Please Step On My Grass: New Adulthood in American Culture

Friday morning, when I began reading A.O. Scott's, "The Death of Adulthood in American Culture," in the New York Times, I couldn't believe my eyes.

Making sure not to trip over the appearance of the word "obtuse" twice in the span of one magazine article -- forgive my editorial nitpicking; I used to do it for a living -- when you wring out the words he threw at his chosen subject, it becomes clear that Mr. Scott has roughly equated patriarchy and adulthood, two concepts that hardly mean the same thing.

Sure he tries to proverbially "wrap it up" so the bluntness of his argument that the fall of patriarchy in books, music, film and television has led to the end of adulthood in our culture won't ruffle any feminist feathers. He even writes benevolently about Girls and Broad City in an attempt to round out his argument about American preferences for YA-leaning story lines.

And while he's careful to say that the themes dealt with in these shows are "less an imitation of male rebellion than a rebellion against the roles it has prescribed" and state that it would be... "obtuse"... to complain about the pang of loss he feels from this phenomenon, it still follows that in stating that patriarchy's death has resulted in an infantilization of our culture, he is making a positive argument for male privilege. If a rejection of patriarchy has turned us into a nation of Twilight-toting toddlers, then certainly we must go crawling back to it if we are ever to mature at a healthy and normal rate.

In the universe of thoughts and words, there is more conviction and intelligence in the critique of male privilege than in its defense, which tends to be panicky and halfhearted when it is not obtuse and obnoxious. The supremacy of men can no longer be taken as a reflection of natural order or settled custom.

I'm just going to say what seems obvious.

1) The reason defenses of male privilege tend to be "panicky and halfhearted" is that arguing to uphold male privilege in a contemporary context is unnecessary. See that Time article that came out a few months ago, "Why I'll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege" and the corresponding backlash for further evidence of this.

2) The way that this entire article is written seems to contradict his last sentence and be an indication that, if anything, there is a lot more work to be done to change the "natural order" of things than the author insinuates. Step one: Including females along with males in any overarching discussions of culture.

There are very few mentions of female adults and though some lip service is paid to female adulthood, he fails to explore the concept with any depth. More presently felt throughout the article is Scott's frequent and problematic equation of patriarchal/male authority figures with "adults" as he does here:

Unlike the antiheroes of eras past, whose rebellion still accepted the fact of adulthood as its premise, the man-boys simply refused to grow up, and did so proudly... Why should they listen to uptight bosses, stuck-up rich guys and other readily available symbols of settled male authority?

And here:

Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable. It isn't only that patriarchy in the strict, old-school Don Draper sense has fallen apart.

Moreover, when Scott discusses female artists it's clear that outside of a patriarchal mold, he has no ability to conceive of them as true adults. He dispenses praise to strong contemporary women artists and characters with a metaphorical head pat, not acknowledging that they may embody a new form of adulthood.

And while there will continue to be hand-wringing about the ways female singers are sexualized -- cue the pro and con think pieces about Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, Lady Gaga, Kesha and, of course, Madonna, the mother of them all -- it is hard to argue with their assertions of power and independence... The dominant voices in pop music now, with the possible exception of rock, which is dad music anyway, belong to women. The conversations rippling under the surfaces of their songs are as often as not with other women -- friends, fans, rivals and influences.

If the author, in a tongue in cheek way at the conclusion of the article defines adulthood as yelling at people to "get off his lawn," and then calls rock "dad music," while simultaneously declaring pop music a women's game, doesn't it feel just a bit patronizing when he says "It's hard to argue with their assertions of power and independence?"

At least he acknowledges the cadre of female artists out there today. Earlier in the piece, while discussing Leslie A. Fiedler's work on YA literature, he completely eclipses just about every important female voice in the American canon.

...Notwithstanding a few outliers like Henry James and Edith Wharton, we have a literature of boys' adventures and female sentimentality. Or, to put it another way, all American fiction is young-adult fiction.

Many an American female author has covered the great expanse of adult topics that Scott seems to consider untouched by the American pen: Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Leslie Marmon Silko, Flannery O'Connor, and Marilynne Robinson, to name a few...

That Scott so easily fades patriarchy and adulthood into one another, while simultaneously coming off at times as condescending toward female artists, makes it clear that he yearns for a world where the old school patriarch rides roughshod over ratings and dominates our TV screens.

What seems to be going on is not -- as Mr. Scott claims - a loss of adulthood, but rather a redefinition of it. In its current more advanced template, adulthood now encompasses the emotional complexity it once lacked. Life and art as its reflection are no longer a binary in which we are all stoic Don Draper types (a character, I might add, whose writers are primarily women) or peppy pin-ups.

Scott lamenting a loss of the chauvinistic tough guy in our television series is one thing. Saying that it's caused us as a culture to slip into sophomoric sense of self is quite another.

In adulthood's newer forms, there is space for women outside of the article's prescribed categories of "contradictory" pop music divas, female-centric sitcoms or a force for sentimentality in literature to counterbalance man-boy swagger.

They can now be as politically shrewd as Claire, Frank Underwood's wife on House of Cards, as ruthless as Daenerys in Game of Thrones or as contentious as Skyler on Breaking Bad.

In the context of these new definitions, our culture can offer up visions of 3-D adult women and also allow room for men to escape previously punishing strictures of traditional 'maleness.'

Masters of Sex may be "a prehistory of the end of patriarchy" in Scott's terms, but it seems more like the birthplace of new ideas of adulthood and an expanding scientific universe for the study of it.

Being a grown-up is nothing if not messy. If anything, the disappearance of patriarchs in television, if that's what's really going on, pulls back the veneer on adulthood exposing us all to one of the harsh truths of life: No one knows what they're doing. They're just making it up as they go along.

Early on in the article, Scott posits:

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.

Becoming more self-aware in the process of aging is the hard-earned prize of our adult lives. It's what gives and will give us the authority to speak with conviction to younger generations. It doesn't make us children.

Grown-ups haven't died. We've just experienced the effects of a strange and wonderful metamorphosis in our culture -- not unlike the process of aging -- where we've become more cognizant of our surroundings and how we interact with others.

This may be unsettling for some more than others, but to borrow a trope from traditional maleness, "Suck it up. That's life."