At 23, I haven’t dated very much. My friends have told me that my standards are too high, but I’m not going to change them because I already know that good men do, in fact, exist out there somewhere. My dad taught me that; he sets the standard. He is kind, generous, faithful, well-educated, hardworking, and respectful of women. Is that too much to ask for in a guy my age? John Berger states in his book, Ways of Seeing, that while men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at. “This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.” The first male a young girl will be aware of (in a heteronormative family anyway) is her father. It seems that female identity and individuation cannot help but be shaped by their relationship with and to a father, or lack thereof. I found the father-daughter relationship increasingly interesting as I read the 19th century novel, Charlotte Temple, and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight for a literature class at UCLA. The relationship is the same from 1794 to 2005. In both books the heroine greatly desires and quests for her father’s approval. Should a father’s approval matter so much?
The first five chapters of Susanna Rowson’s 18th century young adult novel, Charlotte Temple, follow the men in Charlotte’s life: chapter one, with her soon-to-be lover, Montraville, and chapters two through five tell the story of Charlotte’s father. From the beginning of the novel, Charlotte is watched by men. Her father is characterized as a noble soul, who follows his heart, rather than fortune or fame. He is a loving and supportive father. When Charlotte inevitably strays from the path of righteousness, her concerns for leaving with her illustrious suitor are not for the danger she could be in, but that she should not forsake her parents. Were Charlotte’s naïve perceptions of men influenced by her experiences with her father? Perhaps because she had such a kind and noble father, it did not occur to Charlotte that Montraville or the other male villain, Belcour, have ignoble motives. She thinks Montraville will marry her. No, he just takes her virginity and knocks her up.
Through every event, Charlotte imagines how her parents are and how they would react to her dejected status as a mistress and unwed soon-to-be mother. She is consumed by guilt for abandoning her life at home, desires forgiveness, and passionately hopes that one day they will welcome her home. She calls out to her father in sickness: “she raved incessantly for Montraville and her father: she was not conscious of being a mother, nor took the least notice of her child.” Charlotte ranks her father’s approval above her newborn child’s life. That is messed up.
I need Daddy to love me! Dad’s approval seems most important when the heroine is perceived to have done something wrong. Everything is gravy until the daughter screws up. In Charlotte Temple and in today’s media this most often has to do with sex. I am a huge fan of the television series Friday Night Lights and Veronica Mars for their strong female heroines. And yet, in Friday Night Lights, young Julie Taylor is mortified when her father finds her in bed with her boyfriend. Julie is most upset by the fact that her father may not look at her the same way again. As she says, “I just feel like it’s different now…like I’m not daddy’s little girl anymore.” The same happens with the title character in Veronica Mars. Veronica is terrified her dad will find out she isn’t a virgin when he surveys her face, looking for something that seems different: “I know my father is a brilliant detective with a keen intuition and a finely-tuned BS detector, but there is no way he can tell that I’ve had sex, right?”
The key question on the girl’s mind is “How will Dad look at me after this?” It is the same case in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, even if the heroine doesn’t have sex. Gaze and opinion are even more meaningful in Bella and Charlie Swan’s relationship, because the two characters have trouble communicating in words. When Bella tells her dad that she is going on a date with Edward, she thinks he already approves of Edward. It is important to her that he does. “You are going out with Edward Cullen?’ he thundered. Uh-oh. ‘I thought you liked the Cullens.’” When Bella attempts to leave her father for Phoenix, she tries everything to avoid looking him in the face, but “he spun me around to look at him…I glared up at my father, fresh tears in my eyes for what I was abut to do…I turned away from his shocked, wounded face.” She is crushed to think that her father may not look at her the same way after this. Both Bella and Charlotte need to know that their fathers will forgive them.
Berger says that the unequal relationship between men and women “is so deeply embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women. They do to themselves what men do to them. They survey, like men, their own femininity.” For each girl the way her father sees her is most important. Charlotte, Julie, and Veronica regret their own loss of innocence as viewed through their Dads (though the latter two may not actually regret the sex). That loss of virginity is still ingrained in us today, that virgin’s may somehow be more whole girls. In this way, the girls have lost a form of femininity. For Bella the situation does not involve sex, but her cruel words constitute a loss of soul or humanity. Even though she longs to become a vampire, this relationship with her father is the only thing holding her back from turning into a vampire and losing that humanity. Because her father takes her back into his home at the end of the novel, she reclaims the humanity she fears she lost, one step further from becoming a vampire.
My friends say I have high standards, but they would also say I am a feminist. And yet I want my Dad’s approval too. Did I behave well? Will Dad like the guy I bring home? Dad’s approval is an ideology that is enforced through these books, the media, and even the things we buy (“Daddy’s little girl” bibs, tween shirts that say “Daddy’s little princess”). Perhaps it comes out of the “respect your elders” teachings. Wherever the desire comes from, if women want to be considered equals we need to stop looking for Daddy’s approval in everything we do, or we will continue to shape ourselves based on male gaze and opinion.