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Fathers & daughters
What The Sopranos, Disney, the Talmud and I have to say about daughters
The only honeymoon that lasts forever.
— Matthew McConaughey, on daughters
Family lore about my grandfather:
He always wanted sons. His first-born was a daughter. Fine. When his wife was pregnant again he insisted on a boy. After delivery, grandpa got a call from the hospital: congratulations, twin girls!
Wrong number, he said, and hung up.
The nurse returned to the delivery room and told my grandma there was a madman on the phone.
I never had such compunctions. I was more agnostic. My firstborn was a boy — I was delighted — and for my second I wanted a girl just to have both.
But what I discovered over time was very different than just another strain of child. It’s almost a different experience in kind altogether. The love of daughters.
It’s hard to be definitive. Maybe the love of each child is different in kind? Most parents have far too low a sample size to ever know whether their affections are defined by one or other characteristic. Their kids are just their kids, and who knows what it would be like with a different set.
But even as my own love of daughters blossomed into a fuller thing, I began to notice I was not alone. This love is portrayed differently in film, is written about differently in memoirs and spoken of differently by fathers. That last is important: really when I talk about the love of daughters, I’m talking about a father’s love of his daughters. A mother’s love for her sons is a mirror of this, although the two aren’t necessarily symmetrical. Of course, a father’s love of his sons is also a separate thing with its own character and its own canon in literature and film and culture.
But I want to write about the love of daughters. I want to write about it because I found it so surprising — a whole world unto itself that was previously invisible to me. What is this strange love?
I’m going to refer to cultural examples and insights from fathers not as a kind of census of fatherly opinion — one could easily find any number of powerful father-son relations — but more as an exploration of this particular love.
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Daughters change you
Are daughters a luxury good, in higher demand by parents as populations become wealthier? Americans seem to have transitioned from preferring sons to daughters, and Japan and South Korea appear to have made a similar shift.
Daughters make men better (well said). They seem to have a different impact than sons. (These links have been largely pulled from Marginal Revolution’s search function — definitely underrated!):
Fathers of daughters are less likely to interrupt and be rude
Parents of daughters more likely to divorce (cursed be teenage girls?)
Daughters may make parents more conservative or more left-wing, more interventionist, better managers, more likely to hire female partners at a venture capital firm, act honestly, impact parents’ politics
Higher status people seem to have more sons
I suppose some part of the love of daughters must be wrapped up in the feminine. That is, after all, the defining line between daughters and sons.
The love of daughters may be the purest form of love of woman possible: desexualised, a man can appreciate the feminine in all its splendour, unmarred by lust. Gentle. Soft. Loving. Fiery.
A father’s love of his daughter mirrors a boy’s love of his mother. But the love of his mother is the water a boy swims in — as a forever-presence, it’s sometimes harder to appreciate. But a daughter is a new thing that arrives in the flush of adulthood.
Daughters bring out what is best in a man: he provides where she needs him, he protects where she is vulnerable, he dotes where she is playful.
A daughter is the confluence of everything a man needs in life: relevance and love. What greater need is there than to provide and protect your baby girl? And she is the first woman after his mother to love him unconditionally from the get go. But well before the feeling of being loved melts him — when she is two or three or four and tells him she loves him and kisses him — he discovers another feeling of love. The pleasure in loving. The simple pleasure in being near her, silly with her, holding her. Your wife may be the love of your life but that love is bound up with the banalities and duties of marriage and the strictures of covenant.A daughter is a strange, angelic extension of you. A beating heart outside your chest.
They never tell you this before you have kids, but dancing with your daughter is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Whether rocking out and jumping on beds, singing along to The Righteous Brothers, or my personal bed-time favourite, slow dancing to Beautiful Strangers.
Boys I understand. I understand the shyness, I understand the competitiveness, the Lego building, the rough play. I was one. It’s exquisite and it’s fun. It’s intimate in different ways. But it’s knowable and known to me.
Girls are something else. She may be your daughter, but she remains as indecipherable as only a woman can be.
An extract from a letter I wrote to my eldest daughter on her second birthday:
There is something deeply unknowable to me about you. I stare at my firstborn, your bother, and I swell with pride, and am filled with a similar love. But his movements are my movements. His smells, his sweat, his physical exhilaration – I recognise them all. I understand them. They are a glorious, wonderful, improved extension of me. But where does your churlish run come from? The impossible daintiness of the smallest movement of your elbow or little finger? Why does your room smell like fairy dust? The dislocated drop of your jaw as you cry out or angle food towards it? And your defiant streak. Your performative acts of rage. These are beautiful, terrible things. These all come from something beyond me. They’re entirely alien. Something ancient. The maw of the sea. The pangs of creation. Perhaps your mother knows. But seeing them in you, whatever lovely stuff your features and your movements and your smiles are made of, seeing all that, just does something to me.
Daughters stand apart in The Sopranos. They are beloved, quasi-angelic figures. Sons are degenerates and disappointments.
This is because daughters (and women) don’t have agency in The Sopranos. Daughters are a light unto a man’s soul. Sons are expected to have agency, force of will, ambition. They fail.
For Tony Soprano, Bobby Bacala, Johnny Sacs: their girls are their princesses. Forever. Even as they grow up and go to college or get married — they’re daddy’s little girl. If they do something career focused, it’s window dressing or status points. Meadow going into law or medicine is something for Carmen to boast about. The main question is who she’ll marry. The only real career woman in The Sopranos is Angie Bonpensiero after she’s given some work by Tony after her husband Big Pussy is ‘disappeared’. What happens? She becomes “one of them” — figuratively, a man.
Tony Soprano’s own son AJ is an enormous disappointment. He’s a failson — a loser, flunks school, he’s a coward, can barely bang a broad. When he eventually does she’s a Puerto Rican single mum (albeit hot). He is subsumed into her culture. She dumps him anyway. One of the central ironies of The Sopranos is that whilst AJ goes mad and is committed, he’s the only sane one. He responds to the violent world around him — the violence and degeneracy of his mafia family along with the Global War on Terror — with horror. He is an innocent in a fallen world, driven insane by what he sees around him amidst a ‘sane’ world numb to it all.
One of the most powerful scenes in the show is when Tony admits he hates his son.
I come home, he's sitting on the computer in his underwear...wasting his time in some chit chat room going back and forth with some other fucking jerkoff... giggling like a little school girl. I wanna fuckin’ smash his fuckin' face in.
AJ doesn’t live up to his father’s expectations of what he wants for his son, what he wants for himself: the will to power. To wrap the world around his will. To lead men and control events. To provide. To conquer.
It’s impossible to imagine Tony having this reaction to his daughter: she’s expected to giggle and chit chat — she’s literally a “little school girl”. She is not expected to conquer.
AJ might be the protagonist’s failson, but he’s not alone. Jackie Jr bungles a robbery in a fail-imitation of his father and gets taken out by his own pseudo-father, his psycho step-dad Ralph. It’s a moment of failure and disappointment for his other pseudo-father Tony. Ralph’s real son is killed in a tragic bow-and-arrow accident. Vito Spatafore Jr acts out after the gruesome murder of his father by his uncle for being gay:
Chris Moltisanti is the consummate pseudo-son to Tony and, in Tony’s words, his biggest screw up. A junkie lieutenant whose fiancé ratted them out and who wrote and delivered a screenplay manifesting Tony’s fantastical murder.
Tony himself was a disappointment to his father, against whose potent mix of violence and sex Tony suffers panic attacks.
Failson after failson. Because they’re losers, they do not live up to their families’ mythologies, they do not win. In large part that’s because in this world they can’t: those legends are fake, their lives are grubby, their relationships fraught and compromised by treachery, greed, pride and every other sin. But nevertheless they’re expected to win. Daughters are not. Daughters are only there to be loved.
Meadow Soprano, Allegra Sacramento, Domenica Baccalieri: their daddies just want them to be happy.
Does The Sopranos treatment of daughters reflect the real world?
A woman can’t really be a loser or a drop-kick. Those monikers are reserved for men, because it’s with men where the expectation of competition lies. Men compete for status, for women. Men win or die. Maybe The Sopranos presents a a degenerate, fallen version of the truth, but some truth there is. Otherwise we would not recognise it or care.
Daughters are in some ways performative. They're your own ballerina.Part of the delight is that she dances of her own accord.
Maybe the inimitable Steve Sailer summed it up best:
Professional men’s leagues are based on teams representing cities rather than, say, Coke or Nike because it’s natural for human beings to cheer on their community’s strong young men as they Defend The Home Turf from raiders. This is such a primal instinct that it can keep up male interest through an inordinate number of contests each year, such as Major League Baseball’s 162 regular-season games.
But few humans conceive of women as their saviors in territorial struggles. While men’s sports are obviously stand-ins for war, women’s international sports instead are less like battles and more like beauty contests or talent competitions to show off to the world these exemplars of the American Way of Life. Granted, French girls may dress better, Italian girls cook better, and Russian girls dance better, but all those billions of miles chauffeured by American soccer moms have made our girls world champs.
Performative here does not mean what a daughter does is fake. It’s a comment on a daughter’s relationship with her father. Daughters dazzle their fathers, and so everything they do is to their fathers’ delight, with function secondary.
As I noted previously, a man’s love of daughters even affected Talmud scholars who found their daughters’ precociousness irresistible, with Rabbi Hisda going as far as to say:
As far as I am concerned, daughters are better than sons.
These comments also appear to be echoed by Rabbi Yehuda, and the halakic reasons are complex and difficult to follow but I suppose ultimately they simply fell under the spell of the love of their daughters.
One law of the universe I discovered upon marriage is that the centre of gravity of the family is the wife’s family. Your children belong to her parents. Your daughters will care for you, your sons will belong to someone else. I married a Mexican and I feel the constant pull of my in-laws. They’re high quality abuelitos but really it’s important to my wife which means it’s important to me. Her problems become my problems.
It was only after experiencing this law of the universe that I came across Genesis 2:24:
Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
The law of the universe, only revealed to you after marriage, is inscribed very explicitly in the first moments of the Hebrew Bible. Maybe it’s accentuated in Judaism, with its matrilineal flow.
This attitude is not culturally universal. Infanticide globally appears to be weighted towards girls, as sons are prized as workers, heirs or receivers of dowries.Yet even amidst economic incentives, daughters are recognised for their advantages:
Sons bring economic pressure… [but] ‘a daughter is a warm jacket for a mother’ when she is old,” she says, quoting an ancient Chinese idiom to illustrate the fact that many urbanised Chinese think daughters are better caregivers.
The example from Genesis may be anomalous — transgressive even — in the way Jewish practice could be. More common was the exact opposite, with sons the inheritors and bearers of the father’s religion, which the wife inherited upon marriage (correspondingly, she abandoned the religion of her own father). Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges wrote in The Ancient City on the Greek and Roman cities and their predecessors:
The birth of a daughter did not fulfil the object of the marriage; indeed, the daughter could not continue the worship, for the reason that on the day of her marriage she renounced the family and worship of her father, and belonged to the family and religion of her husband. The family, like the worship, was continued only by the males
Disney and other cartoons
I’ve said before that Disney loves wayward daughters (Mulan, Ariel, Brave, Pocahontas) but bildungsroman sons (Pinocchio, Lion King, Hercules).
King Triton is the happiest and at the same time most frustrated of Disney kings. He is in some ways King of the Disney kings: ruler of all of the oceans, jacked as hell, and most importantly, father to seven daughters.
In the Little Mermaid we are even introduced to the daughters via a grand performance (daughters are performative!) where Ariel, wayward daughter that she, is absent, gallivanting with her dreams.
There’s at least one man who beats King Triton on the daughter front, and by a mile: Mayor Ned McDodd, Mayor of WhoVille in Horton Hears a Who!, father of 96 daughters and one son.
The Hotel Transylvania series is really a horror story about a father's beloved daughter falling for an absolute drop kick. An immigrant dad losing his beloved daughter to assimilation and a degenerate local.
Pocahontas represents the renegade daughter at her most beloved. And ultimately she chooses her father over her husband, staying behind as John Smith goes back. Good daughter.
When Mulan returns home after effectively winning the war for China and saving the Emperor’s life, she presents her father with the vanquished enemy’s sword and the Emperor's crest as gifts to honor the family. Her father sets the gifts aside before embracing Mulan, proclaiming that his “greatest gift and honor” is having her for a daughter.
Indeed it is.
I’ll finish off with another extract from the letter I wrote to my eldest daughter on her second birthday:
Perhaps these are merely the sentimental meanderings of a father to his daughter. Something experienced in the heart of every dad for his baby girl spanning back to the first moment a father looked upon his daughter. Perhaps as you were born, whatever chemical that propelled our species to propagate infected me too, changed me too, rendered me a new person, more father-of-you and less whatever I was before. Well, so be it. I submit to that chemical destiny.
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Lyndon Johnson appears to have shared my grandfather’s disposition at least initially, until he was tempered by wise men, wrote Robert Caro in Master of the Senate:
Lyndon Johnson badly wanted a son—and apparently had no doubts that his wishes would be answered. Writing on November 22, 1943, to congratulate L. E. Jones on the birth of Jones’ baby, he said, “You may be interested to know that I am expecting a boy in March.” Talking to friends in Washington, with [his wife] Lady Bird present, he seemed so convinced of this that Jim Rowe had felt called upon to inject a note of caution, writing him on March 4, 1944, “I do assure you, as a gentleman who desperately wanted a son and never told his wife about it either before or after the event, that if your fate is the same as mine you will in three months’ time no more think of having a son instead of a daughter than of voting with [rival] Pappy O’Daniel.”
It’s an interesting question, beyond the scope of this piece, which loves are rivalrous and which are additive.
This applies to both boys and girls, but it’s funny how clearly any dance performances are products sold to parents rather than nominal means of advancement for kids. Which makes sense: parents are the paying customers.
I like the cleaving metaphor because it also aligns with my observation that divorce seems to have a particularly deranging effect on men. It is a violent cleaving.
Nice example that straddles daughter preferences and female infanticide from Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men by Mara Hvistendahl, via Marginal Revolution:
Liao Li also tells me she prefers daughters. “Girls are very good,” she says. “They’re soft. And they take care of you when you’re older.” But she aborted two female fetuses, she intimates, because having a son is crucial to keeping up appearances: “If you don’t have a boy, you lose face.”
Mayor Ned’s daughters bear an uncanny resemblance to another large famous family: the Goebbels.
The Goebbels: Hildegard, Harald, Helga, Helmut, Hedwig, Heidrun, and Holdine.
The named of the 96 Horton daughters: Hedy, Hooly, Helen, Heather, Hildy, Holly, Helga, Hilda, Haley, Hannah.
Now I’m NOT saying Mayor Ned is Goebbels….