Features » September 23, 2014
Who Killed Adulthood?
Feminism stands wrongly accused.
Adulthood isn’t an inevitability; it’s an ideal. And it’s a feminist ideal, too, which is perhaps why it’s been so fiercely repressed, for so long, by pop culture.
Adulthood is dead. And feminism killed it. This, anyway, is the verdict of a long—and, frankly, pretty fascinating—essay by A.O. Scott in last week’s New York Times Magazine. The essay lopes and rambles through every imaginable territory of pop culture, from prestige TV series about the deaths of fictional patriarchs (Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and, if the fan theories that Scott cites are correct, Mad Men) to the fiery Internet backlash that met critic Ruth Graham’s recent assertion in Slate that adults “should feel embarrassed about reading literature for children,” stopping to take in Leslie Fiedler, Taylor Swift and Broad City.
Scott asserts, “The best and most authentic cultural products of our time … 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.”
Now, I’ll admit: The day before I read Scott’s essay, I actually found myself crying because my life had contained so few of the rites of passage I’d once envisioned as constituting “adulthood.” I don’t have kids, or a retirement plan, or real estate. I didn’t foresee those ever being realistic possibilities. Like Peter Pan in reverse, I found myself cursing the fact that I couldn’t grow up. Which is to say, I think Scott’s largely right. Adulthood, particularly for people of my generation (“millennials,” if you can bring yourself to use that word; I’m at the older end of the curve) is dead, or at least on life support.
But the online sub-hed tells a different story: It advertises the piece as “charting the final, exhausted collapse of the adult white male.” Scott’s thesis is not just that behaving like a grown-up is increasingly outré, but that the era of stern, controlling, authoritative father-figures—the patriarchs who supposedly made up the patriarchy—is ending.
And then there's the part where he says women have had to be “grown-ups” by virtue of civilizing, taming, and providing domestic comforts for male husbands. He goes on to conflate women's power with their infantilization: “Just as the men passed through the stage of sincere rebellion to arrive at a stage of infantile refusal, so, too, have the women progressed by means of regression. After all, traditional adulthood was always the rawest deal for them.”
Scott seems to think that the entire structure of growing up hinged around either being Daddy or marrying him; that, without “adult” men calling the shots, we've deteriorated a bunch of Apatovian child-men, and, increasingly, equally stoned and unserious girl-women, such as those who populate Broad City and Girls. He paints a merry and perpetually childlike free-for-all, trading certainty and maturity for diversity and freedom.
While I may agree with Scott on the death of adulthood, I disagree about what killed it, and whether that death benefits women—or even represents “freedom” at all.
Under Western patriarchy, femininity has been construed as a perpetual childhood. The idea goes back to Victorian ideals of True Womanhood, but it's been perpetuated through the ages, from Betty Crocker housewives to Barely Legal porn: “Ideal” women, which is to say white and wealthy ones, were supposedly delicate, emotional, innocent. Like children, they cried easily, were effusive about the things they liked, had naive ideas about the world. Like children, they could not work or vote; we couldn’t be entrusted with such heavy adult responsibilities. They were financially and physically dependent upon adult caretakers, namely fathers or husbands. They needed protection; they were charged with obedience. They got allowances, and when they were good girls, presents. Oh, gosh, a dishwasher? All for me?! Meanwhile, women excluded from this “ideal”—women of color and working-class women, who actually did have to work, and deal with the world’s harsher realities—were cast as “unfeminine,” and therefore appropriate targets for male sexual predation and exploitation.
Much of feminism, then, has been about insisting that women can be adults, able to shoulder the same burdens as those forbidding, grey-faced patriarchs. It’s been about insisting that women can and should do the hard stuff: Get full educations, vote, work, make tough choices and wrangle with difficult ideas, become politicians and bosses.
By contrast, for privileged white men, “adult responsibility” seems to feel like a grim inevitability, the death of boyhood fun and games. The worlds of literature and film, from Peter Pan to Knocked Up, are littered with male fantasies about ditching it all and living in a lifelong responsibility-free playpen, perhaps with a wife or Wendy-lady to clean up your messes and make sure you get dinner on time. It’s true that there’s nothing inherently fun about working a 60-hour week or balancing your checkbook. But white men were (and are) privileged enough to ignore the trade-off that many feminists took as axiomatic, that sacrificing fun meant gaining autonomy—accessing decision-making power and financial resources without asking Daddy for extra allowance or promising to be a good girl if he let you stay out late.
Feminism not only refuted the idea that women were necessarily light-minded and irresponsible, but also that such “feminine” qualities were necessarily enjoyable for the women in question, or that they were the only way to earn love: As women from Mary Wollstonecraft onward have argued, the childlike and frivolous “ideal” woman was a case of someone whose development had been intentionally arrested, a human being who’d been warped and pruned like a bonsai tree into a decorative miniature person.
Which is to say: If Scott’s central death-of-adulthood text Mad Men portrays the end of Don Draper, and patriarchs like him, it also portrays the end of Betty Draper, the 36-year-old-going-on-10-year-old who demonstrates better than any fictional character I can name the horror that results when a woman is not permitted to grow up. Feminism is a historical movement devoted to opposing arrested development in women. It seems unlikely that feminism has caused it.
And yet, here we are, in a cultural moment in which arrested development is not only the norm, but quite possibly the ideal, for both genders. Adults read books for children (The Fault in Our Stars, The Hunger Games), listen to music for children (One Direction, Ariana Grande), and watch children’s movies (Disney fairy-tale adaptations, Marvel comic-book adaptations) and children’s television (Pretty Little Liars, Doctor Who). We buy ourselves video games and toys; we share passionate opinions on how to interpret Maleficent or how much we identify with Katniss or which Hogwarts house we are or what one ought to think of Taylor Swift. (Please note: I have done all of these things, often publicly.) Thanks to pop culture’s nostalgia cycle, people in their twenties and thirties are able to live through endlessly repeated loops of their own childhood pleasures: If, as a 6-year-old, I adored My Little Pony, I can still watch it now, in its new and more critically acclaimed version My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. If, as a 10-year-old, I roller-skated around my garage listening to Amy Grant and Mariah Carey, I can now listen to Haim and Grande, who put tremendous amounts of energy and professionalism into sounding exactly like the Amy Grant and Mariah Carey records I once owned.
What’s more, we react angrily to the idea that there’s anything weird about this. In 1989, it wouldn’t have been unusual or rude to suggest that a childless 30-something who knew plot details from Sweet Valley High novels or The Little Mermaid, or who had a favorite member of New Kids on the Block, was a bit of an odd duck. In 2014, the disapproval and accusations of being a misfit are more likely to be aimed at people who don’t know much about YA novels, Disney movies or boy bands, or who express distaste for them. The blunt-force rage aimed at Graham for suggesting that adults ought to stick to books for adult audiences is a matter of record. You could also look to the fiery backdraft that hit Saul Austerlitz’s essay “The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism,” in which he had the temerity to ask, “Should gainfully employed adults whose job is to listen to music thoughtfully really agree so regularly with the taste of 13-year-olds?”
As plenty of people were happy to inform Austerlitz, there is no such thing as “the taste of 13-year-olds” in 2014; there is only mainstream taste. And, while music in particular has long been driven by teenagers—look no further than Beatlemania—there is, indeed, cause for concern when not only music, but movies, television, and literature are all centered around narratives written to be so simple that a child can understand them. Our belief in putting aside childish things—the idea that kids can and should enjoy entertainment centered around their experiences, but that part of the fun of getting older was being granted access to riskier, more complex, more challenging pleasures; or, to be quite blunt, our belief that there’s something a little creepy about adults getting passionately invested in sharing 11-year-olds’ lifestyles and tastes if they’re not currently raising 11-year-olds themselves—has decayed, as we’ve given up the idea that childhood and adulthood are separate spheres, with separate sources of fun.
So what happened? Well: Rather than feminism, it probably has a lot more to do with the fact that the entire structure of “adulthood” evaporated just as people my age were supposed to be walking through the door.
The legacy of the Great Recession of 2008 has yet to be fully processed. But one of its most lasting impacts will no doubt stem from the fact that many college students and recent graduates—people who were just starting to build the careers and financial autonomy that would have allowed us “adult” lives—were suddenly faced with an economy in which getting a steady job was unlikely. Even if you were privileged or lucky enough to be able to afford a college education, companies’ increasing reliance on unpaid internships meant that building a career was a matter of being able to work for free after you graduated: Increasingly, only the children of the very wealthy were able to make the choices and secure the entry-level jobs that might lead to “adult” autonomy down the line. As a result, we saved money by living with our parents far longer than previous generations. The financial expense of a wedding—or the responsibility of asking another person to rely on you for the rest of their life—was not something one could reasonably embrace, if one were uncertain about making rent or having a job in six months’ time. Similarly, providing for a child was laughable if you couldn’t even reliably provide for yourself. And buying a house? In today’s market? Forget it.
My generation didn’t choose childhood. Childhood chose us, or rather, it refused to let us go. We stayed adolescent because post-adolescent responsibilities were never granted to us. We were trapped in Neverland, and sooner or later, we resigned ourselves to just having fun. But the historical shock rearranged the pop-culture landscape in unexpected ways: For example, it once made at least some sense for the producers of pop culture to concentrate on the experiences and tastes of teenagers and early twenty-somethings, because they were likely to be the consumers with time and money for entertainment. Teens were expected to have allowances, and younger twenty-somethings were expected to have jobs but not major financial responsibilities like mortgage payments or caring for children. Now, the financial realities have changed. Twenty-somethings are often burdened with heavy student debt; buying CDs and DVDs, rather than streaming or downloading them, is an old man’s game. But so have the social realities. We get older and older, but our lifestyles stay the same age; and, not having the means to make heavy investments, we still pay for little things, like concerts and movie tickets. Yet the culture continues to conceive of its core audience as comprised of teens and 22-year-olds, and we, hungry for distraction and trained to consume, keep eagerly purchasing accounts of a time in our lives that is fast fading in the rearview mirror. I suspect it happens, at least in part, because tuning out would be equivalent to admitting that we were actually getting older; and, if you don’t accrue accomplishments as you age, getting older just feels like running out of time.
Meanwhile, the actual adolescents coming up behind us are being raised to be more adult than we are, to survive within the new, more hostile economy. They’re building up the resumes and internships and credits, equipping themselves to deal with a world in which employment is a privilege rather than a right. Fifteen-year-olds are expected to have viable career plans, but 25-year-olds aren’t expected to have viable careers. Children have lost their privilege of irresponsibility and experimentation, and adults have lost their privileges of autonomy and self-determination. The distinction between the age groups has collapsed, and taken the fun of both ages out with it. But, hey: At least we all watch the same cartoons.
For women, particularly, the loss of adulthood can feel catastrophic: The autonomy we need is harder than ever to attain, the struggle against being treated like children is lost in a cultural moment where childlike behavior is what’s expected and desired. White men can entertain Peter Pan fantasies because, for them, “adulthood” has always been implicitly about gaining power and respect; for a man to stay boyish and irresponsible forever is not exactly becoming (Lord knows I don’t like the thought of a world where men are encouraged to be less accountable for their behavior) but it’s also not reinforcing any ideals about men’s inherent weakness and inability to successfully take on leadership roles. When women are encouraged to stay childlike, we’re being guided back toward the same age-old ideals of women as frivolous, feather-headed pleasure-seekers, “adorable” because we require outside guidance and coddling in order to survive. We reinforce the idea that a woman’s only real value lies in her youth or her ability to simulate it.
And for every good-humored, provocative, subversive picture of female immaturity—say, Broad City, which Scott cites in his piece—there are several other images that serve up the old stereotypes without irony, ranging from the merely frustrating (Taylor Swift, a woman in her mid-20s whose brand still requires her to gush about how much she loves kitties and slumber parties) to the sexist and even harmful (the profoundly uncomfortable sexy-10-year-old aesthetic of Ariana Grande, who is made to dress and move like a severely disturbed middle-aged man’s idea of an adolescent girl even as she enters her twenties). As for fictional characters, we have Jess from New Girl, a wide-eyed, baby-voiced incompetent who’s sold as “adorkable,” or, this fall, Eliza on the ABC sitcom Selfie, a woman who’s reduced to begging a man to teach her how to be serious and compassionate, with lines like “you don’t like me? Change me!” spoken in full earnestness. In what seems like a very 2014 moment, becoming more “likable” for Eliza doesn’t involve reading Russian literature, watching the news, or volunteering at a soup kitchen; it means getting a “make-under” from a gaggle of pastel-clad women who perform impromptu ukelele covers of Lady Gaga.
If you haven’t guessed, I’m firmly #TeamAdult: The powers and pleasures of womanhood, as opposed to girlhood, the right for women to age and develop, to become more complex and experienced and worldly wise, are those that I particularly crave. Adulthood means gaining your own trust and respect, and the trust and respect of others; it means being able to take the hard parts of life head-on. The specific pleasures of adulthood — being able to take risks, to be self-determined and accountable for your own decisions, to be sexually and financially autonomous, to accumulate knowledge, responsibility, and power—are precisely the pleasures that women have always been denied. Youth is wonderful, and deserves respect and protection. But everyone gets to be young once. There are people in their sixties who aren’t adults yet. Adulthood isn’t an inevitability; it’s an ideal. And it’s a feminist ideal, too, which is perhaps why it’s been so fiercely repressed, for so long, by pop culture.
Yet it’s not as if the culture is devoid of role models for female adulthood: The weathered irony of Fiona Apple, the coolly intellectual art-school oddity of FKA twigs, and the mature, confident sexuality of Beyonce all seem decisively adult to me. Orange Is the New Black spends a tremendous amount of time talking about grown-up, middle-aged and old women, erasing neither their sexuality nor their fallibility. There is perhaps no more adult public figure than Hillary Clinton, although you couldn’t exactly get away with calling Michelle Obama or Elizabeth Warren “girls” either. If the old adulthood is dead, there’s still a chance that we can create a new one: something that recognizes the cultural limbo in which we exist, the absurdly abbreviated childhoods and prolonged adolescences we all endure, and still grants some special safety and respect to youth, and some special desirability to experience and maturity. We can’t grow up to be our parents. But we can still grow up. And that’s the one good thing I can pull from this: No matter what adulthood looks like, once we’ve adapted, it will look new. And with traditional models of all-powerful masculinity killed off, we will have the chance to rebuild femininity in a more powerful and fiercely grown-up image than ever before.
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Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle.