Harry and the trouble with ‘feminist’ dads

The slogan on the prince’s T-shirt is a familiar sight in the US, where some argue it’s an example of men making a cause about themselves

Is Harry telling other men it is fine to have daughters, or simply reminding himself? Credit: travalyst.org

Two things stood out from Prince Harry’s launch of his sustainable travel company, Travalyst, this week. First, his acting on the promotional video, which proved that moving to Hollywood does not automatically bestow Hollywood talent. Don’t give up the day job, Harry. Not again.

Then there was his T-shirt. The artist formerly known as HRH accessorised his standard-issue California athleisure look of Nikes, jogging bottoms and white earphones with a grey T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘GIRL DAD’.

Girl… dad? As in, the father of a daughter? Surely it cannot be so soon since the birth of young Lilibet, who is not even a year old, that Harry needs to remind us that he has a daughter. No, like Netflix and Oprah Winfrey, GirlDad is another American institution with which Harry has become involved since he and Meghan emigrated in March 2020. 

“It’s cringe de la cringe,” says Tina Brown, the former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor who has just published The Palace Papers, a recent history of the Royal Family. “Harry’s gone full Goop in Montecito,” she adds, in reference to Gwyneth Paltrow’s eccentric wellness brand.

The phrase Girl Dad came about after the death of American basketball player Kobe Bryant in January 2020. The LA Lakers superstar died in a plane crash, alongside eight others, among them 13-year-old Gianna, one of his four daughters. In interviews before his death, Bryant was letting the world know that, as far as he was concerned, daughters were up there with sons. In a 2018 TV interview, he said that fans would come up to him and say, of Gianna: “‘You gotta have a boy. You and V (Bryant’s wife Vanessa) gotta have a boy, have somebody carry on the tradition, the legacy.’” Bryant wasn’t having it, and neither was his daughter. “She’s like, ‘Oy, I got this. No boy for that, I got this.’”

In the days after the accident, other men began posting pictures of themselves with their daughters on social media, using the hashtag #girldad. It briefly went viral. Musicians including Timbaland and Bow Wow posted pictures of themselves with their daughters. The implication was that these daughters might have loving, devoted fathers, but that the fathers gained something unique from raising girls, too.

LA-based etiquette consultant and Harry-watcher Lisa Gache doesn’t know what all the fuss is about. “We don’t even blink an eye here,” she says. “Girl Dad is common here. You even see it on licence plates.” Having said that, in her view, brandishing the slogan T-shirt will have been carefully thought out by Harry. “The hashtag is politically correct – it’s a message to the world that he’s a conscientious person.”

Bodé Aboderin, author of Fatherhood by Papa B:  A Game-changing Guide for Parents, Father Figures and Fathers-to-be, disagrees. “I think it’s sweet that a man in Harry’s position would wear a T-shirt like that,” says the motivational speaker and stay-at-home dad. “I don’t think he was trying to make a statement, just celebrate the fact that he has a child who is a girl. Support for women shouldn’t just be on the street. We need to do that at home as well, where you can show girls that strong male presence. Let’s normalise girldad.”

#Girldad took off after Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna were killed in a helicopter crash in 2020 Credit: Jessica Hill

#Girldad is part of a broader movement of fathers being publicly – a cynic might say performatively – feminist about having daughters, and it has had at least as much pushback as it has had praise on both sides of the pond. After Sarah Everard was murdered last year, the then-Conservative mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey was criticised for tweeting that he was worried “as a father”. During the #metoo storm around Harvey Weinstein, men including Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were criticised for saying that the story had affected them especially as “fathers of daughters”.

The slogan was “supposed to be about women’s empowerment”, the US novelist Kerry Clare has said. Instead, it perpetuated “those same gender stereotypes” by suggesting that “there is anything different or remarkable about loving and parenting a girl than loving and parenting a boy.”

Dr Rebecca Hains, a professor of communication at Salem State University, and the author of books including The Princess Problem and Growing up with Girl Power, underlines the problem. “Conceptually, #girldad is a nice idea,” she says. “But I think the concern some people have raised is that simply expressing pride in being the father of a girl is more of a first step than anything else. You might be proud that you have a daughter, but what are you doing to ensure she’s treated equitably, that her legal rights are protected, that she will grow up in a world with a smaller gender wage gap, that she has bodily autonomy?”

What’s more, she adds, there is a risk that this becomes another example of men making a cause about themselves. “There’s an alternative perspective,” Hains says, “which is that nobody goes around describing themselves as a ‘Boy Mum’. We raise boys in a society that values masculinity and suggests femininity is somehow toxic to men. For some men, I think it does take becoming the father of a girl to become sensitive to these issues. My hope is that the hashtag is the starting point for a journey. Prince Harry is raising his children in the US, and we are grappling right now with Roe v Wade. It’s hard to speculate about someone’s intent with a T-shirt. You hope they care about this issue and will use their power to advocate. It could also just be a T-shirt.”

Turning up means more than wearing a T-shirt. It’s ironic that Bryant, for all his #girldad stylings, was also notoriously accused of sexual assault, in a case that settled out of court. All the hashtags in the world are toothless in the face of a Supreme Court seemingly determined to turn the clock back on women’s rights.

Nor is there any doubt that the pandemic provided moments of reflection for fathers. According to statistics from the ONS, the first lockdown led to a 58 per cent increase in childcare by men. The Fatherhood Institute has reported that since the pandemic, four out of five dads would like to work more flexibly, the better to be able to contribute to childcare. #Girldad might be having a moment, but so is plain old #dad.

Still, it is not clear whose benefit Prince Harry’s T-shirt is for. Is he telling other men it is fine to have daughters, or simply reminding himself? There are institutions that spring to mind more quickly than the British monarchy when it comes to equal rights for daughters. But its recent history makes a persuasive case for feminism. While the men have embroiled themselves in various shades of scandal, Royal women have, by and large, carried out their jobs with dignity and competence. George VI was never photographed wearing a Girl Dad T-shirt. His daughter, the Queen, as the celebrations over the next few weeks will remind us, turned out just fine. Harry’s latest sop to Californian fashion is another indicator that when it comes to the Royal family – as increasingly with the general population – it is the boys we need to worry about.