I’ve been trying to process the term “daddy issues” for a while now. The term came to my attention again when I saw the headline of a piece criticizing a feminist writer on my Twitter feed, and then, suddenly it showed up everywhere – in comments on feminist pieces, in movies and television shows – in Netflix comedy specials. It’s a way to close down the conversation and put the focus on something entirely unrelated to the issue you’re actually discussing. Instead of talking about reducing sexual assault and possible solutions, we end up focusing on what may or may not have been someone’s childhood experience with their father.
See also: Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you have kids? Are you pretty? Are you young? Are you skinny? The answer to all of these questions if the answer is no: Then whatever you have to say is invalid.
And a lot of the time, our mistake is to defend women accused of being spinsters, or ugly or old, by saying “No, she is married with children,” or “Yes, but she looks great for 52! I doubt you’d pull it off.” But obviously, that’s not the point. Tina Fey’s being married, Ellen Degeneres’ having a spouse, Janet Mock’s being beautiful and [insert any young feminist writer out there] being 20-something will not somehow inoculate these women from criticism. If a prominent feminist writer embodied near physical, emotional and mental perfection in terms of what straight men find acceptable, she would still be roundly mocked as an ugly man-hating harridan.
But the term hits harder for me because until now I didn’t realize I had either ignored it or unintentionally supported it myself instead of confronting the term altogether. I’ve seen that term hurled at women, and thought, “Ha! No one could accuse me of that.” My dad wasn’t only there for all of my childhood, which is a very low bar for fatherhood but nonetheless one men are taught is acceptable, but he taught me to embrace both traditionally feminine and masculine interests. Not only did we fish together, but I scaled and gutted the fish with him. He helped my mom cook and clean, and not simply by doing chores occasionally to congratulate himself on an egalitarian marriage. He was the only example of an equal partner I had growing up in a rural town where most of my friend’s dads expected their wives to be more traditional.
So, of course, I’m proud of this. And I’d love to write a piece just to thank my dad for being himself. But I have so many friends and relatives who grew up without fathers, or with fathers were present sometimes but not always. I imagine that going on about how my father helped me develop into a well-rounded, opinionated woman may somehow suggest that if you didn’t have a father growing up, you ended up missing something you can never get back or that you were irreparably harmed in some way. We love to talk about the role fathers have in their children’s lives, whether a son or daughter, but we always focus on the gender part. Fathers will improve their sons lives by teaching them “correct,” (respectable, benevolent sexism) manhood and improve their daughters by giving them enough confidence to avoid emotionally attaching themselves to other men “too soon” or god forbid, sexually attaching themselves to too many men in order to win the approval they never had. So goes the tale.
Fathers should be valued, not as men, who presumably have more social capital than mothers or instill fear in the men their daughters date, but as another human being who can give their child love and attention (as well as some dough for that child to live on). When we talk about motherhood, we talk about everything humans do to nurture and support other humans, but with fathers we focus on this very narrow part of someone’s growing up, a part that never necessarily had value to begin with, and is toxic at worst.
So then it’s no wonder misogynists would throw that particular insult. The only role they see for fathers is in teaching their children gender roles. And if a feminist writer is making her rejection of traditional gender roles known, she obviously didn’t have a father, since that is all they consider fathers good for. They don’t think fathers do the things mothers do, such as take them to school in the morning, make sure they get to a doctor’s appointment or tell them they’re proud of them. They tie a woman’s sexuality to her father, going back to a time when daughters’ sexuality was owned by fathers. It’s a an archaic mindset, and yet, with a little help from Freud, it’s so commonplace.
That’s why I shudder to think of the times when I was way too proud to have a father, rather than to have a great person in my life who helped me through difficult times and was there to congratulate me during the good ones. Not to mention the fact that women without fathers are considered doomed, when plenty of children would do well not to have some fathers, or mothers for that matter, in their lives, and instead have supportive, stable and kind family, biological or not, mentors and friends. I grew up among family and friends without fathers, or with fathers who could not seem them regularly. As a child, it never occurred to me that they were in a bad situation or that I should feel mine was better. They usually seemed happy, and for those who weren’t, I didn’t assume their fathers were the reason.
It wasn’t until I became older that I learned people were shamed for not having fathers in the household or in their states for that matter, or that families were considered incomplete or broken without them. It wasn’t until my early junior high school years that I learned girls faced a particular, sexualized shame for not having a father married to their mother, much less one who wasn’t around at all. There’s a suggestion there, part of which reminds me of a man at a bar backing down at the mention of a boyfriend but not a woman’s refusal: “Oh, so a man doesn’t own you and therefore protect you? You must be up for grabs. You must not be worthwhile to one man, so I’ll treat you as if you are subhuman.”
The phrase also serves as a way to bring a conversation back to men, and more importantly, women’s dependence on men for social acceptance. And in one sentence they use this rhetorical device to shame women who didn’t have their fathers in their lives growing up, as if it were something they deserved or a fact they should be ashamed of. For this reason, I’ll never see the casual use of “daddy issues” the same way again or enjoy seeing some feminists talk about their awesome dads as a response to those barbs, because that’s not the point.