The Death of Adulthood in American Culture | NYT
“TV characters are among the allegorical figures of our age, giving individual human shape to our collective anxieties and aspirations. The meanings of “Mad Men” are not very mysterious: The title of the final half season, which airs next spring, will be “The End of an Era.” The most obvious thing about the series’s meticulous, revisionist, present-minded depiction of the past, and for many viewers the most pleasurable, is that it shows an old order collapsing under the weight of internal contradiction and external pressure. 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. The unthinking way Don, Pete, Roger and the rest of them enjoy their position, and the ease with which they abuse it, inspires what has become a familiar kind of ambivalence among cable viewers. Weren’t those guys awful, back then? But weren’t they also kind of cool? We are invited to have our outrage and eat our nostalgia too, to applaud the show’s right-thinking critique of what we love it for glamorizing. …
Something profound has been happening in our television over the past decade, some end-stage reckoning. It is the era not just of mad men, but also of sad men and, above all, bad men.
Don is at once the heir and precursor to Tony Soprano (fig. 2), that avatar of masculine entitlement who fended off threats to the alpha-dog status he had inherited and worked hard to maintain. Walter White, the protagonist of “Breaking Bad,” struggled, early on, with his own emasculation and then triumphantly (and sociopathically) reasserted the mastery that 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 (and will be) a culmination and a conclusion: Tony, Walter and Don are the last of the patriarchs.
In suggesting that patriarchy is dead, I am not claiming that sexism is finished, that men are obsolete or that the triumph of feminism is at hand. I may be a middle-aged white man, but I’m not an idiot. In the world of politics, work and family, misogyny is a stubborn fact of life. But in the universe of thoughts and words, there is more conviction and intelligence in the critique of male privilege than in its defense, which tends to be panicky and halfhearted when it is not obtuse and obnoxious. The supremacy of men can no longer be taken as a reflection of natural order or settled custom. …
It seems that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.”
“In my main line of work as a film critic, I have watched over the past 15 years as the 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 do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart.”
“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. (fig. 5). 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. Or, if you prefer, a loser.”
“Y.A. fiction is the least of it. It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young. Childhood, once a condition of limited autonomy and deferred pleasure (“wait until you’re older”), is now a zone of perpetual freedom and delight. Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can 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.
I do feel the loss of something here, but bemoaning the general immaturity of contemporary culture would be as obtuse as declaring it the coolest thing ever. A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.
I’m all for it. Now get off my lawn.”