This is probably the most fascinating thing you’ll read all week. No, not this blog post. I mean A.O. Scott’s essay from last weekend’s New York Times Magazine, on what he calls “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” Fascinating, I say, not only because of the perceptively interwoven analysis of everything from Huck Finn and Ben Franklin to Mad Men and Beyoncé, but also because of the deeply conflicted intellectual-moral pretzel into which Scott seems to feel obligated to twist himself. The “death of adulthood” in our culture is to be lamented, on the one hand, and Scott laments it: like Tony Soprano asked, whatever happened to Gary Cooper? Or Bogie or Cary Grant or Sinatra? And why have all the men turned into boys? Into an endless stream of wedding crashers, Adam Sandlers, bro-tastic Seth Rogen comedy frat dudes, and hung-over hall-pass old-school fantasy escapees from adult responsibility?
Ok, so here’s where the sermon starts, right? You’d think so, but Scott is wily and knows that as soon as he gins it up, he’ll come off as a prude and a scold and a fuddy-duddy, a nostalgic privileged middle-aged white patriarch who just wants the damn kids to get off his lawn. And he says so in pretty much just those words, which makes his point for him: the very fact that A.O. Scott writing in the New York Times cannot possibly decry the decline of adulthood (particularly, manhood) without being dismissed as a patriarch shows that we’ve pretty much lost the ability to conceive of manhood, manliness, grown-up adulthood, what-have-you, without immediately hearing authoritarian patriarchy. What makes the essay so fascinating is that in the end, Scott apparently can’t either, and he winds up celebrating the death of adulthood as potentially a “lot of fun,” an endless playground with no mom or dad or teacher in sight where we all get to wear whatever mask we want and stay in Neverland forever. Hence, the intellectual-moral pretzel. You can tell that he really, really wants to decry and lament the “death of adulthood,” but also that he has zero language to articulate why adulthood just might deserve to live, and so he basically concludes the piece by writing a big red X over what he just wrote.
Part of the frisson of watching Mad Men, according to Scott, is that you get to watch the patriarchs at play, the glamorous men in suits who lived on top of the world, with three-martini-lunches and buxom female secretaries at their beck and call. You simultaneously and unironically get to revel in your own progress, your own moral superiority to these obvious knuckle-draggers, while at the same time deep down you want what they’ve got: “Damn, those old guys knew how to live” ‑ look at those suits, those cars, that house, and the immaculate fashion sense that apparently came with the smooth self-assured confidence that white men like you were born to run the world and enjoy its pleasures.
It’s a genius combo, and it must speak to us somewhere because it’s a formula we keep repeating. Look at Tony Soprano, the man who knows what he wants and takes it; look at what this really means, the people he steps on, the unfeeling monster it turns him into. Look at Walter White, the frustrated failure who turns himself into Heisenberg and finally takes charge of his life; look at the cold-blooded killer he becomes, isolated and cut off from everyone he loves. They’re glamorous and alluring, these outlaw patriarchs: Young men put Heisenberg bumper stickers on their cars, Sopranos and Scarface and Gordon Gekko posters up in their dorm rooms, for a reason. But we ‑ we being whoever it is in the entertainment industry that keeps cranking this stuff out like there’s no tomorrow, and all of us who keep watching it and wanting more ‑ also know that this is really, really not ok. If there’s anything that’s not ok anymore, it’s the patriarchy. Obviously, these guys are all more-or-less moral knuckle-draggers at best, if not outright murderers.
Scott says that the way we tell their stories ‑ the ballads of Tony, Walter, and Don, doomed men from another time “lumbering across the screens to die” ‑ shows that their day is over. They’re “the last of the patriarchs,” and good riddance. Their world of male supremacy is not entirely dead, but it’s not doing so well and hasn’t been for a while now, and this “slow unwinding” has made for a “freer and more open” world. But we got something else as part of the package that we didn’t expect: “In doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.”
Hence, as he outlines in more detail than I care to recapitulate, pop culture’s general decline into an endless series of twerks and fart jokes. Scott is not in favor of this, sort of. “Not only have 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… Nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable.”
Americans have never been very good at adulthood, Scott writes. We’re an eternally youthful people always striking out toward the horizon, Huck Finn on his raft leaving behind all the corrupt ‘sivilized’ folks behind. But at least “in the old, classic comedies of the studio era…adulthood was a fact. It was incontrovertible and burdensome but also 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.” They were at times rebels, too, but at least some of the time, they were rebels with a cause, people “with something to fight for, a moral or political impulse underlying their postures of revolt.”
And now? Well, if you can avoid adulthood, why not? “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. It is a kind of moral death in a culture that claims youthful self-invention as the greatest value. We can now avoid this fate.” Many of us do, as long as we can as often as we can. We can (at least, this is the idea) hold on to the drinking, smoking, and flirting forever, children at play in the eternal sandbox of American culture.
He ends the essay thus:
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 these 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.
The fascinating thing is, like I said, that it doesn’t seem like A.O. Scott quite succeeds in convincing himself. “Maybe nobody grows up anymore,” he muses, “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?” What happens is that you turn into a pitiable loser, like Louie C.K., whose show is “almost entirely devoted to the absurdity of being a pale, doughy heterosexual man with children in a post-patriarchal age.” You turn into a middle-aged man with all the responsibilities of fatherhood, but with only a pale shadow of the perks that the old patriarchs got. You turn into someone who has to raise the kids somehow, but with no real authority to do it.
So what makes a grown-up, well…a grown-up? Is there anything more to authority than authoritarianism? Can growing up and “being a man” mean anything better than resigned loserhood or outlaw patriarchy? Is there any good reason not to stay in Neverland as long as we can? In the end, A.O. Scott of the New York Times can’t say, and we’re left suspecting that he sees himself more often than he cares to admit in the shoes of Louis C.K. ‑ a beleaguered dad with “the dream of perpetual childhood” behind him, older every day, with kids he loves deeply who look up to him to teach them something about this life.