The Birth of Adulthood in American Culture


Three fictional madmen — two sociopaths and a narcissist — die on television. It’s a strange worldview that would take this as a sign of “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture”, but that is the premise of the lead essay in the New York Times Magazine’s culture issue, by film reviewer A.O. Scott.

The unfortunate endings of Tony Soprano of “The Sopranos” and Walter White of “Breaking Bad” — plus Don Draper of “Mad Men,” whose elegant silhouette is likely to plummet off a skyscraper soon, according to some fans — signify to Scott the “slow unwinding” of the very idea of adulthood as it was formerly understood, a principle inherent in the patriarchy. “The supremacy of men,” Scott writes, “can no longer be taken as a reflection of natural order or settled custom.”

But is it “masculinity” that is in decline, or “maturity”? How tightly are the ideas of “manhood” and “adulthood” tied together? Not very. A closer look would suggest instead that adulthood is only just beginning to come to American culture.

Draper, Soprano, White: Each of these tragic exemplars of “adulthood” is destroyed exactly because of his failure to behave like an adult. All three are doomed, overgrown boys, a little reminiscent of the lost donkey-boys of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island. They are at bottom faithless, immoral, bereft of empathy or foresight; despite their moments of awareness and regret, they are reckless and essentially very stupid men. They are lousy not only at being adults, they are lousy as men, too, even if there is much in all three to admire: Don Draper’s restraint and intelligence at the conference table, Tony Soprano’s intermittent tenderness, and his protectiveness toward his family, and Walter White’s ingenuity and pluck. But in the main they are frauds who merely assume the trappings of “adulthood” in order to participate in a society that would reject them if it knew the truth.

Television shows are mass-market popular fiction, where conventional morality must and will eventually win the day. (“That is what fiction means,” as Wilde says.) What is demonstrated in these three cases is not only regular TV logic, but the mainspring of what John Gardner called “moral fiction” — a dramatization of the bad consequences of selfish, immature action. It’s not to do with having “killed off all the grown-ups” as Scott has it: quite the contrary. It’s adulthood defined for the audience by its very absence on the screen.

A child is a person whose whole world is self, and an adult is one who has transcended that unfortunate and lonely condition. Though some Americans over the age of twenty-one cannot be considered adults by this definition, most, perhaps, can, if they want to be.

A.O. Scott doesn’t like it when he sees adults reading young adult fiction:

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. As cultural critique, it belongs in the same category as the sneer I can’t quite suppress when I see guys my age (pushing 50) riding skateboards or wearing shorts and flip-flops, or the reflexive arching of my eyebrows when I notice that a woman at the office has plastic butterfly barrettes in her hair.

I am not a fan of Harry Potter. But who can cast aside the claims of young adult fiction to the most serious consideration, when Animal Farm and The Giver, Cat’s Cradle and To Kill A Mockingbird must be included (along with Huckleberry Finn, which Scott treats at some length)? These books are not remotely “carefree juvenilia,” though young teenagers are commonly assigned most or all of them as school reading. It seems silly to have to point out the glaringly obvious fact that a lot of “adult” books are plain terrible, and they can be terrible every which way. But for the purposes of this discussion, let’s be clear that many “adult” books are way more “immature” than even a half-decent YA novel (meaning that the author has ideas to share that will be of some interest and use to an adult reader).

Even a relatively light-on-ideas speculative novel for young people (Divergent, say) is about a thousand miles ahead of half the “adult” stuff on the bestseller lists — get-saved or get-rich Life Full of Purpose snake oil, dumb, pompous narcolepsy-inducing would-be Literary Fiction, warmed-over Dean Koontz etc., etc., etc. I mean this not just in terms of entertainment — although, that too — but in terms of providing useful, interesting moral and philosophical questions for the reader to think about, and test against his own ideas.

Adults might read books for and/or about young adolescents for a ton of different reasons, such as:

Nostalgia: in order to reminisce over that formative period in their own lives
Parenting (a): to understand their own children (and/or their children’s teachers) better
Parenting (b): to learn alternative parenting ideas and strategies
Curiosity: to compare the world that is past with the present one
Anticipation of the Future: to understand where the Zeitgeist is headed

These are all in addition to the very sound motive of “escapism” or plain fun. All are valuable adult literary experiences, and I can’t begin to fathom how anyone would think otherwise. Also, please note: no young adult novel is written BY adolescents. They can’t write novels: they are too young! In any case, I don’t think there is a reader of any age in all this great land who will argue that To Kill a Mockingbird compares unfavorably in any way whatsoever with the “adult” novel Fifty Shades of (“Argh!”) Grey.

(Also, who is this outrageous flibbertigibbet at the Times with the “plastic butterfly barrettes in her hair”?! Please step forward, identify yourself and produce the accessories that have so deeply offended our self-appointed representative of the “grown-ups.” Are they PINK? I should like to know.)

Scott couches his essay in layers of awareness about being part of the problem — he is a white man approaching the age of fifty — and that is all to the good. He doesn’t quite approve of himself for sneering. But he is still a little bit upset about the end of the days when men were men, because they “had something to fight for, a moral or political impulse underlying their postures of revolt.”

But in fact nothing has changed and Scott points this out himself. In a bewildering rumination on Leslie A. Fiedler’s “magisterial” Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), Scott says first that Huck Finn is an infantilized YA hero, “the greatest archetype of [the] impulse” of literary childishness, and then, five seconds later, goes on to claim that that Huck Finn “exposed the dehumanizing lies of American slavery.” If Huckleberry Finn is the model of infantile American fiction, did “adulthood in American culture” die in 1884, or 1960, or with the (possible) demise of Tony Soprano? Should today’s adults be reading Huckleberry Finn, or not?

Scott’s view of the oeuvre of Judd Apatow is nearly as baffling as his view of YA literature. He thinks that Apatow’s bromedies are dumb and juvenile, and that the people who love them are attempting, embarrassingly, to prolong their own childhood. But if the flight from adulthood is all about avoiding marriage or “responsibility”, Apatow’s anti-heroes do a terrible job on that front. The end of nearly every Apatow film finds each hapless young man embracing the most absolutely conventional “adult” values: getting married, having the child, demonstrating loyalty to the friend, saving the business, in a display of mainstream morality conformist and, indeed, conservative enough to satisfy Peggy Noonan. If anything, Apatow’s movies are a guide for man-children to become adults, while still maintaining some aspects of their childhood selves intact. They can still be loved and valued, still enter the adult world, and still love action figures. You might say, they can Have It All. (Which would be very nice, I think! And I hope they will.)

All this knocks the center out of Scott’s argument, so that by the end it is completely diffuse: “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. […] The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight. I’m all for it. Now get off my lawn.”

What does that even mean? If he’s all for it, then why do we have to get off his lawn? How come he is not just inviting everybody onto his lawn?

The very best “formal critical discourse” takes as its subject the whole of culture, the whole of human reality, and that has long been clear; we’ve moved way, way, way past the sniffy superiority of “Notes on Camp.” Umberto Eco wrote movingly and hilariously on “Peanuts” and “Krazy Kat” in the New York Review of Books in 1985. Nearly thirty years ago! (There are far earlier examples of the most exalted critics’ serious consideration of the products of mass culture, but that one will do just fine.) How is it possible that we are still hearing these worn-out calls for “adult” culture?

Here we can connect our earlier claim that adulthood is a matter of less selfishness and more empathy. Because an adult who has moved beyond the imperatives of his own ego no longer needs to show that the people or things he admires meet some (actually) childish, ego-stroking standard of “adulthood” — nor of “coolness” or “discernment,” for that matter. An adult is a person whose existential center of gravity has moved out from himself and into the world; he naturally just gives more attention than he takes in. That is, he doesn’t need attention for himself any longer; he’s more interested in what’s outside himself.

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe. If we want even to try to understand anything of ourselves, of the world, we must pay attention to everything and everyone there is. That is why it can be as grown up and serious as all hell to read Young Adult literature, provided it’s by real people and has real ideas, and if the same is true of the person reading. It is great to read anything, watch anything, meet anyone, go anywhere. And then we will be learning something all the time.

That’s why American culture is becoming more adult, rather than less. Educated Americans no longer think of their country as the center of the universe, but see their country as one among many; American novels, plays and stories seek a diversity of voices and opinions; same with the better American schools and workplaces. In my lifetime, despite some really terrible setbacks — in politics, especially — Americans have been slowly but steadily growing into the literal truth of the idea that all people are created equal, and that all voices should be heard. Adulthood, in short, is in the eye of the beholder, whether the beholder is watching The Sopranos or reading The Hunger Games.

Maria Bustillos is a writer and critic in Los Angeles.