Off Topic

Who’s Your Daddy?

How televised paternity tests became a racialized American spectacle.

It’s November 2004, and Marisol has a problem. She has an 11-month-old son, Davian, whom she loves dearly, but she doesn’t know who Davian’s father is. So she’s back on the talk show Maury, which offers guests free paternity testing—this time with a man named Efrain. “You know her name,” host Maury Povich tells the audience. “You know her face.” Indeed, Marisol, a woman with a round face and big, sad eyes, has been here before. Povich announces that today marks her ninth time on the show, a fact that elicits howls of judgment from the audience.

Marisol takes it all in stride, rolling her eyes. The camera cuts to baby Davian, sitting backstage, staring into space, utterly unaware of his surroundings. The audience greets him with a collective Awwww.

Povich explains that, on a previous show, a paternity test determined that a man named Angel is not Davian’s father. Now, it’s Efrain’s turn.

Before we meet Efrain, though, Povich dives into Marisol’s “incredible history.” The show treats us to a slideshow of photographs of her “four beautiful children,” followed by an image grid of nine men who’ve taken paternity tests. In a voice-over, Povich describes Marisol as a “courageous woman” whose “one mission in life is to find the fathers of her children.”

The time line is almost too dizzying to keep straight. The search for the father of Marisol’s daughter Sha’Diamond began in February 2001, when Sha’Diamond was three years old, with two men named Manny and Lewis. Neither was the father. In May, Marisol thought it might be Jose. No luck. In November, Tony. It wasn’t him, either. Povich tells us that these years of looking have been unbearably painful; five men, one of them now deceased, have been administered paternity tests for Sha’Diamond.

Discouraged, Marisol then focused her energies on determining the paternity of her son Joshua. She had two men in mind, Ramon and Juan, both of whom were disqualified after they took paternity tests for the show in February 2002. Then came Marisol’s third child, Eliza. The search for her father would end quickly in January 2003 with a man named Phillip.

But baby Davian’s paternity is still a mystery. “He’s not a nice guy,” Marisol tells Povich when he asks how she felt after learning that Angel was not Davian’s dad. “I don’t want a father like that for my son.” She says she likes Efrain, though. He’s a sweetheart, and she wants him to be the father. She thinks he wants to be the father, too.

Efrain explains himself in a prerecorded segment. He respects Marisol, he says. They’re friends. And he certainly loves baby Davian. There is a clip of him hugging and kissing Davian to prove it. Efrain vows to help Marisol with the baby whether he’s his biological father or not. But he’s got a good feeling about the test; his heart tells him he’s the one.


In a voice-over, Maury Povich describes Marisol as a “courageous woman” whose “one mission in life is to find the fathers of her children.”

He seems like a swell guy, this Efrain. The studio audience certainly thinks so, judging by the fact that he’s welcomed by a swell of applause when he comes onstage and takes a seat next to Marisol. A side-by-side shot of Efrain and Davian—the latter cherub-faced, eyes full of wonder—flashes on the screen. Efrain doesn’t really see a resemblance, and, truth be told, the two don’t look much like one another.

“But I’ll tell you one thing,” Efrain says. “He has my personality.”

He tells Maury he’s willing to do everything in his power to take care of Davian if he turns out to be the biological father. The audience claps in approval. “That’s right!” one voice shouts.

Povich waves a manila envelope. The results are in. Marisol buries her face in her hands; she looks as if she’s about to be ill.

“When it comes to 11-month-old Davian,” Povich announces, “Efrain … you are not the father!”

Efrain doesn’t take the news well. The crowd amplifies his disappointment. He leaves the stage, frazzled. Povich tells him not to go, but Efrain needs a minute, he explains. He asks for Davian, who’s offstage.

“Where is he? Can I hold him? Please?” he asks. “He’s my baby. He’s mine, regardless.”


The paternity test—usually administered in private, in a doctor’s office or clinic—became, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a staple of daytime tabloid television through shows like The Jenny Jones Show, The Ricki Lake Show, and The Montel Williams Show. (Linda Shafran, the publicist for The Jerry Springer Show, claims it never featured paternity tests.)

Writing in the New York Times in March 2002, Alessandra Stanley posited that “DNA paternity testing has displaced wild-teen boot camp and infidelity lie-detector tests as the hottest genre on daytime television.” She noted the causal relationship between paternity-test segments and spikes in ratings; after introducing of DNA testing, ratings for Ricki Lake jumped 15 percent.

But it was Maury Povich and his producers who were the genre’s progenitors. In fact, Povich, whose show Maury is still on the air, may be the televised paternity test’s most famous American ambassador. He estimated in April 2015 that the show had run “tens of thousands” of paternity tests; he’d lost count at some point. So had the woman who gives herself credit for introducing the conceit to Maury, Amy Rosenblum, the show’s former executive producer. (When I ask Rosenblum via email when the results of Maury’s first paternity test aired, she says she can’t remember the exact year—either 1998 or 1999, she tells me.)


Daytime TV-watchers “were poised for new subject matter to appear on those shows, having exhausted many other salacious topics. The paternity test was another way of presenting sex and deception.”

“When I brought the DNA test to TV for the first time on Maury, I had no idea it would still be as popular today as it was then,” Rosenblum told a reporter in 2011. This was during that brief period when the show’s producers were attempting to convince a 16-year-old Justin Bieber to take a paternity test to determine if he’d fathered a fan’s child. “Maury is trusted by millions of viewers, and if Maury told Justin, ‘You are not the father,’ everyone would believe it.”

What helped Povich—along with Jones, Lake, and Williams—gain such a hold over the American consciousness was the fact that the paternity test was uncharted thematic terrain for daytime talk shows. Previously, it had surfaced as a plot point on soap operas from Days of Our Lives (in 1986) to General Hospital (in 1992). “Viewers became attached to the characters on the shows,” Vincent LoBrutto, author of TV in the USA: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas, tells me about fictional paternity drama. “But nothing compares with real people.”

LoBrutto suspects that talk-show producers were motivated by the sense that other topics, from quarreling spouses to misbehaving teenagers, had become rather staid over time.

“By the 1990s, those regular watchers of Maury, Montel, and Ricki Lake were poised for new subject matter to appear on those shows, having exhausted many other salacious topics,” LoBrutto says. “[The paternity test] was another way of presenting sex and deception.”


Questioning a child’s paternity, and conjuring fictions about a mother’s sexual activity, is an age-old American sport. How many of Sally Hemings’s children did Thomas Jefferson father? Is Ronan Farrow the secret love child of Frank Sinatra? Is Khloe Kardashian actually the daughter of O. J. Simpson?

Perhaps it is the timelessness of this narrative’s appeal that compelled Povich in 2017 to describe his paternity-test segments with the kind of language one usually reserves for the work of Shakespeare: “There is love. There is lust. There is betrayal. There is conflict.”

In addition, there’s the promise of resolution, the indisputability of science. Paternity-test results are revealed over a 12-minute segment or two—for easy digestion, Povich explains. Typically, the reactions to paternity revelations are comically grand and borderline slapstick, in the line of Sholonda’s grief-induced faceplant, or Bobby’s jubilant boogie, performed when he learned he didn’t father Shameka’s three-year-old.

Paternity segments also have a way of exposing the racial enmity that’s prevalent in America, as well as the gulfs between socioeconomic strata and the moral expectations placed on women with multiple partners. “Mr. Povich presents Black women and Black men in an especially stark light,” Patricia Hill Collins writes in her 2004 book Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. Collins notes that men in paternity-testing segments are likely pigeonholed into fitting a profile of the “black deadbeat dad.” The women, on the other hand, are cast as deviant: “Via the choice of topic, and showing the African American woman whose sexuality was so out-of-control that she had no idea who fathered her child, Mr. Povich panders to longstanding societal beliefs about Black sexuality.”

It’s perhaps no surprise that the televised paternity test segment has its roots in the regressive impulses of the Reagan era. William Marsiglio, a professor of sociology at the University of Florida in Gainesville whose work focuses on American fatherhood, explains that, during that period, particularly from 1981 to 1989, there was a strong push by the government for states to develop strategies to identify the biological fathers of children born to unwed mothers.

Social and political contempt for single mothers, and particularly for single mothers of color, had been brewing since at least January 1976, when then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan vocalized his disgust for the “welfare queen.” The archetype of the welfare queen refers to a woman who is poor and usually black. As Collins wrote in her 1990 book Black Feminist Thought, she also represents “a woman of low morals and uncontrolled sexuality, factors identified as the cause of her impoverished state.”

In 1979, Jerry Falwell’s political organization, the Moral Majority, began to push for the rebuilding of the American family unit, which it felt was in disrepair; ideally, it would be composed of a mother who cared for the children and a breadwinning father. The Moral Majority collapsed in 1989, but its influence lived on in policies enshrined by Reagan in the 1980s and Bill Clinton in the ’90s, a decade during which images of teenage moms were tied back to the stereotype of the dark-skinned single mother. In the mid-1990s, rates of teenage childbearing in the US, with 61 births per 1,000 teenagers, were the highest of any in the industrialized world. The contempt for single mothers of color—especially those who were black—that Reagan had built a platform upon calcified into policy, with Clinton’s welfare reform.


This was an America in which highway billboards asked, “Who’s the daddy?” and offered the phone numbers of DNA-testing laboratories.

“The policies under Clinton were all about recreating the nuclear, heteronormative family—to get men to be good breadwinners and get women jobs to support families, though the government was not going to be responsible for handouts,” Rosanna Hertz, author of the 2007 book Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice, tells me. “States rewarded couples: if you got married, your arrears went away. If you stayed married, some states would give you money as a reward.”

William Marsiglio, the sociology professor, says of that time, “[Policy] was very much tied to welfare expenditures back then. States, which were relying on federal dollars, began to think more systematically about how they could improve their paternity-establishment rates. With advances in DNA fingerprinting technologies to identify biological paternity, the states turned to scientific tools as well as administrative procedures in hospitals to improve paternity rates.”

By the 2000s, a bustling cottage industry of mail-order, do-it-at-home DNA paternity-testing kits emerged from the rubble of Reagan’s (and Clinton’s) policy pushes to bring families together and rebuild them. Companies like Identigene, founded in 1993, were born. This was an America in which highway billboards asked, “Who’s the daddy?” and offered the phone numbers of DNA-testing laboratories.

Within this context, viewers flocked to daytime talk shows, which provided a mix of “titillation and trauma,” as late sociologist Dorothy Nelkin put it. Nelkin determined that the booming market for at-home paternity testing kits and televised paternity segments had a symbiotic relationship. Mass media, she posited, “are providing free advertising. They are, in effect, amplifying the marketing messages of the paternity-testing firms.” By July 2000, Identigene’s founder, Caroline Caskey, told the Houston Press the company had administered 25,000 tests, at a rate of 250 per week.


The daytime talk-show host frequently plays the role of moral patrol cop, policing guests’ behavior with glee. In the 2012 case of 14-year-old Decardo, whom 20-year-old Quintara suspects has fathered her infant, Povich reprimands his participants, both of them black. (Decardo turns out not to be the father, which leads Povich to say that he’s “dodged a big bullet.”)

Other Maury segments frame the mothers in question as being undeserving of stability or general respect. Consider the case of Amanda and Felix, best-friends-turned-roommates, from 2008. Amanda claims on Maury that, once they moved in together, the two had sex over 20 times. Felix says it only happened once. Whatever the case, Amanda has a baby girl named Anaya, and she believes Felix is the father.

Amanda says that she knows exactly why Felix would deny his paternity: because she’s not “that Barbie type.” Her nose is wide and flat; she is heavyset. She isn’t “the skinny girl with blonde hair and blue eyes,” she says. Amanda imagines that Felix is embarrassed to be seen with her in public.

The women in these segments are portrayed as loud, vulgar, difficult. They are rarely white; when they are, the implication is that they’re “white trash.” They are doing poorly in life, we’re told, though they seem to exist within a contextual vacuum, absent of any structures that may have contributed to their plight.

“I give them a lot of credit,” Povich said, somewhat paternalistically, of the mothers who came on his show in search of answers regarding their children’s paternity during a Reddit AMA in April 2015. “And I’m only hoping and praying that those kids have a good life, even if it’s with a single mother.”


Marisol would return to Maury five more times after that day in 2004, bringing her total appearances on the show to 14. (By the time of her final visit, in 2013, Marisol had become a mini-celebrity within the Maury universe; her name was instantly recognized by audience members, who responded to its mention with a mix of exasperation and fury.)

In her search for the answer to baby Davian’s paternity, Marisol cycled through more men: Red and Mario, who visited in February 2005; Reggie in May 2007. None was the father.

In November 2008, Marisol came on the show with her fifth child, a son named Anthony, and tested two other men in an attempt to find his dad. Neither turned out to be the father, and in May 2010 Reggie was asked to return.

Reggie seemed furious at the thought that he might be Anthony’s dad. In his introductory video, he accused Marisol of being a hustler and trying to swindle money out of him. He said he doesn’t want anything to do with her. “Everybody in America knows who Marisol is,” he added. “I don’t want to be associated with someone like that.”

Minutes later, the paternity results were announced, and Reggie was found to be the father of two-year-old Anthony. He does a complete 180, radiant where he was once morose. The crowd cheered. It was a rare happy ending for Marisol.

“You know something? You’ll be a great father,” Povich assured Reggie as the applause died down. “I know you will.”

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