Earlier this year, the Washington Post published an article titled “A Father-Daughter Dance – in jail” that discussed the experience of father-daughter dances for young girls whose fathers are in prison. A few months later, the Oprah Winfrey Network aired a summer series called “Daddyless Daughters” that focused on women’s relationships with absent or uninvolved fathers. What these and other stories reveal is a growing amount of media attention on the influence of uninvolved fathers on the lives of daughters, particularly Black daughters. I have been interested in this issue for a long time, but I find much of the recent media coverage incomplete.
Many reports ask how relationships with their fathers are linked to daughters’ sexual behaviors and dating decisions. Underlying the stories are not-so-subtle messages about “proper” femininity and acceptable female sexuality. Overall, the focus of media is on the behaviors of the daughters as a result of their relationships with their fathers. But few media outlets explore how daughters think about their relationships with their fathers, or how those relationships have been affected by factors like race and gender. Also, when examining “father involvement,” most reports look simply at whether fathers live with their daughters, but not at the quality of the daughter-father relationship.
In my article, “Strength and Respectability: Black Women’s Negotiation of Racialized Gender Ideals and the Role of Daughter–Father Relationships,” I argue that the daughter-father relationship is a key factor shaping how Black women deal with ideas about race and gender. My article draws on interviews with many young Black women—some who lived with their fathers, some who did not. What these young women share is a feeling of pressure to conform to a particular image of Black femininity. Namely, they talk about expectations that all Black women should strive to be both strong and respectable. More importantly, they reveal that their relationship with their father influences how well they feel they can meet that expectation. The young women share stories of how their fathers either did or did not provide guidance about how to be successful “within a society that is dominated by men,” particularly as it relates to their heterosexual dating.
My research draws a distinction between women with supportive fathers and women with distant, uninvolved fathers. Contrary to stereotypical images of uninvolved Black fathers, women with supportive fathers, particularly fathers who lived with them, share that their fathers provided valuable instruction about heterosexual relationships. These lessons were often complex. On the one hand, daughters with involved fathers talk about their fathers encouraging them to seek out careers and professions not always associated with women. But on the other hand, they also share examples of their fathers encouraging them to behave in more typically feminine ways.
Like women with supportive fathers, women with uninvolved fathers—and especially women whose fathers lived elsewhere—talk about feeling the pressure to be respectable and traditionally feminine within their heterosexual relationships. What makes women with uninvolved fathers unique is the way they talk about the need to be strong, often because of their fathers’ lack of involvement. They also talk about having less clear understandings of how to date men because their fathers did not teach them.
Too often, media reports simplify the daughter-father relationship and focus on the failure of “absent” fathers to “protect” the sexual respectability of daughters. In contrast, my own work shows that daughter-father relationships are more multi-dimensional, and that they cannot be understood simply in terms of whether fathers are physically present or not. We need to look, instead, at the quality of the relationship and how it shapes Black women’s expressions of Black femininity in a broader sense.
By Maria S. Johnson on her article, “Strength and respectability: Black women’s negotiation of racialized gender ideals and the role of father-daughter relationships,” published in the December 2013 issue of Gender & Society.