TThe often-neglected bond between father and daughter is explored in Charlotte Wells’ acclaimed debut film. After sunwhich hit theaters last week, and Stars normal people‘s Paul Mescal and newcomer Frankie Corio.
It tells the story of a woman looking back on a vacation she took with her father as a child. “Narrative” is probably the wrong word because it’s much more about atmosphere, memory, and the playful ease and passing tensions that characterize so many father-child relationships.
As a father of three daughters, I’m no stranger to the conspiratorial jokes and light-hearted banter that can offer relief from the tense battles often fought between mothers and daughters. But being a father to a female child is not only a joy, it is also an empirical fact that it improves socially. A 2018 study by the LSE found that men are less likely to have sexist attitudes when they have a school-age daughter.
These findings were underscored by another study published earlier this year looking at the gender bias of US politicians. It compared how much lawmakers interrupted Janet Yellen, who chaired the Federal Reserve from 2014 to 2018, and how much they interrupted men in that role. Minutes of all meetings showed that hostility toward Yellen increased sharply, except among those politicians with daughters.
As the authors of the first study wrote: “Through parenting, fathers of daughters can develop a better understanding of the disadvantages faced by women and girls in society, leading to a significant change in their attitudes towards gender norms.”
My daughters certainly did not hesitate to bring these disadvantages to my attention, while at the same time trying to overcome them. However, despite the instructive nature of raising daughters, as well as the fascinating interaction of gender differences, the father-daughter relationship has rarely been the focus of films or even literature, particularly in relation to infancy daughters.
A notable exception in recent years has been the 2011 film directed by Alexander Payne. The descendantswith George Clooney’s perfectly placed performance as a somewhat unfortunate middle-aged man struggling to guide his two daughters (one a slovenly teenager, the other a precocious boy) through their mother’s death while effectively being guided by them.
Despite the sad subject matter, it’s essentially comedy, which is perhaps the appropriate genre for a relationship that tends to use humor as a means of mutual understanding.
In a sense, these two stages—precocious boy, snotty teenager—are a crucial dividing line in life and art. The prepubescent child, as Sophie in After sun, can be an endearing mix of innocence, dependency, and trust, but also capable of a sort of quasi-maternal nurturing. Adolescence cracks it all down as burgeoning femininity pushes her way forward, rudely proclaiming that the rules have changed.
The transition isn’t always easy for dads, that quick switch from holding hands on the way to school to “You’re not going out with that!” alarm at the teen’s show of sexuality and independence. I can look back on my youngest daughter’s teenage years with the kind of hazy nostalgia that the look and feel conveys After sun.
There’s that precious time when you’re the undisputed source of strength and security, but also the unabashed source of interest and entertainment. It’s when you can play Atticus Finch in front of your questioning daughter’s scout, that memorably committed relationship at the heart of Killing a mockingbird. Matt Wotton of the London Center for Applied Psychology calls this “the easy phase”.
Child therapists speak of “creating moments of connection,” and my youngest daughter and I would have had tailor-made adventures together—reading world history, long car rides, listening to music and singing, white-water kayaking.
Once the two of us drove across France to visit friends in the Cevennes. My daughter was about the age of the girl in After sun, and the world through her eyes looked both impossibly vast and full of boundless promise. She was young enough to want to share a room in the great wilderness with her wild boar and rifle-wielding hunters, but old enough to realize that the dear friend we were visiting was very ill – she had been closed for less than a year Life . And in one of those disarming role reversals, I remember my daughter worrying about my feelings.
We use the phrase “fast forward” to convey that we’re jumping forward in time, but that’s what it felt like when she suddenly turned 15 and insisted she had to stay longer at a party and I was the fun killer was a bore who wanted to know how she was going to get home. It was as if time had grown weary of linearity and decided to skip an entire phase of adaptation.
Wotton says he sees many men struggling with the emotional demands of parenthood. They tend to see the idea of helping their daughters through puberty as “an elite level of skill” beyond their experience or expertise. They can set the stage when idealized by their young daughters, but they often “disappear” in the crucial teenage years of development.
The stereotype of the clueless father stumped by a child who’s become sexually attractive to boys and men is changing, he says, but it’s not outdated yet. “‘Dad was absolutely comfortable with friends, menstruation, all my different friendships, he was a tower of strength for me. If he didn’t understand, he just asked and listened’ – that’s very rarely the version of events,” Wotton says dryly.
But one way or another, with or without the help of their fathers, daughters get through these difficult years of transition and often embark on a more mature version of this initially comfortable and teasing relationship. It’s Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth, though hopefully without the rigid 19th-century patriarchy.
The vibe that pervades After sun is the loving acceptance as the grown woman reminds of the young and slightly opinionated father who took her on vacation. Wotton says he finds that daughters often forgive their fathers for their hopelessness as they grow up.
“Dad tried his best but totally screwed it up, but he did it with good intentions,” is the type of reasoning he encounters. “There’s usually something hidden in the father’s story,” he says, and quite often it’s the father’s father, who was even less endowed with emotional intelligence.
Clearly, dads must accept losing their little girl’s superman’s cloak. The nooses and darts of family life tend to uncover paternal flaws sooner or later. My own daughters could no doubt identify some of my more obvious wrong turns.
But they are all blessed, like the daughters Wotton has seen, with a keen talent for forgiveness. They’re all three Cordelias, just with humor. I’m relieved to say there are no Gonerils or Regans in our family.
It may be a tragic masterpiece, however King Lear is not a great advertisement for father-daughter relationships. A treacherous egomaniac who inherits his power and wealth in exchange for a declaration of love, and two scheming daughters who have nothing but contempt for the old fool – none fare well except Saint Cordelia.
Luckily I don’t have a kingdom to scatter, so I don’t have much in common with Lear except three daughters and a habit of walking the heath in raging storms. But during the more difficult years in our household we often used – with heavy irony – Lear’s quote about Goneril: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth is it to have a thankless child.”
However, like most daughters, mine was anything but ungrateful. In truth, I’m the one who’s grateful. You’ve taught me so much—the lyrics of Taylor Swift, the sodden joys of waterskiing, and the discreet joys of long, gossip-filled dog walks.
But most of all, they taught me how to be a father.
How they will look back on me, how a daughter understands her father is something none of us can ever know. But let’s hope it’s done with the same indulgent show of understanding that celebrates After sun.