As The #MeToo Backlash Continues, Let Us Remember the Short Stories of Emma Cline’s Daddy

In his 2017 book, Kids These Days, Malcolm Harris predicts, among other things, the eventual raging return of on-blast misogyny (what he refers to as the “misogynist backlash”). Mainly as a result of looking for a scapegoat to blame for the way things are when, in fact, things are that way as a direct result of the patriarchal, male-spewed “values” we all still adhere to for some arcane reason. Per Harris, “I worry that misogyny will acquire a countercultural sheen. Hatred for women could replace hatred for Jews as what Ferdinand Kronawetter called the ‘socialism of fools’ and confound efforts to clarify what is really happening to American working people.” Scarily enough, it already has acquired a countercultural sheen (see: men’s rights activists), and part of that seems to have seeped back into the Hollywood machine, de facto the world. This was made quite apparent as the kickoff to the Cannes Film Festival opened with the Johnny Depp-starring Jeanne du Barry.

While Depp was famously “vindicated” in his lawsuit against Amber Heard for defamation, it didn’t exactly feel like a “win” for justice in general. For it suddenly gave people (especially men) new license to write off all women reporting abuse as liars and opportunists. Whores and witches. While holding Heard as a shining example of this, few wanted to mention that she is an exception to the rule with regard to also playing a part in the domestic abuse that ensued during her and Depp’s two-year nightmare of a marriage. What everyone—female fans of Depp included—wanted to glom onto was the fact that Heard had lied. Embellished. Withheld information about her own part in manipulating Depp into acting a fool (not that it really took all that much “manipulation,” least of all for him to drink heavily and start engaging in extremely embarrassing behavior).

Never mind that many a male public figure—theoretically meant to have more “integrity” due to their positions in, more often than not, a political, therefore “public-serving” office—had lied. And yes, the person at the top of that list for Americans is one, Bill Clinton. Prior to that, Gary Hart had been the precursor to what a Democrat’s “illicit affairs” could wreak upon a career. And yet, during Clinton’s campaign for the presidency starting in 1991, his own history of womanizing was unearthed, just as Hart’s. Except, for whatever reason, Clinton managed to eschew the full-tilt media shitstorm that prompted Hart to drop out of the 1988 presidential race. Or rather, the reason was: Hillary a.k.a. Mrs. Clinton agreed to appear on a January 26, 1992 episode of 60 Minutes (which aired right after the Super Bowl for added “Americana” cachet). One in which she sang the praises of her husband while still admitting to his pratfalls (the primary one being how his “prat” was always falling into other women).

Although Hart’s wife, Lee, also stood by her man, the novelty of being able to so ruthlessly go after a politician in the age of the media when it was no longer expected to cover up indiscretions proved too tempting to pass up for most. Indeed, one could argue that Hart helped soften the, um, blow that came with the media’s revelations about Clinton and Gennifer Flowers. As for Lee, she wasn’t about to appear on TV to defend her husband like Hill. Funnily enough, however, Lee reportedly told friends on the day the news of the Donna Rice scandal broke, “I should cut his thing off. We should have cut all their things off.” Almost like she was presaging Lorena Bobbitt’s fame in the 90s.

All of this is to say that men lie like it’s breathing to them, and are ultimately forgiven/allowed to keep failing upward more easily than women tend to be. With the advent of #MeToo, such ease of everything “righting itself” for men was supposed to become a thing of the past. But, lately, it’s more present than ever. And the embracing of Depp at the Cannes Film Festival is just one such example. What’s more, considering it’s barely been a full five years since the #MeToo reckoning (prompted, as many will remember, by the toppling of Harvey Weinstein), to have a backlash against it so quickly is telling of all the ways in which men still exert their control and authority (this extends, of course, to the repeal of Roe v. Wade, meaning that a woman who gets pregnant by rape will still be forced to have that child if she’s in the wrong state). And how women with their own misogynistic indoctrinations (including Jeanne du Barry director Maïwenn) can’t help but exacerbate the counterattack. For as soon as any woman starts to show her anti-#MeToo sentiments, it serves as blood in the water for chauvinistic men to use it as “concrete evidence” of how the whole movement is bullshit. A “witch hunt,” as certain people like to call it (e.g., Woody Allen).

In September of 2020, with a short story collection called Daddy, Emma Cline crystallized the numerous ways in which men could not deal with their so-called newfound place in society. That is to say, they were actually “put in their place” as a result of women speaking freely about their sexual assaults and how sexual harassment would no longer be tolerated or endured in silence.

The book starts with “What Can You Do With A General,” a title that borrows from a song in White Christmas pertaining to the irrelevance of a retired general. So naturally, the story should also take place during Christmas, as John’s children, Sasha, Sam and Chloe arrive in town for the holiday, albeit somewhat rotely. But what kind of enthusiasm can be expected for a formerly abusive father? John, the proverbial “Daddy” of this tale, feels awkward and out of place among his children, particularly Sasha, who regards him with thinly veiled contempt. Waiting for her to arrive with his wife, Linda, from the airport, Cline describes, “He’d had the yard guy put up holiday lights along the fence, along the roof, around the windows. They were these new LED ones, chilly strands of white light dripping off the eaves. It looked nice now, in the first blue dark, but he missed the colored lights of his childhood, those cartoonish bulbs. Red, blue, orange, green. Probably they were toxic.”

The description about the lights, needless to say, serves as a larger metaphor for how men themselves have become like those colored bulbs: formerly revered, but now deemed utterly anachronistic in the present. It also speaks to how a man like John struggles to understand what his “place” is in this world anymore if women, including his daughters, not only seem to have no “use” for him, but also view him as a source of vitriol. “The problem,” as it were. This transitions into “Los Angeles” (with many stories in the collection named after cities). One of the most harrowing and slow-simmering of all the narratives—though that’s a difficult decision to make at times. For each one tells a tale of wounded male pride in the face of the post-#MeToo era (even if many were written before it arrived). Or worse still, a total lack of understanding over the zeitgeist that has occurred.

In “Los Angeles,” Alice is an aspiring actress who works at an American Apparel-esque retail store (complete with a hiring process that includes nothing more than snapping a Polaroid of her and sending it to corporate). Apart from this job, the only thing to “structure” her life is the acting class her mother pays for. As for her “social” life, it pretty much extends to her seventeen-year-old co-worker, Oona, who somehow seems more “worldly” in that she has far less rosier notions of men. Rather than being disgusted by their behavior—including the customers who enter the store—she leans into it for her own advantage. By the end of the story, Alice has taken a page from Oona’s book by selling her worn underwear to men.

One of these “sales” ends up being fraught with contention as Alice actually gets into a “customer’s” car so that he can make her not only have to ask for the money she’s owed, but also watch him meticulously count it, as though deliberately trying to make her feel whorish. Ergo, Cline’s picture detailing, “He probably wanted her to witness this…believing that he was shaming or punishing her by prolonging the encounter, making sure she fully experienced the transaction, bill by bill.” As she tries to get the fuck out of his car once the money has been passed along, he continues with his power play by toying with her via the automatic lock. As she keeps trying to open the door, his language is that of a rapist as he says, “Relax. Stop pulling or it won’t unlock… Just stop. You’re only making it worse.” But no, it is the men of Daddy and this world who are actually making it worse.

Including Ben, the disgraced man in “Menlo Park,” one of the stories Cline finished writing closest to the #MeToo reckoning. As we’re given a portrait of Ben’s “interior,” we find that his life isn’t really bearable anymore without all the trappings of his former affluent one. This prompting Cline to note, “There was a new way everyone was killing themselves, all these celebrities hanging themselves from doorknobs. Ben had his own theory about the appeal of the method, mostly that it was low-key and mellow and basically less embarrassing than other methods…” Because, to be sure, there is nothing worse than being made to feel embarrassed for your actions as opposed to actually feeling embarrassment for them when they go undiscovered. Cline’s ability to occupy the headspace of men such as Ben was summed up when she said in an interview promoting the book, “I think just living life as a woman, you get a pretty good sense [of how men think], unfortunately. I’ve always been interested in the stories people tell themselves, how they see themselves. That’s something that’s been more in the air recently, as men especially have had to apologize publicly and present their self-narratives.” In other words, how they’ll sand away the rough edges of their depravity in an attempt to make it more palatable for the increasingly “intolerant” masses.

“Son of Friedman” then explores what Cline calls “the twilight years of a certain male figure”—this being the central character type of most of the stories. In this one, the eponymous Friedman is named George, a once-great film producer rendezvousing with his former friend, William Delaney, an actor who once appeared in many of George’s movies. The latter remains successful and famous, while George has faded into obscurity. Now, his son, Benji, has made a low-budget movie, this being the only reason William, Benji’s godfather, has turned up to have dinner with George before the premier at “one of those single-screen places any schmuck with a camera could rent out to show his movie for a weekend.” George can’t bear the thought of enduring the movie’s inevitable mediocrity as he grapples with how to ask William for the favor of championing a script he wants to get made. When William essentially brushes off the idea, George can’t stomach the thought of more humiliation that evening. And yet, it arrives when Benji thanks William in front of the audience for sparking his interest in film.

At the after-party, which William obviously opts out of, George finds himself awash in a sea of youths he can’t relate to. Among the revelers is Benji’s girlfriend, Mara. Briefly, the two share a clunky conversation that makes George feel slightly less alone until the younger Friedman comes along to ferry her away. The recurrent theme of older men taking advantage of the naïveté of younger women persists in “The Nanny,” a title which, surely gives some indication of what the story might be about (hint: nothing so “cute” as the story of Fran Fine, instead veering more toward what happened to Jude Law’s nanny, Daisy Wright [compete with the rhetoric about her inferior looks]). But it’s in “Arcadia” that things take an unusually dark turn. Not just because the primary characters, Otto, Peter and Heddy, are sequestered on a farm (the setting for so many sinister things to happen, as X and Pearl have made evident), but because of the eerie brother-sister dynamic at play between Otto and Heddy.

Pregnant with Peter’s child, Heddy also goes to the local community college where she takes classes that include French. It seems to be her one release from life on the farm with Otto and Peter, even if she isn’t a particularly gifted student. As Peter starts to suspect something of Heddy (i.e., infidelity and smoking cigarettes while pregnant), one night, he hears a sound coming from the distance that he imagines to be a coyote. He follows the sound to find Otto in a compromising position with two women, one of whom who happens to live on the farm with her husband that helps tend to it. Horrified by the vision, complete with a camera they’re using to document the “event,” Peter’s moral outrage prompts Otto to seethe, “You fuck my sister. I have to hear that shit. You think you know her? Do you even realize how long Heddy and I lived out here alone. Years. For fucking years.” Do with that allusion to incestuous activities what you will. When Peter finds his way back to Heddy in bed, he urgently declares that they need to get their own place. But, by the end of story, it doesn’t seem like that’s really going to happen. Heddy’s accustomed to her toxic fraternal relationship, and she seems to want to have it no other way.

A remote location also plays a pivotal role in “Northeast Regional,” during which Richard is called away from a weekend dalliance with a married woman named Ana to go to his son Rowan’s private school and try to understand what happened vis-à-vis an incident involving his violence against another student. Already irked at having to go to the far reaches of the Northeast to find out what occurred, things get off to a rocky start for Richard when the cab driver at the train station asks him for the school’s address. Richard retorts that it’s the only school around… “You don’t know it?” The driver snaps that he wants the actual address so the GPS can tell him the best route to get there. The tense exchange has Richard thinking, “This was why you lived in cities—abundance buffered you from the vagaries of human contact.” In addition to the vagaries of judgment for bad public behavior. Which is what Richard eventually displays in a restaurant after finding out that Rowan will be expelled from the school. Insisting on bringing his girlfriend, Livia, along, Richard stews at the sight of his son’s “better half” ordering the most expensive thing on the menu and then barely touching it. He berates, “You can’t just drink water for dinner. You have to eat something” (how very Christian Grey). He adds, “Eat your food. We aren’t going anywhere until you eat.” She obeys, crying as she starts to peck at her plate. When she drops the fork, the server politely comes by to replace it, inciting Richard to have the epiphany “that the waitress must have thought he was the bad guy in all this.” Because, truly, men like Richard can’t see themselves with any objectivity.

In “Marion,” said female character is the “bad guy” (or is she?). A thirteen-year-old who takes the eleven-year-old narrator under her wing. A wing that favors, let’s say, Lolita stylings. Marion’s precociousness stems, in part, from growing up on a weed farm (again, with the farm setting). The narrator’s own mother is mostly absent, hence her being dumped on Marion’s family for indiscriminate periods of time. But that’s fine by the narrator, who sees Marion as a combination of mentor, big sister and best friend. It isn’t until the end of the story that the narrator is forced to realize that her “bestie” doesn’t really have her best interests at heart when she takes nude photos of her and shows them to her mother. Not to mention telling her mother that it was the narrator who kissed Marion, not the other way around. The sexual tension of Marion’s desires for one of the workers, Jack, as well as her obsession with getting the narrator to tell her if she thinks her father (figure), Bobby, “likes” her seems to be a sexual drive transferred, ultimately, to the narrator’s lips.

One particularly telling description before the narrator’s downfall arrives early on, when she remarks, “A thirteen-year-old girl. We talked about that a lot, what the girl might have looked like, how Roman Polanski knew her, how it had happened. Did she have breasts? Did she have her period? We were jealous, imagining a boyfriend who wanted you so bad he broke the law.” This idea that it’s something to take as a “compliment” to be “desired” so badly that it will get you raped is, unfortunately, not something that has been eradicated from the mindsets of women. And yes, this viewpoint has an even more ominous tone when considering that Samantha Geimer has frequently suggested dismissing charges against Polanski and even recently engaged in an interview with his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner.

Following the Nabokovian vibes of “Marion” is “Mack the Knife,” pivoting back to a male perspective centered on Jonathan, another late middle-aged man who finds himself “tending to” his anxious younger girlfriend, Julia. While dining with two of his cronies, Paul and Hartwell, Julia texts Jonathan that she’s about to take ketamine. He makes it to her apartment in the midst of something like her emotional breakdown, only to soothe her with lies about how they can go to the beach this summer and he’ll finally teach her how to swim (perhaps delayed from doing so as he was married before). But he knows, as well as Julia seems to, that they’re not likely to make it to the summer. Not now that she’s no longer “the other woman,” nor as shiny and new as she once used to be (this includes the waning “charm” of her neuroses).

For the finale of Daddy, “A/S/L,” Cline, ironically, shifts the tone to the one we’re at now. The one in which it’s easy to paint women as the “real assholes.” Constantly “begging for it” and then “retaliating” when they’re not shown the desire they seek. For Thora, who finds herself at an expensive rehab treatment center, that man who doesn’t show the desire she seeks is disgraced celebrity chef “G.” Wanting to allure him with her status as the only “fuckable” resident apart from her younger roommate, Ally, she ends up getting him into big trouble when he comes to search in the women’s residences for a missing puppy Thora took from its mother.

When it’s clear to her that he isn’t sexually aroused by her posing suggestively on the bed, she coldly tells him, “You should not fucking be in here.” Suddenly, she’s the one who has the power. To destroy. And it’s a story that speaks to the current belief that the new fable to live by is “The Girl Who Cried Rape,” not “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

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