In his recently published book, Kayak Morning, Roger Rosenblatt writes:
The literature involving fathers and daughters runs to nearly one thousand titles. I Googled. The Tempest. King Lear. Emma. The Mayor of Casterbridge. Washington Square. Daughters have a power over fathers, who are usually portrayed as aloof or mad. The father depends on his daughter and he is often isolated with her–the two of them partnered against the world. It is a good choice for writers, this pairing. It may be the ideal male-female relationship in that, with romance out of the picture, the idea of father and daughter has only to do with feelings and thoughts. Unalloyed. Intelligent. A girl may speak the truth to her father, who may speak the truth to her. He anchors her. She anchors him.
Rosenblatt’s book explores his grief at the untimely death of his own daughter, Amy, and this passage, in the form of a short-hand literary analysis, mourns the relationship he had with her–a relationship that, for him, was about a kind of truth-telling that happens between men and women when the possibility of romance does not exist. Rosenblatt’s grief is his own, and I would not presume to suggest that his relationship with his daughter was anything other than what he says it was. His assertion, however, that the father-daughter pairing is a “good choice for writers” because it allows us to deal with issues between the sexes solely in terms of feelings and thoughts, without the messiness of romance, gave me serious pause. It’s not that I think he has mischaracterized the father-daughter relationships in the works that he cites–it’s been long enough since I read any of them that I simply do not remember–but because, in a male dominant culture, and we still live in such a culture whether we like it or not, the father-daughter relationship is never about feelings and thoughts in the abstract. The daughter’s body and how she uses it–in sex, in marriage–and how that use reflects on the father’s body as a man, and on his reputation and the reputation of his family, is always already contested ground.
I doubt most people in the United States see the father-daughter relationship explicitly in these terms any more, though there are subcultures here–think, also, the Christian institution of purity balls–where it is still a father’s duty to manage his daughter’s sexuality until she is appropriately married. In my own life, where fathers have been conspicuously absent, these attitudes have manifested themselves most obviously in the assumptions people make about my relationship with my sisters. Or, more specifically, about what my relationship with my sisters should have been when we were younger. I am thinking specifically of how most people react when I tell them about the time when I was twenty-two and I walked in on my sister, who is six years younger than I am and who should have been in school, in flagrante delicto with her boyfriend. A fully detailed telling of the story is for another time, because it is funny. For now, but suffice it to say that when I finally found the boyfriend, he was hiding in my sister’s closet trying desperately to disappear behind the shirts and other hanging clothes he was pulling around himself. It was very hard not to laugh at him, but I didn’t. I just sent him home, and I will never forget the look of surprised relief and gratitude on his face when he realized that I was not going to beat him up. He even asked me, “You mean you’re not going to beat me up?” When I said no, he said thank you and left.
Most people to whom I have told this story, and it doesn’t seem to matter how old or young they are, have been as surprised as he was that I did not beat him up; and when I have asked them why–since the idea of beating him up never even occurred to me–they always give the same answer. “She was your little sister,” they say. “It was your job to protect her.”
When I ask them what they think she needed protection from, they tell me, “From guys like that.” And when I ask them why I should have assumed my sister’s boyfriend was “like that,” since he was a nice guy whom she’d been seeing for a while, a guy I liked, a guy she clearly trusted, they tell me, “Okay, so maybe you didn’t have to beat him up, but you should at least have put the fear of God into him, just to keep him honest.”
Honest about what? I ask.
“Well,” they say, “you wouldn’t want your sister to get a reputation, would you? You wouldn’t want him, or anyone he told, to think your sister was just giving it away, right?” And then most, but not all, leave the next question unasked: “You wouldn’t want your sister to think it was okay just to give it away, would you?”
Clearly, it was not her boyfriend from whom my sister and her reputation really needed protection.
But there you have it: Because I was her older brother, these people seem to think my sister’s emerging sexuality was my problem, not out of concern for her health and safety–and even then it really wouldn’t have been my problem–but because if I did not keep a watchful eye on her she might have acquired the reputation of or, worse, actually become a “slut.” According to this logic, my responsibility towards my sister is really not so different from the responsibility felt by the fathers and brothers who murder their daughters and sisters in so-called “honor killings”–and, just to be clear, there is nothing honorable about them–because even the hint of female sexual impropriety is a stain on her and her family’s reputation that only her death will remove. (Indeed, I am reminded of the doll I was given buy a lover so that I would remember her when I left South Korea in 1989, after my stint as an English teacher was over. The doll’s dress identified her as a Korean noblewoman, right down to the knife on a belt around her waist, that her real life counterpart was supposed to have used to commit suicide in the event that she was raped.) Granted, no one has ever suggested that in my case the right course of action would have been to kill my sister, but the idea that I should have beaten her boyfriend up is clearly as much about the message it would have sent to her about the need to “keep her legs closed” as it is about the belief that I should have let him know that keeping his life was contingent on his ability to “keep it in his pants.”
A less violent way for me to have gotten this message across to my sister, of course, would have been for me to explain to her that I knew “what guys are like” and that she, therefore, had good reason not to trust her boyfriend’s motives for wanting to be sexual with her, that, in fact, she shouldn’t trust them because, at heart, all guys are “like that.” Leave aside, for the moment, the fact that there really are guys who are “like that” and that it is possible for an older brother to sniff this out about his younger sister’s boyfriend before his younger sister does. Focus instead on where the authority comes from that I, in this script, expect my sister to recognize and accept: the fact that I, too, am a guy, that I know, first-hand, the truth of what I am saying. More to the point, since being “like that” is, in this way of seeing the world, in the very nature of guyhood, being “like that” is part of whom I am too. In protecting my sister from her boyfriend, in other words, I am also protecting her from another version of myself. Or, to put it perhaps more kindly, from a male imperative that I know her boyfriend feels because I have felt it too: the (traditional) male imperative to use women for sex as a way of proving manhood.
There is, in other words, a level of self-hatred involved in the violence I was, according to this logic, supposed to have done to my sister’s boyfriend, as I projected onto him the part of who I am that I would never allow myself to express with my sister. Moreover, there is an irony embedded in this self-hatred, because not to feel it, not to see someone like my sister’s boyfriend as a threat to her, and therefore to myself, is to fail as a man. By way of contrast, consider that if I’d been an older sister, and strong enough to do so, no one would have thought for a moment that beating my younger sister’s boyfriend up simply because he was having sex with her was the thing I ought to have done. As a woman, it simply would not have been my job to police my sister’s sex. As a man, however, within this logic, that was precisely my job and, to the degree that I didn’t do it, it was as a man that I failed. The people who question why I didn’t beat him up know this intuitively. “What kind of a brother (read: man) were you?” they ask. In all honesty, I don’t know how to answer them, not because I don’t have an answer, but because it often feels to me like we are speaking different languages and I don’t know how to translate from mine to theirs.
A great deal of work has been done to expose the sexual double standard for what it is, a way of controlling women’s sexuality, and if you understand the story I have told and people’s reaction to it as being primarily about my relationship with my sister, then it is clearly the double standard that is at stake. On the other hand, if you understand the story as being about my relationship to her boyfriend–man to man, so to speak–which means it is also a story about my relationship with myself, then what is at stake is how that double standard structures men’s internal experience of manhood and masculinity, how it forces on men a division within ourselves between the man we are (traditionally, stereotypically) given permission to be with women who are not our sisters or daughters, etc. and the man whose manhood depends on protecting those women from what that permission means. To be both those men at the same time, in an integrated way, seems to me impossible, making it a quintessential example of self-hatred.
I don’t really have anything more to say about this right now. I just think it’s a starting point for what could be a very interesting discussion.
Cross-posted on It’s All Connected.