A.O. Scott’s 9-11-14 article, “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” in the New York Times Magazine, has me pondering this question. Scott starts by saying that “TV characters are among the allegorical figures of our age, giving individual human shape to our collective anxieties and aspirations.” For example, “from the start, ‘Mad Men’ has, in addition to cataloging bygone vices and fashion choices, traced the erosion, the gradual slide toward obsolescence, of a power structure built on and in service of the prerogatives of white men…
Something profound has been happening in television over the past decade, some end-stage reckoning. It’s the era not just of mad men, but also of sad men and, above all, bad men. Don [Draper of “Mad Men”] is at once the heir and precursor to Tony Soprano, that avatar of masculine entitlement who fended off threats to the alpha-dog status he’d inherited and worked hard to maintain. Walter White, the protagonist of ‘Breaking Bad,’ struggled, early on, with emasculation, then triumphantly (and sociopathically) reasserted the mastery [he felt] the world had contrived to deny him. The monstrousness of these men was inseparable from their charisma, and sometimes it was hard to tell if we were supposed to be rooting for them or recoiling in horror. We were invited to participate in their self-delusions and to see through them, to marvel at the mask of masculine competence even as we watched it slip or turn ugly. Their deaths were/will be a culmination and a conclusion: Tony, Walter, and Don are the last of the patriarchs…
It seems,” however, “that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we’ve also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups…Ruth Graham recently published a polemical essay in Slate lamenting the popularity of young-adult fiction among adult readers. Noting that nearly a third of Y.A. books were purchased by readers ages 30 to 44 (most of them presumably without teenage children of their own), Graham insisted that such grown-ups ‘should feel embarrassed about reading literature for children.’ Readers reacted furiously – the sentiment on Twitter could be summarized as ‘Don’t tell me what to do!’
In my work as a film critic, I’ve watched over the past 15 years as studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises (some of them based on those same Y.A. novels) that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism, and comedies of arrested development make up not only the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood, but its artistic heart.
Meanwhile, as television shows like ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Mad Men’ heralded the end of male authority; we’ve also witnessed the erosion of traditional adulthood in any form, at least as it used to be portrayed in the formerly tried-and-true genres of the urban cop show, the living-room or workplace sitcom, and the prime-time soap opera. We’re now in the age of ‘Girls,’ ‘Broad City,’ ‘Bob’s Burgers’ (a loopy post-‘Simpsons’ family cartoon), and a flood of goofy, sweet, self-indulgent and obnoxious improv-based web videos. What these shows show, in one way or another, is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. It isn’t only that patriarchy in the strict, old-school Don Draper sense has fallen apart. It’s that it may never really have existed in the first place, at least in the way its avatars imagined.
Americans have never been all that comfortable with patriarchy in the strict sense of the word. The men who established our political independence – guys who, for the most part, would be considered late adolescents by today’s standards (including Benjamin Franklin, in some ways the most boyish of the bunch) – did so partly in revolt against the authority of King George III, a corrupt, unreasonable and abusive father figure. It wasn’t till more than a century later that those rebellious sons became paternal symbols in their own right (they weren’t widely referred to as ‘founding fathers’ till Warren Harding, then a senator, used the phrase around the time of World War I).
From the start, American culture was notably resistant to the claims of parental authority and the imperatives of adulthood. Surveying the canon of American literature in his magisterial Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie A. Fiedler suggested, more than half a century before Ruth Graham, that ‘the great works of American fiction are notoriously at home in the children’s section of the library.’ Musing on the legacy of Rip Van Winkle and Huckleberry Finn, he broadened this observation into a sweeping (and still very much relevant) diagnosis of the national personality: ‘The typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat – anywhere to avoid “civilization,” which is to say the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to sex, marriage and responsibility. One of the factors that determine theme and form in our great books is this strategy of evasion, this retreat to nature and childhood which makes our literature (and life!) so charmingly and infuriatingly “boyish.”’
Huck Finn is for Fiedler the greatest archetype of this impulse, and he concludes Love and Death with a tour de force reading of Twain’s masterpiece. What Fiedler notes, and what most readers of Huckleberry Finn will recognize, is Twain’s continual juxtaposition of Huck’s innocence and instinctual decency with the corruption and hypocrisy of the adult world. Huck’s ‘Pap’ is a travesty of paternal authority: a wretched, mean, and dishonest drunk whose death is among the least mourned in literature. When Huck drifts south from Missouri, he finds a dysfunctional patriarchal order whose notions of honor and decorum mask the ultimate cruelty of slavery. Huck’s hometown represents ‘the world of belongingness and security, of school and home and church, presided over by the mothers.’ But this matriarchal bosom is as stifling to Huck as the land of Southern fathers is alienating. He finds authenticity and freedom only on the river, in the company of Jim, the runaway slave, a friend who is by turns Huck’s protector and ward.
The love between this pair repeats a pattern Fiedler discerned in the bonds between Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick and Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels. What struck Fiedler about these apparently sexless but intensely homoerotic connections was their cross-cultural nature and their defiance of heterosexual expectation. At sea or in the wilderness, these friends managed to escape from the institutions of patriarchy and from the intimate authority of women, the mothers and wives who represent a check on male freedom.
Fiedler saw American literature as sophomoric. He lamented the absence of books that tackled marriage and courtship – for him the grown-up themes of the novel in its mature, canonical form. Instead, notwithstanding a few outliers like Henry James and Edith Wharton, we have a literature of boys’ adventures and female sentimentality. Or, to put it another way, all American fiction is young-adult fiction.
The elevation of the wild, uncivilized boy into a hero of the age remained a constant even as American society itself evolved, convulsed, and transformed. While Fiedler was writing his monomaniacal tome, a youthful rebellion was asserting itself in every corner of the culture. The bad boys of rock ‘n’ roll and the pouting screen rebels played by James Dean and Marlon Brando proved Fiedler’s point even as he was making it. So did Holden Caulfield, Dean Moriarty, Augie March, and Rabbit Angstrom: a new crop of antiheroes in flight from convention, propriety, authority, and what Huck would call the whole ‘sivilized’ world. The Updikean and Rothian heroes of the 1960s and 1970s chafed against the demands of marriage, career, and bureaucratic conformity, and played the games of seduction and abandonment, adultery and divorce, for high existential stakes, only to return a generation later as the protagonists of bro comedies.
Unlike the antiheroes of eras past, whose rebellion accepted the fact of adulthood as its premise, these man-boys proudly refused to grow up.” Apparently, for Scott, growing up means accepting the dominant culture. I think it means a lot more, including accepting the responsibility of taking part in changing one’s culture to the extent that it can’t be accepted. What’s your definition?
“As before,” Scott goes on, “the rebellious animus of the disaffected man-child was directed not just against male authority but also against women. In Sandler’s early, funny movies, and in many others released under Apatow’s imprimatur, women are confined to narrowly archetypal roles. Nice mommies and patient wives are idealized; it’s a relief to get away from them and a comfort to know that they’ll take care of you when you return. Mean mommies and controlling wives are ridiculed and humiliated. Sexually assertive women are in need of being shamed and tamed. True contentment is only found with your friends, who are into porn, ‘Star Wars,’ weed, video games, and all the stuff girls and parents don’t understand.
The bro comedy has been, at its worst, a cesspool of nervous homophobia and lazy racial stereotyping. Its postures of revolt tend to exemplify the reactionary habit of pretending that those with the most social power are really beleaguered and oppressed. But their refusal of maturity also invites some critical reflection about just what adulthood is supposed to mean. In the old, classic comedies of the studio era – the screwbally roller coasters of marriage and remarriage, with their dizzying verbiage and sly innuendo – adulthood was an inconvertible fact: burdensome, but full of opportunity. You could drink, smoke, flirt, and spend money. The trick was to balance the fulfillment of your wants with the carrying out of your duties.
The desire of the modern comic protagonist, meanwhile, is to wallow in his own immaturity, plumbing its depths and reveling in its pleasures. The modern man-boy’s predecessors tended to be a lot meaner than he allows himself to be. But they also, at least some of the time, had something to fight for, a moral or political impulse underlying their postures of revolt. The founding brothers in Philadelphia cut loose a king; Huck Finn exposed the dehumanizing lies of America slavery; and Lenny Bruce battled censorship. When Marlon Brando’s ‘Wild One’ was asked what he was rebelling against, his thrilling, nihilistic response was ‘Whaddaya got?’
Maybe nobody grows up anymore, but everyone gets older. What happens to the boy rebels when the dream of perpetual childhood fades and the traditional prerogatives of manhood are unavailable? There are two options: They become irrelevant or they turn into Louis C. K. Every white American male under the age of 50 is some version of the character he plays on ‘Louie,’ a show almost entirely devoted to the absurdity of being a pale, doughy heterosexual man with children in a post-patriarchal age.
The humor and pathos of ‘Louie’ come not only from the occasional funny feelings that he has about his privileges – which include walking through the city in relative safety and the expectation of sleeping with women who are much better looking than he is – but also, more profoundly, from his knowledge that the conceptual and imaginative foundations of those privileges have crumbled beneath him. He’s the center of attention, but not entirely comfortable with that. He suspects that there might be other, more interesting stories around him, funnier jokes, more dramatic identity crises, and he knows he can’t claim them as his own. Above all, he’s aware of a force in his life, in his world, that by turns bedevils him and gives him hope, even though it isn’t about him at all – feminism.”
Scott then tries to claim that popular singers like Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, Lady Gaga, Kesha, and, of course, Madonna, are the most feminist women around. Maybe in an unreal world, for no real stakes. Look at what happened to the Dixie Chicks when they took a stand against the Iraq War, by contrast. Scott’s reasoning? “The dominant voices in pop music now, with the possible exception of rock, which is dad music anyway, belong to women. And the conversations rippling under the surfaces of their songs are as often as not with other women – friends, fans, rivals, and influences.
Similar conversations are taking place in the other arts: in literature, in stand-up comedy, and even in film, which lags far behind the others in making room for the creativity of women. Television, the Monument Valley of the dying patriarchs, may be where the new cultural feminism is making its most decisive stand. There is now more and better television than there ever was before, so much so that ‘television,’ with its connotations of living-room furniture and fixed viewing schedules, is hardly an adequate word for it anymore. When you look beyond the gloomy-man, angry-man, antihero dramas that too many critics reflexively identify as quality television – “House of Cards,” “Game of Thrones,” “True Detective,” “Boardwalk Empire,” and “The Newsroom” – you find genre-twisting shows about women and girls in all kinds of places and circumstances, from Brooklyn to prison to the White House.
Many people forget that the era of the difficult TV men, of Tony and Don and Heisenberg, was also the age of the difficult TV mom, of shows like ‘Weeds,’ ‘United States of Tara,’ ‘The Big C,’ and ‘Nurse Jackie,’ which did not inspire the same level of critical rapture partly because they could be tricky to classify. Most of them occupied the half-hour rather than the hour-long format, and they were happy to swerve between pathos and absurdity. Were they sitcoms or soap operas? This ambiguity, and the stubborn critical habit of refusing to take funny shows and family shows as seriously as cop and lawyer sagas, combined to keep them from getting the attention they deserved.” Maybe, in addition, they weren’t as good, as interesting, or as compelling as the shows about men.
Scott’s next claim is that ‘Sex and the City’ is “the most influential television series of the early 21st century, because it put female friendship – sisterhood, to give it a political inflection – at the center of the action, making it the primary source of humor, feeling, and narrative complication. ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ and its spinoffs did this in the 1970s. But Carrie and her girlfriends could be franker and freer than their precursors, and this made ‘Sex and the City’ the immediate progenitor of ‘Girls’ and ‘Broad City,’ which follow a younger generation of women pursuing romance, money, solidarity, and fun in the city.
The ‘can women be funny?’ pseudo-debate of a few years ago, ridiculous at the time, has been settled so decisively it’s as if it never happened. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Aubrey Plaza, Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes: Case closed. The real issue, in any case, was never the ability of women to get a laugh but rather their right to be as honest as men.
And also to be as rebellious, as obnoxious and as childish. Why should boys be the only ones with the right to revolt? Not that the new girls are exactly Thelma and Louise. Just as the men passed through the stage of sincere rebellion to arrive at a stage of infantile refusal, so, too, have women progressed by means of regression. After all, traditional adulthood was always the rawest deal for them.
Which is not to say that the newer styles of women’s humor are simple mirror images of what men have been doing. The freedom of Abbi and Ilana on ‘Broad City,’ as of Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa on ‘Girls’ – a freedom to be idiotic, selfish, and immature as well as sexually adventurous and emotionally reckless – is less an imitation of male rebellion than a rebellion against the roles it has prescribed. In Fiedler’s stunted American mythos, where fathers were tyrants or drunkards, the civilizing, disciplining work of being a grown-up fell to the women: good girls like Becky Thatcher, who kept Huck’s pal Tom Sawyer from going too far astray; smothering maternal figures like the kind but repressive Widow Douglas; paragons of sensible judgment like Mark Twain’s wife, Livy.
Looking at those figures and their descendants in more recent times and at the vulnerable patriarchs lumbering across the screens to die, we can see that to be an American adult has always been to be a symbolic figure in someone else’s coming-of-age story. And that’s no way to live in a culture that claims youthful self-invention as the greatest value. We can now avoid this fate. The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all. We have our favorite toys, books, movies, video games, songs, and we are as apt to turn to them for comfort as for challenge or enlightenment. Y.A. fiction is the least of it. We can now live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures, and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content. These symptoms of arrested development will also be signs that we are freer, more honest, and happier than the uptight fools who let go of such pastimes.” And more immature…less responsible as parents and models for the young; completely abdicating our responsibility to shape our world.
Economist and social critic David Korten wrote a book in 2006 called The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community that was definitely adult, and encouraged us to be, too. Korten described Empire as “material excess for the ruling classes,” backed up by the hierarchical, dominator power of force or the threat of force: “death and violence.” Earth Community, by contrast, he envisioned as egalitarian and democratic: a partnership with each other and natural systems characterized by “material sufficiency for everyone, the power of life and love, and the realization of the mature potential of human nature…
Contemporary human societies,” Korten believes, “fail to manifest the higher-order potentials of love and service, not because of an inherent flaw in our human nature, but because the dominator relations of Empire actively suppress the development and expression of its positive potential.” Instead, the imperial, capitalist, commercial culture encourages the kind of narcissistic juvenility described by A.O. Scott – along with, Korten says, “racism, sexism, and classism.”
Change can come with a “cultural turning” from overvaluing money and material things to celebrating life and “spiritual fulfillment,” an “economic turning” in line with the earth’s and human needs, and a “political turning” in which “cooperation, justice, and mutual responsibility and accountability replace coercion.”
Different worldviews tell different stories, Korten says. For Empire, life is “hostile and competitive;” for Earth Community, it’s supportive and cooperative, suffused with love. Similarly, Empire believes human beings to be “flawed and dangerous,” with order only possible via force and coercion; while Earth Community sees many possibilities, including “order through partnership.”
Korten quotes Riane Eisler, whose “partnership power” is “the power to create, share, and nurture.” It “organizes through consensual decision-making, mutual accountability, and individual responsibility,” and is characterized by “mutual trust, caring, competence, and an equitable distribution of power and resources. Conflict is embraced as an opportunity for learning and creativity…The cultural principles of Earth Community affirm the spiritual unity and interconnectedness of Creation.”
Finally, and most importantly for the subject at hand, Korten lists five “Orders of Human Consciousness”:
1. The Magical Child (ages 2-6), unable to recognize the consequences of her actions or accept responsibility for them.
2. The Imperial Child (ages 6-11), still primarily self-referential. Reciprocity is on the order of a market exchange and justice is retributive. The child behaves well to get rewards and/or avoid punishment, and justifies bad behavior by saying he ‘didn’t mean to,’ or ‘everyone else is doing it.’ In an adult, this level would be sociopathic.
3. The Socialized Child (ages 12-adulthood) is the level of most American adults, who value acceptance and are loyal to and share the interests of the groups to which they belong. Morality is of the ‘law and order’ type. These people are “highly adaptive to the dominant institutional context.”
4. The Cultural Creative recognizes that culture is a social construct, and that she has choices, including cultural innovation. People on this level, which is rarely achieved before age 30, especially in modern imperial societies, have an inclusive worldview and believe in equality for all. The independent thinking characteristic of this level is discouraged by most corporations, political parties, churches, labor unions, and educational institutions.
5. The Spiritual Creative is “the highest expression of what it means to be human: co-creation in creation’s evolutionary quest to actualize its possibilities.” This is the level of the elder statesperson, teacher, tribal leader, or religious sage who sees the spiritual unity of creation. A characteristic behavior: nonviolent civil disobedience.
Korten says that only levels 4 and 5 “can fully understand the deeply democratic possibilities of Earth Community. The culture and institutions of Empire,” which emphasize fears and fantasies, “reward psychological immaturity and dysfunction and reproduce it from generation to generation.”
It seems to me that, for some of the reasons implied in Scott’s article, Americans stand out as the most immature of the immature imperial cultures. Depressing? Kind of. But at least it gives us a starting point.