Of all the unlikely cultural archetypes to emerge in 2023, ZD is the one I least expected. Used to describe a charismatic older man who is both fashionable and sexually attractive, the term first appeared around 2008 but was only popularized by singer-songwriter Ty Dolla $ign, who released a song in 2016 called “Z”. Most of his songs are not suitable for publication, but “She Keeps Calling Me Bush” is a popular refrain.
Unlike a daddy (also popular as a slang term to define an older sexual partner), a sugar daddy or, God forbid, a dilph, ZD is more aware of his charisma. It is more provocative. A flirt. The Zadies are unshaven, acquainted with — though not married to — some gym equipment, and in possession of a devastating smirk. He is old-fashioned, but loves fashion – a paternalistic action man. The Wireof Idris Elba is a Z. So is Gary Lineker, and mad men Actor Jon Hamm. Brad Pitt should be Z but somehow fails to make the cut.
TikTok has allowed expression to blossom into a new era, most notably in relation to Pedro Pascal, actor and star. The Last of Us. The mustachioed 47-year-old has exploded into the public consciousness on the show as the appointed guardian of teenage Ally, who (naturally) holds the key to saving mankind. Someone who can shoot at a target, keep an eye on you while you sleep and watch you smoke in a leather jacket or a shiny, silver Lurex sweater, he’s the poster boy for what ZD is all about.
Pascal leans into his new position with surprising impatience. Not everyone is comfortable being reminded of their age. In my experience, telling men they are old enough to be your father is not the best way to endear yourself to them. I remember a friend describing how a “slightly younger” colleague got into the habit of calling him “Daddy” when they went to work events. She probably thought she was in on some low-level banter. He avoided ever speaking to her again.
Even more surprising in this growing, emancipated age is that we should have fallen for such a retrograde archetype. Shouldn’t we be embracing more modern, less traditional role models instead of reaching for the oldest man-hunk in the book? I went to see last week Woolf Works, choreographer Wayne McGregor’s interpretation of three books by Virginia Woolf. A section dedicated to Orlando Finds a troupe of dancers transforming into silver, asexual beings. Seeing them reminded me of what an extraordinary visionary Woolf was. Certainly, in this age of fluid gender identities and attitudes, ZD belongs to a bygone era.
Or perhaps, in times of flux, it’s just what we need, and the rise of the tough masculine protective hero is part of this complex, undivided time. As Freud would be the first to tell us, attraction to father figures has long been one of our queer desires. It was probably born of self-preservation, since relatively recently women often married men more than twice their age. The fantasy is filled with charismatic older dudes designed to “rescue” women and provide them with a more exciting life. Mr. Rochester, with his love of a “little girl” and allusions to “a man who only had a little lamb he loved as a daughter,” gives me total Zed vibes. (Charlotte Brontë, of course, conforms to neither rule: in a clever reversal of the hero complex, it is ultimately Jane Eyre who saves our man.)
Similarly, American culture is filled with noble, quiet hotties who transport teenaged women across the continent. The Last of Us Basically a rehash True grit Or any other western where an epic journey must be undertaken to avenge some ancient justice on the open plains.
ZD is at least a cute twist on the more toxic macho archetype. Like many markers of cultural dominance, it owes its popularity to the fervor of both young women and gay men. And who wouldn’t love that? She is comfortable on the dance floor, she wears fashionable clothes and she knows how to laugh. But, ultimately, it’s just the latest manifestation of a deep-seated need in Western culture to reassure men that their attractiveness won’t diminish with age.
Sadly, the female equivalent of Zeddie is still rare: Sigourney Weaver played the most epic of adoptive mothers. Aliens, but that was almost 40 years ago, and she was in her mid-thirties at the time. Meanwhile, the exhortation to “be my mom” doesn’t have the same appeal on social media. Although it has been used to describe icons such as Beyoncé and the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the word “mom,” even as a feminist epithet, suggests more a discharge of emotional obligations than stigma and power. Intended as the ultimate form of flattery, it just doesn’t have that ZD ring.
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