Last year, when former NFL kicker Jay Feely tweeted a photo of his arm around his daughter as she gazed adoringly up at him, her prom date standing uneasily on his other side, the internet nearly spontaneously combusted. The text: “Wishing my beautiful daughter and her date a great time at prom. #BadBoys.” In his right hand, he gripped a pistol.
The dad’s and the pistol’s message were unmistakable. And for those reacting at home, there was no such thing as middle ground: Either you thought it was a hilarious, all-in-good-fun spoof of the overprotective dad — and maybe even picked up that it was a reference to a scene in Bad Boys 2. If Reggie doesn’t have Megan home by 10:01, dad (Martin Lawrence) will be “in the car, locked, loaded and huntin’ your motherfuckin’ ass down,” he promises.
Or you thought it was a seriously disturbed joke about women as male property, casual gun violence or both.
Less clear is where this very image comes from in the first place. Pop culture is full of references in movies, TV shows, songs and memes of terrifying, overprotective fathers guarding their daughter’s innocence and sexual purity by any means necessary, overseeing her love life with a frightening lack of boundaries, with no clear origin story in sight.
Famously, it’s the entire premise of Meet the Parents, a comedy from 2000. The idea that dad Jack (Robert DeNiro) would use all the muscle of his former CIA operative skills to sniff out, terrorize and nearly kill off would-be son-in-law Gaylord (Ben Stiller) to find out whether his aim with his daughter is true requires no explanation. And a year earlier, in the 1999 comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, where the dad is so hypervigilant about protecting his daughter’s sexual purity, he makes her wear a vest mimicking the weight and discomfort of pregnancy. The list goes on: King Triton in The Little Mermaid, George Banks in Father of the Bride, Jack Houseman in Dirty Dancing.
You’re more likely to run into the shotgun-specific version in redneck lore. It’s all over country songs, namely the 2008 hit by Rodney Atkins called “Cleaning This Gun (Come On In Boy),” where a man who once stared down the gun of his date’s father reflects back on the experience as he prepares to clean his shotgun for his own daughter’s date. Now he’s afraid his daughter will find a guy with just one thing on his mind, which he understands all too well, because that was him, too. So it won’t be long before he’ll have to “put the fear of God into some kid at the door.”
A time-honored tradition, this is — men threatening each other with gun violence to protect female purity.
In fact, as far as back as 1950, Tennessee Ernie Ford was singing about the idea in “Shotgun Boogie,” about a fella who meets a woman who loves shooting up game as much as he does, until she mentions he’ll have to meet her father.
I sat down on a log, took her on my lap
She said, “Wait a minute, bub, you got to see my Pap
He’s got a 16-gauge choked down like a rifle
He don’t like a man that’s a-gonna trifle”
Shotgun Boogie, draws a bead so fine
Look out big boy, he’s loaded all the time
Well, I called on her Pap like a gentleman oughta
He said, “No brush hunter’s gonna get my daughter”
He cocked back the hammer right on the spot
When the gun went off, I outran the shot
Shotgun Boogie, I wanted wedding bells
I’ll be back little gal, when your pappy runs out of shells
We get it. This is what dads do. Maybe they go a little overboard sometimes, but it’s coming from a good place, right?
Prior to the early 1920s, a boy coming to the family home to express romantic interest in the family daughter wouldn’t have taken her out of the house anywhere to need such an explicit violent warning regarding her safety, or to set expectations for his future intentions with her. That’s because courtship took place in the home, usually the family parlor, under the watchful eye of the family.
But that soon changes. In From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth Century America, historian Beth L. Bailey notes that around the 1920s, with the advent of the automobile, women’s lib and urban growth, there’s a way to more consistently take a romantic prospect away from the home. (Before that, there were other methods — trains or carriages — but the car makes it much, much more convenient.)
There’s still some supervision at home in the parlor for a bit, perhaps with refreshments while the daughter plays piano, but it would have been overseen by mom and the daughter’s siblings, hopefully brothers if they existed. Dad was unlikely to be present at all. Bailey notes that the husband certainly determined the family’s status through his earning power, but he was excused from this ritual.
That’s not because he didn’t care, it’s because intention-setting on the gentleman caller’s part was shown in other ways that prevented riffraff from ever getting in the door. In other words, as Bailey notes, the selection process was so rigid, it would have been unlikely to need to scare a boy into proving he meant well. Basically, he was allowed to show up because he was from a good family that was well-known in the community. “Undesired or undesirable callers,” Bailey writes, “were simply given some excuse or turned away.”
So who needs a shotgun when you’ve already vetted the date?
As usual, class is everything here. While a farmer’s daughter could be called on by the son of the farmer next door, calling was more difficult for poor folk living in crowded homes with no front room, or with multiple people sharing bedrooms.
In many ways then, the lower classes drove dating to the public spaces — more or less out of necessity. And soon enough, the middle classes sought to enjoy and mimic the freedoms of young people from the lower classes who were less inclined to have the means or reputations to maintain such elaborate courting systems, and thus, had to find a good time on the streets.
At the same time this happens, men begin asking women out on dates (since they pay), a complete role reversal from women allowing men to call on them at home. Advice magazines are still warning women not to go out with any man who doesn’t call on her at home first, Bailey writes, but the times have already changed. When the date moves from the girl’s home to the man’s street, he calls the shots. So it only follows that this is when dad would be inclined to make his move, stepping in to see who’s whisking his daughter away, and possibly implementing his more efficient form of supervision from the porch with a loaded weapon.
Which brings us back to the 1960s, when references to dad buying a shotgun have moved past country songs and are appearing in major newspapers, already as “lighthearted” jokes. It is, however, unclear whether a father polishing a shotgun to scare a date has ever actually happened in seriousness, or whether it only exists in pop culture as an exaggeration. Even today, it’s still more boastful attitude than reality. Yet it’s also still pervasive, as a recent Reddit thread attests when it asks how men feel about the whole “‘Dad with a shotgun/My daughter isn’t dating till she’s 40/Boys beware I will fuck you up!’” attitude/trope a lot of fathers seem to have?”
“Amusing when it’s done in humor,” one comment reads. “Annoying when it’s serious.”
Seemingly in the serious camp, in 2018, the Republican candidate for governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, invoked the attitude when he tweeted that any man interested in dating his daughters would need a respect for women and an appreciation for the Second Amendment. (He won.) And a Navy SEAL recently demanded that any man intending to date his daughter prove he can “paint the house, rope a tornado and bottle a hurricane” before he even bother asking. (His daughter was just 2 years old.)
Women don’t always agree that this is so funny and/or sweet, though, as many not only find it utterly creepy, but also feel it reinforces female purity as the rightful property of fathers and husbands, and potentially normalizes aggressive behavior masquerading as concern or protection.
As for why men still lean on the trope — especially given that it’s losing more and more favor with women — in one piece online at Ravishly about the creep factor of the shotgun dad, a woman asked a psychotherapist to decode it on a more subconscious level. “The father with the shotgun is more afraid than sexually territorial,” the therapist told her. “He has the right protective instinct about rushing into sexual relationships, and he’s expressing it in a symbolic way. A young man needs an older man’s advice about boundaries in teenage love relationships and the shotgun symbolism gives it. It’s the un-nuanced way to say, ‘She’s too young for this, and I want to protect her until she’s more mature.’”
That’s an understandable impulse, it’s just clear that as the shotgun dad schtick is increasingly falling flat, fathers need a better way to go about this. It’s not intimidation the dates need, but instruction on how to treat women well.
There’s some evidence plenty of men go in that direction. For instance, after enumerating the ways in which he has been training since his daughter’s birth to kill the man who wants to date her, this man’s slam poetry entry on the overprotective father sounds like more of the same until he eventually gives way to the anxiety and fears that underpin it: “Love her. Befriend her. Protect her. … And we should get along just fine.”
Alternately, fathers can simply raise intelligent, level-headed daughters with good boundaries and then trust them to make their own choices, along with the space to make their own mistakes. No shotgun needed.