I used to love My Two Dads. To recap, or in case you (shocked face) never saw it: the show was about two single, straight Manhattan bachelors who were given joint custody of 12-year old Nicole after her mom/their joint ex-girlfriend died. Living with just one mom, I was fascinated by a show that centered around a girl’s relationship with her two fathers. Except I re-watched some of it recently, and it’s not about that at all.
I don’t have exact stats, but it seems like the vast majority of shows and movies about single and stay-at-home dads feature a father-daughter dynamic. This could lead to some interesting explorations of what it means to parent a child with a different gender to your own in our patriarchal society. But most often, it’s a way to reinforce society’s discomfort with young women’s sexuality.
Lots of scenes throughout My Two Dads’ three year run invite us to laugh at but ultimately empathize with Michael and Joey (uptight dad and artist dad, respectively) as they fight to protect Nicole’s “innocence”. When she goes on her first date with Corey (a baby-faced Giovanni Ribisi) to a movie, Joey advises her: “The armrest is where the battle is won or lost.” Michael agrees, chiming in with: “He tries anything, I know where he lives.” Nicole later has her first kiss with the show’s heartthrob, Zach, but isn’t confident in her technique, so her more experienced friend Shelby ends up pushing Nicole and her old pal Corey together… and they fall onto her bed just as Joey and Michael walk in. The situation is completely PG, but Nicole’s dads overreact as if she were hosting an underage orgy. And they’re not the only ones.
To give just a few examples: Suburgatory starts with a father moving his 15-year old daughter to upstate New York from the city after he finds an (unopened) packet of condoms in her room. Luke on Gilmore Girls freaks out when April is invited to her first boy-girl party, horrified at the thought of her kissing someone. In 10 Things I Hate About You, the OB/Gyn single dad is so scared of his 16-year old daughter having sex that he makes her wear a baby belly around the house before she goes on her first date. Most ridiculously, when Three Men And A Little Lady’s Mary, five, asks what a penis is, Tom Selleck announces: “She’s susceptible to the outside world now. Boys, sex…”
This dynamic even plays out when the father figure is a paid babysitter. In the Charles in Charge pilot (admittedly the only episode I could stand to watch) our eponymous hero tries to woo his new ladyfriend while also supervising two boys and (his biggest focus) making sure his teenage charge Lila doesn’t have sex with the guy she’s doing homework with.
These shows and movies succeed (to whatever extent they do) due to their audience buying into these men’s concerns. Often — in pop culture, as in life — these are attributed to the threat of pregnancy or vague protestations about girls “growing up too fast”, but they really reflect a discomfort with the idea of girls (and what’s more, women) having sexual agency. There’s no discussion in the My Two Dads first date episode of the fact that Nicole might want Corey to kiss her or hold her hand — or that she might even want to initiate this contact herself.
Clementine Ford wrote a brilliant piece about the outrage that erupted following a 2009 Oprah episode in which sex therapist Laura Berman advised mothers to buy vibrators for their teenage girls. While not all of the feedback was negative, there were apparently some apoplectic responses which suggested that encouraging young women to be the masters of their domain would lead to an unquenchable obsession with sex.
Writes Ford: “It’s impossible for some people to believe that girls can actually engage with their sexuality, can seek out sexual experiences willingly and responsibly and without risk of permanent psychological damage. …At every turn girls are told that their sexuality comes from without rather than within, and they must choose wisely which brave knight gets to scale their ivory towers lest the opening of their Pandora’s boxes wreak havoc upon the world.”
I have to give My Two Dads props for at least attempting to address the roots of Michael and Joey’s discomfort with Nicole’s burgeoning womanhood. As part of the first kiss episode, the men attend a women’s studies course with the dual goal of picking up chicks and getting some insight into their daughter. Encouraged to talk about their feelings (you know how women are!) Michael blurts out that he’s uncomfortable with Nicole dating because he was a “pig” to girls when he was younger. It’s great that he recognizes his past behavior, rather than his current reality, is driving his reactions. But it still brings a conversation about young women’s experiences back to how they affect men, treating Nicole as a concept rather than a person with thoughts, feelings, and (as much as her dads don’t want to admit it) desires of her own.