This is the editorial note to TNI Vol. 43: Daddy. View the full table of contents here.
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The knowledge of paternity is said to be the origin of human society as we know it: that is, born of women’s labor but held in men’s name. In the world before, there could be no such thing as a father, only children, mothers, and sexual partners and childrearers. In this telling, the tree of knowledge and the tree of life were one and the same, and kept a secret amongst mothers and daughters.
Fathers are haunted by this prehistory: they are always the last to know. The father invents a whole new meaning for himself based on the knowledge of paternity. Their anxiety manifests in many ways, sometimes violent, often tedious, always grasping for control. As that drama plays out over the course of children’s lives, it’s never clear when Father will be found out.
In this issue, a duo of sex workers share what they’ve learned from their professional family obligations. Alana Massey addresses the young sugar baby as she would a junior trainee, reminding them that a sugar daddy is simply a crude kind of boss, getting away with wage theft and unpaid overtime by keeping his babies in the dark about the work they are actually doing. It’s only a matter of time before the veil slips and the sugar baby is revealed to have been mommying all along. In another essay, Caspar explores how getting paid for sex by men who share his background helps him experience his ultimate fantasy: that in a world where love is distributed along race and class lines he could ever deserve what he receives.
In America, where we are writing this, race is a fantasy about daddies, too. Hannah Black once wrote that race is the social form that “mediates between sex and death, tells us who should be loved and who can be killed.” But of course the same is true of daddies. Yahdon Israel’s “Coming to America” addresses the way that growing up black in Brooklyn exposed him to different kinds of Africanness, routing history, language, and resources through differentially valued lineages. His mother and father raise him in their version of Africa, one constructed of kings, queens, and soap, while his sister leaves their home for an Ivoirian man, but neither daddy’s patriarchal power remains intact by the end. In “Daughters Have Their Own Agendas,” Tiana Reid rereads Dick Gregory’s Nigger in the light of her relationship with her dad and the titular word, weighing her loyalty to the mother who waits against the hateful desire to despise a black father in a world designed to kill him.
Under Reaganite conservatism, the 80s were peak dad, inspiring our cover–the spirit of history acting simultaneously as the authoritative know-it-all trying vainly to curb the revolts for freedom of the decade prior, and the midlife crisis selling coke and AKs to despots and contras. The violence of the dad was perhaps never more lurid. Teju Cole, in “Fathers and Sons,” unearths an old, foundational trope in the West’s mythology — the son carrying the father on his back, fleeing war— in the aftermath of this attempt to maintain the global structure of imperialism without its formal name. Out of this period of reaction, a liberal wing of patriarchy attempted to forge a newer, more palatable dad. The undertaking was diffuse but global, and Giovanni Tiso argues it may have reached its peak in the book Being a Great Dad for Dummies. Tiso takes the ideology of soft patriarchy without feminism to task in “Great Dads.”
A soft dad may just be a dad with a bad bod, a body type famously rechristened this spring by a college newspaper columnist. Vishnu Strangeways takes a deep dive into the structure of desire illuminated by the dadbod’s social cues. Desire formed in relation to social power structures in turn upholds them, he writes, and desire for the body of the father is no exception. If the appeal of fucking a dad is “exhilaration at the potential of taking in the dominating violence of claustrophobic suburban horror as a special blessing,” celebrating the dad bod is nothing special. In Matthew Lawrence’s “Daddy O,” the booming genre of sex with stepdads and grandfathers in the gay porn industry comes in for examination, seeing its flirtation with incest as the animating drive and absolute limit of these films, whose point is actually to displace the father from the center of fantasy.
For a few years, the principle of our solidarity at TNI was No Dads. But unable to escape fathers, we’ve decided we prefer making and unmaking daddies instead. In “Feeling Myself” off her most recent album, Nicki Minaj sings “Yes daddy I do,” and you can hear her smile. As always, Nicki’s diction is clarifying: the otherwise off-putting shades of incest in eroticizing childplay aren’t present here. She isn’t casting herself as a daughter. Deputizing a daddy for a night, like extending the permission of roleplay, demonstrates that you have some power to extend. And a nightly, weekly, or monthly daddy is only one in a series, while a father draws his tenuous power from uniqueness. Designating your own daddies short-circuits the dependency inherent to childhood.
The current popularity of “daddy” as a term of endearment ranging in irony levels from 0 – 100 marks an era of social and economic precarity that leaves young people righteously without faith in institutions, but more fluent in language with points of origin online. Casting faves as moms and dads is a fantasy gesture by those orphaned by school curriculums we know to be biased, news media we know to be propagandizing, and job opportunities that aren’t. We can look up to whoever we want: the hot selfie we caption with the filial titles, the fandoms we indulge in, the bonds we insist on making as rich or devoid of meaning as we please. Fathers are free, disproportionately empowered, and disappointing. Daddies are whoever we want them to be.