It has been more than a week since a helicopter crash claimed the lives of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, 41, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others. To lose Kobe so horrifically and so soon doesn’t make sense.
As reflections and tributes poured in, people somehow found language to articulate our collective pain and disbelief. Perhaps one of the most powerful came from ESPN anchor Elle Duncan as she reflected on the first time she met Kobe. Duncan shared that Kobe was elated to learn she was pregnant with a baby girl. Kobe loved being a girl dad to his four daughters and, though painful, there was consolation found in knowing his final moments were spent fiercely loving and protecting Gianna.
Duncan’s reflection, accompanied by hashtag #GirlDad, went viral with fathers and daughters posting moments together. In a moving tribute to Kobe and his beloved Gigi, the photos and videos reminded us of the joy found in the daddy-daughter bond.
Yet, no matter how beautiful it was to see #GirlDad trend, it was hard. For many women, it was accompanied by the sting that we were not raised by girl dads. For whatever reason, our fathers chose to abandon their responsibilities. Attending high school with my older half-brother, I painfully endured seeing my father at his games while he moved through life as if I never existed. Thinking of how well Kobe’s daughters and so many other daughters around the world are loved can be hard and, collectively, many daughters of absent fathers felt that weight each time they scrolled past a girl dad post.
Parents are supposed to be there for their children and, no matter how old that child is, a parent’s absence will always be an open wound. While many of us are hurting for the daughters who lost their fathers in that tragic accident, we are also pained by the reality that many of our fathers are alive and choose to be dead to us. Grief is complicated in that regard and loss has a way of amplifying other losses. #GirlDad was a painful reminder of what many already don’t have and being without it isn’t their fault.
Then, there were the girl dad posts that were absolutely confusing. Necessary side-eyes were given to the fathers some know are deadbeats who refused to be left out of the moment. Then, I saw so many others don the sacred title of girl dad who are simply not that. Yes–they have daughters and they may even be an active presence. But they are not girl dads.
When Kobe proudly identified as such, it wasn’t just because he was the father of four girls. It was because he was actively working to make the world better for his daughters and other girls. It went beyond his commitment to youth sports and the WNBA. It was evidenced in his meeting with Black Lives Matter and women’s rights activists to learn how he could use his platform to amplify necessary causes. It was evidenced in his interviews where he joked about being outnumbered in his house but was serious when he discussed listening to his wife and daughters about the times he’d missed the mark. It was evidenced in his public refusal to suggest he needed a son to carry on his legacy. Kobe Bryant is a girl dad because he was doing everything he could to make this world a much less sexist and patriarchal place, and he was starting with himself.
Not every father with a daughter is a girl dad. That distinction is reserved for those who are actively working to dismantle forces that seek to place limits on what girls can do and who they can become. They are not fathers who see feminism as a dirty word. Rather, they are raising feminists who will hold even them accountable when their actions betray the world their daughters long to see. Girl dads don’t recoil when they hear the words “toxic masculinity.” Instead, they decenter themselves and listen to people who have been marginalized so they can create more just and equitable worlds.
Some argued a girl dad just has to be a father with daughters. I disagree. Some of the best ones I know also have sons who they are raising to be better men. I consider a girl dad to be any father who is doing the work of justice, pushing past the comforts of their own masculinity to learn and unlearn, to heal and help heal in ways their daughters, other girls and women directly benefit. A girl dad isn’t perfect but he is trying and the fruits of his labor are ripe and visible.
We may spend the rest of our lives trying to wrap our minds around losing Kobe this way. As fans continue to grieve and look for ways to honor what Bryant meant to them, perhaps those of them who are fathers could commit to becoming true girl dads—to do the work to become the men their daughters and this world need.