This week an article by Ferrett Steinmetz has been doing the rounds. Titled “Dear Daughter: I hope you have awesome sex”, it’s a response to the popular trope of the father who protects his daughter’s honour. There was even a popular American TV series based around this idea. The “eight rules” of the television programme became the internet meme “Ten Rules for Dating My Daughter”, which has become so popular that various sites are selling it in t-shirt form. The wording varies a little, but the general feel is the same. Take this example:
The front of this particular t-shirt features the slogan: “Get the 411 before you need the 911“, meaning for the low sum of $22 you too can threaten your daughter’s suitors with the danger of death or serious injury.
I would hope that most of my readers would see why these “rules” are problematic. Now, the desire to protect one’s offspring is a pretty natural parental response, but the way society not only permits but actively validates fathers’ preoccupation with their pubescent daughters’ sexualities reinforces the idea that the daughter belongs to the father. While those who attend purity balls insist that they promote healthy, affectionate relationships between fathers and daughters, they are explicitly designed as events where adolescent girls are encouraged to publicly entrust their nascent sexuality to their fathers, and to use their fathers as a model for what they seek in their future spouses. They model a father/daughter relationship based on daughterly submission and absolute fatherly authority. I’m sure some of the fathers who attend such balls have Ten Things t-shirts, which say a lot more about fathers than they do about prospective boyfriends. The men who wear these shirts, even if they claim they are a joke, make it clear that they long to possess their daughters.
“She’s my princess, not your conquest”
Rule 8 struck me as particularly interesting. While some would argue that this rule evidences a father’s desire to cherish his daughter and assert her value in the face of a machismo culture that encourages teen boys to be sexually promiscuous and emotionally detached, the rules as a whole make it clear that the father himself is deeply embedded in this culture. “I know how boys are; I was that age once” is a good summary of many men’s comments on articles about the 10 Rules. The implicit understanding is that the antagonism between men and boys is natural; adolescents will always desire to conquer young women, and their fathers will use their lived experience to stand guard against sallies to daughters’ virtue.
Where is the daughter in all this? Why, she is silent. I wrote before about the trope of female silence and its connections to rape culture. In that blog post I wrote about father-daughter incest, but I was connecting it to a broader culture that silences women and makes them responsible for their own sexual abuse. While father-daughter incest is rare (though not as rare as many people might think), our culture – which condemns incest as an ultimate taboo – permits and even celebrates many behaviours that share a number of features with father/daughter incest. Judith Herman’s groundbreaking work on father-daughter incest coined the term “the seductive father”, as a feminist response to the idea of the “seductive daughter” – the daughter whose sexual development provokes her father into rape.
[The] daughters of seductive fathers experienced their relationships with their fathers as privileged and special … Within their families the daughters were often known as ‘Daddy’s princess’ … [W]hen their fathers were angry or upset, they turned to their daughters for solace or comfort. Although the daughters generally enjoyed their special status, they felt ambivalent about it … The daughters sensed that their fathers’ special interest in them did not develop in response to their own need for parental nurturance but rather expressed the fathers’ needs. (Judith Herman, Father-Daughter Incest, Harvard University Press, 1981, pp. 114-5)
Since this is a blog connected to my own research, let’s once again turn to medieval narratives to dig out some very deeply entrenched cultural tropes about the father-daughter relationship. While narratives of father-daughter incest gets a fair amount of critical attention, stories in Middle English where incest is explicitly attempted or accomplished are actually quite rare. There are, however, several stories that are described as having ‘near-incest’ themes: where the father behaves in a similar way to the incestuous father, but no illicit acts are actually attempted. The Squire of Low Degree is a particularly interesting (and peculiar!) example of this. Here’s a summary of this late-fifteenth century romance:
The squire is in love with the King of Hungary’s daughter. She overhears his lovesick lament, and says she will marry him if he becomes a great knight. She instructs him on how to achieve this. The steward overhears and tells the king. The king does not mind, and gives the squire permission to go abroad and perform feats in order to earn the princess’ hand. The squire goes to take leave of the princess. He is attacked by the steward, who the squire kills. The king throws the squire in prison. The princess believes the steward is the squire, and so embalms him and keeps him in a tomb in her chamber. The king sends the squire away for seven years. He returns, having had many adventures. The princess has mourned the squire all this time, but eventually her father reveals the truth. The squire and the princess are married, and the king gives up the throne to his new son-in-law.
Wow, right? What a great story. My former PhD supervisor Nicola McDonald is doing some great work with the princess in this story, particularly her fabulous embalming skills, so I won’t get sidetracked by that. Instead I want to talk about the King of Hungary’s controlling behaviour. He is fully aware of the love between the squire and the princess, and the trope of sending the suitor away until he’s proved his knightly virtues is well-worn in Middle English. The king’s desire to control his daughter’s marital future seems to go further than this, however. Coming across his grief-stricken daughter, who believes that the mutilated corpse of the steward is that of her lover, the king promises her fine food and wine, a hunting trip, and other presents. ‘And nowe ye were clothes of blacke, / Tell me, doughter, for whose sake?’ he asks, disingenuously. Because the king already ‘knewe it every deale, / But he kept it in counsele’. He then says if it’s because she’s in love with someone who is not of high status, bring him forth, and he will ‘hym make squyer and knight’, which seems like a remarkably cruel offer given the circumstances. His daughter, who believes her love for the squire is a secret, keeps her counsel, and continues to mourn. Her father permits this to continue until eventually the despairing princess declares she will ‘become an ancresse’, at which point the king choreographs the happy reunion between squire and princess. ‘Alas! Father, why dyd ye so?’ cries the princess, discovering the extent of her father’s lies. He never replies. Would he have ever told her the truth if she had not threatened to remove herself from the world? It seems to me as if the king is quite happy for his daughter to spend her adolescence locked away in the palace grieving, her sexual promise unfulfilled, her love lavished fruitlessly on a grave. The king keeps his daughter frozen until he deems it an appropriate time for her to become a wife. What damage has the king done by letting his daughter entomb her heart and cloister her hopes?
The text provides no answers; but the daughter’s unanswered question of ‘why?’ makes me return, thoughtfully, to these t-shirts that claim a daughter is a man’s princess. For all they say she is no one’s conquest, such a claim already makes her territory. Perhaps the daughter is best understood not a princess, but a principality; the father occupies her, and will cede ground only when she passes under the authority of another patriarch – her new husband.