Pop (and daughter) culture

In TV and films, fathers and female offspring star

by Julia Keller

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

2 April 2010


Clinton, Bush, Obama.

Not just our three most recent presidents — but three dads.

And not just three dads: three dads of daughters.

So maybe it’s a clue. So maybe the obvious joy these otherwise wildly dissimilar men take in their relationships with their daughters was the nudge to writers. Maybe it’s part of the reason fathers and daughters began showing up with regularity on TV series and films and in books.

Presidential papas and their well-adjusted female offspring may partially explain how the father-daughter dance has become so ubiquitous in the arts.

In TV series such as “Castle” and “Shark,” which aired for two seasons until 2008, the primary relationships of the cool dads played by Nathan Fillion and James Woods are with their daughters, Alexis Castle (Molly C. Quinn) and Julia Stark (Danielle Panabaker). In “Bones,” the recurring interaction between Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) and her father, played by Ryan O’Neal, blossomed into an important plot point. The same was true of the tight bond between Jordan Cavanaugh (Jill Hennessey) and her father (Ken Howard), a retired police detective, in “Crossing Jordan.”

In the 2010 film “Edge of Darkness,” it is the close connection between Thomas Craven (Mel Gibson) and his daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic) that lights the fuse of the explosive plot. “Taken” (2008) shows the lengths to which a father (Liam Neeson) will go to save his daughter. “The Lovely Bones” (2009), based on Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel, highlights the love between a father and his daughter.

And we would be foolish (and instantly on the receiving end of 10,001 livid e-mails with frown-faced emoticons) to neglect to mention one of the most successful father-daughter tandems in TV and music history: “Hannah Montana,” the Disney Channel show featuring Miley Cyrus and her real-life father, Billy Ray Cyrus, playing the made-up Miley Stewart and her father, Robby, who in turn play the made-up Hannah Montana and her manager and ... oh, never mind.

What’s behind the recent surge of fictional father-daughter teams?

To be sure, fathers and daughters have not been exactly absent from the arts. They are a staple of literature, from Scout and Atticus in Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960) and Nancy and Carson Drew in the Nancy Drew mystery series, to Elizabeth Bennet and her father in Jane Austen’s novel “Pride and Prejudice” (1813). Sylvia Plath’s twisted, volatile relationship with her father put the nasty snarl in “Daddy” (1963), her best-known poem. Shakespeare’s “King Lear” has a little something to say about the father-daughter thing, as does Jane Smiley’s updating of that tale in her 1991 novel “A Thousand Acres,” which was followed by the1997 film version. Even earlier, Greek dramatists such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides took a crack at the tragic story of Electra, desperate daughter of King Agamemnon.

But depictions of father-daughter relationships in contemporary pop culture feel different. They are largely positive, for one thing. There is less torment and more fun. Less angst, more hilarity. Fewer door-slamming moments, more watching-a-DVD-with-a-big-bowl-of-popcorn moments.

In a series such as “Castle,” the repartee between the title character and his daughter is one of the show’s high points. Were it not for the sparkling scenes between Rick Castle and Alexis, the series would sink beneath the weight of its cliches.

Another possible reason for the rising number of depictions of fathers and daughters in the arts can be chalked up to real-world social change. Women now can participate in the full range of human activities; they can play sports, enter politics, go fly-fishing, fix old cars. That wasn’t the case previously. Thus fictional fathers can — just as real ones do — talk to their daughters about the same things about which they’d talk to their sons. Dad doesn’t have to pretend to be interested in prom dresses and lip gloss to share some quality time with a female offspring.

In a recent “Castle” episode, father and daughter squared off in a fencing match. In “Crossing Jordan,” father and daughter often collaborated in solving crimes.

And despite that roll call of memorable father-daughter stories in cultural history, the relationship still has not been explored with the thoroughness and imaginative rigor of other parent-child pairings, explorations led by Sigmund Freud and his followers. Mothers and sons have “Hamlet.” Fathers and sons have — well, “Fathers and Sons,” as well as “Star Wars.” Mothers and daughters have “Little Women.”

But fathers and daughters still constitute a rich potential field, a largely untapped reservoir of stories.

Not all of those stories can be savory ones. In the real world, of course, not all fathers are loving and supportive; some are abusive and negligent, just as some mothers are. Dramas about fathers and daughters, if they are to reflect life, must include some portraits of pain and betrayal. But for now, pop culture is having a fine time with upbeat dads who enjoy the challenges posed by interesting daughters.

Homer Simpson may not pick up on daughter Lisa’s literary allusions, but he loves her more than he does Lard Lad Donuts — and that’s no small thing.

Maybe, in the end, it really does all come down to a trio of commanders in chief who also happen to be fathers. Great fathers, we are reliably informed. The kind of fathers whose love and support for their female children would just naturally inspire writers and filmmakers.

So no matter what your politics, you have to like the fact that Bill, George and Barack — despite so many differences — share a single name: dad.


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