ONE of the smarter back and forths over the last week or so has been the response to A.O. Scott’s essay “The Post-Man,” on how genuine adulthood has seeped out of American culture. He’s taken the usual hits for being a nostalgic, entitled, puritanical white man — charges I’m sure he could see coming a mile away — most of which strike me as nonsense.
Scott’s piece is dialectical in the best sense: He’s identified something pretty undeniable, and spends the piece intelligently drifting between celebration and disdain. Is there any other way to view 21st century pop culture? (I’m also delighted to see him drawing on Leslie Fiedler’s wonderful Love and Death in the American Novel.)
As he puts it:
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.
And a bit later:
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. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart.
Some of this echoes some things David Denby and Lynda Obst have wondered about lately.
The best response I’ve seen so far is from Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir (story here) who agrees with much of Scott’s argument but looks at one major omission.
This fundamental confusion and ambivalence reflects a deep-seated blind spot, I would argue, one that’s endemic to the culture-vulture trade… Well, if Scott gets to play frustrated English professor in his article, I get to play former college Marxist in mine, and insist that sometimes economic forces really do shape the cultural zone. Real wages have fallen since Don Draper’s heyday, especially for American men and double-especially for the middle-class and working-class white men who were once the bulwarks of the mid-century model of adulthood. We now live in a culture (using the word in its anthropological sense) of diminished expectations and permanent underemployment, where many or most young people will never be as affluent as their parents. Lifetime job security is an antediluvian delusion, and in many metropolitan areas home ownership is out of reach for all but the rich. It’s just as useless to object to those changes as it is to complain about grownups reading Harry Potter books, but certainly those things were the essential underpinnings of classic adulthood, and without them it’s no surprise to see the old order fading away.
I say this as a 40ish guy who wears shorts and flip-flops a lot of the time (I live in California) and still go to see rock bands every week or two: This is a case of an argument in which both parties are right.