Father, refigured

In a world where we’re more cognizant of what female independence can and should look like, these jokes don’t really work anymore

Last year, former NFL player Jay Feely posted a photo on Twitter of himself with his teenage daughter and her prom date. In the image, Feely grips his daughter’s shoulder with his left hand, and flashes a pistol in his right.

The caption: “Wishing my beautiful daughter and her date a great time at prom #BadBoys.”

Cue the laugh track. It’s the old “If you hurt my daughter, I’ll kill you in a testosterone-fueled outburst of gun violence” joke. A classic gag.

Feely’s hashtag refers to a scene in Bad Boys II in which Will Smith and Martin Lawrence verbally intimidate a soft-spoken 15-year-old boy who is taking Lawrence’s daughter to the prom. Smith carelessly waves a loaded gun in the young man’s face, unconcerned with the possibility that it might actually fire. Comedy ensues.

The gag is a typical joke in movies featuring father-daughter relationships, and considering Smith and Lawrence really sell themselves as ridiculously over-the-top paternal figures, perhaps it’s unsurprising that some real-life dads might see that movie and think: “I, too, can be funny with a gun.”

Feely’s Twitter version of this joke fell flat, however, partly because it was posted only two months after the February 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre, and partly because people are tired of this “overprotective dad” trope.

In a world where we’re more cognizant of what female independence can and should look like, these kinds of jokes don’t really work anymore.

The “overprotective dad” is a stereotype in which a father’s recognition of his daughter’s growing sexuality triggers the instinct to restrict her dating choices—and direct hostility toward potential boyfriends. It’s a form of parenting that forgoes real-life discussions about sex and consent, and it isn’t very helpful to anyone involved.

While it’s natural for dads to want to protect their daughters, when it becomes essentially a watered-down reenactment of Bruce Willis’ shotgun rampage in Armageddon, that’s when “overprotective dad” culture needs to be re-examined.

Let’s recognize these kinds of jokes for what they are: embarrassing examples of “virtue signaling,” where a father plays up how protective he is of his daughter without doing any of the heavy lifting required to actually prevent gender discrimination and sexual violence.

Instead, these jokes perpetuate beliefs that prop up rape culture—and while they’re intended to target men who might harm women, they also undermine her own ability to make informed decisions about sex and dating.

To be fair, overprotective dads are almost there when it comes to understanding how women move differently through the world. At the very least, they recognize that some men can be utterly atrocious.

But “cleaning the old shotgun in front of the boyfriend” jokes don’t help. Listening to women’s experiences can. Learning how sexist attitudes and gender stereotypes contribute to a world that’s largely unsafe for women can. Talking with other men about toxic masculinity can. Talking to your kids can.

Instead of repeating Liam Neeson’s monologue from Taken, try using a different set of skills—skills that impart knowledge of consent, build daughters up and teach sons to respect their partners. Dads have the unique opportunity to change the way future generations approach sex and relationships. It’s not an easy task. It requires difficult conversations, self-reflection, empathy, watching better movies and, sometimes, developing a better sense of humor.