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Rethinking "Daddy Issues"

When you hear the phrase, daddy issues, what does your mind immediately conjure? At the risk of making a donkey of myself by assuming, I would haphazardly guess that you picture a woman, most likely young, with issues concerning her male—often older male—partner. In our culture, “she has daddy issues” has become a catch-all phrase for women and their hypersexuality or lack thereof—it’s an unfair, sexist assumption; as I’m sure we all know more than a few men with similar issues. 

In Emma Cline’s short story collection “Daddy”, there are issues with fathers and father figures all around, for everyone, men and women, young and old.

Sometimes, like in the opening story “What Can You Do with A General”, it’s the paternal figure himself with the titular issues. Here we have John, a man wrestling with what his role as a father means after all of his children are grown. There’s Sam, his 30-year-old son, who when he was purchasing a car, didn’t even consult his father, instead turning to his mother for advice. Then, there’s Chole, the youngest, who’s part of an unpaid internship in Sacramento and still has her rent paid by her parents, but other than that, has no use for their advice or input. Lastly, there’s Sasha, who’s dating a divorced man with a child. Over the Christmas holiday, all three children return home to visit, and we get a glimpse of the father John is now and the one he used to be.

The following story, “Los Angeles”, is about Alice, an aspiring actress living in…well, where else? She makes ends meet by working in a semi-high-end retail clothing store that uses attractive young women as objects of sexual desire.

 “On every wall were blown-up photographs in grainy black-and-white of women in the famous underpants, girls with knobby knees making eye contact with the camera, covering their small breast with their hands.”

Only women are allowed on the sales floor, while company policy relegates the men to the warehouse behind the scenes.

The store, which is unnamed, but familiar for those we can pick-up on the clues, sells “…cheap, slutty clothes in primary colors, clothes invoking a low-level athleticism—tube socks, track shorts—as if sex was an alternative sport.”

Going back to the topic of daddy issues and their relation to sex, Alice must reckon with her role in a company that forces her to be the doe-eyed Lolita to make a living in a ruthless city.

“Los Angeles” isn’t the only place where Cline gets to explore young women and their relationships with the older men that wield power over them. In “The Nanny”, Kayla is lying low from paparazzi after her affair with a famous actor goes public. And in “Marion”, two preteen girls living on a California commune become obsessed with one of the older residents.

Elsewhere, in stories “Son of Friedman” and “Northeast Regional”, we have tales of how fathers fail their sons. In “Son of Friedman”, movie producer George is invited to attend his son, Benji’s, movie screening, along with Benji’s godfather, William. As George and William meet for dinner before the premier, it becomes clear that George has more than some trepidation about his son’s film. He doesn’t exactly believe in Benji’s ability to be creative, while William remains more positive about the whole thing. 

As the story progresses, we learn that father and son were never really close, and that George had only funded Benji’s movie out of the embarrassment that he felt to see Benji beg for money on the internet. Ultimately, we learn that William, Benji’s godfather was more of a father figure than George.

In “Northeast Regional”, Richard must travel to his son Rowan’s private school after he was part of an incident that ends with his expulsion. Rowan is a spoiled brat, he openly disrespects his father in front of his girlfriend, smokes when Richard asks him not to, acts as if his expulsion (from a school that’s undoubtedly expensive) is no big deal and sarcastically refers to Richard as “father.” However, all the blame for this failure in relationship cannot rest squarely on Rowan’s shoulders; by his own admission, Richard has been fairly absent from Rowan’s life, only robotically going through his fatherly duties. He feels his infrequent texts are “useless missives…offerings.” And that, “If there was a reckoning, a moment when they demanded to see the record, he could present these messages. Proof that he tried.”

In “Daddy”, Cline writes with intimacy and honesty, giving the reader the feeling of being a fly on the wall in each of the ten stories. We find characters that are not in dire situations, but situations that are life-changing nonetheless. Eye-opening and often dryly funny, Emma Cline’s “Daddy” will make you rethink what it means to have daddy issues.

By: Gregory Bertrand 


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