September 30, 2014

Horse 1762 - On "The Death of Adulthood in American Culture"

Sometimes you read an article in a newspaper or magazine which stays with you for a while. The following article from the New York Times (coincidentally published on Sep 11) tries to argue the case that adulthood in American culture is dead.
This slow unwinding has been the work of generations. For the most part, it has been understood — rightly in my view, and this is not really an argument I want to have right now — as a narrative of progress. A society that was exclusive and repressive is now freer and more open. But there may be other less unequivocally happy consequences. It seems that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.
- AO Scott, The New York Times, 11th Sep 2014.

It is a rambling and at times confused article, which to be honest is the sort of journalism which I like best, but I think that it makes a couple of distinct errors, which doesn't help the cause.

Firstly I think that that the question of "Is Adulthood dead?" isn't necessarily prosecuted through looking at culture. As far a psychological concept goes, I would suggest that Adulthood is to do with people being self-sufficient, independent and responsible for themselves. In that regards, is it even possible to make such a claim?
You never hear on the news for instance that yesterday in the City of Sydney, 4 million people went to work and came back home, paid the bills, the rent, the mortgage, put petrol in their cars and will do it again tomorrow. The reverse question of "Is Adulthood alive?" is so mundane that no-one need bother to ask the question. Demonstrably, most people do take care of their responsibilities; arguably when you hear about issues like "cost of living expenses" and "mortgage stress" it is precisely because people are doing their best to take care of their responsibilities.

The question of what adulthood actually is, is also so mundane that no-one bothers to ask it very often. Adulthood, insomuch as it is anything, is the default counterpoint to concepts which aren't adulthood.
This might sound ridiculous but I really don't think that childhood was necessarily a protected thing until the Industrial Revolution. I remember reading somewhere that in 1820, roughly half of the workforce in the UK was under the age of 20; it wasn't until the Factory Act of 1833 that made it illegal to employ children under the age of 9 years old.
From this sort of climate and a change of heart, society in late Victorian era set about the task of "improvement" in society and it was from this sort of societal change that we start to see the ideas of public education and social welfare take off.
Even the concept of a "teenager" didn't really start to make very much sense, or even become a cultural touchstone until the 1950s when rising incomes meant that there was a new market to sell products to. Granted that societies have had cultural markers for a very long time such as the Bar and Bat Mitzvah, Quinceañera, Seijin no Hi &c but these are mainly coming of age markers, which mark the passage into adulthood rather than a celebration of childhood or adolescence.
Even people's 18th birthday or formally 21st birthday, marks the formal passage into majority which includes the franchise, the right to sue and be sued and to face proper criminal and civil charges as an adult and privileges such as being able to purchase tobacco and alcohol.

In the light of this, Mr Scott's complaint is more a case of complaining about what it is to be grown up. This is where the story gets weird.
That's why I'm sceptical at the way that this question has been framed. Either this is a deliberate case of myopia and choosing not to look at culture going back for a long period of time, or else it is a case of myopia because he doesn't look at society generally.
An old maxim which says that where one stands depends on where one sits might be instructive here. In prosecuting the question of if adulthood has died, it is worth looking at where Mr Scott is coming from. Mr Scott is a movie and television reviewer; so maybe it is worth looking there.
It’s not just this year that summer ticket sales have felt a slump, they’ve been on the decline for the past decade. Viewing ticket sales from the first weekend of May until the labour Day weekend, the slide began back in 2000 when there was a huge drop-off in 50 million summer movie tickets sold.
- Kirsten Acuna, Business Insider, 5th Sep 2012

I don't have a more up to date set of graphs but the data suggests that movie ticket sales are on the slide and have been for at least a decade. That suggests to me a narrowing of audiences rather than an expansion. If that's the case and the sorts of films produced are more "juvenile" then doesn't that mean that the supposed 'adults' which Mr Scott are looking for, are voting with their wallets and just not going to the cinemas like they used to?
If you were to look at the average age of nightclub attendees, would you conclude that society is getting younger? I think that this if anything is an error in the sample being taken.

If we drill down into Mr Scott's complaint, perhaps we can find reasons for what he sees. Moreover, what and why are the motive and means for "culture" existing the way that it does and for Mr Scott to ask the question.

1. Inputs For Movies
I will admit to feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games.” I’m not necessarily proud of this reaction. 

Let me offend half the population for a second and suggest that the reading of novels as we know them, is essentially a female pastime. I know that this is a mass-sweeping generalisation but, if you were to do a look at the demographics of who buys them, then I suspect that it is mainly women and always has been.
The modern novel began in the late 1700s and by the middle of the 1840s was a fully formed medium. Reading for pleasure was always a predominantly female pastime; men would usually read more newspapers, periodicals and sciencey things. Go to any writers festival today and you'll even see that the majority of attendees are women.
If you look at who actually buys YA novels, I have no reason to suspect that this is any different at all.

As for the sorts of things which become the grist for the mill to make movies? Think about it - The Wizard of Oz, Robin Hood (who has been made into more films than anyone ever), Gone With The Wind, The Godfather... these all started out as novels/stories. The rise of musicals on film during the 1940s & 50s, was as a result of those being popular on Broadway. Films like Star Trek, Dragnet, Mission: Impossible, Wayne's World, The Naked Gun, all derived from TV series.
In the 21st Century, we live in a society which is largely post-literate. Most people do not read for pleasure and I suspect that the reason that we do see so many comic-book and superhero crossovers is because filmmakers are looking at those for their cultural tie-ins because they will not have read as many books in the first place.

What was the first generally accepted so-called children's novel? This is rather a difficult question to answer but I find it hard to go past "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" as a possible candidate. But is "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" even a children's novel? How is that even possible in 1865 before literacy existed en masse among children? If the argument is that adults shouldn't like or consume media meant for children, then if they always have done (from before the advent of cinema, television etc.) then doesn't that suggest that his argument collapses?

2. Who Pays the Bills?
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.

Film companies will make films to turn a profit. Story - end of. They will usually follow the path of least resistance; that means producing films of relative puerility to put bums on seats.
If you want someone to blame for "an essentially juvenile vision of the world" then how about the post-war baby boom who never grew up; of which Anthony Oliver Scott is a card carrying member. It's people like him who make decisions about which films to make, isn't it?

Also, who are the main attendees of movies? 40 years ago whilst real incomes were higher, there was a more diverse range of ages; now it's more likely to be people aged 15-30, whose incomes and attitudes are more disposable. Maybe the reason why stupid films for 21 year olds are popular in cinemas are because the people who watch those films are stupid 21 year olds? Would Hot Tub Time Machine have even been made thirty years ago? Possibly - Cheech & Chong's "Up in Smoke" was.

How about the rest of us? When things like mortgages, rent, paying the utility bills, costs associated with raising children, arise, arguably people who are actually taking care of their responsibilities and doing the things which adulthood dictates, they're less likely to be at the cinemas in the first place. Again, why should film companies make films for people who won't attend them? That's economic suicide.

3. What Happens When Childhood Fades?
What happens to the boy rebels when the dream of perpetual childhood fades and the traditional prerogatives of manhood are unavailable?

What happens? Darkness and pessimism. Films are darker and edgier than they were 30 years ago. Even the average ratings of films released has been pushed outwards from PG12 to M15+.

What also happens? People don't go to the cinema as much - with less disposable incomes, they stay at home. Question: Why are "Mad Men", "Game of Thrones" and "Breaking Bad" popular? Are those shows "childish" as Mr Scott is so keen to prosecute? What about Borgen, The Killing and The Bridge? Scandi crime drama is exceptionally popular and is very far removed from an extended adolescence.

Also, did Mr Scott consider the possibility that the reason why animated films are so popular amongst older people... was that they always were? What emblem appeared on more aircraft than any other in World War Two? Donald Duck - he was on both allied and axis aircraft.

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
- CS Lewis

AO Scott cringes at childishness and asks if adulthood is dead. I've been on the earth for three and half decades and wonder the same thing - whilst I go to a job which I hate, whilst I pay bills which my paycheque struggles to stretch to and whilst I pinch pennies so hard that they scream. Now tell me the answer. Clearly my childhood ended a long time ago.
Anecdote is hardly evidence but if my favourite radio programs are "The Law Report", "The Science Show" and "PM" (Law, Science, Current Affairs), isn't that pretty well much the same sorts of things that say, my granddad would have been listening to 75 years ago?

"When I was young, I thought I had my own key
I knew exactly what I wanted to be
Now I'm sure,
You've boarded up every door
While we're living
The dreams we have as children fade away"
- Fade Away, Oasis (1994)

I don't know if childhood fades away. More likely I think, that it's progressively kicked out of us until we bleed. Is adulthood dead? Maybe not for people like AO Scott.
Youth always likes to yell that it is "awesome"; the first sign of maturity is the discovery that the volume knob also turns to the left. If we are talking about defining childhood and adulthood, then shouldn't that be about the markers which actually exist in society, rather than culture, which is a funhouse mirror anyway?
The point is that that I think that Mr Scott is trying to make an argument through the lens of culture and is then wondering why the lens isn't working. Look elsewhere.

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