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When dads own their daughters Women are blamed for their offspring; men feel entitled to their success

Mitch Winehouse admitted to spending too much of his daughter's money. Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images for NARAS

Mitch Winehouse admitted to spending too much of his daughter's money. Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images for NARAS


June 18, 2021   5 mins

What kind of person drives their child relentlessly towards success? According to the clichĂ©, 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.


Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.

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A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago

What on earth did I just read?
To save others time I’ll abridge it:
“Amy Winehouse’s dad tried to profiteer from her, so did Britney’s and ooh look Meghan Markles dad does too. These three cases of extraordinarily abnormal individuals prove that only fathers behave like this not any mothers. Ever. Men are medieval b@stards”

Last edited 3 years ago by A Spetzari
A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

I’d like to add – I’m not just being facetious. This could have been a decent article about how some parents have an overbearing effect on their children, whilst others have a more positive effect. Perhaps contrasting Lewis Hamilton and Andy Murray (who’s mum has been criticised in the past, perhaps unfairly).
But it doesn’t, it just bangs on the all too familiar drum that the author likes whacking. Men are bad…men are bad…bom bom bom.

Last edited 3 years ago by A Spetzari
Al M
Al M
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

It’s basically a list article: Top Three Female-Celebrity Father Sh!t$ might have been a more accurate title. As you say, little insight and no contrast.
How about Andy Farrell as a counterpoint? Young man (and woman) take responsibility for their unplanned pregnancy. Young man has successful sporting career and the son captains a national team. But they’re both men so nothing to see.

Last edited 3 years ago by Al M
Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

“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.”
Some women have a big problem with accountability.

parkalot01
parkalot01
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

“Journalism” has become personal opinion in “journalistic” form

George Glashan
George Glashan
3 years ago

“no one can outdo Thomas Markle when it comes to grifting from your own child” well the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree as the marvellous Mrs Markle has made a mint out of getting a sprog out of the spare heir

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  George Glashan

Yeah, but that is an example of erm.. female empowerment.

J Bryant
J Bryant
3 years ago

I’m tempted to research the internet for counter examples to the author’s thesis that dads are deadbeat grifters preying on their successful daughters. I suppose Haley Reinhardt would be one example. She appears to have a rock solid relationship with her father who is also an amateur musician.
But, really, this article seems to start from a tried-and-true (though cliched) conclusion, that men are bums, and seeks to find some examples that apply to the fathers of famous female musicians. Perhaps the best I can do is refer the author to Tom Chivers’ book on statistics (which he relentlessly hawks on Unherd) to introduce her to the concept of a statistically meaningful sample size.

Last edited 3 years ago by J Bryant
Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Sadly this a frequent issue with this authors articles.
Too often “red-meat for the bubble dwellers” but not good enough for independent minds.
Maybe a similar version is heading to the Guardian web site soon 


Last edited 3 years ago by Ian Barton
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Andy Murray springs to mind as does Paul Dirac

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
3 years ago

No wonder the author signs off promptly after mentioning Thomas Markle. A man who raised his daughter, paid for her school fees, took her transatlantic holidays and who paid off her student. And who was then cut out of her life when his daughter felt she had found her millionaire prince. Who has never seen his only grandchildren. That is the context in which his actions should be seen.

Al M
Al M
3 years ago

‘No wonder the author signs off promptly after mentioning Thomas Markle.’

Probably written the requisite number of words, so time to file copy.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
3 years ago

What this article inadvertently stumbles upon is that even though mothers are typically much more integral to the child’s wellbeing and upbringing, especially in early years, ambition and discipline invariably comes from the father. Which is why we have predictable outcomes with communities where 80% of fathers are missing, and why practically every known civilisation is a patriarchy.
It’s something I see with my daughter and other kids as well – it is far more likely the father who is pushing the child to be competitive and the one who makes sure the kid knows her boundaries (which is different from being cross or angry, or shouting at her, setting boundaries requires you to be calm, composed and strict)

Last edited 3 years ago by Samir Iker
A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Steady on there – you’re in danger of implying that children might learn differing but complementary lessons from both of their parents. And that it pays to have a balance.
Begone demon!

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

So if the dad takes an interest in his daughter’s career she’s being exploited and he’s deeply wicked, whereas if a woman does the same, she is disgracefully maligned by nobody the write can name, but is in fact a saint.
The stupid is strong in this one.

Suzanne P
Suzanne P
3 years ago

I think that there are plenty of examples in history of BOTH Stage Mom’s and Dad’s that can be cherry-picked to suit a narrative. I do think that it is a stretch to include Thomas Markle as an example of such a parent. From all accounts he was a loving and supportive father who stayed very much involved in MM’s raising even after his divorce from Doria – in fact Meghan came to live with him around age 12/13 when for some reason Doris was unavailable. Her school friends talk about him donating his time to build the sets for her school plays throughout high school and he footed the bill for her college education at Northwestern (despite her efforts to reframe herself as someone who put herself through school). Thomas Markle has absolutely made some poor decisions since Meghan and Harry’s engagement was announced, but this seems the result of him being somewhat manipulated by both the his elder daughter and the press for their own reasons. How is it that Meghan and Harry hadn’t flown to see her father before the romance was well known so he could meet Harry? Why did they leave and elderly retired man living on a fixed-income, who had never been in or sought the spotlight prior to the his daughter’s engagement to a member of the RF, unprepared and unprotected as the press descended once the engagement was announced? Whatever category you put Mitch Winehouse or Jamie Spears in as Dad-Managers, the Markle situation is not remotely the same.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
3 years ago
Reply to  Suzanne P

Did not old Meg On complain about being abandoned to a malicious press

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
3 years ago

Another in a long line of articles from Unherd’s female contributors casting men, all men presumably, in as poor a light as possible.
Ms Bindel, Ms Ditum and even the brilliant Ms Harrington to some degree appear to use their columns to articulate a seething hostility towards men, all men presumably, predicated usually on a few arbitrary instances of unbridled patriarchy/chauvinism, from which they extrapolate a general, but indelible and evil flaw in the male character.
As someone pointed out below, one could without much effort furnish an equal number of counter examples, proving the opposite point. (Murray, etc..)
Domineering mothers are not just a fiction invented by sexist or inadequate males.
Look, we’re all aware of the rather taught relations between the sexes at the current time, brutally exposed by the #MeToo movement, and the meteoric rise to the top of the cultural agenda of trans issues.
But does the tone always have to be so hostile, so confrontational and so emphatically unequivocal in its condemnation of the male species?
How many articles has Unherd commissioned offering a less than flattering perspective on a number of typically feminine characteristics or traits?
Or has the battle of the sexes now been reframed immutably into the modish oppressor and victim narrative, from which there is no redemption?
Is there anything about men your female contributors actually like?
Or put another way, is there anything about men they do not actively despise?

Last edited 3 years ago by Eddie Johnson
Al M
Al M
3 years ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

Did you mean Mary Harrington’s article yesterday, which I read as transferring the idea of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks” to a particular set of virtue signalling men? Seemed to me there was no animosity towards your average chap whatsoever. I also agreed with her take on jogging from a wee while back. Great columnist, as you acknowledge.

As for Bindel, I recall she suggested locking us all up in a theme park with white vans to drive round in, but no porn or fighting allowed and wardens (precisely whom?) to keep us in check. May have been a facetious comment on her part, but I won’t contest that one with you.

Last edited 3 years ago by Al M
Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
3 years ago

Well, why don’t we all just stipulate that men are garbage and then stop putting out articles like this.

Me The first
Me The first
3 years ago

Very odd article

D Ward
D Ward
3 years ago

I worked closely with Amy’s cousin when she was at the height of her fame and at the time she died. I never got any sense that her father was exploiting her.

Al M
Al M
3 years ago

Whatever happened to ‘I blame the parents’?

Last edited 3 years ago by Al M
Jorge Espinha
Jorge Espinha
3 years ago

Parents that pimp their children either for showbiz or sports’ careers are creeps, practically with no exceptions.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
2 years ago

It would be interesting to read the post-Raducanu rewrite of this piece.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
3 years ago

Women have been denied career opportunities for most of history. Many therefore lived vicariously through their sons. These women wanted their sons to succeed where they had been denied the opportunity to try to succeed. For a generation or so, this extended to mothers living vicariously through their daughters. The daughters entering education and careers found that they were welcomed where the door had been closed to their own mothers. These women deserve sympathy, even when they forced their children into making wrong decisions. So too do the fathers who appreciated that their children had a rare talent and took sufficient control for their children to realise their potential. Even if at times they took their eye off their children’s welfare.
I don’t know enough to speak about either Mitch Winehouse or Jamie Spear. However, it would only be fair to ask what would have happened to both Amy and Britney had their fathers stayed absent. A singer doesn’t need a music contract, let alone a hit record, to die of a drug overdose in Camden Town. Britney seemed a total mess and the mother who was happy for virginity to be a commodity offered no help. The more pertinent questions to be asked of Mitch and Jamie was whether their daughters’ drug addiction and mental problems had an origin in their absence from their daughters’ lives prior to their success.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
3 years ago

Interestingly, all those millions of women working today appear rather keen to avoid opportunities in careers which were common pre 20th century or derived from those.

Plenty of women in media, teaching, or medical Jobs, very few in mining, truck driving or infantry soldiers in Iraq.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 years ago

Men mostly don’t get much choice about the extent of their absence from their daughters’ lives these days: that’s a decision that we entrust to the girls’ mothers instead.

Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
3 years ago

I’m not sure why all the commenters here think that Ms Ditum is suggesting that these examples are typical of fathers in general, or that women are never culpable in controlling their famous offspring. She is surely providing some counter examples to the typical stereotype of the ambitious mother.

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  Hilary Easton

“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.”
Thus I read the article very differently. As just another variation on a well-rehearsed theme – one which virtually all female writers at UnHerd rework continually.
Have you ever read an article here criticising, or better said, focusing on aspects of the female character or patterns of behaviour which are perhaps less than ideal?
I’m not asking for balance, but perhaps a brief respite from this relentless onslaught.

Last edited 3 years ago by Eddie Johnson