My personal belief is that a trope is most useful when it is used more as a starting point for a story idea, rather than the final execution of the idea. Take Steve Harrington from Stranger Things. When introduced, Steve is presented so that he resembles every meat-headed, privileged bully that was so popular in the Eighties. He looks and talks like the guy who shoves the hero into a locker. He swaggers up to Nancy like he's got a right to her. He's a jerk jock, plain and simple.
Since today's topic is Overprotective Dads, I give you
Steve Harrington, being a Dad.
Except there are hints that he's not as shallow as he seems. His jokes are too genuine. He smiles at Nancy like she's the greatest girl in the world. Even his bullying of Jonathan stems from an ultimately understandable place - they caught Jonathan taking creepy pictures of Nancy.
Now true, there is context to Jonathan's actions that make them *less* disturbing (though let's put a pin in that topic for another day) and true, Steve escalates his poor treatment of Jonathan in a brutal way, considering the guy's little brother is missing. Eventually it comes to blows and for a brief moment, it feels like the classic bully vs underdog confrontation.
But then the show subverts that classic set up. After the fight, Steve comes to the conclusion that he has acted unfairly. When he goes to ask Nancy for forgiveness, he gets dragged into the central conflict and ends up helping the main cast fight the Demogorgon.
His arc is so successful largely because he's a much deeper exploration of a stock character than we're used to getting. From the outset, he's presented in a way that suggests we're supposed to root against him, yet gradually revealed to be a far better person than he seems. A lot of jerk jock characters incorrectly see themselves as the hero, but what makes Steve special is that he realizes that his actions don't match up with his own internal narrative. He wants to be the good guy, so he changes until he is, even though that's consistently the harder path.
Since Stranger Things is a show built on nostalgia, it unsurprisingly relies on a lot of tropes, particularly those that were popular in the Eighties. From kids going on bicycle powered adventures, to secretive government facilities, the show is loaded with fun twists on stock characters and plots. But no show is perfect, and so it's not very surprising that with all the reoccurring tropes, some of them don't land as well as Steve Harrington. Some are just tired retreads of clichés we've seen a million times.
The Overprotective Dad is Here to Ruin Your Fun
WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD FOR SEASON 3 OF STRANGER THINGS
When season three picks up, the series skips to a year and a half after the Snow Ball held at the end of season two. Mike is at El's house, and the two are getting their smooch on, much to the chagrin of Jim Hopper, El's adoptive father. Since it takes until the very end of the episode for any of the show's supernatural elements to directly impact the plot, for the majority of this first episode, this is the driving source of conflict for many of our main characters.
As Hopper vented to Joyce about how much he wanted to throttle Mike, it was all I could do not to groan audibly and cry out, "not this plot again." The overprotective dad is everywhere, treated almost as requisite in comedies that feature young people dating for the first time.
Kim Possible, who can literally do anything and frequently is in physical danger, gets more pushback from her dad about dating than anything else. Hotel Transylvania is a charming Halloween romp about Dracula trying to control his daughter's life, particularly when it comes to romance. Scott Pilgrim gets chased by the sword-wielding father of Knives Chau for daring to date her. Veronica Lodge's father exists to hate Archie, and not for much else.
In the unusual event that a comedy features a father and daughter where he DOESN'T threaten her male suitor with bodily harm, the show will often go to great lengths to hang a lampshade on this fact, and make that the joke.
Take, for instance, the episode of the Big Bang Theory where Leonard meets Penny's father for the first time, and is shocked to discover that the man adores him. He's over the moon his daughter is dating a physicist! Except, at this point in the show, the pair are broken up. Penny, however, wants to impress her father, and so talks Leonard into pretending to still be her boyfriend in order to make her dad happy. When the rouse runs out, her dad is angered by the lying, then insists on speaking to Leonard alone. At this point, he begs Leonard to keep pursuing his daughter. Once Leonard agrees, Penny's dad then pretends to "throw him out" with aggressive shouting, in hopes of making Leonard seem more desirable to Penny by virtue of his disapproval.
To make one thing perfectly clear, none of the examples I've cited have involved rape, sexual assault or any behavior from the boy that suggests a possibility of these things. These are treated like ordinary, every day, relatable responses to seeing a girl date.
At this point, some people may be saying, "but it IS relatable!" And I'll grant you that, yes, it can be relatable. You do see this behavior in real life. Barack Obama once made a joke about sending predator drones after the Jonas Brothers if they ever made a play for one of his daughters. (Har har har…) But that doesn't mean it's a terribly healthy behavior. Plus, it isn't only art's responsibility to represent reality as it is - it's also to provide mirrors for what it COULD be.
If this trope wasn't so ubiquitous, it probably wouldn't bother me so much. I'm not - per say - against the idea of a plot line involving a dad struggling to know what to do with his daughter once she's reached an age where she can date. What bothers me is that the conversations are almost never WITH her, just about her, and that they default to the same set up, reactions and jokes again and again, without examining any potentially problematic elements. Instead, this trope is treated as a symptom of how all men must behave, because that's how they express love for their daughters. But friends! There are other ways to show you love your daughter that don't involve exerting control over her love life.
A Different Type of Dad
One of the reasons I don't like the trope is because it also is completely unfamiliar. My own father gets excited with me when I like a boy. And if something dangerous were to happen to me while dating, I'm a heck of a lot more likely to tell him about it, because he's always been supportive of my choices rather than controlling. Luckily, I'm not completely alone in the world of fiction, and so for a counter example to all the groan worthy behavior above, I present to you Dr. Covey from To All the Boys I've Loved Before.
|This scene is one of the best additions the movie made to the book.|
As the father of three girls, by the time our book's heroine, Lara Jean Covey, starts dating, he's been around the block once before with this thing. He makes a point of getting to know Lara Jean's new boyfriend, Peter, but there's none of the hard line theatrics of other shows. Peter is frequently invited over and included in family activities. Dr. Covey checks briefly when the pair are off to a party together to make sure there will be no drinking and driving, but never gives off an air of distrust.
And in one of the best scenes in the film, he takes Lara Jean out to the diner so they can talk alone after she breaks up with Peter. They don't talk about Peter directly, since she doesn't want to hear about that, but instead her dad makes it clear to her that he's proud of her for trying new things and stepping out of her comfort zone, something she'd struggled with in the past. He's just the best, guys. May we all aspire to being as kind and helpful as Dr. Covey!
While Dr. Covey might be one of my favorite fictional dads, he is NOT my favorite Overprotective Dad, by virtue of the fact that this is not his character flaw. He's another type of character entirely, and one I'd like to see more of. Still, he's not the trope, so he cannot win this contest.
When I was watching Stranger Things and saw Hopper veering hard into this trope, I found myself wondering if I could think of good examples of the trope, because here's the thing: I like Hopper. His behavior annoyed me a little in season three, but overall, I like him. So does that make him a "good" example of this trope?
In fact, it made me realize that I don't often address tropes that I dislike. All of the others I've covered for this series have been things that, on some level, I enjoy. Yes, self-defeating villains and big freaking kiss songs can be done poorly, but while I spent a little bit of time making fun of those tropes, they're ones I generally like and get excited to see.
As I said earlier, I'm not opposed to the existence of this conflict, just seeing it done lazily or treated like some sort of primal response all father's share. After all, even if this father/daughter dynamic wasn't my experience, I CAN sympathize. It is hard watching kids grow up and make choices about their lives and bodies that a parent would not personally make for them!
In making this list, I decided to consider the following criteria:
1) He is the father of a daughter
2) He freaks out when she starts dating someone
3) His overprotective streak is triggered SPECIFICALLY by his daughter's romance. So no Liam Neeson intimidating kidnappers in Taken. That's too justifiable.
BONUS POINTS FOR:
4) He learns a lesson about trusting his daughter's judgement
5) The bulk of the conflict is focused between father and daughter coming to see eye to eye, not father and daughter's love interest reaching an agreement about her.
6) There's some additional element that makes it so that the audience is getting more than the same old recycled jokes about waiting up with a shot gun or baseball bat
7) He's just a cool character, okay?
So after some soul searching, I present to you a short list of men who might go a little crazy when their daughters start dating, but ultimately learn and grow through the experience, making me love them. They are...
Runner-Up: Best Villainous Overprotective Dad
Ben Linus from LOST
One easy way of fixing the Overprotective Dad trope is by giving the role to a villain. Suddenly, the controlling undertones of the behavior are not problematic, but instead a symptom of being a bad dude. This is on full display with Ben who first kidnaps Alex from her birth mother, then raises her in extremely limiting conditions. Imprisoning and torturing her boyfriend is one of just several creepy, controlling things this guy does!
Ben is just a rad villain, and his treatment of Alex is a fascinating part of his character. You could even argue that towards the end of the series, he learns *something* about letting Alex go. That is, if you count the flash side-ways timeline.
WINNER: Best Villainous Overprotective Dad
Adrian Toombs (The Vulture) from Spiderman: Homecoming
|I would have peed myself if I was Peter.|
The moment when Peter Parker shows up at his date's house for the Homecoming dance is perfect. As Liz's dad drives them to the dance together, there's an amazing verbal game of cat and mouse Peter is playing with him as it gradually dawns on Toombs that he knows Peter from somewhere. Bit by bit, he realizes that Peter is Spider-Man, and this previously accepting father takes a dark turn.
One of the things that's so fun about this example is that Toombs himself is consciously playing with the trope. Once they arrive at the dance, he tells Liz he needs to give Peter "the dad talk" and she leaves, expecting it to be the usual cajoling about "getting her home on time." That's in there but let's just say his threatenings are way more terrifying than anything she dreamed up.
This all plays super well into his villainous motivation and character arc. His whole illegal arms dealership is driven by a desire to provide for his family. He wants nothing more than to protect Liz and give her a normal childhood, and he expects Peter to play by that script exactly, or face the consequences.
In this instance, the Overprotective Dad trope is invoked for interesting reasons and other levels of conflict are layered on top. It might not be an instance where the conflict is focused on the girl, rather than the boy, but that also seems justifiable, since this is Peter's story. Plus, it has a more interesting resolution to that arc than usual. Instead of them coming eye to eye or agreeing how to "broker" Liz's choices, Peter instead has to make choices that are independent of what he wants with Liz, and that he knows will ultimately ruin his chances with her. It's heartbreaking and awesome.
Runner-Up: Best Overprotective Dad
Jim Hopper from Stranger Things
So first off, I am not a fan of how all of this arc was treated on Stranger Things, mostly because there's some squandered potential here. As mentioned before, tropes are at their best when they are used only as a starting point for something, not the final execution. One of the things that frustrated me about the use of this trope was how they failed to notice that of all men, Hopper had exceptional circumstances for his feelings going into this scenario.
Three things make Hopper and El a unique version of this father/daughter dynamic. One, that El is adopted, and this at least the show touches on. He isn't prepared for this challenge, largely because he's only been her father for a couple of years, and it was a relationship that grew organically, rather than one that either entered into knowingly. But there are two other factors the show forgets to touch on and AAAAAAAAAHHHHHH! It would have been so much better if they did!
So factor number two, Hopper might be new to doing things with El, but she is not his first child. He had a daughter die young, which destroyed his life and relationship with his ex-wife. There are a couple nods to this in season three, but most of that is unexplored potential. I really wish there was more acknowledgement of him as a man still learning how to put away the trauma he suffered years ago, because it would help contextualize his actions when he is a total jerk to Mike in the first episode of season three.
Also, there's the question of El herself. Hopper is more justified in worrying about El's dating habits, because El has only been experiencing a "normal" life for a couple of years. Lest we forget, she had to be taught the concept of "friend" by Mike in season one. To see this same boy then initiate a romance with her could be understandably troubling. If "friend" and "boyfriend" are synonymous, that's a problem. El's world is painfully small and she's naïve in a way most girls her own age aren't. I would have loved to see Hopper articulate some of this in some way - just a worry that childhood was already leaving for a girl who never got to have a childhood. There's more loss there than in the regular scenario.
In fairness, the show does address some of El's inexperience and need for other friends, but it's not directly tied to her arc with Hopper. And so that saddens me. It was right there, Duffer Bros! RIGHT THERE!
So why is this ranked so highly? Partially because, as mentioned above, I love Hopper. But also because that even though it follows the strictures of this trope a bit too much, there's some nice depth to what Hopper experiences and expresses over the course of the season.
In the first episode, he knows he needs to have a conversation with El and Mike about boundaries, but struggles to find the words to say. Eventually, he writes them down and rehearses them. But when he goes to talk to the kids, Mike is kind of obnoxious, and all his preparation goes out the window. He ends up threatening the boy instead and the audience groans along.
Then, towards the end of the season, El finds the letter and sees what he really wanted to say. And instead of being about controlling Mike's behavior, the letter is all about her. How much he loves her and values his time with her, and how he's nervous about this new stage in her life, but doesn't want to hold her back. The scene is ridiculously touching. It does a lot of heavy lifting of redeeming his earlier behavior and that makes a huge amount of difference.
Also, side note: Mike really was annoying in that first episode. It's not ALL Hopper's fault.
WINNER: Best Overprotective Dad
Costas Portokalos from My Big Fat Greek Wedding
|Look how sweet he is! He really is the best.|
Did you know that this movie is not a romantic comedy? It's really not. The romance is not the center of the story. Her relationship with Ian is rather conflict free. As they say in writing class, if there's no conflict, there's no story, so where is the conflict coming from?
The heart of this fun and fabulous film is in the relationship between Toula and her heritage, and symbolizing that heritage more than anyone is her father. Costas is immensely proud of his Greek background and wants to see Toula feel the same way. He's bossy and controlling at times, and desperately wants her to marry a Greek boy, so when she comes home with "white toast" Ian, he is devastated. And so goes our plot!
Returning to the list of BONUS POINTS, Costas ticks every box. He gradually learns to accept Ian and see his family as part of theirs. He stops questioning Toula's decisions so much, and tries to show her his support the way he knows how (giving a kind speech at her wedding and giving her a very generous gift) and through that, Toula reconciles with him. She's able to see herself as Greek, without focusing on how it makes her weird. She feels loved by her father and valued, instead of seen as the ugly duckling or rebellious child.
The jokes also don't feel as stale, because they're not the usual one dimensional posturing. His disdain for Ian is rooted in cultural differences, a gap which is harder to breach than simply not threatening the boyfriend. Even when he's trying to be accepting, there's still moments where his cultural baggage gets in the way, like when he orders wedding invitations that misspell and misgender Ian's parent's unfamiliar, English names.
Most importantly, he's just really, really funny. Despite his character largely being built out of the Overprotective Dad trope, he's charming, entertaining and a fresh take on the concept. Overall, this movie is great and Costas remains one of my favorite fictional dads. He ain't perfect, but he sure is fun to watch.
So there you have it. Even tropes we personally dislike don't necessarily have to be done poorly. If there's a fresh enough take, tired material can become new again. All you need is a little Greek culture or a Demogorgon and you're on your way.
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