Families and their dysfunctional dynamics are a timeless and intrinsic part of our humanity. Siblings still compete with one another, mothers still latch onto their grown babies, and fathers—for the most part—remain perplexed in what it means to be emotionally available for their families. Even the Greeks had daddy issues, with the likes of Kronos and Laius of Thebes who ate and banished their children in fear of being one day overruled. Freud once said that ‘a hero is a man who stands up manfully against his father and in the end victoriously overcomes him’. Perhaps this is true for those ‘manful’ men, but what is to be said about the feminine side of these silent battles, and the inextricable need for stability & emotional validation that these fathers fail to provide?
The absent father is so elusive and tragic he is practically mythic.
When Marilyn Monroe sang My Heart Belongs to Daddy in the 1960s film Let’s Make Love, she was alluding to her sugar daddy—her ‘little ol’ Daddy who just treats her so good’. This reference and song ignited a shift in the way the women of America’s gilded age portrayed and dealt with the father complex, creating space for a kitsch and playful rhetoric that overshadowed the painful underbelly that generations of women had dealt with and that more were yet to face. The themes of this iconic song were indeed prefaced by Vladimir Nabokov’s painfully poignant novel Lolita (1954) that depicts the story of a middle-aged literature professor who narrates the unfolding of his sexual obsession with 12-year old Dolores, who he kidnaps and brands as Lolita.
The objectification of Lolita, along with her captor’s attempt to buy her devotion through gifts like candy, comics & cute clothes, mirrors the relationship one would expect between father & daughter, yet with a perverse Nabokovian twist. This perversion is the very foundation of a dangerously distorted relationship; one that girls like Lolita and Marilyn seek in men after the abuse of power, often as a consequence of their own fathers. The transactional nature of gifts for sex in Lolita parallels Marilyn’s sugar arrangement with Daddy, where older men provide that security blanket as a fill-in father, with the precarious benefit of a sexual and even romantic relationship. These are the subconscious dynamics that govern Freud's daddy issues, manifesting themselves in unconscious repetition throughout expressions of literature and music—but what makes them seek out and even stay with Daddy? And why does it resonate so loudly with us as it continues to echo through the ballroom of time?
With its patriarchal heritage, the Western World has muzzled the daughter and functions against her retrieving the true nature of her power. As a consequence of living through the masculine mind, the feminine spirit suffers, ultimately influencing a fragmented sense of self in the pursuit of love and emotional recognition. Patriarchal dominance equally castrates men in their justification for emotional immaturity and avoidance, where endless generations of fathers lacked the time and space to engage with their family life through sensitivity rather than authority. Perhaps this fragmented sense of self is exemplified through Victorian notions of ‘female hysteria’, which were the first howls of defiance against the inherited trauma of patriarchal gaslighting and emotional invalidation. Equally, this fragmented self is sharply expressed in the dreams and poetry of Sylvia Plath. Her dreams might even be our own and reveal the archetypes we discover by thinking back on someone like her who internalised this energy from a previous era—an infinite energy that transcends space and time.
Plath elaborates on this fractured sense of self in her haunting poem Daddy (1962), where she confronts the wounded inner-daughter that lies within. An inner-daughter that perpetually struggles for identity and power in her estrangement from her dead father; one who ‘bit [her] pretty red heart in two’—ultimately consolidating the sentiments that drove her to her own demise. Her poetic voice always worked at confronting a warped and disillusioned perception of the father-figure that so deeply plagued her mind and the way she related to men throughout her untimely life. Her poetry also revealed how her raging father complex reduced her to the infantilised state understood by psychologist Russel Trainor as the ‘Lolita complex’, where the obsessive and unrequited desire to be seen and heard was something that never came to light.
After her father’s death, she recorded a dream where she wrote: ‘How many times in my dreams have I met my dark marauder on the stairs, at a turning of the street, waiting on my bright yellow bed [...] already he has split into many men; even while we hope, the blind is drawn down and the people turned to shadows acting in a private room beyond our view’. Through her own intimate reflections, Plath reveals the way her marauding father was the blueprint for the many men she would use to fill the bottomless pit of a dark and deplorable Daddy, including her toxic poet baby-daddy Ted Hughes. She consistently confesses to us the many angles of her daddy issues, a bond made up of suffering, longing, and an unspoken fidelity that kept her bound to an annihilating spiral of sadness. She attempted to free herself through her writing in an effort to resist the pull of destruction and death that was so heavily attached to the memory of him… now forever crystallised among the constellations of doe-eyed daughters who sought only peace & harmony under the grief of an oppressive Daddy.
Between the oppression and opulence of the wealthy yet emotionally unavailable Daddy, we find balance in the whimsical and wayward evolution of Lana del Rey and her ethereal tunes. Half a century after Plath and Marilyn, we witness her character arc evolve from the ‘sad girl’ bambi-faced ingénue, first defined by the age of Lolita and the ‘blackness’ of Plath’s ‘daddy’ issues, into the self-fulfilled artist who breaks away from a character construct that kept her trapped. The mainstream vision of her Lolita syndrome on the culture began with her debut album Born to Die, where she sings ‘Elvis is my Daddy / Marilyn’s my mother’ and subsequently continues to make artistic and literary references to daddy figures through a lens saturated by Lolita. She talks about the father of American free verse, Walt Whitman, as also being her ‘Daddy’. She samples the opening lines of Nabokov’s novel in her own Lolita-inspired song: ‘Light of my life, fire of my loins / gimme them gold coins’, as well as relentlessly singing to her cryptic Daddy figure in pre-debut songs such as Trash Magic, Put Me In A Movie, You Can Be The Boss and Crooked Cop.
Betram and Leving write about Lana being the perfect ‘blend of nymphet and femme fatale transported from the 1950s and 1960s into today’. This coincides with Simone de Beauvoir’s postfeminist culmination of the ‘new Eve’, who she describes as being just ‘as much a hunter as she is prey in the game of love. The male is an object to her, just as she is to him’. Lana’s simultaneous yearning for feminine agency whilst still being someone's baby is a deeply inherent part of the daddy fixation, essentially straddling the boundaries between submission and the reclamation of power—but why can’t both co-exist? Lana brings to light the suffering and shame that women experience through patriarchal antagonism, all the while reiterating how women are expected to be ‘young and beautiful’ forever. Lana has faced a critical reception for seemingly romanticising abuse through her lyrics and music videos—imagery often depicting wide robust hands grasping onto her stretched out neck; yet it is this mere romanticisation that obscures the line that separates love and pain.
Again we see this in the title-track of her second record, Ultraviolence, where she sings ‘he hit me but it felt like a kiss / he hit me but it felt like true love’—sampled from The Crystals, who were amongst the many Motown muses of the 60s, she brings the throes of a timeless suffering into the 21st century, exposing the universality of romanticising the very things that hurt her. The term ‘ultraviolence’, a lyrical twist on ‘ultraviolet’, reminds us of how subtle, invisible and insidious the pain of violence really is, especially at the hands of the one you love—who you think loves you. Lana’s lyricism and music truly emphasise the deep-rooted nature of these tales of female trauma, and how they reverberate through the fabric of our history…from Motown to Marilyn, from Lolita to Sylvia, we are not alone in the complexity of this suffering. Despite existing in different timeframes and contexts, what binds these women is their embodiment of nostalgia for the absence of fatherly love. That hunger was never fed, leaving them to scavenge for it on their own, to seek validation from anything remotely close to it in their lives, and to self-destruct whenever they felt abandoned or ashamed by it—behaviours that are the direct result of that wound… so to be loved and cared for by Daddy is profoundly elemental to human need… It's practically biblical.
I try to ask myself however, if this hunger truly satiates that itch to be loved the right way, or whether subconsciously defaulting to glamourising figures of authority is only perpetuating our attempt to fill the void of an absent Daddy?