As a curious new (half) lesbian, I decided to do some research into lesbian cultures by reading lesbian erotica. There is much to be learned about gender performance and pleasure, although one must remember that erotica, like pornography, is fiction not fact. Still, from the stories hidden under my bed I am discovering the sensibilities of queerness, and there is one theme whose repeated presence in stories of women surprises me: the longing for “Daddy.”
I guess I vaguely knew that “Daddy” can be a sexual word. Straight couples might like it for its power implications. Queer men use it too, as in “leather daddy.” But it surprised me to see how prevalent this word is within stories that feature only women. This gendered, parental word can describe a woman with a masculine gender presentation, a woman who calls the shots, and as it clear from the frequency of its use in these stories, the word carries quite a charge.
It certainly makes me react. My response to the word is so potent, in fact, that I have felt compelled to examine its meaning in my life. What accounts for this word’s power? Why does its use in erotic contexts make me feel simultaneously excited and resentful? Why is the “longing for Daddy” so common and so deep? This has been on my mind for some time, and I must admit that, for me, it is a difficult subject about which to write. As a feminist, I feel like admitting I like the word is a betrayal of my dedication to women’s empowerment. But as I explore my own psychology in preparation for graduate studies in human psychology, I think I finally have some clarity about this that is worth sharing.
I would like to propose that the longing for Daddy in our culture is a direct result of the absence or scarcity of compassionate fatherhood in most of our lives. Even if a father or father figure was not entirely absent, an emotional distance often characterizes the father/child relationship because of the social constructs of gender and parental roles. So in my life, for example, my father was present but his tenderness toward me was limited due to boundaries established by my mother and by accepted cultural standards of men’s roles in families. (Dad, in case you’re reading this and dear God I hope you’re not, I don’t blame you.)
Examining the “Daddy” phenomenon in this way allows me to move away from the vulnerable and child-like place where the word can bring me and into my comfort zone: feminist theory. The personal is political, after all, and I know my life does not exist in a vacuum. My experiences of both childhood and parenthood are shaped by the notions that we as a culture perpetuate about the roles of men and women in families. And for all the progress we women have made by entering the “public sphere,” equality of the sexes still feels like a distant goal because things are so slow to change in the “private sphere.” In homes across America, children are growing up without fathers, or with partially absent fathers, or with fathers who consider their parental role to consist of providing rather than emotional connection. Mothers, even with our participation in the workforce, are still most often the primary givers of engaged and compassionate nurturing in children’s lives. Like me, we have to become Superwomen, capable of juggling all of these responsibilities while our children’s fathers are praised to the heavens for “helping around the house” or “babysitting” their own children.
I’m sorry; do I sound a little resentful here? My bad. I am a single mom so this subject hits home quite literally. Even in two parent households, though, this trend is upheld by both men and women, as this offbeat mama blogger discusses.
I don’t want to come across as hostile toward men because in all honesty I am not. My diligent efforts to find and cultivate relationships with good men have been and continue to be successful. I know men who “get it” and I know wonderfully devoted and attentive fathers. Thank goodness for those good men I know. They have restored my faith that we, as a people, are getting closer to that place where we all recognize one another’s humanity with compassion.
Nonetheless, I believe examining the impact of society’s undervaluing of fatherhood is of fundamental importance to the feminist movement and the wellbeing of all people. I cannot state strongly enough, in fact, that I believe this is the missing piece of the feminist revolution. As problematic as the label “feminist” can be sometimes, I will never call myself or this world “postfeminist” until fatherhood is valued equally with motherhood. And in case you haven’t noticed in your own life, the lives of those around you, or in the cultural narratives of our time, we aren’t even close to achieving this goal.
Let’s take the cultural narrative of Six Feet Under, for example, which happens to be one of my favorite shows of all time. I tend to think of this show as uniquely realistic, featuring complex story lines, multi-dimensional characters, and a spiritual message about appreciating life. I have watched the entire series many times over simply because the characters are so real to me that I actually miss them! Brenda especially always intrigued me because she is brilliant, empowered, and “unapologetically sexual,” three qualities you rarely find in female television characters. While I praise the show’s producers for the diverse cast of flawed but loveable characters, I realized recently that Brenda’s story line throughout the series is one of pathology, punishment, and sacrifice. Her “unapologetic sexuality” becomes a story of sex addiction that ruins her relationships. Meanwhile, the Nate character impregnates another woman, and upon learning of it gets to decide whether to be a present father. After much soul-searching, Nate chooses fatherhood and, thank goodness he does, because the child’s mother dies. Nate reunites with Brenda and she unquestioningly inherits the motherhood role and then she and Nate have a child of their own. When Nate dies in season five, the show’s dramatic climax, Brenda is left a single mother with two children, one of whom is not biologically her own. The sexual woman is now the sole provider of care for two little human beings.
In reflecting on this in finally hit me: Devaluing fatherhood upholds the virgin/whore dichotomy that keeps women’s sexuality oppressed. Women are expected to be chaste, virginal, the gate-keepers of sex while men are expected to constantly seek sex. This tired construct just won’t break down even as women in droves and even men too try to dismantle it and illuminate its absurdity. But the fact remains that when pregnancy results from sex, it is most often the woman whose life is forever dramatically altered, and not necessarily the man’s (or at least not to the same extent.) Do you see what I’m saying here? Until pregnancy means for men what it means for women (i.e. A LIFETIME OF ENGAGED PARENTHOOD), society will continue to place the responsibility of sexual inhibition squarely on women’s shoulders.
I guess I am a lot like Brenda. I am smart (brilliant?), empowered, and I do not apologize for my sexuality. When I conceived my daughter, it was on purpose and it was a mutual decision with her father. But her father, for reasons I will not disclose here, has not yet chosen to be a present, engaged, and compassionate parent in our daughter’s life. He is not entirely absent, but he is not taking ownership of the parental role in the same way that I am.
So let me tell you a secret. I believe whole-heartedly that this is his loss. Granted, I have moments of resenting how hard I have to work to maintain all that is on my plate. But those moments are far outnumbered by moments when I realize that having a child makes my life make sense. I am showered with more unconditional love than anybody I know, and my sense of purpose is stronger than ever. As my daughter grows up, I am awestruck at the wisdom she brings to my life. I see her personality develop and I relish in my role of providing a safe nest for her from which to embark on adventures, a framework from which she can understand her world, a cheer of support as she cultivates her numerous talents. While people around me struggle with depression and existential crises, and even while I have my ups and downs, my grounding in motherhood never falters and I am, at my core, profoundly happy.
Undervaluing fatherhood is a spiritual loss for men. It is nothing short of tragic that so many are deprived of the responsibility and accompanying privilege of engaged and compassionate parenthood. We need to do better.
Undervaluing fatherhood is a deep, painful loss for children too. I bear witness to my daughter trying to understand why her father is not more present, and it makes my heart ache. She longs for her daddy because, in her fragile developing psychology, he holds the power to validate and comfort her. Deprived of the emotional connection with him that she craves, she must learn to live with unmet need, a hole in her heart.
That place of vulnerability, craving for validation and approval, desire for affection and connection from the person who represents authority and love… that’s where the word “Daddy” can take me. It can make me feel the unmet need, the hole in my heart that started in childhood and is masked by an extensive array of defenses in my adult mind. Used in a moment of submission, it can cut through the armor and touch a nerve that, I believe, is shared among many across our culture as a symptom of an endemic scarcity of compassionate fatherhood.
Does knowing this make me feel less conflicted about the word “Daddy”? Yes and no. The word still makes me very uncomfortable because, frankly, I feel a whole lot safer with my armor on. But at least I can allow myself freedom from feminist guilt now that I understand the word’s power as a symptom of a not-yet-postfeminist society. I can appreciate how erotica conjures the contents of our deepest psychological impulses and plays with them, flips them around, and harnesses them for pleasure. And since I am smart, empowered, and unapologetically sexual, I can enjoy it if I want to.