The world was waiting for Matt Damon to address the scandal that had enveloped Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul who had helped launch his career, and the A-lister chose his words carefully.
“As the father of four daughters,” Damon said in an interview this week, “this is the kind of sexual predation that keeps me up at night.”
It may have sounded familiar — and not just because there have been a lot of sexual harassers to denounce lately.
“As the father of three daughters,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pronounced a year ago, as the then-Republican nominee for president was exposed on tapes bragging about groping women, “I strongly believe that Trump needs to apologize directly to women and girls everywhere.”
“As the father of three daughters,” said Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera a few months earlier, after his company’s CEO, Roger Ailes, was accused by multiple women of sexual harassment, “I urge all who have been offended to reach out.”
Every catastrophe has its own cliches. We hunker down against a hurricane. We refuse to let the terrorists win. We offer thoughts and prayers. But even words that are well-intentioned can, after a few too many repetitions, begin to draw ire: Lawmakers who, in the wake of mass shootings, are quick to offer those “thoughts and prayers” via Twitter and Facebook have lately faced a backlash from some who say they’d rather see legislative action instead.
“When social media gives the opportunity for us all to express similar feelings in similar ways, people start to think that they are hollow,” said Peter Smudde, an Illinois State University professor of communications.
The sentiment of wanting to pray may be genuine, Smudde said, but the strong backlash to the phrase has made it not only a cliche, but a taboo. “As a father of daughters” seems headed for the same fate — and Damon quickly felt the blowback.
“Keep in mind that women are not only ‘wives’ and ‘daughters’ but also, in fact, people,” one Twitter user snipped on Wednesday, in a tweet that got 14,000 likes.
“Men only humanize women when things affect women in their lives,” said another.
For his critics, it wasn’t that Damon mentioned his kids. But because he denounced sexual violence and mentioned that he was a father in the same breath, it seemed to them he was denouncing sexual violence merely because he is a father.
“You don’t need a daughter to feel guilty about working with a man who preys on young women,” wrote Hunter Harris for New York magazine. “You just need a conscience.”
Mark Macias, a public-relations adviser who works in crisis management, puts it this way: Would you condemn racism with the preface, “As a person with a black friend . . .”?
“I am sure there are a lot of people who never spoke out [against Weinstein] and they might feel a little guilty, and this is their way of appeasing their conscience,” Macias said. “But you shouldn’t have to bring up proof that you can relate.”
Perhaps Damon’s words wouldn’t have gotten so much attention if they hadn’t been said so many times before. In the past few years, the cycle of powerful men being accused of sexual assault and abuse has played on repeat. Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes: an awful sense of deja vu sets in. In each case, the men were alleged to have used their influence to take advantage of — and then silence — women they encountered professionally.
The scandal that most brought out the daughter-mentioning was the disclosure of the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which future President Trump bragged about grabbing women’s genitals.
“Such vile degradations demean our wives and daughters and corrupt America’s face to the world,” Mitt Romney said.
“As the grandfather of two precious girls,” said Jeb Bush, “I find that no apology can excuse away Donald Trump’s reprehensible comments degrading women.”
Then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) made the reference even more vivid, saying he could not look his 15-year-old daughter in the eye and “endorse this person,” meaning Trump. Nineteen days later, though, he tweeted that while he wouldn’t endorse Trump, he would be voting for him.
Politics and intentions aside, research has shown that having a daughter can, in fact, change how a man treats other women. Studies have found that men with daughters are less attached to traditional gender roles; male CEOs with firstborn daughters pay their employees more; male judges with daughters are more likely to rule in favor of female plaintiffs in cases involving employment discrimination; and male venture capital managers with daughters hire more female partners.
All of these steps toward equality can be achieved, of course, without producing any offspring.
Take, for consideration, the advice of writer Anne Victoria Clarke, who in a post for Medium this week, promised one easy trick for men to make sure they are “treating women like people.” Just behave toward them like you would toward Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
“Simply,” Clarke suggested, “offer them the same respect, admiration, and healthy dose of fear you’d offer anyone who could completely destroy you should you deserve it.”