The Waning of Adulthood
This is a subject that comes to mind for me sometimes when I've been watching old, which is to say roughly pre-1960, movies or TV shows, or even listening to the classic American popular songs of the pre-rock-and-roll 20th century. To develop fully a thesis on this topic would require a fair amount of research, which I'm certainly never going to do. So consider what follows as a set of unsupported impressions, hardly definitive but, I hope, worth considering.
I've always been annoyed by those giddy commenters on pop culture who treat what they see in the entertainment or advertising of the "era" between roughly 1930 and 1965 as if it were a real picture of real life in those times. (This use of the word "era" always strikes me as a problem in itself; in my mind an era is quite a long period of time, defined by serious events, such as an ice age or the Protestant Reformation, but these writers are capable of using terms like "the Lady GaGa era.") But yet those images from popular culture are not meaningless or accidental: they do tell us something about the times that produced them. They do not show us what actually was, as anyone old enough to remember the 1950s can attest. But they do show us what some people thought about what actually was, and the way they thought it should be. Frequently they embody what artists or advertisers thought would be appealing to the masses, and in that sense they say something about the masses.
It seems to me that there has been a diminishment and almost a repudiation of the idea of adulthood as it was once understood. The adults in a movie of the 1940s might be bad or good but there was no doubt that they were adults. A thirty-year-old was expected, indeed assumed, to be about as mature as he would ever be. The men, if middle-class, wore suits and ties and hats and worked at something the rest of the world considered serious and significant. If working-class, their dress was simpler but still in some sense dignified, and their position possessed of some dignity, even if it was lowly. The women dressed more modestly and with more dignity than is typical today, and, constricted as we might see their situation to be now, it was at least a fairly clearly defined one. Though the role of housewife may have been treated lightly by men, it also commanded a certain respect, not in the sense that accomplishments in the working world were respected, but respected in its sphere.
I notice that I mentioned dignity three times in the preceding paragraph, and I think that's a key part of what I'm trying to articulate. In contrast to older expectations, men are now mere "guys" until they are well into their 40s, essentially trivial figures (unless they are action heroes), sex-and-sports-obsessed louts. And although feminist-enforced convention dictates the designation of females as "women," they are often portrayed as acquisitive narcissists, also sex-obsessed, whose feelings are the ultimate law of the universe, and for whom children are an accessory.
I think the general level of literacy was higher prior to 1970 or so--literacy in the broad sense, what has been called "cultural literacy." It seems that literary and historical allusions were more broadly understood. Consider, for instance, the adult humor of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I doubt it could be produced today, and if it were it would not be accepted, because it is too steeped in the lore that was once absorbed from the surrounding culture and from ordinary education. Consider, for that matter, the phrase I just used: "adult humor". To prefix the word "adult" to any form of entertainment now suggests first that it will be lewd, crude, and possibly pornographic.
The universal acceptance of crudeness that once had no place in the public sphere is surely one of the most telling symptoms of the decline, because it was once expected that adults controlled their use of what used to be called obscene language. The amount of it that shows up in movies, news, and entertainment has reached levels that once existed only among the very crude, or in certain male-only environments such as the military. In any case, whatever the private use of this language, almost everyone understood that it was not to be used in public, and indeed to use it in certain situations--in the presence of a lady, for instance--was a grave social offense, and often illegal. (Those prohibitions survive as relics in the rules for broadcast radio and television, and are under constant attack.)
Yet now there is a positive enthusiasm for it. Just a day or two ago, in the local paper, I saw a review of a movie about a man and a teddy bear, described in the headline and twice in the first few paragraphs (which was as far as I read) as "raunchy". Well, we know what that means: not only crude language but lots of sex and unpleasant-bodily-function humor. And there's a special delight in putting this language into situations where it collides most powerfully with a natural sense of propriety: in the mouths of children, for instance. Or, I gather from this movie review, a teddy bear, a thing firmly associated with childhood innocence.
I don't think that the whole of society is happy with these changes. Millions of people are not. But they are powerless against the sophisticates.
I certainly don't mean to say that conventional notions (especially in this context bourgeois notions) of propriety are to be identified with absolute right and wrong. But the two are connected, in that they involve a respect for right order. When propriety is consciously rejected--I was about to say in art, but I think this holds in life as well--it should be largely for the purpose of pointing out a divergence between propriety and right order. When propriety is rejected merely because it is propriety, then right order is also being attacked. And I think that's what we see in the entertainment industry now, and in much of society at large.
Adulthood is an essential part of right order. The term suggests maturity, dignity, and decorum. And respect, both given and received: respect for the order of society and for the cosmic order, respect shown to others and expected from them. But some of the most popular comedy on television now, cartoon shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy, include a bitter contempt for adults as an essential part of their appeal. The fathers of 1950s sitcoms, who were often portrayed as a bit out of touch but generally decent and to be taken seriously, are now often ugly selfish fools whom no one could possibly respect.
As so often in the modern rebellion, the baby has been thrown out with the bath water. If the respectable didn't deserve respect, or failed to respect the people below them in the social hierarchy, the response ought to have been to expose the disparity and press for adherence to standards, not to undermine the whole idea of respect, which has been replaced by an insistence upon approval--a very different thing, as self-esteem is a very different thing from self-respect. What has been enshrined in place of adulthood is a somewhat adolescent self-assertion, a desire to see oneself as above all independent and authentic. This, naturally and inevitably, becomes a convention in itself, but not a very attractive one.
One reason this keeps bothering me (I was thinking about it nine years ago when I wrote about The Twilight Zone) is that I feel its loss. I feel that there was some form of adulthood which I once expected to attain but which vanished before I could reach it, like the top floor of a half-destroyed building. I may recognize and regret this development, but I'm still affected by it, and a participant in it. I have no more desire than anyone else to wear a tie, and if I didn't have to maintain a certain level of presentability at work--far below coat-and-tie levels, but still not without some standard--I would probably look like a beatnik most of the time. This is a faint and distant echo of the rebellion that helped to produce the whole cultural sea-change which I'm trying to describe.