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'Mamma Mia!' Is a Poignant Celebration of Dads

The 2008 hit "Mamma Mia" shatters expectations of the nuclear family and teaches us there is no singular way to practice unconditional love.

by Noa Azulai
Jul 19 2018, 6:45pm

By Leila Ettachfini

The movie opens with an eerie shadow guiding a boat across a vast body of water to some mysterious other side. The blue and black twilight invites the glitter of the overwhelming amount of stars in the Greek sky. As a version of ABBA’s “I Have a Dream” plays in the background, a young woman places three letters addressed to three different men in a mailbox. If this scene doesn’t immediately clue you into the story that unfolds in the 2008 hit Mamma Mia!, let me remind you: One of these three men is the young woman’s father, but she doesn’t know which one. And none of them know that she even exists.

It’s been 10 years since Mamma Mia! made us fall in love with ABBA all over again (and its sequel, aptly titled Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again hits theaters this Friday!). The original musical featuring songs by the 70s Swedish pop group follows the lives of Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and her mom Donna (Meryl Streep), the latter of whom single-handedly owns and operates a quaint hotel on the discreet island of Kalokairi, Greece. Sophie is getting married there, and when her two best friends arrive on the island, she confesses to pulling some serious sneaky daughter shit: After finding her mom’s old diary, which contains the names of three men who may be her father, Sophie has invited all of her possible dads to the wedding—without telling Donna.

Mamma Mia! has a seemingly endless list of feminist-approved qualities. A sex-positive, business-owning, singing and dancing single mom raises her free-spirited and confident 20-year-old daughter—and, along with the help of her lifelong friends, empowers her child to make her own choices in life. The film sweetly explores the realities of being a single mother: close friends become family in the absence of a partner, and mother-child relationships tip-toe over to the realm of best friendship. If there’s any movie that screams—or, well, sings really loudly—”GIRL POWER,” it’s Mamma Mia!

In honor of this heartwarming tale of an unconventional family built on love and open-mindedness, I thought it was only fair to highlight some of the story’s less-recognized gems: Sophie’s dads. Her relationship with her three possible-fathers shows us that family is not determined by blood. Family can be chosen, love can be non-hierarchical, and each person we choose to embrace brings unique qualities that enrich our relationships and lives.

When Donna learned that she was pregnant with Sophie 20 years earlier, she got kicked out of her home. She started her own business, raised a daughter, and never bothered to figure out which of her three summer romances—Sam, Bill, or Harry—had resulted in a child. The possible fathers left the island before Sophie was even born, so when all three men returned for her wedding, Donna is confused, frustrated, and fragile.

“Am I getting this right?” Sam asks in the middle of Sophie’s wedding when the truth emerges. “Sophie may be mine, but she may be Bill’s or Harry’s?”

“Don’t get all self-righteous,” Donna replies, in classic Donna fashion. “Because you have no one but yourself to blame.”

Suddenly, Harry steps up to the altar: “It’s great to even have a third of Sophie,” he says. “I didn’t think I’d get even that much of a child.” After this, Bill joins them, and the three stand together behind Sophie as she prepares to take her vows.

When Sophie’s three fathers enter her life, she feels uncertain about her future. Though she’s getting ready to marry a man she undoubtedly loves, she questions whether she’s rushing into one of the biggest commitments of her life. As she spends more time with her dads, her relationships with them deepen, and they each offer her help to ensure she lives a life full of adventure, autonomy, trust, and love. Bill, a sailor and travel writer, reminds Sophie that she’s only 20 years old, and encourages her to fulfill her dreams of seeing the world before settling down. Sam, still in love with Donna, releases Sophie from her obligations of continuing her mother’s business on the island by promising to support Donna both financially and emotionally. And Harry, a lover of dogs, reveals his regret about never having children, telling Sophie he would have “spoiled them rotten.” Each of Sophie’s dads bring something unique to her life, and together, they shatter the culturally ingrained expectation of the “nuclear family” that used to leave Sophie feeling like she was always missing something.

As Sophie’s quest to get to know her “real” dad deepens, she’s given the option of a DNA test—but she refuses after realizing that it doesn’t really matter whom she’s related to by blood.

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By the end of the film, all three dads agree and come to the same conclusion—after meeting Sophie and coming to love her as their own, Sam marries Donna, Harry comes out, and Bill continues his quest for romance. Each man is as much Sophie’s father as the next one, and would never selfishly rob each other of that gift because of something as silly as DNA.

Mamma Mia! is a story about family that refuses to stick to any one narrative about what it means to love unconditionally. It emphasizes the value of choice and the importance of ensuring that young women have the power to decide their futures. It’s a celebration of the strength, flexibility, and fluidity of parenthood. The perfect musical makes space to explore the roles of fathers in our lives—whether we have none, one, or many in the picture—and emphasizes that each of those experiences is valid and valuable. With that, I wish you a very happy Daddy Dia!