When Matt Damon was questioned by Deadline this week about the accusations levelled at him in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal - that he allegedly covered for him - the actor unequivocally denied them. “Look, even before I was famous, I didn’t abide this kind of behavior,” he told the entertainment website. “But now, as the father of four daughters, this is the kind of sexual predation that keeps me up at night. This is the great fear for all of us. You have a daughter, you know…”
"As the father of daughters."
These five words didn’t just jar on my nerves and diminish what came next; they ricocheted through me, echoing – almost word for word – a throwaway comment Ievelled at me only a few months previously at a friend’s party. Faced with a former colleague who had abused his seniority to sexually harass me (during a Friday night work’s drinks a decade earlier), another ex-colleague clocked my unease and offered me a few words of comfort. He was a reformed character, I was told. Procreation had evidently done its work. He had changed since fathering a daughter.
In the wake of the spiralling Harvey Weinstein scandal, the notion that a man is only capable of valuing women as equal humans once they’ve fathered a daughter is an infuriating one. And it’s a theme that keeps cropping up as we continue to witness powerful men abusing their privileged positions to exploit women – and get away with it.
When The Washington Post published video footage of Donald Trump bragging about sexual assault last October – “Grab them by the pussy, you can do anything” – Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence tweeted an official statement. “As a husband and father, I was offended by the words and actions described by Donald Trump in the eleven-year-old video released yesterday,” he began. “I do not condone his remarks and cannot defend them.”
As long as men continue to angle women’s experiences in relation to their own, women will continue to feel misunderstood
All hail fatherhood – the watershed moment for women’s rights! What would feminism do without it? It’s hard to ignore the possessive enlightenment of the “I have daughters” response, in spite of the good intentions that might accompany the condemnation. Understanding sexual boundaries, championing women’s rights or, while we’re at it, expressing abhorrence at sexual assault, shouldn’t hinge on a man’s personal relationship to any woman – daughter, mother, sister, girlfriend or wife. Paternal prefaces in response to sexism or sexual assault says one thing before anything else: it matters more because my DNA is involved. It deflects from the sheer scale and magnitude of a violent reality that affects thousands of women every day.
I wasn’t the only one who grimaced reading Damon’s statement; Twitter collectively groaned, too. As Vulture staff writer E. Alex Jung joked, "I have a daughter" is getting up there with "thoughts and prayers". The jibes didn’t stop there. '"As the father of 25 daughters, I'm starting to think women might actually be people,” another tweeter quipped. English actor Samuel West joined in with a gag of his own. “Now I have daughters, I'm fed up with men saying "I have daughters, so this matters to me",” he tweeted before making a serious point to his followers. “Stop treating women by their relation to you; that's the problem. Just don't fucking sexually assault them. It's a pretty low bar.”
The gold medal for satire, however, goes to the New Statesman this morning. ‘While I feel no empathy for women at the moment, I believe that this would change were I to produce female offspring of my own,’ wrote Jonn Elledge. ‘That is because my daughter would not simply be a woman: she would be my own, miniature woman, grown from the seed of the homunculi which lie waiting in my loins.’
Jokes aside, as long as men continue to angle women’s experiences in relation to their own, women will continue to feel misunderstood. As Hunter Harris succinctly put it in a Vulture piece this week: ‘You don’t need a daughter to feel guilty about working with a man who preys on young women, or about not acting to stop him. You just need a conscience.’
Take the “I” and the “my” out of the equation, guys. Think about what you’re really saying. And start again.