The #GirlDad hashtag is supposed to be a celebration—the kind of hashtag fathers have been trotting out all month for International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, tagging adorable, aww-inducing images of their daughters. Sounds sweet, right? But it’s more complex than that.
The hashtag first went viral after Kobe Bryant’s death in January 2020, when he was celebrated for having been a proud father who championed girls. Other men started posting photos of themselves with their own daughters as a tribute to the athlete and his daughter Gianna, who was also killed in the helicopter crash.
But as you can see, it was never really about the girls.
Instead, this was about signalling support: a viral moment intent on casting certain men in a positive light for their proximity to women. That all this was inspired by Bryant in particular—a hero to many, but one who was as well known for his career successes as for his 2003 sexual assault case—was an irony laid on pretty thick.
This is why #GirlDad is really just an awkward social media gesture—it’s supposed to be about women’s empowerment, but when you peel it back a layer, it’s actually virtue signalling from men who don’t know how to avoid making themselves the centre of every story.
The very existence of the hashtag is a response to the once-common idea that being a father to a daughter is inferior to having a son, and an attempt to do fatherhood differently and better. But #GirlDad perpetuates those same gender stereotypes in the suggestion that there is anything different or remarkable about loving and parenting a girl than loving and parenting a boy. (And I’m not even going to get into the whole gender-is-not-a-binary thing here.)
Posting #GirlDad pictures of a basketball-loving daughter or a dad sitting down for a pinkies-up tea party in a frilly dress also unnecessarily divides activities into typically “boy” or “girl” categories, reinforcing and implying that some things are “girl things” and others are “boy things.” Don’t even get me started on the #BoyMom hashtag—as if muddy messes, or a yard strewn with sports equipment—aren’t just typical kid things that girls are equally capable of. (It’s this “boys will be boys” mentality, which veers dangerously close to excusing bad behaviour, that feeds the idea that our sons simply can’t control themselves.)
I’d argue that to #GirlDad, as a verb, is to proclaim that regarding a female person as a human being is still, in 2021, somehow an extraordinary act—something you do only if you have a daughter or a sister you care about. Someone who humanizes the injustice for you. We saw this articulated quite brazenly by male leaders earlier this month with the response to the murder of Sarah Everard, in London.
After Everard disappeared March 3 while walking home from a friend’s house, Shaun Bailey, running for mayor of that city, tweeted, “As a father and husband it breaks me to think that my wife and daughter have to live in fear in their own city.” He was one of many men sharing such a sentiment online, just less subtle about doing so to score political points. A police officer sharing news on Everard’s case days later, after the arrest of a suspect (himself a police officer!), reportedly said, “As a father myself of four young women, I can only imagine the anguish that Sarah’s family are feeling.”
Perhaps the police officers who then knocked women to the ground at a peaceful vigil, held on March 13 to honour Everard’s memory, didn’t have any daughters, which was why they didn’t know better? (Yes, there was police violence against women, at a protest held to call attention to violence against women.)
All the press about Everard’s murder was happening amidst a busy news cycle, with International Women’s Day on March 8, and then, on March 14, female student Jennifer Winkler was stabbed to death at her high school in Leduc, Alberta. Two days later were the high-profile killings in Atlanta, Georgia of eight people, seven of whom were women—six of them Asian women. It’s basically been a month of media whiplash, going back and forth between celebrating women, scrutinizing and tearing them down (ahem, Meghan Markle) and processing unspeakable violence against them.
The data shows that we are not imagining this: A report just released from the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability found that killings of women and girls increased in 2020, and that Indigenous women are disproportionately affected.
Perhaps the most egregious example of a man in charge failing to understand the #GirlDad phenomenon was in Australia, when the Prime Minister, no less, admitted that he didn’t really fully understand the gravity of a sexual assault reported by a former colleague. In February, after a former advisor to his government alleged that she’d been raped by a co-worker, he said it was his wife who “clarified” things for him. As he tells it, his wife, Jenny, “said to me, you have to think about this as a father first. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?”
Apparently, sometimes you might not even remember to care about women unless you have a wife to remind you to do so.
The problem with the #GirlDad response to this violence (“as a father myself…”) is that countering patriarchy—the system that devalues girls and women, rendering their lives disposable and their bodies targets for men’s rage—with still more patriarchy, with actual literal patriarchy, is only ever going to perpetuate the status quo.
“More dads” is the last thing the world requires for women to be free to live their lives without violence and get home safely at the end of the night. Instead, we need all men—not just dads—to be empathetic humans who value the women in their lives, and are allies in making the world a better and safer place—even for the women they aren’t related to.
And this is work that goes on outside Instagram and Twitter, without hashtags. No one is going to be celebrated for it if they’re doing it properly, because this should be no less than the minimum standard for being a decent human being.
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