America Dads: Louis CK and Barack Obama
Louis CK knows one thing, and it is that being a good dad makes him bulletproof. He knows other things, but this is the main one, the important one, the one that has made him even more successful than he can always admit being comfortable about being. It’s the thing that saves his character, and reliably saves his show; witness the finale of the first season, when, after walking in the dark for thirteen episodes, he returns home to be redeemed by his children, by the way they make him necessary.
Dads are not, however, necessary.
Be careful in reading that line, though; I mean something very specific by it, and perhaps less (and more) than you might think. First and foremost, we don’t need any the things we say we need. All “needs” are socially constructed, the end result of a process by which we convince ourselves and others that certain desires or possibilities are, in fact, necessary and irreplaceable, are higher up the hierarchy of interest than “normal” things. We need to breathe to live, for example, but the existential nature of that necessity can makes us forget that it’s only our life’s dependence on breath that makes breathing so interesting to us, only because we want to live that we “need” to breathe. And we don’t “need” to breathe, we just want to, a lot. In other words, what we really mean when we talk about “needs” is that something we want is contingent on the “necessary” thing: “I need a table for four,” for example, is another way of saying “We want to enjoy a particular social experience, and pay you for it, and this is what is necessary for us to do so.” Without a table for four, the dinner we are imagining cannot happen. And so, we say “need,” turning desire into imperative, making the specificity of interest disappear into a kind of authoritative pronouncement of necessity. This must. Because.
Without a dad, what happens? The wild truth is that, once a child is actually conceived, the absence of a “dad” is not as devastating or predictable as many people would like to think it is, or say it is. Without a caretaker, of course, a helpless child will die. And without a father — in the strictly biological sense — the child will not even be born in the first place. But I’m not talking about “parenting,” as a thing that adults do when they care for a child or children: a woman can parent, a man can parent, and any other gendered or non-gendered person can serve as a caretaker to a child that needs one (in fact, other children are often the best caretakers, in ways adults are often slow to observe). And while it may not take a village, a village certainly can get the job done. Sometimes a circle of rotating uncles, aunts, neighbors, and whoever else is the thing that socializes, educates, and protects a child that needs someone to do these things, and if you’ve ever seen a good system of communal parenting in action, you won’t forget how well it works.
I’m precisely not talking about that, in fact, and that’s the point: “dad” is not caretaking, even though it often includes it. “Dad” is taking a simple biological function—the provision of semen—and deriving from it a transcendent social principle, one that can then be monopolized by the type of person who is equipped to provide semen. After all, a child cannot easily be created without a man’s participation, but that doesn’t actually mean that a man’s participation should be central and indispensable in shaping and caring for that child’s life going forward. Children have needs, but these needs can be met in a variety of ways. And precisely because so many different people can take care of a child—because the work of keeping a child safe, secure, healthy, etc can be and is done in a multitude of contexts—the specific value we give to the specific function of fathering can only come at the expense of that broad range of possibility, as a consequence of unthinking the deep variety of alternatives. We start to think of aspects of caretaking not as things that could be done a variety of ways, by a variety of people, in a variety of contexts, but as something that must be done one way; we start to say: there must be a dad. We start to carve off portions of a child’s life, and say things about it like “only a Dad can” and “he/she needs a Dad to.” But, of course, the only thing that only a father can do is be a father, and pretending that phrase is more than a tautology is the way we turn biology into sociology.
Put differently: a lot of dads are fantastic parents, but not because they’re “dads.” The relationship between a child and an adult—say, between a son and his father—can be a nurturing, caring, protective, and teaching space to grow up in. Mine was. My father was a great parent, and when I consider the prospect of having children, I find it humbling to think about what he did for me, how much work it was for him, and how often he did it so very well. He took it seriously, and I am who I am—and I like who I am—because I grew up with him in my life. But when I think about being a parent, why must I immediately think about what kind of a parent my father was? Why don’t I see myself doing for my imaginary child the things my mother did for me? What constrains my thinking such that I see “dad” as the category that defines how I might be a parent?
The answer is not biology, but sociology: there is only one way I can conceive a child, given the reproductive organs I possess, but there are many different ways I could be a parent, just as there are many different ways that a child I might conceive might find its passage into adulthood made easier and richer by the society in which it finds itself. I do not believe that a child conceived by a man but raised by two women, for example, will necessarily find its passage through life more difficult than a child raised by a man and a women, except to the extent that our society requires and normalizes the second experience. These are not the factors that matter.
* * *
For me, #nodads crystallizes that realization, that assertion that while one way to nurture can, in fact, be a good way, there are many other ways to choose from, and we should choose from among them. If I choose to be a parent to my imaginary child in the ways that my father was a parent to me, it should be because he helped me be a person in the world, in society, in life, and because that help was helpful, and because that kind of help will be helpful to the child who I happen to have fathered. It should not be because my dad was my dad. It should not be because that was the only kind of relationship I could imagine.
Perhaps it means other things, of course. But Malcolm Harris likes to say that #nodads means whatever it means, that whatever it is, it isn’t “dads.” And I like that because the anti-tautology maps nicely onto and precisely attacks the kind of thinking by which “dad” is a transcendental truth, only it does so without limiting itself to any particular content we might apply to the category. As a rejection of the category itself—and of the manner in which it comes to seem a higher order category than many others—it doesn’t necessarily have all that much to do with actual dads, but only by the sociological matrix that makes biology into destiny. It deprives us of the categorical rational, that dads, because dads.
* * *
Louis CK’s addiction to being a dad is the most interesting thing about his show, an addiction he struggles with and explores. Dads is ideological, and he has an investment in that ideology, even while he can see through it and critique it. It is precisely because he knows better but still does it, because he has to, that the show can highlight the ideological function of dads so precisely (as well as occasionally lapse into defensive denial of the show’s own self-critiques).
The first season is very good, for example, but it often does the thing he does in his comedy: it takes the goodness of being a dad for granted, taking narrative shelter in the fact that, no matter what else he does, being a good dad will save the character. It’s his safety net, but it also becomes his structure of denial, his means of keeping self-doubt and self-loathing at bay. The character is not a bad person, after all, but he’s also not a good person, in almost any particular way, and he fails constantly, at everything. And yet, as his show produces an almost unbroken narrative record of inadequacy, Louie can always rely on his children to remake him as a good dad, to restore the one thing that makes him a good person, by producing people that need him. He can explore failure in interesting ways, in fact, because he will always be anchored by the one thing he always succeeds at doing; he can explore lack of control because his children give him a kind of control that will always be there. He can constantly talk about masturbation, to pick only one prominent example, because his character will always be embedded in the social fact of having fruitfully multiplied.
This works at the most fundamental level of narrative, too: no matter how weird his show may get—no matter how deeply surreal the narrative may become—the stable foundation of dad-centric television keeps us rooted and secure. We know what the show is about, because it’s a show about a dad.
It’s worth noting, by the way, how central that fact is to Louie’s success. Television itself is defined, traditionally, by the traditional family unit, the nuclear family, and it’s a good show, in part, because it can make use of that traditionalism, take it for granted. Of course, the nuclear family is no more “traditional” than nuclear warfare: both are a product of a particular time and place, and both came to seem normal in a particular social context, the post-war era in which so many of our cultural institutions were not only standardized but normalized, like the single-family home and the non-existence of “worker” as a social category. Television was part of that, defining the form of nuclear family that would not only seem “normal,” but which also would—in its absence—help enable the stigmatization of other ways of organizing a family in society, and society around families (the Moynihan report being just one classic example). Television was both the cause and result of a broad social form, in other words: just as one could see nuclear families on television, and take that form to define normality, one could also see the normal family on television because that family form had become normal, and was reflected in cultural institutions like television. As post-war American society came to normalize particular forms of family experience—along the inevitable teleology towards suburban consumer culture—television evolved the particular kinds of narrative genres that it did by reference to the developing new forms of “normal” social life, a form of social life in which father knew best, and the face of the state was a single father played by Andy Griffith.
On some level, Louie understands this. And as the second and third seasons get narratively stranger and more uncanny, they test the limits of this narrative structure, like a dog trying to figure out how far its chain will allow it to reach, but losing oxygen as it does so.Here, you’ll want to read Lili, on “Dad.” It’s no coincidence, for example, that after the first season ended with a redemptive feel-good moment of total dadness, the second season begins with a meditation on failed dadding: when his pregnant sister shows up, he supports her decision to be a single parent, like him, and they talk about how much better it is to raise children alone. And then it all falls apart, a perfect storm of inadequacy.Or note the episode where he shouts at his daughter for playing her violin. The scene has no purpose other than to break our hitherto unbroken expectation that Louie will be a good dad. Because, of course, Louis isn’t really a single parent. We see him taking care of two children, by himself, over and over again, and his adequacy as Dad is constantly made manifest, but it’s the invisible mother of his children—who literally does not appear in the flesh until season three—that actually makes that possible. Her labor is structurally crucial: Louis can be a successful comedian, and a good dad, only because his invisible co-parent invisibly takes the children off his hands while he goes on the road. And in that first episode of season two, Louie suddenly reveals the illusion of his adequacy: he cannot do two things at once. He cannot take his sister to the emergency room and watch over his children. He is a dad, a traditional dad, and that isn’t enough; he must be saved by the magical gay couple next door.
* * *
President Obama also knows that being a good dad can make him bulletproof. When he joked about murdering the Jonas Brothers with predator drones, for example, people laughed at the idea of a president giving the unilateral order to have people killed just because he had the power to make it so. You’ll never see it coming, he said, and it’s true; the people whose deaths he has personally approved never did see it coming. You think I’m joking, he said, and of course he’s right, again. It’s not a joke. He really does sign off on people’s deaths in that way. And though you can have an argument about whether or not this is a good thing, I would suggest that most of the time we don’t, because the president is such a totalizing force of dads that we ask a different question: instead of asking whether it’s right to have a kill list, whether such authority is constitutional, we ask, instead, if dad can be trusted with such power. Will he be a good dad? I hope so, since dads can get away with murder.Along with parenting tips from prison guards, this patriarchal nutball finds biblical justification for murdering your own children to maintain discipline: “The maintenance of civil order in society rests on the foundation of family discipline. Therefore, a child who disrespects his parents must be permanently removed from society in a way that gives an example to all other children of the importance of respect for parents. The death penalty for rebellioius children is not something to be taken lightly. The guidelines for administering the death penalty to rebellious children are given in Deut 21:18-21…”
I’m not quite convinced by Matt Stoller’s argument that Mitt Romney will not be a worse dad when it comes to things like reproductive freedom. I think it’s hard to make the case that anyone could be as bad as Mitt Romney on a whole range of issues, and I expect that President Romney would/will appoint Samuel Alito-style justices to the Supreme Court, and that this would be worse that the kind of Justice that a second term President Obama would/will appoint, when Justice Ginsberg retires, as she most likely will. But I’m also interested in how we get to the point of only being able to conceptualize the presidency as a choice between dads: which dad will we invest with the unilateral power of life and death? Which dad will be a good dad?This is a version of why I hate that Len Dunham Obama commercial: as Lili pointed out to me yesterday, it can only conceptualize voting as a choice between two men who, in reality, both kind of suck, and through the faux-provocative analogy to one’s “first time,” it suggests that it’s really important you fuck some dude, and to fuck the dude who’s not quite as bad as the other. There is no choosing not to vote, though; when your society tells you it’s time to “go to the polls,” you’ve just got to give it up.
Maybe what we actually don’t need is a dad for president, and maybe this is what gets hardest to perceive when we compare and contrast the dads of dads. Especially when, most of the time, the thing that people mean when they talk about dads is really male control of women and children, maybe let’s not ask who will be the best dad. It’s not a coincidence that last December, when our white knight in the war against women made the decision to ignore the recommendations of his own FDA and ban over the counter access to Plan B for pregnant people younger than 17, Obama defended the choice because “as the father of two daughters,” he knows best. They might buy them like “batteries and bubble gum,” you see, and their choices must be controlled for their own safety.Or note how the imperative to nourish becomes a means of disputing infantilizing away labor’s understanding of its own interests: “I really wanted them to know how I felt four more years under President Obama was going to affect them. It would be no different from telling your children: ‘Eat your spinach. It’s good for you.’” It’s a bad decision, and he makes no effort to defend it, but my point is that he doesn’t have to, because he’s a dad. Being a dad allows him to defend women while also reducing women’s control over their bodies: the problem is not feminine agency, when it comes to dads, but the problem of keeping (infantilized) women safe.
The ne plus ultra of dads as political ideology, though, has to be Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ rationale for killing the sixteen year old son of a terrorist suspect, the moment when it becomes clear that nothing matters but dads. When pressed for why a 16 year old American citizen could be murdered by America Dad, without trial or due process or even full disclosure of what happened, the president’s press secretary utters this remarkable statement:
“I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they’re truly concerned about the well-being of their children.”
Just as the narrative structure of Louie breaks down as it reveals the inner workings of dads as ideology, Gibbs’ syntax buckles under the strain of the work he’s forcing dads to do. He begins by addressing a “you” which is the dead kid himself, literally lecturing a murdered sixteen year old boy for having a bad dad, and deserving death for that.This is truly the epitome of dads as ideology, the moment where you punish someone and tell them that they are making you do it, that it’s their fault. Halfway through that sentence, though, his brain realizes the insane obscenity he’s trying to argue, and switches gears, instead lecturing the Bad Dad himself (for being a bad dad). If you didn’t want to be killed, you shouldn’t have been born to a bad dad; if you didn’t want your kid to be killed, you should have been a better dad.
In one sense, that tear in the discourse shows us the limit point of dads as master ideology; the one thing it can’t actually justify is murdering your child, and a 16 year old American kid is President’s Obama’s kid. This is the one thing that Gibbs can’t justify, the one murder that America Dad can’t get away with. At the same time, the fact that he can still get away with it tells us something important about the hierarchy in which dads are placed. If one part of dads is protecting children, a more important part is killing the bad dads. And if we need to kill children to kill bad dads, if the normal imperative not to murder innocent children is outweighed by the imperative to kill bad terrorist dad, well, then, we’re just doing what we need to do. Dads.