Emma Cline Exposes the Underbelly of Masculinity in “Daddy”

Daddy Emma Cline

A former magazine editor, Ben reflects on how women used to find him charming, punctuate their sentences with little touches on his arm. It had all been so easy. But that was before his abrupt termination and the public fallout that left him unhirable. His fall from grace is summed up by a call to a suicide hotline where he faces “humiliation so great that he tried to hang up but found he could not, found himself robotically explaining the situation to a man who asked increasingly prurient questions about what exactly Ben had done and to whom.” 

Following his son’s violent attack on a fellow student, Richard spends the meeting with the school’s headmaster surreptitiously checking his phone under his desk. Faced with the obscene details, he apologizes, careful to arrange his words to discourage a potential lawsuit. “This was his son, Richard kept reminding himself, and that fact had to be bigger than anything else.”

John, a disgruntled patriarch, misses the days when the family would happily curl up with old movies—“movies where the fathers were basically Jesus.”

These men, and others like them, populate the pages of Emma Cline’s Daddy. Unlike Cline’s Manson-inspired novel The Girls, Daddy explores the hard angles of contemporary life from an overwhelmingly male perspective—from men grappling with a shifting sense of authority as their status dissolves to the young women who sell their panties to strangers online. As a title, Daddy is particularly apt, capturing the way the collection exposes the underbelly of masculinity, ranging from the loss of innocence within familial dynamics to sexual transgressions. 

While a majority of the stories center masculinity, these men and their almost painful subjectivity are viewed with a cold eye. They require pills to dull their edges, view women as sexual objects, and demand the utmost respect from those around them—few of whom they perceive as equals. Rather than offer a consensus on how we should view these disgraced men, we follow them as they wade through the wreckage of their former lives.

Exposing the consequences of gendered power dynamics, toxic masculinity, and their inevitable fallouts, Cline shies away from detailing her characters’  lurid infractions. Instead, her protagonists dance along the edges of these gaping sinkholes, telling the reader just enough for us to imagine their depths. Arguably, removing this information alludes to the way these revelations have become ubiquitous. Of course, he did, we find ourselves thinking as the headlines roll out. Of course. The monster remains a monster, but he still has to make it through the day. That is where Cline’s stories pick up. 

Suffice it to say, Daddy is not a joy to read. These are not lives I want to live or people I wish to know even in an imaginary context, but Cline’s talent on the page makes it a collection worth our consideration. Throughout, Cline’s precise use of language and adept characterization illuminates nuanced portrayals of men who could be rendered cliché cutouts of Bad Men in the hands of a less skillful writer. Her stories defy our longing for satisfying resolutions and likable characters, offering us disconcerting reflections of our current status quo instead.

Should we have sympathy for these men? I certainly hope not.

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