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What the virality of #GirlDad says about American fatherhood

Men still face the assumption that they must want sons.

Gianna Bryant, holding a basketball, looks up at Kobe Bryant, who looks down at her.
Kobe Bryant with his daughter Gianna Bryant during the 2016 NBA All-Star Game 2016 in Toronto.
Elsa/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

LeVar Burton is one. So is Alex Rodriguez. Cubs pitcher Casey Sadler is one too.

All three proudly identified themselves as #GirlDads in recent days as the hashtag spread on Twitter.

The inspiration was a story told by ESPN’s Elle Duncan on Monday night about Kobe Bryant, the Lakers star and father of four girls who was killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday. One of Bryant’s daughters, Gianna, also died in the crash, along with seven other people.

Duncan said that she met Bryant once, while she was pregnant, and that he spoke to her of his pride in raising daughters. “Girls are amazing,” he told her. “I would have five more girls if I could. I’m a girl dad.”

After the segment aired, celebrities and ordinary dads alike began sharing photos of themselves with their daughters, along with messages of support and love. The hashtag soon went viral.

For some, the hashtag is a way to push back against stereotypes — some dads of daughters say they contend with the assumption that every man must want a son.

American society still frequently values men above women, Tony Porter, CEO of the anti-violence organization A Call to Men, told Vox. For some men, “the whole notion of having a son is sometimes to live vicariously through him,” or “to raise him in your likeness.” That can lead to some dads “feeling a great disappointment that they don’t have sons.”

Men sharing their pride in their daughters can show a different perspective. For Brian A. Klems, author of Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters, it’s a way to “push down the idea that, as men, we feel like we have to have sons.”

And some say that encouraging men to take pride in their daughters can help promote greater gender equality overall. The phrase “as the father of daughters” has gotten something of a bad name in recent years, with some arguing that men shouldn’t need the incentive of their own children to treat other women with respect. But for others, a father’s relationship with his daughter creates an opportunity to get him to examine his relationships with sexism and masculinity as well.

Efforts like the #GirlDad hashtag can help men see the importance of creating all the same opportunities for their daughters they would create for their sons, Porter said. And “our hope is that by doing such for our daughters,” fathers will “understand our greater responsibility to women in general.”

For some, #GirlDad is a way to push back on stereotypes

After Duncan told her story about Bryant, numerous dads — many, but not all of them, involved in sports — shared pictures of and messages about their daughters on Twitter.

For many, the hashtag was simply a way to show love. But others commented on the expectation that as men, they should have or want sons.

Klems is familiar with that assumption. When their third daughter was born, he remembers telling his wife, “everybody thought I really wanted a boy, but I honestly didn’t care.” He believes the attitude sometimes comes more from the outside than from fathers themselves.

When moms have sons, they’re also often asked if they want to try again for a girl, Klems said: “I think people, deep down, think you kind of want to replace yourself.”

But there are also gendered prejudices at work in how Americans view fathers and their children, said Porter, who has three daughters. There’s a perception that “you’re missing something if you don’t have a son,” he explained, which “fits into the constructs that we have around male domination and masculinity and manhood.”

For powerful men, having daughters hasn’t always meant supporting women

Having daughters, Porter said, can help break down those constructs. In its work, A Call to Men has encountered many men who “begin to understand issues of equity and equality and become advocates for it just by virtue of raising daughters.”

The idea that having daughters can teach men to be more respectful of women has been controversial in recent years. When Donald Trump, then a candidate for president, was heard on tape in 2016 bragging about his ability to grab women “by the pussy,” some men in power responded that, “as the father of daughters,” they were horrified.

“As the father of three daughters,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said at the time, “I strongly believe that Trump needs to apologize directly to women and girls everywhere.”

But he never unendorsed Trump, and just weeks later, he told a crowd that “we need a new president, Donald Trump, to be the most powerful Republican in America.” Whatever McConnell’s feelings were about his daughters, they were apparently superseded by his desire to see a Republican in the White House.

Moreover, some have argued that men shouldn’t need daughters to have empathy for women. While studies have shown that “men with daughters are less attached to traditional gender roles” and “male CEOs with firstborn daughters pay their employees more,” Jessica Contrera wrote at the Washington Post in 2017, “all of these steps toward equality can be achieved, of course, without producing any offspring.”

Bryant had also been the subject of questions around his commitment to women’s equality. While he was known for his support of his daughters and mentorship of female athletes, he was also accused, in 2003, of sexually assaulting a woman at a Colorado resort. In the wake of his death, many have struggled with how to balance those two truths.

As a father and mentor, “Bryant showed the world with his actions how much he supported women,” Jane McManus wrote at the New York Daily News. “But I wish he’d taken a moment to tell also.”

“I want to know how he internalized the damage that night caused, to his reputation and more importantly to another human being,” she wrote. “How it didn’t destroy his ability to work with women. I want to know how he thought about himself as a husband in the wake of that, how he thought of himself as a father of one girl, then two and three and finally four.”

Fathers can be crucial in the fight against sexism, many say

America won’t get those answers now. But for many, it’s important to acknowledge the role fathers can play in advocating for their daughters and building a fairer world for them.

Klems remembers a time when he was coaching his oldest daughter’s soccer team and a boys’ team had taken the field during what was supposed to the girls’ team’s practice time. The boys’ coach asked Klems to have the girls practice in a smaller area off to the side, but Klems pushed back.

“Even if I’m oversensitive to it, I don’t care,” he said. “You don’t want your kids to ever feel less than others. You don’t want them to feel more than others either. You want them to feel like we’re all human.”

Coaching and working with girls can be illuminating for men, Porter said, showing them “how to be open to the experiences of sharing emotions and fears and pains,” something that’s more accepted for women than for men. “When we’re working with boys or just with other men, we deny those human experiences.”

He also encourages men to show vulnerability to their daughters. “Just as women are taught to share their feelings and emotions and that asking for help is okay,” he said, “it’s really wonderful for dads to not only embrace that but join their daughters on that journey.”

It’s crucial for men “to be able to shed a tear,” he said, “to be able to say, ‘I don’t have all the answers, I’ll do my best.’ And then, at the same time, to teach our daughters that they can reach for the sky.”

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