(I originally posted this in 2012, but a conversation I had recently with some of my students made me think of it. I still think it raises some interesting questions, and so I am reposting it now.)
In 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…. 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—one that, for him, was clearly about a kind of truth-telling that only 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 rather that, 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 only about feelings and thoughts. The daughter’s body and how she uses it—in sex, in marriage—and how that reflects on the father as a man, 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 the custom of giving a bride away on her wedding day is an echo of it. Still, it’s important to remember that there are immigrant subcultures in this country—and think, also, of the Christian institution of purity balls—where it is still a father’s duty to manage his daughter’s sexuality, at least 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, what they imagine my relationship with my sisters should have been like when we were younger. I am thinking specifically of how most people react to my story about the time I walked in on one of my sisters, who was sixteen at the time and should have been in school when this happened in flagrante delicto with her boyfriend.
I did not care that she was having sex, but the circumstances in my family at the time—she is six years younger than I am—meant that I did need to confront her about playing hooky. So I closed the door to her room and asked her and her boyfriend to get dressed and come out into the living room. I waited for a couple of minutes, but nothing happened. I knocked again, receiving this time a muffled reply from my sister, as if she were sick in bed and my knocking had roused her from sleep. I opened the door and there she was, alone, with the blanket pulled up around her neck. “Where is he?” I asked.
“Where is who?”
“Michael. I saw him.”
“Michael? No. No one else is here.” Her voice cracked as if she had a horrible sore throat.
“Come on. Don’t bullshit me. I know what I saw.” I started to look around the room and eventually opened her closet, where I found Michael trying desperately to disappear behind the clothes that were hanging there. It was hard not to laugh at him, but I didn’t. I just asked again for them to come out into the living room. When they did, I told Michael to go home, that my sister and I had to talk, 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?” That made me laugh out loud. I told him no, why would I. He said thank you and he left.
More often than not, the people to whom I tell this story, and it doesn’t seem to matter how old or young they are, are as surprised as Michael was that I simply let him leave. When I ask 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. It was your job to protect her. And if I ask them what they think she needed protection from, they tell me, From guys “like that,” by which they mean, of course, exploitive, sexual opportunists who tally the women they have sex with by making notches in their bedposts and bragging about it to all their friends. But why should I have assumed that Michael—a decent guy, a guy I liked, a guy my sister clearly trusted—was “like that?” 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 most, but not all, leave the next question unasked: You wouldn’t want your sister to think it was okay 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 undeservedly acquired the reputation of or, worse, actually become, a “slut.”
The people with whom I have these conversations usually try to avoid using that word, because they are afraid it will offend me. Or, to be more precise, because they are afraid I will suddenly feel the need to defend my sister’s “honor,” even after all these years. Yet it’s not really, or at least not only, my sister’s “honor” that they think I should be worried about. Inevitably, when we get to the point in the conversation where they realize that they’re not going to change my mind, that I truly do not think there was anything wrong with my sister having sex, they get down to where the brass tacks really are. What kind of a brother were you, anyway? What they mean, of course, is What kind of a man are you?, and their logic is not so different, really, from 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. Granted, no one has ever suggested that I should have killed my sister, but they clearly think I should have seen the fact that she didn’t “keep her legs closed” as a threat not just to her, but to myself as well.
Unlike the logic that seems to hold in so-called “honor killings,” however, where the existential threat to family (read: male) honor is embodied by the woman, the threat in this case—at least as perceived by the people I have these conversations with—was embodied by my sister’s boyfriend. His “success” in having sex with my sister, in getting around the protection they tell me I should have been providing for her, is clearly something they see as a stain on my honor that only some form of violence against him would have removed. The fact that I chose not to commit that violence, or even to threaten it, is bewildering to them. How could I have let Michael get away with something so serious?
I realize I am being reductive here. In fact, the threat to male honor in cases like this comes from both the man and the woman, which is why the male partners of women murdered by their families in so-called “honor killings” are also often killed or beaten; and I have completely left out of this essay the ways in which women—mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins—are expected to preserve this male honor by policing other women’s sex lives. It’s not that the layers of complexity here are not worth writing about. Rather, it’s that these layers of complexity tend to obscure the relationship between the men whose job it is to demonstrate their manhood by protecting their family’s honor (in this case, me) and those whose job it is to prove themselves as men by doing whatever they can to get around that protection (my sister’s boyfriend).
Leave aside, for example, the fact that there really are guys “like that” and that it is possible for an older brother to sniff this out about his younger sister’s boyfriend before she does, and consider the conversation I might have had with my sister in order to get her to stay away from Michael. You don’t understand what guys are like, my part in this discussion would go—and it’s a part we have seen played in movies and TV shows over and over again by countless brothers or fathers, cousins or friends—but I do understand, and I am telling you that when it comes to sex you shouldn’t be so trusting. Sometimes the man who speaks these lines will explain what he means in more detail and sometimes he will not. In each case, however, he is asking the woman to whom he is speaking to recognize that, because he is a man, he is more of an authority on men and male sexuality than she is. Moreover, in doing so, whether he realizes it or not, he is admitting that this authority comes from the fact that, even if he himself is not “like that,” he nonetheless has first-hand knowledge of the truth behind the assumption that most men are. After all, in this way of seeing the world, being “like that” is part of what being a man is all about, and so it is inescapably part of every man, even if he consciously lives his life in opposition to it.
There is, in other words, a kind of self-hatred operating here. Had I tried to protect my sister in the way I have just described, or even if I’d resorted to the violence so many people seem to think I should have used, I would also have been trying to protect her from a version of myself, or at least from the kind of man I knew I was supposed to be if I’d followed the traditional, stereotypical manhood script. To put it another way, whatever beating Michael up would have meant to him and my sister, it would also have been a denial of my own complicity in that script’s definition of getting sex from women as proof of manhood. So, if you understand this story not from the perspective of my relationship with my sister, but rather of my relationship with Michael, it becomes a narrative that is less about the sexual double standard—though it is of course also about that—than it is about men’s internal experience of manhood and masculinity as an identity divided against itself. On one side is the man we are (traditionally, stereotypically) given permission to be with women who are not our mothers, sisters or daughters; on the other, the man whose manhood depends on protecting our mothers, sisters and daughters from what that permission means to all the other men who are not us. To be both those men at the same time, in an integrated way, seems to me impossible—which raises the question of what forms masculinity might take if it were truly unmoored from a notion of manhood that requires us to hate a part of who we are.