The Girl with the Father Tattoo

By Michele Pridmore-BrownDecember 16, 2011

Our Fathers, Ourselves by Peggy Drexler

ON A FRIGID WINTER'S NIGHT in the novelist George Eliot's Silas Marner, a newly orphaned golden-haired girl toddles into an old miser's hut. The man Silas has long been excised from human communion; his hut is far removed from those of his fellows, and he is so withered and embittered as to be permanently hunched over like a "crooked tube." Over the course of days and then years, the girl transforms him into a loving father. Recent endocrine studies suggest that Eliot was aware of a timeless alchemy. To put it in reductive terms, babies and young children can operate as hormonal flytraps, rigging some adult males — not all, of course — to engage in care-giving: even into becoming besotted dads rather than, say, cads. Eliot's novel is about that emotional syncopation. The girl draws the prospective father back into the social web — into that array of emotionally expansive pro-social behaviors that enable their mutual flourishing.

The girlish power to redeem men has a long tradition — we need only think of the variants of the children's story Heidi, for instance. Whether girls are generally better at this sort of alchemy than boys is an open question. What is not an open question is this: the bar on committed or "good-enough" fatherhood has risen radically in recent years, and especially so with respect to girls. Fathers are no longer expected to just pay for the prom dress, but to be involved in choosing it or at least in making deftly-appropriate comments. Indeed, it could be said that a nebulous set of relational skills (those of the reformed Silas Marner perhaps) is increasingly at stake. Peggy Drexler, a social psychologist at Cornell Medical School, is interested in the evolution of the new fathers — not so much in how daughters shape their fathers (though, to be sure, that constitutes an enormous part of the equation, as George Eliot understood so well), but in how they shape their daughters, and, especially, how they shape their daughters' ambition.

Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Dads and the Changing American Family focuses on the generations that came of age after the 1970s, when power was, in a sense, being transferred from fathers to daughters. Daughters gradually emerged as the, on average, more tractable sex in school and in other settings that mattered to post-industrial skill acquisition. Our Fathers, Ourselves implies — and it should be said here that it is an implication lying at the edges of her book rather than a fleshed-out argument — that a generation and more of enabling fathers may have incited their daughters to this success. The end result has been as dramatic as it has been unexpected: the daughters are now out-professionalizing, out-earning, and academically outperforming their brothers in the competitive races of this century.

Profil en Face Herbert Bayer, 1929

Drexler's book uses a mix of quotations from her interviews with adult daughters who reflect on the roles their fathers have played in their success, scholarly material, and her own often folksy commentary. This mélange makes for a loose, sometimes rambling style, albeit with suggestive nuggets interspersed throughout. Chapters are divvied up according to fatherly patterns — fathers who listened and fathers who encouraged risk-taking, for example. She interviewed 75 women in total, adult daughters in their twenties and thirties, for the most part (some were older), whom she identified, by their sheen of confident savoir faire — in other words, their appearance of having the capacity to make life work out for themselves, to be resourceful, and to have their eye on some sort of ball. Drexler uses the word "sextant" to suggest navigational skills. A fair proportion of the women in her interview set were earning six-figure salaries at young ages.

One could quibble here interminably about Drexler's selection criteria and methods; about the impossible-to-untangle entanglement of nature (innate disposition) and nurture (in this case, fatherly influence or lack thereof); or indeed about her definition of success, let alone her ability to identify it from the stuff of appearances. But, leaving such quibbles aside, as a human-interest story rather than as science, her study is worth considering for what it does have to say about power, gender, generational transfer, and the races we run. It flirts with tremendously timely issues — like why girls are outperforming boys at this historical moment.

First pattern: father-daughter emotional syncopation

While the interviews with "successful" women are the official meat of the book, an intriguing back-story amplifies the human interest angle, lending it a voyeuristic piquancy. This back-story concerns Drexler's own place in the narrative of father-daughter alchemy. While she was herself fatherless, she has a partner of 35+ years, and together they have parented a daughter who leaves for college as Drexler finishes this book. Her husband's presence informs Drexler's book (perhaps far more than she intends) as a kind of ubiquitous foil. Describing him as obstreperously masculine, she writes that he is "a clothing retailer known for his kinetic energy, relentless creativity, and unswerving faith in his gut instinct, which he deploys with a zest and bravado that serve him well." Indeed! A two-second Google search reveals this "clothing retailer" is Mickey Drexler, CEO of J. Crew, CEO of Gap in the 90s, and credited with the metoric rise of both companies. Significantly, despite the trappings of power, he is, at least in Drexler's telling, rendered as vulnerable as any Silas Marner by the infant girl who entered his life when he was in his forties. Our author seems to view him as the figure of the "enabling dad" writ large, whose exaggerated muscularity does not prevent him from having exquisite relational skills — both on the job and with his daughter. He is an able listener who can solemnly confer authority on a second-grader's artwork, advise the girl on the drama of middle school, insist that she master "power tools" (a phrase Drexler uses more than once), and who, not to put too fine a point on it, grooms her for the exercise of power. In addition to all of this, he gives her the skill set to be effortlessly authoritative-in J. Crew warehouses no less. Drexler makes much of the fact that the daughter magnificently capitalizes on opportunity, which is of course not something all children of privilege do.

In Drexler's official sample of successful daughters, fathers ranged across the socioeconomic spectrum. None were quite like Mickey, obviously. Nonetheless, in Drexler's view, a handful of dominant — dare one say Mickey-esque — patterns emerged in the making of these daughters. The first pattern was indeed heightened emotional syncopation-the stuff of durable 'connection'-between daughter and father. Daughters recalled being hyper-attuned to paternal frowns or gestures of approval. A retired stay-at-home dad of relatively humble means always had unusually high expectations, his daughter told Drexler, and after a while, her "desire to do well for him turned into the desire to do well for [her] self." This felicitous outcome constituted a refrain in a great many of the interviews: the daughter recalled pleasing the father — indeed, being complicit with his needs, perhaps a combination of Silas Marner-like emotional needs and also, crucially, more achievement-oriented ones. She may, one might surmise, have been the vehicle her father's thwarted ambition. Liking the competencies and accolades she acquired, she then went on to please herself. Several women described how their father's frown of disappointment was infinitely more painful than grounding or punishment. And yet others were like a young entrepreneur who told Drexler that her otherwise fairly distant father's "exultation" at her achievement in her 20s — an exorbitant salary-trumped by far her pleasure in the actual material accoutrements of success. The implication here, though insufficiently theorized, is that these 'successful' adult daughters were as girls and adolescents more shapeable, more impelled by emotional rapport, and more motorized by cues to which their brothers were perhaps impervious.

Not all of the fathers were tender. But, interestingly, acts like shopping for a prom dress or, more mundanely, for tampons, or even just engaging in extended listening, were taken for granted if performed by mothers (yes, in Drexler's household as well, she quips more than once) but memorable and emotionally charged when performed by fathers. "Fathers who listened" instilled confidence in their daughters, and also won their loyalty. The pas de deux nature of the relationship meant a considerable collateral upside for "fathers who listened:" their daughters were unusually forgiving of fatherly peccadilloes, in the manner of Chelsea Clinton perhaps. Indeed, to Drexler's astonishment, if fathers had relational skills, then some of her interviewees forgave egregious peccadilloes, like gambling, addiction, or failure to pay child support. That's an interesting observation; it is, as Drexler points out, hard to imagine mothers being so uniformly forgiven. However, even as these daughters forgave their fathers, they vehemently assured Drexler they demanded better from their mates.

Second pattern: fatherly fortification of daughters via muscularization

If the first pattern, in the memory at least of these "successful" daughters, was typically characterized by this emotional attunement, then the second pattern they described to Drexler built on the scaffolding of the first. It involved the fatherly capacity to spur on and, at once, "fortify" the girl-self — through a kind of "muscularization." Some of the scholarly literature on parental styles and gender suggests fathers parent differently from mothers. In very general terms, they encourage more risks; provide fewer safety nets; do not rush to help as quickly; are a bit more playful on average; and, perhaps, are a bit less unconditionally present. Keep in mind that these are, at least in part, culturally inflected differences, not to mention "on average" differences, rather than being universal or essential. Here's the story of a neurologist interviewed by Drexler: One of ten children, she was the sole daughter who survived a house fire in New York. She then helped raise her brothers and, as was the case for several others in Drexler's sample, successfully shouldered an enormous amount of responsibility at an early age. But the real motor in her success, this "gimlet-eyed" neurologist insisted, was her father. He demanded competency over self-esteem; he incited her by, in her words, "this little holding back of his approval," which, however painful at times, made her "strive that much harder to achieve more." As was the case with so many of Drexler's interviewees, she capitalized on opportunities her father offered while her many brothers did not. Father and daughter now share a thriving practice. Another interviewee, an established NASA physicist, also referenced her father's habit of giving her far more freedom and responsibility than she was comfortable with. Much like Mickey Drexler and the neurologist's father, he also insisted she master the proverbial power tools-that she be more competent than any boy. She felt his tutelage had given her the confidence to take her first physics class in college, despite the fact that she lacked the requisite preparation. Again, echoing others, she noted that he gave the impression of believing in her exceptional qualities, far more than she herself did.

Drexler makes much of the fact that these "enabling" fathers, through their involvement, acclimated their daughters to male ways of channeling emotion and inhabiting space. Even fatherly shortcomings, in some of these daughter's narratives, had value. One father, who involved his preadolescent daughter in his work as a consultant helping minorities secure small business loans, was probably somewhat bipolar. The daughter told Drexler his mood swings had, in view of that connection, an enabling effect. She now as a young woman manages 80 people. "It's not unsettling to me when people — men — get upset," she told Drexler. Not that Drexler recommends fathers have temper tantrums so that their daughters can hone their people management skills, but she does note that these women felt, by and large, that they could manage men precisely because they had managed their fathers.

With respect to muscularization more generally, it is worth recalling a bit of fairly recent history: Congress's 1972 passage of Title IX, which guaranteed equal funding for girls' sports in schools. It would be hard to overestimate its importance in the story Drexler attempts to tell. Symbolically and literally, it marked the moment when Victorian models of girlhood gave way to more muscular ones, and eventually to ideals of girl grit and resilience. In other words, culturally speaking, in the 70s and especially the 80s, girls were viewed less and less as delicate flowers or future mothers than as potentially hard-hitting players in public life. It could be argued that it was fathers who were the initial midwife to that transformation — perhaps not consciously, but because of their desire to see their individual daughters triumph. Some of Drexler's enabling fathers are then part of that group who taught girls to invade personal space, collide, pick themselves up, keep their eye on the ball, and, perhaps most significantly, to score and invest that scoring with significance — not always an easy task, according to some coaches of girls' sports.

We can safely assume that Drexler is mostly dealing with the survivors of the playing field. Again, keeping in mind that she is dealing with a certain kind of success (artists need not apply), a few of the happy survivors explicitly said they were driven, at least initially, by fatherly pride when they scored or picked themselves up after being hit; Drexler suggests that, fatherly exultation here, as in other arenas, had an outsize capacity to propel. One daughter, manager in a midlevel company, recalled how her dad attended every one of her soccer games; he brought office paperwork, which monopolized his attention. However, he invariably asked fellow spectators to nudge him when his daughter made contact with the ball, and then avidly watched as if she were David Beckham or Mia Ham — that is, until she lost contact. Perhaps that says it all. She recalled how keenly she felt his gaze — and, presumably, its withdrawal.

Of course, the line between enabling and disabling, especially on the sports field, is a tricky one, which may indeed have more to do with relational alchemy and the daughter's temperament than anything else. Drexler does not dwell on such subtleties, but, lest the reader think she is touting fathers as essential to a girl's well being or flourishing, or indeed as essential to their grit and drive, she is not. In fact, she has only sarcasm for the male harpy or the nightmare of the sports field — for the father who fails to honor the pas de deux or back-and-forth-cue-reading part of the relationship. Significantly, though, she reserves her most biting sarcasm for the father who invokes traditional gender norms, or, indeed, who is so invested in his own superhero status that he craves his daughter's ongoing dependency as a "daddy's girl" for life. Such a father unfits his daughter for the world she will inhabit, and the races she will run. In Drexler's book, the "disabler father" is far worse than no father at all. No father is, after all, just a draw.

Left-behind brothers, sidelined mothers and the historical moment

Drexler's tale of daughterly success fueled by fathers is of course a biased one. She is, after all, selecting for success and many of these women may have been genetically programmed, as it were, to make lemonade out of occasionally lemony experiences. Still, it's striking the extent to which these successful daughters told of hapless brothers mired in adolescence, failing to launch. Indeed, if young men are falling behind as a sex, as Hanna Rosin put it last year in an Atlantic Monthly article titled "The End of Men," then one might conclude from Drexler's study that a generation of fathers played a part. To put it only a tad glibly: ambitious fathers passed the ball or baton to receptive daughters. Sons fumbled the transfer. And so it was that daughters, perhaps more relationally adept on average, became the more fertile conduit for paternal ambition. Of course, it's not really that tidy. Still, this may well be one strand in a complex story of generational change and gender transformation.

The other sidelined player in these narratives of daughterly success is the mother. I was struck by the number of times interviewees dismissed their mothers as irrelevant to their ambition levels and confidence. Drexler wrestles with the gender politics here, but not without waffling. Perhaps this is hardly surprising. She herself seems to be a sidelined player in the Drexler household. She tells us she was surprised, not always happily so, at the degree to which her partner's "vibrant, muscular expression of self-confidence" shaped their daughter's personality, instilling, as it were, the quasi-autonomic habits of leadership. This must have left her gamely applauding her daughter's empowerment even as she chaffed at her own third-wheel status (we are told the daughter throws rose petals at Mickey but dismisses Drexler in adolescence). If this constitutes a curious tension — a thread left dangling mid air — it gestures to the larger story of generational change; Drexler is a baby-boomer, an older mother of a now 20-year-old daughter. She is, then, caught in that somewhat untidy position of celebrating the new generations of empowered daughters, even as she rues her own status in a household dominated by a charismatic tycoon — and his equally muscularly confident daughter.

In Drexler's case, of course, she obviously has a flourishing career and an agenda of her own. A great many of the daughters whom Drexler interviewed, however, grew up in traditional families with breadwinner dads and somewhat effaced moms — and especially so for the older interviewees. It follows that those fathers, even the middling ones, had greater scarcity value and the allure of a public life — which could certainly account for why these daughters were generally more attuned to fathers rather than mothers. Fathers were also probably still disproportionately giving the toasts — a skill one interviewee invested with symbolic import precisely because her mother could not give one. Certainly this argument about the role of relative power is obvious, and historically contingent. Drexler ought to draw it out more, which means she ought to consider the generational differences between her older and younger interviewees.

Timeless elements and daughters leaving behind 'good-enough' fathers

Drexler, however, does correctly suggest that timeless qualities may also be at play in why daughters are so attuned to fathers. The accoutrements of masculinity in and of themselves — a deep voice, brawn, bigger size — undoubtedly play an ongoing role in male charisma even in an era of gender equality. And then, with respect to alchemy, the timeless opposite-sex factor is relevant: the "enabled" daughter's whelming ability to shape and manage her opposite-sex parent even as she herself is being shaped. It could be argued that precisely such an alchemy turned fathers — including erstwhile frat boys — into tacit feminists as far as their daughters, but not their wives, were concerned. But, in addition, with respect to alchemy, I wondered if daughters' hyper-attunement to fathers might also be an evolutionarily honed artifact — hence its archetypal quality. In all times and places, fathers, on average, are the more fickle parent, more likely to desert or abuse children than mothers. Add to this the fact that, historically, fathers have been less committed to daughters than to sons. One could speculate that girls might have evolved to keep a particularly watchful eye on fathers, and to be more forgiving of their foibles, celebratory of their virtues, and attuned to their cues.

Drexler ends with an image of her husband, Mickey, left behind on a campus bench when his daughter goes to college. He laments that he is "obsolete," that he has "outlived [his] usefulness." In his case, this is a conceit. Still, Drexler smugly reassures Mickey — and fathers in general — that daughters of 'good-enough' fathers will return as adults, still seeking that paternal nod of acknowledgement or gleam of admiration, even as they forcefully tweak the play of gender in turn.

LARB Contributor

Michele Pridmore-Brown is a scholar with the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society at UC Berkeley and the Science Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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