A hybrid of culture critique, magical realism, and BDSM, Kimberly Dark’s The Daddies (Brill, October 2018) is a kaleidoscopic love letter to masculinity. Though The Daddies tells the story of one break-up between lesbian lovers, the novel is more widely concerned with patriarchy, power, and pleasure and how those forces shape lives. Dark offers a dark, fem(me)inist exploration of the masculine, while still leaving room for transformation, both cultural and interpersonal.
In addition to The Daddies, Kimberly Dark is the author of Love and Errors (Puna Press, 2018) and co-editor of Ways of Being in Teaching (Sense, 2017). An award-winning playwright who has performed stories and poetry worldwide, Dark’s essays have been published in Everyday Feminism and Ravishly, among others. She also teaches sociology at Cal State, San Marcos and in the Cal State Summer Arts Program.
Dark and I recently spoke about her vision for The Daddies, #MeToo and cultural memory, and how gender hierarchy is re-produced.
The Rumpus: The Daddies is a meta-memoir; every story is about you “but the subject is culture” and the impact two of its most pervasive forces—power and eros—have on your life. What did you want The Daddies to tell about your life and about culture?
Kimberly Dark: I’m interested in how you’ve asked this question. What do I want the book to tell about my life? Maybe it’s odd, but I don’t feel like I have anything to tell about my life. True, this is a meta-narrative, but the only reason it’s about a single person (me, in a fictionalized way) is because I want to explore how culture lands in and emanates from our actual bodies, minds, and experiences. Indeed, power and eros are pervasive cultural forces, but somehow, people keep acting like they’re “out there” rather than living in our everyday small interactions.
Literally, the way we look at our lovers, interact with our bosses, how we sit when we ride the bus—we are carrying and constructing power and eros all the time. I’m offering readers a glimpse into my (weirdly, fragmented) deconstructed life in order to show how it’s done. It’s hard for me to talk about this story as though it’s “my story” because it’s not. These events—many of which come from my life—have been remixed and sometimes welded together in new ways. In some ways, this is what every individual does via memory, which is no kind of recording device! Memory is contextual and meaning can shift over time. We’re seeing that now in public discourse about the abuses women have endured as a matter of course. They’re being redefined, re-remembered.
The Daddies is modeling for you the way lives, minds, and culture shift and move. Ultimately, it’s not a story about me; it’s a story about the patriarchy that lives in each of us in different ways.
Rumpus: Can you give us a history of the phrase “Who’s your Daddy?” How has this phrase become a statement of power, especially with regard to sexual dynamics and a cultural obsession with purity?
Dark: “Who’s your Daddy” came into really mainstream usage in the 1990s in the US. It was often heard at sporting events, and it became a claim of dominance, while also having an origin of sexual submission. It’s also clearly an incest reference, and we drop that out of the discussion all the time, as well as the idea that the speaker is asking for obedience and referencing sexuality. “Who’s your Daddy” is connected to incest because it references the dominant position of the father in the family, and his ability to do as he pleases with everyone there. It’s a trip when you deconstruct it that way. Currently, the term “Daddy” has become a nickname or almost pillow talk. For some people, “Daddy” is synonymous with “baby.” And you could also deconstruct that as well, couldn’t you?
As far as purity, the phrase is definitely about power and sexual dynamics. I’m not sure “Who’s your Daddy” phrase is specifically related to the purity and virginity obsession, other than as it denotes that familial kind of relationship. At purity balls [which are examined in The Daddies], fathers are basically pledging to look after their daughters. Meanwhile, the daughters pledge their virginity and their purity until marriage. It’s just one little step from the [less taboo] ritual that many people do: a father gives away the bride at the altar. It is a pervasive idea that a father guards a daughter’s purity. This also puts the father in the position where he can defile [that purity] if he chooses to. He’s choosing, he has the ability to choose what to do with the prize he has been asked to guard, and that’s an interesting, fucked up thing.
Rumpus: You explore different forms of “Daddy”–—including patria, patriarchy, presidents, fathers, and lovers—both on institutional and interpersonal levels. You situate “Daddy-ness” in all genders, but especially in your female lover, with whom you have a BDSM relationship and whom you call “Daddy.” Initially, the relationship seems consensual, theatrical, and critical of power, but it later turns toxic. Can you talk about how gender hierarchy is reproduced by and between women, even queer women?
Dark: I’ve written a great deal, over the years, about “intra-gender gendering,” how we create and maintain gender norms and roles in lesbian relationships. Back in the 90s, I thought these roles were mostly imposed from a heteronormative culture, not always embraced from within same-sex, same-gender relationships. I have different views now on how we handle gendering, and how deeply pervasive cultural norms and values handle us, often without our permission.
Maybe through juxtapositions [of gendering] we can focus on that which has become so normal it blends into the landscape. Maybe by de-centering the usual, we can grasp something of the truth that lives on the underside of the truth. That’s what’s happening here. I’m situating “Daddy-ness” in women precisely because it helps us hear the stories Daddy tells differently. Most people take elements of gendered hierarchy and BDSM into their romantic lives without even considering it or naming it. I think this is particularly true as popular porn has become more violent, more humiliating to women. What if we slow things down and look at things like discipline and formality and soothing (all explored in the book) and consider how we do those things in our own interactions?
This business of the two-gender system has a hierarchy. [Gendered hierarchy] is pervasive in our culture, but also in our emotions, in our bodies, in our minds, in the way we understand things. The fact is, every power structure is related to the two-gender system—not even just gender ideology. Our literal buildings are constructed that way in terms of bathrooms, where men and women congregate, the difference between a beauty parlor and a barber shop for example. This is why people who are multiplying gender, disrupting the gender binary confuse people who say “I don’t understand what those people are doing.” [Laughs] You don’t actually need to understand for people beyond the binary to have a positive effect on the way power relationships can be disrupted and multiplied in the culture. Those who are multiplying and disrupting the gender binary are doing a huge public service for all humanity. We have to breed more options into our collective consciousness.
You comment on how my relationship with Daddy seems consensual, theatrical, critical of power, and then it turns toxic. Here’s a bold idea: every romantic relationship takes this trajectory in some form. We are all in bed with Daddy. Gendered expectations are part of our DNA. And gender has a hierarchy. Sure, it’s possible for some romantic relationships to remain comfortable, but they’re all navigating gender. This is why people are obsessed with asking or speculating about two men or two women “which one do you think is the man?”
Rumpus: In your book, “Daddy” is an intimate, uncomfortable metaphor for patriarchy, which you extend to American politics. Drawing from George Lakoff’s 1996 book Moral Politics, you explore how “Daddy” can drive both liberal and conservative world views. According to Lakoff, the conservative model is based on the morality of the traditional nuclear family and the authority of the “strict father,” while liberals subscribe to a family life centered on the “nurturant parent.” Later you discuss the US as an imperialistic Daddy-patria, a “big bully” with a “particular brand of corporate-rule democracy.” How can The Daddies help us understand American politics and our current political landscape?
Dark: Holy shit, I hope it helps us understand our current political landscape! [Laughs] I started writing this book about ten years ago. When I first sent out The Daddies to find a publisher, it was rejected. It was almost as if those rejections meant that my serious political analysis, which is wrapped up in a BDSM love story, was too far-fetched. That my claims were far-fetched. But now here we are with a president that brags about grabbing women. I think that ten years ago there was not as legible a cultural moment for The Daddies, but now, it is certainly legible.
What’s happening with #MeToo and the Kavanaugh hearings… Women are, on a larger scale than I’ve ever seen, losing shame around their abuse and speaking publicly. I’ve been talking about my own incest experience for thirty-five years now. My own stepmother, who’s in her seventies, just recently posted on Facebook and said, “Yeah, #MeToo.” That is so powerful to me.
With the Kavanaugh hearings, now we are having a discussion about memory, and what it means to remember abuse. Memory is not stable—it’s not like a recording device. It’s contextual, and events can mean different things over time. It’s a beautiful amazing thing that Dr. Blasey-Ford says, “Look, it’s not like I ever forgot that this happened, but suddenly it had new meaning.” These memories are not springing out of nowhere, but now they have a different cultural moment to adhere to. I’m hoping that The Daddies has a cultural moment to adhere to that will help move those conversations forward.
Rumpus: The Daddies is a love letter to masculinity, and to possibility. Towards the end of the book, you’ve moved away from your lover and have put aside your desire to mother infantile masculinity. You challenge masculinity to grow up, become self-aware and imaginative. What does a revolutionized and productive masculinity look like? How can we shape masculinity as a tool for transformation?
Dark: All of us—people of all genders—have been in the service of protecting a very infantile, brutal masculinity. All of us have been in cahoots to subjugate femininity. But putting aside the desire to mother infantile masculinity is not putting aside desire.
The way is to follow our physical urges, follow our desires. Then to complicate those desires, add to them desires for new things. Pretty soon, those more painful ways of doing fall away because there are alternatives. As a feminine-identified person, that’s the piece of the puzzle that I hold, [desiring new masculinities].
So your question about “what does a revolutionized and productive masculinity look like?”… I don’t know the answer to that. I explore the answer towards the end of The Daddies. It takes emotion and effort. But it doesn’t make sense for [new masculinities] to be externally motivated. It has to come from the masculine-identified. They have to envision and ask: “what does masculinity looks like if it is not about protecting power?”