On Sunday’s season finale of “Last Week Tonight,” comedian John Oliver took a shot at one of his most acclaimed peers. Referencing a New York Times report on Louis C.K.’s “gross sexual misconduct,” Oliver noted that the revelation “inevitably resulted in the cancellation of his new film, ‘Exhibit A if This Ever Goes to Trial.’”
Louis C.K.’s film, actually titled “I Love You, Daddy,” was on the verge of release when the reports of misconduct emerged. If it were any old project, it likely would have been dropped in the face of these allegations ― and it was ― but it can’t be denied that Louis C.K. did his work no favors by giving it an almost ludicrously creepy project title. It reads like fiction, like parody, like he was mocking his own grotesque narrative in advance, so that we needn’t bother.
There’s something icky about the title, so much so that it seems like a blatant provocation now. It’s coy ― the sexual undertones are undeniable in this era, but there’s also a level of plausible deniability: What’s wrong with a daughter loving her dad?
Louis C.K.’s choice of title was clearly deliberate, and the content of the movie is just as unsettling as the title. The narrative centers on industry hack Glen Topher, played by Louis C.K., who bats aside the rumors of abuse and child molestation surrounding his favorite filmmaker until that same filmmaker begins to put the moves on his adored and adoring 17-year-old daughter, China.
China (Chloë Grace Moretz) is ostensibly the motivating force of the movie, but she is not a fleshed-out, substantial character. She’s a visually pleasing trope, and a learning tool for her father, who has to grapple with female sexual agency, his duties as a parent and his moral blindness to abusive great men. China’s sexual awakening is viewed through the eyes of the older male characters, especially her father; what we see is only the effect her maturation has on them.
But the title is in China’s voice, and that is perhaps the really unsettling thing about it. She’s given enough of a voice to flirt, enough of a voice to flatter and disarm. She’s the one who says “I love you, Daddy” (nearly every line of hers begins or ends with this blandishment) and thus weaves a spell of pleasant oblivion over her father. He’s happy to accept her kisses and snuggles rather than actually raise her.
“A girl that age is getting into trouble,” says an ex-girlfriend played by Pamela Adlon to Glen, correctly, “and if she loves her daddy that means you’re doing nothing.”
Part of the unease of hearing a nubile 17-year-old cozy up to her “daddy” is, of course, that the term has been thoroughly sexualized. That’s not new per se ― it’s been an endearment for a male sexual partner for many years, especially in kink and queer communities. But what was once siloed or glossed over is now pervasive. In 2016, amid the Republican primary, poet Patricia Lockwood tweeted “fuck me daddy” at Donald Trump during a takeover of The New Republic’s Twitter. In 2015, Pope Francis could barely tweet without being deluged with graphic responses: “fuck me daddy,” “choke me daddy,” and infinite variations. Broadly interviewed some of the young people who tweeted these things at the pope, and, unsurprisingly, found most of them were trolling for reactions. Regardless, if you follow His Holiness on Twitter, you’ve probably seen “daddy” used in a less-than-wholesome context.
The most unsettling part of this framing, though, is that “daddy” doesn’t just capture the sexualization of male power and female infantilization, but the extent to which the culpability for that is put onto girls. “Daddy” doesn’t connote any particular type of dad, necessarily ― instead, it tends to characterize the speaker, a certain genus of spoiled post-pubescent daughter who performs an exaggerated version of dependence and youthfulness in service of her own ends.
In an important way, this framing is specific to fathers and daughters. Oftentimes we don’t see men as having power until they are daddies, kings of their own domestic realms. Young boys who need to be fed and sheltered by their parents are children, not wielders of influence; using your gap-toothed grin to charm your mom or dad into getting you a video game is nothing compared to the ability a boy will one day have to provide for himself ― no flattery or performed affection necessary.
But the way we view the power of young girls is warped by the fact that, even as adults, we expect women to achieve financial and personal influence through men. A daughter’s ability to wrap her daddy around her little finger long seemed like the apex of female power: The patriarch of the family is under her sway.
In “I Love You, Daddy,” China lounges in bikinis and curls up next to her dad on the couch as she wheedles him into sending her to Florida to party with her friends. “With the exception of Ivanka Trump,” writes The New Yorker’s Alexandra Schwartz, “I have never known a teen-age girl to spend so much time on her daddy’s lap.” She acts more like a trophy girlfriend than a teenage daughter ― she opens conversations with a syrupy “How are you, daddy?” and flirtatiously tilts her dainty chin at him, just before suggesting he let her skip school and use his shared jet to return to spring break.
Glen tries feebly to tell her that she should stand on her own two feet, get a job, but the film seems invested in the idea that his attempts at parenting are doomed by her cunning performance of childish helplessness. But if a teenage girl is sitting on her dad’s lap to earn treats and favors from him, we can only conclude that he has long incentivized that behavior.
Typically, of course, this has to do with access to money. For a long time, a father’s primary, if not sole, role in a nuclear family was to work outside the home and bring in money for everyone else to live on, while the mother’s role was, ideally, to care for the household and children. Some women have always worked outside the home ― usually poor and lower-middle-class women who were driven to work out of economic necessity. Success, for a woman, has, in tandem, been defined as marrying a rich man and living comfortably without working; being the beloved daughter of a rich man means similar access to his resources. An adolescent girl sweetly asking her pop to let her go shopping at the mall is just a precursor to an adult woman coaxing her husband into upgrading her car.
Are these retrograde notions of female roles? Yes, but powerful ones that have been difficult to completely dislodge ― partly because they’re baked into cherished works of art and entertainment, from Lolita to “Clueless.” (Cher was a smart girl, but it’s not hard to imagine that her relationship with her father ― and his credit cards ― would have been painted much differently if she were a he.)
Even into the 21st century, a T-shirt or license plate that flaunts the phrase “daddy’s girl” connotes the privilege of being lovable enough to have a benefactor. Ivanka Trump, a businesswoman in her own right, wields an influence over her father that was best captured by her request to join a presidential trip: “She said ‘Daddy, can I go with you?’” Donald Trump told a crowd during the trip. “I like that. I said, ‘Yes, you can.’”
In this weird little scenario, only by flattering the ego of her more powerful father could Ivanka get something she wanted: a trip to North Dakota. (If this is the quality of influence Ivanka has over the president, it’s little wonder that it’s resulted in her face cropping up on international junkets and at high-level meetings, rather than in a moderation of his policies.)
The incursion of women into the workplace has, if anything, increased the stigma of girls behaving in this way (hey, they’re able to succeed without cozying up to men these days) without changing the base assumption that women are fundamentally willing to exchange sex or affection to get crumbs of power or money from male gatekeepers (but they choose to, those manipulative tarts). Harvey Weinstein’s alleged serial predation remained nothing but an industry open secret for years, in large part, thanks to the assumption that the starlets he pursued were willingly and affirmatively making the choice to have sex with him for career advancement. And that, in society’s eyes, would be on them.
Our suspicion of ambitious women is so great that we side-eye them for, we assume, playing the game, far more so than the male gatekeepers who make the rules. It’s 17-year-old China, not her daddy or her much-older love interest, who truly needs to change her ways. Oddly enough, even Glen’s vaunted attempts at parenting his daughter are actually exercises of this kind of undermining. When she responds to an erotic slasher they’re watching with some nascent feminism (men, she says, have “fucked us for long enough. Now it’s time to fuck them”), he doesn’t engage with her ideas. Instead, he snorts with laughter and shames her, a high school student, for living off of her wealthy father instead of getting a waitressing job. In the climactic blow-up between Glen and China, newly 18, she alternately protests that she’s an adult now and can make her own choices, and that she’s in high school and needs support. Glen responds, basically, that she can’t have it both ways. But he’s the one who has wanted to have it both ways, letting her make her own decisions like an adult so that she will keep loving him with the unreserved affection of a child.
With conflict comes the blessed disappearance of “Daddy” from the film’s dialogue. In one horrifying moment, when China walks in on her father asking filmmaker Leslie Goodwin if he is fucking his daughter, she shouts at him in disgust ― and she calls him “Dad.” That he, soon after, has her move out on her own says something still more unsettling about what behavior he needs from a daughter in order to support her.
“I Love You, Daddy” traces a necessary arc, with China assuming a healthier distance from her father, but the lessons that remain do little to disturb the “daddy” paradigm. Glen is ultimately a sad sort of hero, a man who did what he needed to do for the daughter he loved. Leslie, in a disturbing way, is also a hero. Instead of having a sexual relationship with China, he’s painted as a sort of unthreatening “pervert” who enjoys watching a young girl shop for shorts at Barneys, yes, but who rewards her with a highly educational trip to Paris and provides necessary friction with her father that launches her into adulthood. During a postcoital argument with Rose Byrne’s character, in which Louis C.K. has Byrne voice a rigorous defense of old men sleeping with teenage girls, she argues that a relationship with Leslie might be just the thing to “grow China up.” The movie winds up cosigning this argument, though to do so it lets Leslie off the hook on a technicality.
“I Love You, Daddy” is the silver-screen embodiment of what makes “daddy” feel so creepy in 2017. Men remain the gatekeepers to money and life experience, but we still see girls and young women as the ones with the power ― the power to cajole and seduce it from their daddies and their boyfriends. The solution, apparently, is for women simply to stop doing this, to stop trying to exploit and compromise the men around them.
The most depressing part of this cultural narrative, of course, is how little control women actually have over it. We have long been incentivized and expected to perform, like China, a sort of alluring childlikeness that soothes the egos and tickles the libidos of powerful men. Our society celebrates that murky melding of woman and girl: Old enough to sexualize, but young enough not to know better. We want women to behave nearly the same way as daughters and lovers ― deferential, attentive, admiring and dependent.
No wonder the word “daddy,” voiced by a teenage girl, makes us squirm. It should.