Of all the unlikely cultural archetypes to have emerged in 2023, the zaddy is the one I was expecting least. Used to identify a charismatic older man who is both fashionable and sexually attractive, the word first appeared around 2008 but was only popularised by the singer-songwriter Ty Dolla $ign, who released a song called “Zaddy” in 2016. Most of its lyrics are not fit for publication, but “she keep on callin’ me zaddy” is its popular refrain.
Unlike a daddy (also popular as a slang term to define an older sexual partner), a sugar daddy or, God forbid, a Dilf, the zaddy is more aware of his charisma. He’s more provocative. A flirt. Zaddies tend to be unshaven, familiar with — though not married to — some gym equipment, and in possession of a devastating smirk. He’s old-fashioned, but likes fashion — a paternalistic action man. The Wire’s Idris Elba is a zaddy. So is Gary Lineker, and the Mad Men actor Jon Hamm. Brad Pitt should be a zaddy but somehow fails to make the cut.
TikTok has allowed the expression to bloom in a new era, most pertinently in relation to Pedro Pascal, actor and star of The Last of Us. The moustachioed 47-year-old has exploded into the public consciousness as the show’s appointed protector of the teenage Ellie, who (naturally) holds the key to saving humankind. As someone who can shoot on target, keep watch while you sleep and look smoking in a leather jacket or a sparkly, silver lurex sweater, he’s the poster boy for what the zaddy’s all about.
Pascal has leaned into his new status with surprising nonchalance. Not everyone would be so comfortable about being reminded of their age. In my experience, telling men they are old enough to be your father tends not to be the best way of ingratiating yourself with them. I remember one friend describing how a “slightly younger” colleague developed a habit of calling him “Dad” when they went to work events. She presumably thought she was engaging in some low-level banter. He avoided ever having to speak to her again.
What’s more surprising in this evolving, emancipated epoch is that we should have fallen for such a retrograde archetype. Shouldn’t we be embracing more modern, less traditional role models, rather than reaching for the oldest man-hunk in the book? Last week I went to see Woolf Works, choreographer Wayne McGregor’s interpretation of three books by Virginia Woolf. The section dedicated to Orlando finds a troupe of dancers metamorphosing into silvery, asexual beings. Seeing them was a reminder of how extraordinarily foresighted Woolf was. Surely, in this era of fluid gender identity and attitude, the zaddy belongs to some bygone age.
Or maybe, in a time of flux, he’s precisely what we want, and the rise of the tough masculine protector hero is a corollary of these complicated, non-compartmentalising times. As Freud would be first to tell us, an attraction to father figures has long been one of our creepy lusts. It was probably born of self-preservation, as until relatively recently women were often married off to men more than twice their age. Fiction is full of charismatic older dudes prepared to “rescue” women and offer them a more exciting life. Mr Rochester, with his “little girl” endearments and allusions to “the man who had but one little ewe lamb that was dear to him as a daughter”, gives me total zaddy vibes. (Of course, Charlotte Brontë doesn’t conform to any rule: in a clever inversion of the hero complex, it is ultimately Jane Eyre who saves our man.)
Likewise, American culture is full of noble, silent hotties transporting teenage women across the continent. The Last of Us is basically a rehash of True Grit or any other Western where an epic voyage must be undertaken to avenge some ancient justice on the open plains.
The zaddy is a cute twist at least on the more toxic macho archetype. Like so many markers of cultural domination, he owes his popularity to the ardour of both young women and gay men. And who wouldn’t love him? He’s comfortable on the dance floor, he wears fashionable clothing and he knows how to have a laugh. But, ultimately, he’s merely the latest manifestation of a deep-seated need in western culture to reassure men that their attractiveness won’t wane with age.
Sadly, the female equivalent of a zaddy is still rare: Sigourney Weaver played the most epic of adoptive mothers in Aliens, but that was almost 40 years ago, and she was then in her mid-thirties. Meanwhile, the exhortation to “be my mom” on social media just doesn’t have the same allure. Even though it’s been used to describe such icons such as Beyoncé and the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the term “mom”, even as a feminist epithet, suggests more draining emotional responsibilities than it does badassery and power. Intended as the ultimate form of flattery, it just doesn’t have that zaddy ring.
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