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I Won’t Grow Up

A.O. Scott's The Death of Adulthood in American Culture
I Won’t Grow Up

 

 

By Drew Trotter

 

WENDY: But [Father] said I have to grow up and I don’t want to grow up, Mother.

MOTHER: Nobody wants to grow up, Wendy. But we all have to someday.

In the many and wildly various versions of Peter Pan the roles of the children’s father Mr. Darling and the villainous Captain Hook are often played by the same person. This was true even of a recent screen version, Peter Pan (2003), in which Jason Isaacs, malevolent father of Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, played both roles. It is significant that this tradition continues well after the need for play actors of a company to play several roles has died. If humankind cannot bear very much reality, it cannot bear very much authority, either.

The link between the father-figure and the evilly perceived, legalistic role of authority in our society is not unknown to us, of course, and it has been growing since well before J.M. Barrie penned his play in 1904. I submit that A.O. Scott, chief film critic for the New York Times is right when he points to several television series as illustrative of how not just fathers, but white males in general, are viewed in present day pop culture.

Youth has long been worshipped in American society, but Scott has drawn attention to how pervasive this veneration is. He begins the essay with an extensive discussion of the upcoming final season of Mad Men and some thoughtful ruminations on the place of TV characters as role models in our society today. He writes, “TV characters are among the allegorical figures of our age, giving individual human shape to our collective anxieties and aspirations.”

He goes on to say, “The most obvious thing about [Mad Men’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.” That “old order” is “a power structure built on and in service of the prerogatives of white men”. Scott writes that the deaths of Tony Soprano (sort of), Don Draper (maybe) and Walter White (definitely) illustrate the death of white, male supremacy in our society and goes on to declare—not tentatively—that this generations-long struggle is a “narrative of progress.”

Scott’s essay then veers in another, more interesting direction. “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.”

Scott’s essay is long and rambling and probably ought to be discussed in two sessions because the illustrations of his points come from so many places. He writes about American literature—Huck Finn, et al.—and Leslie Fielder’s classic response to its general elevation of the young rebel in his book Love and Death in the American Novel, declaring that, in the end, “all American fiction is young-adult fiction”. He discusses the man-boy films of Judd Apatow and their penchant for presenting men, who “simply refused to grow up, and did so proudly”.

Scott makes clear that the elevation of youth as the height of our aspirations comes at the expense, not only of male authority, but female authority, too. Mean mommies are a regular trope in movies and TV nowadays. Shows like Girls and The Mindy Project are triumphant in their focus on twenty-something women forging their own way in the world, always against the authority of their parents, their bosses or especially traditional societal norms. Even feminism’s greatest cultural authority now is Beyoncé at the VMA’s “in her bejeweled leotard, with the word ‘feminist’ in enormous illuminated capital letters looming on the stage behind her”.

At the end of his essay, Scott considers whether or not we should be upset about the death of adulthood. “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”. He ultimately declares that pop culture

“imagine[s] 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.”

He wraps up his essay by showing his ambiguity: “I’m all for it. Now get off my lawn.”

The song “I Won’t Grow Up” in the play Peter Pan, includes a verse that says, “And if it means I must prepare/To shoulder burdens with a worried air,/I’ll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up/Not me,/Not I,/Not me!/So there!” Whatever one thinks “to shoulder burdens with a worried air” means, the phrase surely points to age and the wisdom that is supposed to accompany it, and the phrase denigrates that maturity.

Nevertheless, the undergraduate experience is just that, a preparation for the shouldering of the burdens of life in twenty-first century America. The Christian vision of growing older is very different from Peter’s advice to the children. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we are enjoined to “to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph 4:15) aspiring to

“attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph 4:13-14).

A.O. Scott’s essay struggles with a common difficulty of our time and is so ambivalent because he sees no way out of the dilemma of modern man: When this mortal coil is all we have, how do we retain value, as we grow older? He has no answer.

 

Scott’s article can be found here.

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