How do men of dignity cope in this increasingly volatile, post-feminist world? From The Sleeping Dragon to The Sleeping Giant, this radical upending of the normative ideal has spelled for many a man’s undoing. Amidst the cyber-fueled melee of modern-day China depicted in novelist Yiyun Li’s “A Man Like Him”, our protagonist’s sympathy for an exploited man spawns a bold new form of activism:
Teacher Fei imagined these women dialing the father’s number at night, or showing up in front of his work unit to brandish cardboard signs covered with words of condemnation. “To all who support this young woman’s mission,” he typed at the bottom of [the daughter’s] web page, “the world will be a better place when one learns to see through to the truth instead of making hasty and unfounded accusations” (Li 171).
Teacher Fei is interceding here on behalf of a publicly impugned father, whose own spiteful daughter has used spurious accusations – through the courts and blogosphere – of an extramarital tryst between dad and cousin to fuel her own vendetta. This clear-cut case of male grievance at the hands of a jaundiced, militant woman bespeaks of the many perils awaiting men in today’s post-feminist society.
Traditionally, our world has been rightfully protective of women and, consequently, the comparative esteem amongst males has been ill-considered. As the protective sex, men are simply taught to suck up, grin and bear the tribulations of life. This dark spot on the social conscience has given free pass to feminist zealots intent on undermining men’s accomplishments and – to the appeasement of fringe misandrists who milk the liberal court system for exorbitant settlements – destroying men’s lives. In today’s post-feminist society, anti-male defamation like the kind perpetuated by the above daughter has increasingly been viewed as ‘empowering’ by some women, for such acts spurn the intersexual yin and yang which ideologues have deceitfully re-branded as a ‘patriarchal social construct’. Therefore, Teacher Fei represents a noble amongst men: one who upholds the esteem of his fellow man with utmost compassion; doing his small part to counter the ill-effects that feminism has wrought throughout the Orient and Occident.
Ever the wise in his advanced years, however, Teacher Fei is not one to conflate compassion with combat; his message above seeking simply to give pause to that daughter’s many rabid minions. Making an earnest entreaty to one’s accusers, by contrast, would be a most woeful act of supplication, for as Teacher Fei reasoned, “[o]ne should never hope for the unseeing to see the truth” (Li 181). Speaking myself as an aggrieved party of yore, I must concur, for accusations in all instances stemmed from either clueless strangers lacking the connections to qualify such judgments, or from decided enemies firmly bent upon deceit. True love never lies.
Finding kinship in their sole meeting, the sentiment is mutual between Teacher Fei – himself once wrongfully accused of preying upon a young student – and the embattled father regarding how they both “could’ve denied all the accusations, but what difference would it have made” (Li 181). Phony moral mountains like the one upon which the daughter has perched are constructed from scapegoats; nothing stops an accuser from fabricating the grounds lacked to stand upon. Nonetheless, Teacher Fei and the father have resigned to their own separate solutions: for the former, silence is an act of constancy; for the latter, suppression of suspense is the anesthetic to fate. The daughter, having made good on her first two threats, has but one left: poisoning him. Ultimately, the most resonant thing to come from their meeting is the warmth in knowing that neither is the sole victim of this cruel and accusatory world in which they live.
Intergenerational disaccord spans the heartland on equally expository terms in American novelist Mary Gaitskill’s “Tiny, Smiling Daddy”, in which our shriveling, curmudgeonly protagonist, Stew, is awoken to the news that his grown, out-of-state daughter has aired dirty laundry in a national women’s magazine. Brimming with anxiety, he copiously reads her article, only to be walloped by the following hardball:
If the worst occurred and my father was unable to respond to me in kind, I still would have done a good thing. I would have acknowledged my own needs and created the possibility to connect with what therapists call ‘the good parent’ in myself (Gaitskill 235).
Such mystical hubris is an affront to Stew: a self-made man of material means. Fatherless since childhood and averse to psychic whims, Stew is wholeheartedly convinced that it’s impossible to replace the spirit of one’s own missing forebears within oneself. If his daughter, Kitty, can’t find the love within herself to embrace the filial bond between them, then what does her outpouring truly mean in regards to her thoughts on his existence?
The genesis of Kitty – from a playful child, to an awkward teen, to an audacious young woman – stemmed from a testy yet typical post-60s American upbringing. Sparks flew as the daughter came into her own, with Kitty scoffing her pedigree with labels like ‘white trash’, and Stew acting vehemently dismissive upon her initial avowal of lesbianism. Their relationship calmed over the course of Kitty’s adult life, though the distancing between them, both emotional and geographical, persisted. In Kitty’s own published words, her father “may love [her] but he doesn’t love the way [she] live[s]” (Gaitskill 234). This filial schism evinced the inner-dichotomies of both father and daughter, for each sought the other’s love not on mutual ground, but on separately self-seeking terms.
Objectively speaking, this story must be taken with perspective to its time of setting. Published in 1997 when the present-day Kitty is twenty-eight years of age, the period of her misspent teens would’ve therefore fallen into the early 1980s, an era – predating discourse on the genetic, prenatal origins of homosexuality, and bereft of known homosexuals in the popular arena – largely unlearned towards the matter of lesbianism. Stew, for his part, came to terms more readily with Kitty’s sexuality than her mother did, removing his daughter from a mental hospital in which his wife, Marsha, had briefly placed her. Obviously, he would have wished for a more feminine, heterosexual daughter who, as his only child, could have carried on his bloodline with a protective male provider. His misgivings over her sexual nature stemmed not so much from any revulsion towards homosexuality, but from Kitty’s idealization of the masculine, ‘heroic’ woman as her romantic archetype. As surmised from her penchant for fictional harlots, and beheld in her tattooed, bodybuilding girlfriend Dolores, Kitty seemed in danger of conflating this fascination for the tough woman with attendant walks on the seedier side of life. Understandably, Stew feared of Kitty falling into a drug-addled existence amongst such physically imposing women, the very kind “whom his confused, romantic daughter invested with oppressed heroism” (Gaitskill 232). The exotic mutations and cross-country drifting which marked her early emancipation were enough to keep him guessing.
Given the heated issues ensnarling these characters – generation gaps, lesbianism, unruly daughters – “Tiny, Smiling Daddy” makes for predictable Foucaultian fodder, with leftist drones throughout academia likely to brandish the PC checklist of sexism, homophobia and patriarchal theory across all eleven pages. But whether or not such interpretations have been the intent of Gaitskill, a more level message surfaces, allowing rational readers to see the positive and negative traits in both Stew and Kitty. Gaitskill never allows misandry – so endemic of the post-60s humanities departments which have spawned writers of her ilk – to seep into her characterization of the leading male. True, there is a narrative recollection in which Stew, intervening on some mother/daughter fracas, allegedly punches Kitty, whereas a slap would’ve seemed more plausible. Yet the random shifting through time in this story is often schizophrenic, with tender moments juxtaposed with combustible episodes, leaving character profiles in a constant state of flux. In the present tense of things, Stew may feel that his instantaneous exposure is something much more gargantuan than the measly readership of a minor distaff monthly which has referenced him anonymously. Me, I see it as just the latest wild twist between two people with little left in common but their bloodline.