Decoding ‘Daddy’: Changing images of dads in pop culture
After the “dad bod” debacle of 2015 and the so-called “dad style” that has been adopted by all genders in recent years, it seems we’ve reached peak “daddy.”
A recent “Saturday Night Live” skit signalled that the word, used affectionately by children, and lustfully by gay men and straight women, had achieved a specific significance in the cultural mainstream: “Any guy can be a father, but it takes a hot, middle-aged guy with a big job to be a daddy,” Kate McKinnon and Matt Damon said in unison, as the hosts of a competition called the Westminster Daddy Show.
You might have noticed an uptick in aging heartthrobs of the ’90s and early 2000s appearing in programms marketed to young viewers — and receiving outsize attention for their (mostly supporting) roles. Consider Luke Perry in “Riverdale,” John Corbett in the Netflix rom-com “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” John Cho in “Searching,” Sterling K Brown in “Black Panther” and “This Is Us,” and Jude Law as Albus Dumbledore (or shall I say “Dumbledaddy”?) in the latest “Fantastic Beasts” film. In practice, age is not always a defining characteristic. A daddy might be any man with graying hair, or a beefy action-movie hero (Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, for example, who also happens to be a father).
While on the internet “dad” is most often used to express devotion to a cultural father figure, in the same way that “mom” emerged as a term of reverence for feminist patron saints, “daddy” has tended somewhat problematically toward the sexual. Barack Obama is “dad.” Bill Murray is “dad.” Idris Elba, People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, is “daddy.” Making the jump from “dad” to “daddy” can be as simple as a few minor lifestyle adjustments. On Netflix’s popular “Queer Eye” reboot, the Fab Five turned its schlubby “heroes” into daddies — or, at least, more dateable versions of themselves — by grooming their beards and showing them how to make simple meals.
That narrative, of male self-interrogation and self-improvement, aligns with a broader paternal revisionism that has permeated visual media in recent years. In the age of “dadvertising,” father-actors are, competent, present, presentable, even mythic parents, and equal if not more hardworking partners. Those depictions are aligned with the optimistic, egalitarian standards the newest generation of fathers has set for themselves.
Accordingly, dads and daddies have become motifs of the evergrowing retail category that is merch. The cotton baseball cap, often used to express fandom, has been christened the “dad hat,” just as tapered light-wash denim is considered the quintessential “dad jean.” There are $360 “dad” sweatshirts, dad hats inscribed with the word “daddy,” a video game whose objective is for dads to date each other … you name it.
Rachel Antonoff, a fashion designer in New York, recalled a T-shirt from her fall 2017 collection inscribed with “daddy” in a Barbie-like script. It struck a chord with customers, who are primarily women. But, she said, “there were other people who were like, ‘I’m a dad,’ or ‘my friend just had a baby.’” Which is to say: It’s 2018, and being a daddy is for everyone.