who pleads illness to avoid socializing, and Emma's relationship with him prevents her from thinking about marriage for herself (at least at first). It's actually an interesting early-19th century take on ways that women can be independent without marriage—if their fathers are rich, of course, and if they have access to that money. Obviously Clueless exists and takes place in the 20th and 21st century and can't excuse the father-daughter relationship it portrays by being pretty feminist for 1815, but I still wonder whether its take on Austen's novel is worth taking into account.

Ooh, good point Lindsay,

Ooh, good point Lindsay, thanks! I did mean to mention that because I love Emma, probably more than P&P (Elizabeth's such a goody two shoes). The origin probably does have something to do with their gender dynamic but I still think it's interesting and a little horrifying how little things had to be tweaked for it to be relevant for a 1995 audience. The father had to be hard-working and not visibly weak to seem respectable, but the daughter could still run around after him just like in the 19th C.

Definitely. It's really true

Definitely. It's really true that in Emma people respect and visit Mr. Woodhouse even though he does pretty much nothing, because he owns a lot of land and is a "gentleman." This gives Emma space to run the show in a way that Cher doesn't really get. What matters in Emma is society and propriety, not having a powerful career, and since Emma has more of those skills than her father she actually comes out on top. She gets to live in his giant mansion without running around after him much at all (partially because they have a lot more servants than the Horowitzes). It shows the difficulty of trying to make Austen's concerns about money and independence and, in a more incidental way, love, visible to a 20th century audience in a 20th century setting. Doesn't quite work here.

Yes, the British class system

Yes, the British class system means Emma and her father could have a lot of status by doing nothing but charming people, but that wouldn't really fly in modern-day Los Angeles... I'd be interested to see if a modern British version would hold up.

Ugh, I somehow got sucked

Ugh, I somehow got sucked into reading all the Twilight books and I remember how hopeless Bella's father was with feeding himself. I think he puts a can of Spaghetti O's in the microwave. How does a grown man not know that you can't put a can in the microwave? What I couldn't figure out, was why Bella was so hellbent on being a perfect daughter and getting all her homework done, but didn't give one thought to applying to college? It's like she's practicing for wifedom by taking care of her father.


I never read any of the Twilight books but from what I've heard, their gender politics always seemed a little off, to say the least, so this doesn't surprise me. It is disheartening, though!

Being a Father to a daughter

This is a very true and realistic post. Thanks for sharing this.

...Or Twilight mania... Same

...Or Twilight mania... Same thing, daughter who cares for his father, and after she left, he married a woman to take of him.

Really glad I never got into

Really glad I never got into those books/movies!


Violets dad doesn't have a heart attack he gets hit by a car

Oh, you're right! I think I

Oh, you're right! I think I confused it 'cos I remember her lecturing him about his diet in the hospital.

...And suddenly I see Pretty

...And suddenly I see Pretty in pink in a new light. Damn.

Speaking of Ringwald movies,

Speaking of Ringwald movies, how's about The pick-up artist for a nice and healthy father-daughter relationship?`:P

its not everyday i find an

its not everyday i find an article on such a good topic .. thank you for making my day :)

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