After Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, died, ESPN SportsCenter anchor Elle Duncan recalled Bryant’s pride in being the father of daughters. She recounted an exchange that culminated in his telling her, “I would have five more girls if I could. I’m a girl dad.”
As Duncan’s story went viral, thousands of fathers responded to the story on social media using the hashtag #GirlDad to share photographs and express fatherly pride. As acts of collective mourning, these posts honored Kobe and Gianna’s relationship, paid tribute to the Bryant family’s loss and nodded toward a profound shared grief.
But just below the surface, #GirlDad and its popularity also hinted at the existence of negative gender stereotypes that are rarely openly discussed. The hashtag makes sense only because we live in a societal context in which girls are routinely demeaned or degraded. (A “#BoyDad” hashtag would seem redundant.) It reminds me of how “Girl Power” gained popularity as a catchphrase in the late 1990s: Girl power countered the stereotypes that girls lack power and agency and that their interests are trivial, not worthy of praise. Conceptually, #GirlDad works in the same way.
Think about the history of parenting advice. From the time of Sigmund Freud, experts offered suggestions rooted in rigid gender roles that placed men and boys in a hierarchy above women and girls. In the 1950s, for example, “lots of parenting experts gave the advice that fathers could be mentors to their sons and coach them in shared interests,” says Jo Paoletti, author of “Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America.” “But they wouldn’t do that with their daughters for fear the girls would become ‘mannish.’ ”
Such advice is now outdated. Since Title IX, a 1972 regulation ensuring equal opportunity in sports for girls and women who attend schools that receive federal funds, many fathers have even become their daughters’ literal coaches, stepping up to coach their athletic teams. This has made many fathers well aware of the depth of girls’ aptitudes and abilities, as well as the forms of discrimination that girls and women continue to face in athletics and beyond.
That makes #GirlDad a subtle sign of progress that relates to other examples of fathers defying stereotypes about father-daughter relationships — like Dwayne Johnson having a tea party with his young daughter; dads donning tutus for their girls; and, in Bryant’s case, his apparent belief that he didn’t need a son to carry on his legacy. He saw Gianna as equally capable of success, and before their untimely deaths, he was doing everything he could to help her achieve her own athletic dreams.
Any such progress is uneven, of course. In other stories that have gone viral in recent years, some fathers have betrayed their preferences for sons. For example, many gender reveal party videos have shown dads expressing disappointment (or outrage) upon learning they’re expecting a girl. Boston Celtics player Gordon Hayward even made headlines in 2018 for his monotone disappointment upon discovering he’d be having a third daughter. Though it can be easy to laugh at such videos, they are part of the misogynistic cultural context that makes #GirlDad feel fresh and heartwarming.
In other words, part of #GirlDad’s resonance stems from the way it counters sexist attitudes about what type of child sparks a father’s pride. Whether they realize it or not, “girl dads” are bucking the assumption that fathers can find satisfaction only in having sons, rooted in the misogynistic belief that boys and their interests are more interesting and meaningful than are girls. In this way, #GirlDad reflects evolving ideas about father-daughter relationships.
From a feminist perspective, this raises an interesting question: Could #GirlDad serve as a launching point for conversations that go beyond taking pride in fathering girls and also encourage more dads to address our culture’s ongoing issues with sexism and misogyny?
Byron Hurt, a gender-violence prevention educator and documentary filmmaker whose films include “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes,” hopes that #GirlDads will lean into this kind of work. “Being the father of daughters goes far beyond a hashtag and photos of yourself and your daughters on social media,” Hurt says. “I can’t emphasize enough the importance of dads being strong advocates for their daughters and for girls and women in society. As dads, we need to address some of the major social inequalities of our time, including rape culture, inequitable pay and women’s reproductive rights.”
That, Hurt argues, is the major project today’s fathers of girls need to undertake. “If we care about girls and support them, we have to advocate for them and for less discrimination against women in this country,” Hurt says. “We have to speak out publicly against things like rape and sexual assault. In addition to saying, ‘I have two girls,’ how are you as a dad advocating for your girl child? Are you also having conversations with boys in the community about respecting girls’ autonomy and sexual agency, and sending a clear message that sexual assault is major issue? To have conversations with your daughters in a productive way, you can’t view your child as a possession. You have to really talk to them as fully fledged human beings who have rights.”
Trusting and believing in girls in father-daughter conversations like that is essential, says psychologist and educational consultant Lori Day. “From the girls’ perspective, #GirlDad is great, as long as it is about mutual trust and respect — not old-fashioned paternal overprotectiveness — making space for their daughters’ own agency,” says Day, who authored the book “Her Next Chapter.”
As they reflect on what it means to be a #GirlDad, then, let’s hope that more fathers of girls examine the culture-wide gender biases that gave meaning to the hashtag in the first place and channel their pride into working toward gender equality. After all, rather than being categorically demeaned or degraded, girls should be regarded as individuals who have as much value as boys do. Girls and boys are equally deserving of respect from our society and its social institutions — and everyone, not just fathers of girls, should know this.
Rebecca Hains is a professor of media and communication at Salem State University in Massachusetts, where she also serves as a faculty fellow for diversity, power dynamics and social justice.