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Daddy Issues Onscreen - Why Our Culture Mocks Abandonment

Daddy issues is an umbrella, unsympathetic term for women who have a complicated or unhealthy relationship with their dad (take Cassie Howard or Veronica Lodge) – often because he was physically or emotionally absent. In their adult relationships, girls with daddy issues are shown onscreen (or assumed in real life) to be highly sexual, eager to please, and interested in older men. When a child does have an absent or neglectful parent, this often results in an insecure attachment style – which is a serious problem to address and work through. So why is this something that, in girls, gets treated as either a turn-on, a joke, or a reason to write someone off as a hopeless cause?

Transcript

Why are daddy issues mocked or fetishized, when they’re a byword for absent, neglectful, or dysfunctional parenting? Daddy issues is an umbrella, unsympathetic term for women who have a complicated or unhealthy relationship with their dad – often because he was physically or emotionally absent. In their adult relationships, girls with daddy issues are shown onscreen (or assumed in real life) to be highly sexual, eager to please, and interested in older men. For these reasons, they’re desired – but also ridiculed, assumed to have no self-respect or to be annoyingly clingy and possessive. When a child does have an absent or neglectful parent, this often results in an insecure attachment style – which is a serious problem to address and work through. So why is this something that, in girls, gets treated as either a turn-on, a joke, or a reason to write someone off as a hopeless cause?

CHAPTER ONE: HOW WE FETISHIZE AND DEMONIZE ‘DADDY ISSUES’

There’s a long history of men fetishizing women with daddy’s issues – because it’s assumed they automatically result in promiscuity and an over-willingness to please men/ Meanwhile, this rhetoric diminishes and dismisses these women as people with value. Basically, the idea is that they’re good for a low-effort one-night stand, but too broken for a long term relationship. On the whole in pop culture, the girl with “daddy issues” is depicted as a hot mess. Her life is apparently permanently derailed by the loss of her dad, and that sucks for her, but the story is often just using her as a side act for a more well-rounded character, or pitying her and writing her off as a lost cause.

Jonathan Banks: “You should know how difficult it is to cure a pretty girl with daddy issues.”- Side Effects

One of modern pop culture’s best examples of fetishizing daddy issues is Harley Quinn, The Joker’s on-again-off-again girlfriend who’s been featured in Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey. We know from the comic books that Harley’s father was the reason she got into psychiatry, as she sought to better understand his neglect and infidelity. And as she begins her relationship with The Joker, she turns this highly dysfunctional male into her new dad figure. Suicide Squad’s marketing popularized images of Harley in her “daddy’s lil’ monster” crop-top, pushing this as a male fantasy. It’s not just the fact that she’s played by extremely beautiful Margot Robbie, but also precisely her wild volatility and unpredictability that is seen as desirable, as it’s code for sexually adventurous or experimental.

Blonde imbues a more tragic tone to Marilyn Monroe’s daddy issues. The fictional Marilyn calls both her husbands “daddy,” and is desperate for the approval of male authority figures – so again the implication is that our culture’s most famous sex symbol only fashioned herself as such a desirable figure because she craved her daddy’s attention. But the result is a very shallow and reductive portrait of how a person with an absent father might act. Blonde essentially suggests that all of Marilyn’s insecurities and future problems stem from growing up without a father, and that she’s forever lacking in confidence and self-worth as a result. It portrays her almost as a baby in an adult’s body, someone who remained forever infantilized because the lack of a father fundamentally arrested her development.

Ultimately, this common pop culture understanding of the girl with daddy issues is highly one-dimensional, and pretty insulting.

Euphoria does a better job than most of exploring why and how our culture mistreats girls who show signs of problems with their dad. Cassie (who has textbook daddy issues due to her father’s abandonment) embodies the hot mess archetype in the eyes of her peers. The guys in her school see her as hyper-sexualized, and pursue sex with her, only to slut shame her if she agrees. Her boyfriends push her into taking nudes, or going on camera but it’s Cassie who gets the bad reputation as the result. All this gets in the way of relationships with guys who do respect her. In the first season, her serious boyfriend McKay defends Cassie against the critiques because he cares about her, but she’s subject to some much character assassination that even McKay sometimes succumbs to seeing her in that light and treats her badly.

So in Cassie, we see both sides of this coin clearly – how she’s fetishized as one of the most popular girls in school, but also demonized and publicly shamed as a notorious figure among her peers.

CHAPTER TWO: WHAT CAUSES “DADDY ISSUES” - AND HOW DO THEY MANIFEST?

Research has shown how attachment patterns developed in childhood can persist throughout our lives, and neglectful or dysfunctional parenting can often produce an insecure attachment style in the child. “Daddy issues” specifically are linked to one of three types of insecure attachment – anxious preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, or fearful-avoidant

Cassie in Euphoria embodies the anxious attachment style – defined by a desire for intimacy, mixed with a profound fear of rejection and low self-esteem. The show dissects how the root of Cassie’s issues is being let down by her father. At first, he’s very loving and encouraging toward her, but as his own addiction and financial issues overwhelm him, he begins to neglect her – just as she’s entering her tumultuous adolescent years On top of that, when Cassie goes through puberty, the other older men in her life start lusting after her – so again she’s let down by people who should be taking care of her, while, confusingly, getting a sudden influx of attention for her body.

Cassie’s anxious preoccupied attachment style comes out in her fearful, overeager approach to romantic relationships. She gives too much of herself to the men she dates, and ignores when they don’t have her best interests at heart, so it becomes a self-fulfilling cycle that her relationships don’t work out and confirm her worst fears that she’ll inevitably be abandoned. She responds by being even more acquiescent to please her boyfriends – but then people don’t respect her, because it seems like she doesn’t respect herself. This culminates in her cringe-worthy Season 2 behavior as she tries to win her best friend Maddie’s ex, Nate. The worse he treats her, the more lengths she goes to get his attentionadopting an obsessive beauty routine, overtly copying Maddie’s looks just to catch his eye, and offering to let him completely control her clothes and behavior.

In Cassie and other extreme examples, there’s a sad irony that in giving themselves away, they’re making it impossible for someone to love them as they truly are. Moreover, they’re missing the fundamental truth that there’s nothing we can do to make someone love us – just as there’s nothing Cassie or the others could have done to make their dad stay or be more attentive. But it’s this emotional fallacy – a subconscious belief that their dad wasn’t there because they did something wrong, or there was something wrong with them – that drives the dysfunctional adult relationships.

On the other end of the spectrum, the neglectful father can also cause an avoidant attachment style. Instead of manifesting as clinginess, a once-neglected child might act dismissive, and emotionless, to prevent getting hurt again. This is epitomized in the aloofness of Margot Tenenbaum – who was not only abandoned by her biological father, but also emotionally hurt by her distant adopted father As an adult, Margot’s behavior is defined by secrecy.

Narrator: “None of the Tenenbaums knew that she was a smoker and had been since the age of 12.”- The Royal Tenenbaums

– she’s emotionally distant from her husband, and resists being vulnerable with the person she loves most, her step-brother Richie.

Tragically, even when adult partners are supportive or trustworthy, a person with daddy issues who’s developed an insecure attachment style may struggle to accept a devoted partner, or actively seek out partners who treat her badly. In Forrest Gump, the abuse Jenny endures from her father as a young girl leads her to dangerous, self-destructive behavior with a series of men who are bad news, while she resists getting close to Forrest, someone who does love her deeply.

It’s also important to note that an absent or dysfunctional father might not look the way we think.. In You, Love Quinn’s family background is pretty comfortable, and she doesn’t experience any financial or physical neglect. But at the root of her family problems is that she and her brother felt their father to be distant.

Trainwreck and The Flight Attendant look from the female’s perspective at how unhealthy behaviors later in life can stem from a dysfunctional early relationship with one’s father that haven’t been properly examined. In Trainwreck, Amy’s father teachers her lessons when she’s a kid that act as the origin story for her later hard-drinking, hard partying, promiscuous lifestyle. In The Flight Attendant, Cassie’s father drinking with her at an inappropriately young age also leads to her adult drinking problem. She may have fond memories of her dad, but it takes looking honestly at what was wrong with his behavior for her to break out of unhealthy cycles.

CHAPTER THREE: Father Issues - A Life Sentence?

Watching a lot of these stories, it’s hard not to wonder: why is it so often assumed that a woman with daddy issues can never overcome this and is basically doomed for life?

Thankfully, more modern examples show their characters working through these past issues and understanding how to develop more healthy adult behaviors. Even Jenny and Margot make progress, though it’s not really the story’s main focus. Wilder versions of this character – like Love and Harley – also counter our expectations by proving they’re strong presences who are not to be dismissed. In You, while at first we might worry about Love as she comes into contact with serial killer Joe, it becomes clear that she too is violent, possessive, and unpredictable, so she can hold her own. Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey, too, finally gets a life of her own outside of The Joker.

Meanwhile, if we look harder, we can also find numerous positive examples in pop culture of women who had absent fathers and aren’t defined by this.

Thatcher Grey: “Is there anything that you need?”

Meredith Grey: “I don’t need anything from you.” -Greys Anatomy 2x18

Some react to an absent father by taking on more traditionally masculine traits in themselves, like fearlessness, courage, and strength.

Meredith Grey’s relationship with her father is almost non-existent, to the point where she effectively denies that he’s her father when talking to her half-sister Lexie. But she has channeled this lack of a parent into becoming fiercely independent, and single-minded in pursuit of her goals.

We can even see a similar theme across a number of Disney films, which often star heroines who lack fathers (or both parents) and have to fill the void themselves. Rapunzel has no father figure (and an evil false mother one), but she’s daring and takes risks in pursuit of the truth about the floating lights that appear on her birthday. Princess Tiana is also fatherless, but is hard-working and career-focused. Even Cinderella – whose father remarried after her mother’s death and hasn’t defended her against an abusive stepmother – finds tenacity, strength of will, and a clear sense of her values within herself. So in the absence of an ideal father – or sometimes of either parent – these heroic role models can create an imaginary version of that figure, attempt to embody it, and parent themselves.

OUTRO

Attachment patterns are born out of relationships with either parent, not just fathers. They can also be influenced by relationships with siblings, teachers, and anyone in a caregiving position, because effectively they’re about trust To reduce this complexity down to a reductive, highly gendered concept like ‘daddy issues’ removes all the nuance. When we look closer, we see characters who don’t need mockery, but support, and some who have developed impressive resilience and ways to cope. We can all look deeper at how to address our deeper attachment issues – and no matter how many times we get it wrong, there’s always an opportunity to reflect and change the pattern.