The Daddies is a love letter to masculinity, a kaleidoscope of its pleasures and horrors.
I hold masculinity in all the gentle forms I can find. I hold it in men and in women, I vote for it in politicians. I held my father’s hand while he was dying. I learned to adapt, as all who love will do.
I am constantly looking and it is no small task because Daddy has truly run amok. Daddy is the man in the charge, the guy making the rules, he is father and stepfather and overlord and big brother. He is she and he and we, so many places at once. Daddy is in the sky looking down on us and in the government and in the military. Daddy wants to keep us safe and give us love and more than anything Daddy wants power.
I have learned to adapt and because I have fallen hard for possibility, I am still in love with masculinity, but I am no longer in love with Daddy.
I’m supposed to call this a novel. I know that. A novel is a work of fiction but the lines between fiction and fact have blurred these days. A work of fiction can contain true stories, whatever “true” means in an era when memory is questioned (rightfully) as collective re-membering and memoir is really “wemoir” – the story of who we are as a culture. My students in a memoir class a few years back decided to use this word, “wemoir.” I don’t think they were wrong. So yes, if you want to call this a novel, you have my permission. It’s a novel in the way that Eileen Myles’ Chelsea Girls or Deb Busman’s Like a Woman is a novel, which is to say that it’s not, except when it is.
I’m worried about calling this book autoethnography in the same ways I’m worried about calling it a novel. Literary terms like “novel” create a certain type of distance from material – like the reality of the “characters” can be dismissed. Terms like auto-ethnography, grounded in process, method and theory seek to legitimize personal storytelling with a different kind of distance still. I recall a literature professor’s comment, back in 1998 when I was first touring my solo-performance The Butch/Femme Chronicles and discussing it at a university as “auto-ethnography.”
He said, “Why do you feel you have to do that? You’re making that script into social science when it doesn’t need to be. It’s just good writing. Let it be what it is.”
Let it be what it is. This is the issue, right? “What it is” is socially constructed. “What it is,” offers social analysis and an entreaty to action. The main reason I’m not interested in the word “memoir” to describe The Daddies is that it isn’t meta-enough. It isn’t about my life. It’s about my experiences, which are something both less than and more than my life. Fiction and truth curve around like the horizon and meet somewhere we can’t see. Magical realism even is the stuff of novels. I’ve been explaining my work as auto-ethnography for years in this way: Every story is about me, but I’m not the subject. The subject is culture, specific aspects of it that live and breathe through our personal lives. I’m a sociologist by training, I say in these explanations. Every writing teacher could have “show, don’t tell” tattooed on an arm, we write it so much on student papers, and yet, I am not just a writing teacher, a writer. I’m a cultural creator and critic. I will not forsake “tell.” I have something to tell.
In 1997 when I was first figuring out how to do my master’s thesis, I recall talking to Linda Shaw, my favorite professor at the time, later colleague and friend. She tolerated my musings and misgivings in the way professors do with students they find unusual. I have always been one of these unusual students and as a professor now who is frugal with her time for students, I understand what a gift she gave me. I was carrying on about ways of knowing and the deeply personal experiences I was having at a community-based research and organizing job, how it was messy, but shouldn’t that be the exact reason it’s important to write about the personal stuff? I mean, from a social interactionist perspective, shouldn’t we find that important? She handed me a copy of Carolyn Ellis’ Final Negotiations one day with a stern admonishment. “This is one of the most important contributions to sociological literature I’ve read lately. But I swear to god, if you try to hand in a thesis proposal using this kind of writing, I’ll kill you!” I read it that weekend while I was “supposed to be” reading other things. You can guess how I proposed (and wrote) that thesis.
I’m outlining the terms here because language is a proxy for meaning. That’s part of why social fictions work. And by work, I mean, operate, effect, influence, describe, seduce, entertain, and labor. The Daddies may also disgust or arouse. Maybe both. I’d like for the text to prompt more discussion about why we don’t discuss sex more often in the social sciences. Even solitary sex, in an image-driven culture, is a social act. After nearly a decade of performing artistic, auto-ethnographic scripts about gender, intra-gender gendering in particular (how gender is re-created within same sex and same gender groups) I realized I needed to discuss my sex life more than I’d been doing. One part of my head thought this was true. The other part said, what the hell? You’re not even an actor and now you want to be some kind of literary exhibitionist as well?
When I first started writing about sexuality in my performance work, I was no exhibitionist. I had to rehearse the meaning out of the words in order to perform them. Even simple words like “cunt” and “fuck” were hard for me to say on stage when my first show toured. By the time I wrote my 2009 release, Dykeotomy, I had come to believe it was a cop out not to move further into how gender operates, is created and reinforced in intimate sexual relationships.
What do we think we’re doing when we stop short of discussing the things people say and do in bed? I can answer that question because I’ve performed these shows on college campuses for many years now. Nearly every time I work with graduate students in Sociology and Performance Studies, colleagues implore me not to let students believe that they can write about sex primarily (whether auto-ethnographically or not) and expect to get a tenure-track job. What are we doing when we stop short in our analyses? We’re not doing responsible social science on some of the themes that influence culture the most: power and eros. We’re trying to keep jobs and bolster the credibility of our disciplines.
I’m taking the narrative route to tell you that this book is part novel, but also a biomythography – to use Audre Lorde’s term – because I hope I’m not leaving anything important out. It became clear to me that I didn’t want to make a life in the academy while writing that Master’s thesis exactly because I wanted to write about things that the academy might not find important. I wanted to have an impact in the broader culture. (And as time went on, I learned more reasons why the academy was not the place for me – thank you bell hooks.) It was equally clear to me that I couldn’t leave sociological ways of seeing and thinking and explaining behind. Arts-based research waxed significant after I’d been doing it for a while. My scholarly views and interests are interdisciplinary. I’m still worried that we’re trying to get away with something every time we forge an explanation about our work. I make art for general audiences. That could be enough said too, but I believe we have the human responsibility to create a better, more fair and equitable world, so that’s not enough either. I worry that we’re trying to get away from something when we try to get away with something. I don’t want my work to contribute to that deception or the inanity that accompanies it.
Here’s the thing. If I want to creatively reveal the culture in meaningful ways that lead to positive change (and I do), things have to get personal. How do we manage to talk about sex and gender and sexuality without talking about how we have sex? And who is protected by that decision not to discuss our current cultural, erotic patterns? Patriarchy is protected, for starters. As more women are coming out as abuse survivors in the #metoo era, it’s becoming clear to more people that our abuse is widespread. But what about the sex we choose and create? What about the ways in which “damage” begets creativity and then begets culture? We dare not ignore the erotic as a powerful font of creativity from which we form and respond to the world around us. And this brings me back to Audre Lorde, who understood this decades ago, and also struggled to find her way in the academy during her life, though her work is still revered by many, posthumously.
Biomythography was the genre given for Lorde’s book, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Numerous reviews refer to the book as a novel, autobiography or memoir. Biomythography highlights her use of myth, history and biography in an epic narrative form. One of the things I respect most about Lorde’s organization of her work was explicit naming. The Daddies uses personal narrative, news clips, “reviews” of other scholarly work and its relevance to the theme at hand: how we bring patriarchy into our private, emotional and erotic lives both to our detriment and as an expression of creativity, love and power. As Lorde has often been quoted, “The master’s tool will never demolish/dismantle the master’s house.” In The Daddies, I hope to spark dialogue about how this is true, and also how our creative erotic responses to those tools and masters may indeed dismantle the master in each of us and thereby in the culture at large.
The Daddies is an indictment of patriarchy and also a love letter to masculinity. It’s an intimate analysis of how gender hierarchy lives in our most personal interactions with our parents and lovers and patria. While focusing on what some might call a BDSM relationship, The Daddies shows how most people are complicit in re-creating gendered hierarchy, and how we might use a phenomenological understanding of gender to act and speak and create otherwise, in service of a fairer world.
The Daddies offers cultural analysis via critiques of pop-culture, television and news shows, etc. The references to articles and news shows here are real. I have used cultural analysis typical in qualitative methods and each is clearly referenced. For instance, the time-codes referenced in “The Purity Ball” section on Matt Launer’s interview offer a real analysis of that show’s manipulation of interviews and information. It’s just that the chapter is written from the perspective of the book’s “girl” character, rather than from the perspective of a scholar. This is similarly true with the “review” of Lakoff’s book in the “The President and the Metaphors” section. Throughout, this book is influenced by my training as a cultural analyst and also by my twenty-plus years teaching and working with students from high school age through adult as a performer and speaker (as well as in the classroom as a college professor). These audiences have taught me how to tell stories about culture that “land” legibly and stimulate meaningful dialogue.
The question, “Who’s your Daddy?” started showing up in mainstream cultural references during the 1990s. Those words can be spoken as a question, or a challenge, as a flirtation, a joke or a threat. It’s all about inflection, intention and who’s asking. Apparently, we have so much shared cultural meaning about “Daddy” the speakers and listeners can simply intuit meaning and proceed to laugh at the joke, or experience the shame, as appropriate.
But who is Daddy in American culture? The Daddies aims to find out more than who – but how the process of knowing Daddy can prompt readers to know themselves and their society. This allegory about patriarchy situates Daddy-ness in both men and women, indicting a system, and prompting individual responsibility for “growing up” and creating more conscious governments, communities and families.
The Daddies is a semi-fictional account of a disturbing truth – told through the first person “girl.” She is called by my name, but her identity shifts to accommodate the girl as a stand-in for femininity. The primary Daddies with whom “the girl” interacts are her own father (an abused, but not abusive man), her stepfather (an incest perpetrator), her Daddy-lovers (female-bodied and masculine gendered), and her presidents (George W. Bush and Barack Obama).
At its core, the narrative arc is about erotic love and masculinity. There is currently very little scholarly analysis of these themes that dare to remain inside the topics, rather than creating academic distance from them. Through literary narrative the book addresses questions like: What is the appeal in “deviant” sexuality? How are we already playing out subtler versions of darker desires? Can we build satisfying relationships outside of strictly gendered paradigms? And also, how do our personal erotic choices influence the sort of nation, policies and religion we create and live in?
As The Daddies opens, the narrator has just had a terrible break-up with her partner. They were planning a life together when she’s dumped for another woman – the three women had been friends and as the narrator’s life unravels, she begins to understand the various ways in which patriarchy has influenced her life, decisions and relationships – even as a lesbian. She moves to a volcanic island and the presence of the “mythic girl” emerges – a fictional voice that speaks to “Daddy” (both the symbol of patriarchy and her masculine-lesbian lover), revealing the twists and turns of interpersonal kink relationships, along with their broader cultural influences.
The narrator is also a stepfather/daughter incest survivor and as the stories unfold, the narrator and “mythic girl” discuss this history. The first part, “Origins,” establishes the foundation and ongoing influences of sexism from which we all grow. The second part, “Actions,” progresses the reader’s understanding of how patriarchal relationships are maintained, even within lesbian relationships and how our own fathers influence our lives as adult women. The third part, “Transformation,” extends the metaphor of volcanic eruption – that which is destructive is at once generative. People of all genders may indeed be capable of remaking relationships outside the model of sexist gender norms.
The Daddies’ loose narrative arc moves the reader through a series of stand-alone stories that illustrate the pact of gender conformity, how it’s gone strangely, comically and horribly awry and then, how that might change. While the gestalt meta-analysis is of patriarchy, the story itself is scene-driven. The Daddies ends on a hopeful note – an invitation to remember that we are creating the world, even as it creates us.
The settings vary, as many of the scenes are based in memory. The narrator ends up living in Hawaii, on Hawaii Island where the volcano flows. She has previously lived in San Diego, Colorado Springs and some memories occur on vacations and in the narrator’s childhood home of San Diego. The “mythic girl” resides in a fictional, dream-space where pop-culture collides with personal pathos. The pop-culture elements are taking place in the U.S. news media.
Uses in the College Classroom
Audre Lorde’s precedent-setting biomythography, Zami, showed that memoir, social analysis and fiction could co-exist to reveal cultural truths that emerge from the intersections of intimate relationships, stigmatized identities and cultural patterns. The Daddies does this as well, using memoir, social analysis, magical realism and contemporary journalism to explore the patterns many Americans have hidden about gendered living and life under patriarchy.
This book will be stylistically of interest to literature and writing departments and can be offered as a contemporary example of hybrid narrative, which includes social analysis. Thematically, it is of interest in sociology, women’s studies, communication, anthropology, queer studies, rhetoric, and cultural studies. Not only is The Daddies “about” gender, it is a character and scene-driven account of how gendered interactions play out for a specific woman, and how those personal interactions are undergirded by and then re-create social circumstances as well.
Students studying gender roles, BDSM, patriarchy and the interstices of personal and political choice making will find new ways to link public and private communication. This text also challenges what can be discussed in college classrooms, ultimately allowing dialogue about how every part of human culture is the purview of the social sciences, though we rarely discuss the aspects of culture which shame us, or give us erotic pleasure.
Numerous questions emerge from the text regarding the themes covered in The Daddies along with the pedagogical implications of using holistic inquiry – in this case, stories that include violent or erotic content – to interrogate themes that each of us experiences quite personally.