Every year, girls in elementary schools across the country bring their fathers as dates to school-sponsored dances. But this long-held tradition may soon be history.
Last month, the New York Times reported that many school districts are rethinking father-daughter dances given increasing diversity in family structures. In March, Breitbart published an article defending the tradition in which the author disapprovingly details a California school’s choice to rename the dance.
Some schools have tried rebranding the event in response to complaints from parents; others have retired it altogether. Critics often cite exclusivity as the main problem, as these dances exclude not only mothers and sons, but also lesbian couples, single mothers, and genderqueer students and parents.
I agree. Father-daughter dances should be removed from school calendars completely—but for a different set of reasons.
As the daughter of two mothers, I sympathize with those who feel excluded and am very glad that my elementary school didn’t partake in the tradition. I contend, however, that immediate impacts—who has to stay home and how that makes them feel—are symptomatic of more foundational problems. If exclusivity were the primary concern, it might be possible simply to revise the tradition to make it more inclusive. But the messages the ritual sends, the values it teaches, and the norms it entrenches will continue to harm unless the practice is retired.
The father-daughter dance perpetuates the gender norms that produced it, including the gender binary. Most obviously, it excludes children and parents that identify as genderqueer. The director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project Lenora Lapidus told the Times that school-sponsored events catering to one gender are almost always rooted in stereotypes. The father-daughter dance is no exception. Parents dress young girls in frills to pose for pictures with their dads as if rehearsing for prom. Then dads and daughters slow-dance to songs like “Butterfly Kisses,” which is often listed as one of the most popular father-daughter dance songs on wedding sites like The Knot.
The lyrics capture many of the stereotypes tied up in the tradition. After praising “daddy’s little girl” and nightly prayer in the opening verse, the singer goes on to describe his daughter’s first time baking a cake, the little white flowers in her hair, and her “perfume and makeup…ribbons and curls” when she turns sixteen. “One part woman, the other part girl,” the daughter tells her father that if he doesn’t mind, she’s “only gonna kiss [him] on the cheek this time.” The song ends on her wedding day when she changes her name and her father “give[s] her away.”
A single song does not necessarily represent the spirit of every father-daughter dance. Yet the lyrics illuminate problems that are baked into the tradition, even if they aren’t always written out in such glaringly gendered terms.
Supporters of these dances have argued that fathers and daughters role-playing as romantic partners provides a healthy, loving model for the daughter’s future relationships. But is slow-dancing really the best way for a parent to teach their child what a good relationship looks like? The assumption that the father-daughter relationship will be the primary determinant of the daughter’s future romantic partners is not only Freudian but also heteronormative. By connecting the father to the daughter’s future love life, this common line of reasoning assumes that the daughter is cisgender and heterosexual. If the father-daughter dance has any impact on the daughter’s future relationships, it’s that it teaches her to relate to men as a little girl.
The relationships a person has early in life do, of course, impact later ones. My relationships with my moms have taught me to expect respect, kindness, and generosity from the people I care about. Through the way they treat me and each other, they have taught me how to build healthy, happy relationships of all kinds—platonic, familial, and romantic. I have never needed a father figure to teach me how to relate to men or my romantic partners. The suggestion that only a father could teach me to do so implies that relationships differ by gender. That is a false binary, not a reality.
Most father-daughter dances are lighthearted functions that unconsciously rely on outdated norms. But the tradition has also given way to more serious ceremonies like the American purity ball, which, according to one uncorroborated estimate, occurs 1,400 times per year across forty-eight states. The purity ball is an extreme case study in the values underlying and promoted by the father-daughter dance.
Founded in 1998 by Colorado Springs couple Randy and Lisa Wilson, the purity ball is a ritualized formal dance for fathers and daughters. The fathers promise their daughters that they will protect them, and the daughters promise their fathers that they will remain chaste until marriage. The exchange of pledges is often accompanied by an exchange of “remembrance gifts,” followed by speeches and ballroom dancing. Participants are referred to as dates. Time published a series of photos from one such event here.
Of course, most of the fathers that attend father-daughter dances would balk at the prospect of having their eight-year-old daughters pledge their virginity to them. But these outmoded gender dynamics are not confined to niche ceremonies like purity balls. Consider a traditional wedding: The father of the bride walks his daughter down the aisle and “gives her away” to the groom; later, the father will slow-dance with the bride after the newlyweds’ “first dance.” The idea of “giving away” implies a substitution in which the husband takes the father’s place as protective patriarch. Rituals like this that characterize women as dependents are outdated, disempowering, and unromantic.
Nonetheless, the father-daughter dance remains a much-loved wedding tradition. Americans are conditioned from an early age to find father-daughter relationships especially sweet. Consider the quintessential Disney princess: a devoted daddy’s girl with a dead mother. Most Disney princess movies, except for a few recent releases, have plots that hinge on the father-daughter bond—think Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Belle, Pocahontas, Mulan. There are two recurring storylines: in one, the daughter sacrifices her own happiness for her father’s sake; in the other, she struggles to choose between a controlling yet well-meaning dad and a romantic interest.
From weddings to movies, our culture fetishizes father-daughter relationships. A product of that fetishization, school-sponsored father-daughter dances send the same patriarchal, infantilizing message as purity balls.
All parent-child relationships should be valued equally; in a perfect world, none would be singled out on the basis of gender composition. The Times article notes that some proponents of father-daughter dances feel that the tradition “gives a boost” to a relationship that “might not be as natural as a mother’s and daughter’s.” Even if this were universally true, there are better ways to nurture the father-daughter relationship than participating in once-a-year dances with Freudian overtones. Paid family leave is one, which not only gives fathers more time with their newborns (and helps mothers in the workforce stay there) but also sets a precedent for fathers being more involved in the home.
A product and perpetuator of the gender binary, heteronormativity, and a cultural obsession with virginity, father-daughter dances have no place in public schools. There are plenty of ways to bond with a child that don’t require gender-based functions, from bowling to homework help to dinnertime conversation. Fathers shouldn’t feel like they need structured, school-sponsored events to connect with their children, regardless of gender. Though it may be unforgivably outmoded, the father-daughter dance teaches us an important lesson: We need to shift the kind of emphasis we place on the relationship between dads and daughters from a fetishized affection for “daddy’s girl” to a real acceptance of fathers who love to parent.