June 18, 2021

What kind of person drives their child relentlessly towards success? According to the cliché, a female person — a “tiger mom”. She’s Reese Witherspoon in Little Fires Everywhere, bullying her daughter into orchestra practice; she’s Kirstie Alley in Drop Dead Gorgeous, offing the competition so her daughter can become pageant queen; in reality TV, she’s Kris Jenner, “momager” supreme of the Kardashian megacorp, and she’s also Jenner’s daughters, momaging their own offspring in turn.

Men are barely part of the picture. Ask Google what a “dadager” is, and the first result is the definition of “momager”. Ask it about “tiger dads”, and it wonders whether you might mean golfer Tiger Woods’s actual dad. “Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs. Worthington,” Noel Coward advised: Mr Worthington apparently did not need to be told. Maybe the assumption is that a father would never inflict such pressure on a child. After all, raising children is the woman’s job, and she’s supposed to crack on with it quietly. We make so much more fuss about Mother’s Day than Father’s Day — which is this coming Sunday, not that anyone will notice — perhaps because dads are still seen as supporting acts to mothers, the primary carers (who are always to blame when things go wrong).

But men do, obviously, get involved in their children’s careers. Tiger Woods’s actual dad is one example: he was coaching his son from practically the moment he could toddle. A high-level golfer himself, he knew what making it as a pro would mean for his son, whereas other fathers only get deeply involved when the glory begins. That’s the version of Mitch Winehouse that’s presented in the 2015 documentary Amy: a father who left the family home when the star was a child, reappearing as her career took off to become her effective second manager — and take control of her finances.

It’s a version that Mitch himself has rejected, complaining to an interviewer that the film was “trying to portray me in the worst possible light”. The fact that Amy died in 2011 as a result of alcohol poisoning raises the stakes for his reputation. Was he a caring father doing his best in an impossible situation, or one of the many who profited from Amy while neglecting her wellbeing?

His own book about her is really a long-form testimony for his own defence. All the same, Mitch did OK from his status as “Amy’s dad”. He got to travel the world in her entourage and manage her bank accounts — and writes in his book that “she and I knew that I needed to stop her frittering her money away”. He also got his own portion of fame with a TV series and a record deal. But all this success derived from his daughter.

Tyler James, Amy’s best friend, is at pains in his new memoir My Amy to give Mitch all possible credit and stress how much Amy loved him (remember, she had “Daddy’s girl” tattooed on her bicep). But he also describes Mitch hoping to film Amy for his own documentary, regardless of her reluctance to be involved. Mitch pressing Amy to sign autographs for fans and be in photos, even though she doesn’t want to. Mitch lavishly announcing “we’ll get that” when James is booking his flights. (“I’d think, No, you won’t be getting it Mitch — Amy’s getting it,” writes James. “It wasn’t his money and it did my head in for years.”) Mitch, enjoying every moment of the celebrity that was manifestly tearing his daughter apart.

The most generous thing James can say about Mitch at these moments is this: “He was so caught up in her success I felt like he didn’t see his daughter for who she was anymore, and maybe not even himself.” Within the Winehouse machine, it seems like Mitch lost sight of Amy as an individual. She was just the raw material that supplied the mini-industry around her. Still, no record industry pro came any closer to saving Amy than cab-driver Mitch did. None of the seasoned experts in dealing with substance abuse were any more effective in their interventions.

It is unfortunate that Mitch is fixed forever in that line from “Rehab” where Amy explains she won’t be going because “My daddy says I’m fine.” Mitch accepts that he said this, but “as we carried on talking, though, I saw the other side” — that is, the side he ended up contracted to make a documentary about. His TV series was on families affected by addiction, and he writes that he “wanted the public to know about the heartaches and dilemmas that such people live with.”

Which presumably seemed a good reason to try to get footage of his alcoholic daughter relapsing. God knows life with an addict is impossible, but it’s hard to reconcile Mitch’s apparently simultaneous beliefs that Amy was well enough to tour while also being sick enough to anchor a whole series on the topic of substance abuse. The one thing that unites both positions, though, is the fact that they made money, which has a marvellous power to dissolve scruples.

If Mitch seems at best naive in retrospect, the most extreme charge against Jamie Spears is the opposite: that he has wilfully run his daughter’s life to his own benefit. Britney is still fighting a legal battle to have her father permanently removed from the conservatorship that has controlled her personal, professional and financial life since her 2008 breakdown. How Jamie came to hold this central role in his daughter’s life is an interesting question in itself, given that (according to the documentary Framing Britney Spears) he was largely absent from her childhood, with her mother doing most of the career running.

But after 2008, it was Jamie who scooped Britney up off the floor and got her back in money-making shape. He set her up with a Vegas residency that made her (and by extension, him) wildly well-off — and which continued until she abruptly announced her “indefinite hiatus” in 2019. Among the #freebritney contingent of her fans, who believe she is being controlled by her father, her withdrawal from work is read as an act of resistance after a lifetime of being treated as a puppet. Her attorney has told the court that she’s “afraid” of her father, and won’t return to work until he’s no longer in control of her career.

Jamie’s not the only dadager who’s ended up putting an axe through his golden goose. If Thora Birch’s career trajectory had continued from where it was 20 years ago, she’d be one of the most famous actresses in the world: American Beauty, Ghost World. But in 2010, her ex-porn-star father got her fired from an off-Broadway play by allegedly interfering in the production, threatening other actors for touching her per direction, and poking his head through windows on the set. She didn’t have another significant role till The Walking Dead in 2020.

And no one can outdo Thomas Markle when it comes to grifting from your own child: here’s a man who has faked paparazzi photos and sold private correspondence to get a slice from his daughter Meghan’s success in marrying into the royal family. It didn’t matter that she firmly held him at arm’s length. His logic seemed to be that she was his, and he felt entitled to his portion from her. Any boundary she set, he saw as a betrayal. Any infraction he committed was only what a loving father would do. No wonder she didn’t want him walking her down the aisle. He gave her away a long time ago.

It’s a question of possession. Some fathers still treat their children as an extension of themselves, regardless of how post-feudal the rest of the world becomes. When a woman takes the tiger role, she’s being ambitious through her children, and ambition in a woman is always suspect. When it’s a man involving himself in his child’s career, though, he’s merely exercising his patriarchal rights — something he’s apparently entitled to do even if, as in most of the examples, he wasn’t around for much of the actual childhood bit.