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  • Peter Whitehead and Niki de Saint Phalle's Daddy (1973)
  • Joanna Bourke (bio)

A new motto: What have they done to you, poor child?But now enough of my filthy stories.

Sigmund Freud, in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess, December 22, 1897

Trauma has become the central motif of modernity. The two world wars reduced enlightenment beliefs in the glorious possibilities of humanity to rubble; the holocaust and the threat of nuclear annihilation stripped even that rubble of any meaning. For many Europeans and Americans in the 1960s and 1970s, the dark world of suffering that had been forged in the first half of the twentieth century was ready to be contested. While the world created by daddies was steeped in trauma, daughters became seduced by apocalyptic fantasies of overturning the oppressive triptych of patriarchy, religion, and the military-industrial complex (MIC). Peter Whitehead and Niki de Saint Phalle's 1973 film Daddy (UK) was an angry retort to oppressive regimes, particularly that most destructive one of childhood sexual abuse. But its power lies equally in its ambivalence and, in the end, its profound negativity. While Whitehead and de Saint Phalle resolutely sought to free representations of women from the triad of narcissism, masochism, and passivity, insisting that the feminine is home to the full range of aggressive and sexual drives, they also stripped away even the most facile hopes for a better world. In this, Whitehead and de Saint Phalle joined other creative radicals of the 1960s and 1970s (such as poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, who wrote eloquently about both female resistance and resignation in the face of paternal sexual abuse) in presenting a pessimistic account of late modernity. [End Page 622]

It is no straightforward task to describe this highly complex film, with its dreamworks, flashbacks, and fantastical structure. The principal story line traces the desires of four characters, none of whom are named: Daddy (played by Rainer Diez), Daughter (Mia Martin and de Saint Phalle), Mother (Clarice Mary), and Convent Girl (Mia Martin). There are also brief appearances by the Lover/Husband (Rainer von Hessen) and the Falconer (Whitehead himself). The film opens with some of de Saint Phalle's drawings from The Devouring Mother (1972),1 followed by the Daughter reading a tele gram from Mother asking her to return home because Daddy has drowned. Daughter returns to their castle (where there are spectacular sculptures by de Saint Phalle, including one of her Nanas and a gigantic falcon). She sees a swimming pool (perhaps where Daddy drowned, but where she had swum as a child, naked under Daddy's watchful eyes). There is a coffin, which she opens. Inside is a gigantic gray marble cock, whose balls she gently caresses. She enters the house, opens a book on a side table, and flashes back to her childhood where she played Blind Man with Daddy. The game consists of the Daughter blindfolding Daddy, turning him around, and then Daddy attempting to catch her. She chants,

Blind Man Blind ManSure you can't see?Turn around three timesAnd try to catch me.

Daughter longs to please her father, but he only truly loves his birds. As the Daughter says, "I wanted so much to be one of your birds. ... How miraculous it seemed that the birds were so free to fly away, to leave you, and yet they always returned as if you held them by an invisible thread." She recognizes that it was possible that, one day, she might fly away but then sadly adds: "How was I to know that I was just one of your prey?"

In the section entitled "The Monster," Daddy sexually abuses the Daughter during a game of Blind Man. The daughter's response is ambivalent: she wants to scream; she promises to "lead [Daddy] to many countries" and to "conquer the world" for him; she commands "Down on your knees Daddy, say please say please ... Dirty dirty Daddy." The Daughter's abuse is symptomatic of the Daddy's cruelty generally: Daddy also beats and rapes the Mother. When the Daughter dons her Mother's wig, Daddy punishes her by locking her in a dark cupboard. Daughter...