We’ve reached the end of adulthood in America according to AO Scott. Or at least of the patriarchal version of it, anyway, which Scott sees in three paradigmatic dramas of our era—Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos, whose protagonists and their downfalls allow us to “marvel at the mask of masculine incompetence even as we watched it slip or turn ugly.”  On Scott’s reading, “in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grownups.”  It’s a provocative, sweeping hypothesis of the sort that are useful for engendering conversations, even if it doesn’t stand up under analysis.

And it may not:  David Marcus intemperately lambastes the essay, describing Scott’s style as “equal parts snobbery and self-effacement,” and his thesis a “crisis of the elites” rather than of “common folks.” Marcus presses the details of Scott’s historical case, and at some points makes appropriate corrections:  Scott’s description of the ‘Founding Fathers’, for instance, as “late adolescents” conflates rebellion against a paternalism of political authority with a dismissal of paternal authority per se, a move that at best seems highly tendentious without any further justification for it.

But on other points, Marcus (weirdly) buttresses Scott’s case even while attempting to dismiss it. As Marcus writes, “The last sitcom dad to get any kind of vaunted respect was Hugh Beaumont in ‘Leave it to Beaver.’” Technically, I suppose this contradicts Scott’s thesis that the past decade of television signals the “end of an era.”  But that the symptoms were present in previous generations isn’t exactly encouraging news, and makes me disposed to think that even if Mad Men is more the fruit of a long degeneration rather than an epochal revolution, Scott’s main point that we have a crisis of adulthood has some merit to it.

Yes, it is tempting to speak as though nothing in our culture has changed.  Every age has its antecedents, after all. We can speak of contemporary movie violence as though it is a Brand New Thing, but have you seen Titus Andronicus? Everyone dies, and in the most horrific of ways. Was that an outlier, or was the range of ‘acceptable’ simply that broad? If we take the movies as indicative of anything about a culture—and I’ll need some persuading that we shouldn’t—it’s hard for me to imagine Billy Madison or Borat finding a meaningful audience within the same culture that made and enjoyed Leave it to Beaver. The “Overton Window” for acceptable behaviors on screen has shifted, and certainly that means something. 

Ignoring that shift, and so leaving it unexplained, is the weakest part of Marcus’s response. He may consider the crisis of adulthood to be an “elite” phenomenon, a symptom of a liberal progressivism which wants its liberation and equality while having its dignity too.  Yes, NCIS is popular:  but so is Castle, and is there a show that better highlights the kind of adolescent-adulthood that is, for many young men, aspirational?  And “bro comedies” exist, which Scott deploys but Marcus does not mention. The aforementioned television dramas may have relatively small audiences: but a culture is made of its comedies as well, and on Scott’s hypothesis the emasculation of men in our highbrow dramas and the crass, juvenile antics of our cheap comedies are but two sides of the same adolescent coin.

Scott himself is aggravatingly ambivalent about these changes (contra Marcus’s description of him as “rooting for it”), even to the point of incoherent. “Just as men passed through the stage of sincere rebellion to arrive to a stage of infantile refusal,” he writes, “so, too, have the women progressed by means of regression.” I think that’s supposed to be an artful phrase, but what on earth does it mean?  Have there been benefits to the new culture?  Unquestionably.  But for whom, and at what cost?  If Scott’s own thesis is right, we can have our liberation from the patriarchy and all the benefits that accrue to women, but apparently only at the expense of everyone’s adulthood.  (Or that has been the cost, anyway:  we may be able to conceive of a different path to where we’ve come, now that we are looking back upon it.) Still, is there a point where the cost for such “progress” becomes simply too high to pay?  It’s not fashionable for Scott to shout “get off my lawn”, but progressives are not immune to the possibility of “buyer’s remorse.” Scott’s piece reads like someone who has woken up to what the progressive cultural temperament has wrought, and is somewhat unsettled by it.

My initial disposition, unlike Marcus’ slash-and-burn approach, is to welcome Scott as a potential cultural ally:  “Come on in, sir, the conservative water is fine.”  Or something like that. It ought to be a welcome sign that an admittedly progressive writer at the New York Times has been reduced to sounding crankier than many conservatives manage to. In this world, we cannot have too many allies.

But more interesting, and difficult, questions emerged once my smug schaudenfreude passed:  I mean, it’s great and all to point to the costs of our current culture, but we clearly aren’t going back. Manhood will inevitably take its form now in a “post-patriachal” age, and that has to mean something for how conservatives think of and conceive of adulthood.  Even if we think that the forces that undermined adulthood in America are rotten to the core, we’re all living in the environment they created. And neither Marcus’ optimistic account that the death of adulthood has been “greatly exaggerated” or my gut “we told you so” meaningfully solve the more pressing question of what shape adulthood should take in a world of creeping adolescence, and where the pressures on men and women are different than any they’ve known before.**

*Yes, Castle has the luxury to play with his toys and hard-working ‘Muricans don’t have time to worry about the death of adulthood. But toys and fun are what we want these days, even if we have to spend our days working to get them.

** This is a generalized claim, which may or may not be true about any particular person or even specific sub-communities.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Alastair J Roberts

    This article makes some particularly important points, I believe. the economic dimension of this is crucial.

    I don’t think that Scott makes his case especially well, but there is a case to be made. Fatherhood, I have argued in the past, is necessarily and structurally different from motherhood and not just a man who exercises a unisex brand of parenthood. The father stands in a distinct relationship to us from the mother. While our relationship with our mother is forged in an intimate and immediate physical bond, fathers naturally stand over against us to a greater degree. The symbolic force of fatherhood grounds the sort of law and authority that stands over against us and assigns us a place and role in the social order.

    As I’ve argued recently, the loss of the symbolic function of fatherhood can be seen in the way that churches are increasingly tolerant of female or effete male pastors. One of the tasks of the pastor, however, is to symbolize the fatherhood function within the Church, symbolizing God’s authority to his people and executing his authority in their midst and for their sake. Where this symbolic function is neglected, we will see a movement away from understanding God as King, Judge, Father, transcendent Creator, Sovereign, Lord, Warrior, etc. and move in the direction of images that stress God’s sympathetic and natural connection with us. As this move occurs, certain doctrines will predictably come under direct or indirect assault: eternal judgment, the wrath of God, divine sovereignty, divine transcendence, and lots of the rest of the package of orthodox Christian theism.

    Fatherhood, for various reasons, however, has fallen upon hard times in our day. This isn’t just a matter of individual fathers abandoning their children or not stepping up. Rather, it is a matter of how this entire symbolic function is regarded and the place that our society now grants to its exercise. The state and the economy are key parts of this picture. Both state and the current form of the economy tend to infantilize us, abstracting us from and attenuating our most fundamental social substance in the family, and denying us the dignity of our maturity, which takes a gendered form—adults are always men or women. Keeping things as unisex as possible is part of this. Men and women are restricted from relating to each other and society as women as men—as fathers and husbands and mothers and wives, whether actual or potential. Rather, like children, we are taught to relate as undifferentiated consumers and sexual playmates.

    The state and economy do not want to encourage direct power and so will tend to restrict or close it down. Immaturity—especially of men—is really in their favour. They are, by contrast, quite in favour of ’empowering’ people, because this establishes a dependence relation. Like good children, we should learn to petition government and business for what we want, rather than creating our own power structures (it is important to notice just how much of contemporary feminism is about getting authorities to do things for women). Authority in our society is indulgent, permissive, and nurturing. It encourages us to ‘enjoy’ (and will often pick up the pieces when we do) and doesn’t stand over against us. To use Lakoff’s model, it follows the pattern of the ‘nurturant parent’, rather than that of the ‘strict father’.

    Fatherhood as a function aims at independence, self-discipline, and responsibility. It stands over against us and calls us to become something. It assigns us a place in the socio-symbolic order and demands us to make a break with the immediacy, irresponsibility, and undifferentiation of childhood. A strong fatherhood function in society is antithetical to sexual liberation, to the unisex maternalism desired by many feminists, and to the docile workforce and population of hedonistic consumers desired by contemporary capitalism and the state. As a result, robust fatherhood will be stigmatized, smothered, or closed down in various ways.

    This leaves men who want to grow up in a difficult position. The role our society ascribes to fathers and husbands accords us little personal dignity as men. We must aspire to be more nurturing, more conforming, less oppositional, etc. More like women. The father is to be a sort of second mother, who is constantly self-deprecating about his failure to live up to the standards set by his wife, cutting an awkward and apologetic figure. To the extent that more traditional masculine roles are retained, they are often stripped of their dignity, being treated as entitlements of other parties. The father may still support the family, but he may find himself reduced to his impersonal wage packet and society and the law will treat that more as an entitlement of others, rather than something that he has a recognized dignity in providing. In society and the workplace, he must conform to a unisex mode. Society is about play, and men constantly need to be reminded to play nicely, because men have these unfortunate habits of forming the sorts of power structures, hierarchies, and power dynamics that just don’t fit.

    The form of contemporary male rebellion is important to notice. As a dignified and honoured social space for mature fatherhood is denied, male resentment takes puerile forms. The figure of male rebellion is a hedonistic figure who doesn’t ‘play’ nicely as expected. Of course, the system actually envisages this too: playing nicely isn’t that important, provided that you do play.

    • RobD

      @alastairjroberts:disqus

      I largely agree. Even so, the view of fatherhood (and of masculinity) that prevailed throughout much of the 20th Century is probably worthy of criticism and rebellion. But instead of criticizing that deficient model and proffering a more legitimate Christian alternative, evangelicals have sought to prop it up. While I don’t generally find myself agreeing with Rachel Held Evans, she indeed makes a perceptive point in critiquing the “Biblical manhood” movement: Their vision of Biblical manhood is little more than an arbitrary fetishizing of our Freudian-infused 1950s view of masculinity.

      On a related note, it’s been interesting to observe this phenomenon in the legal profession. For generations, the legal profession has been plagued by the “service partner.” The service partner is a middle-aged, overweight, white male who lacks the hustle to bring in clients and the legal acumen to be a courtroom superstar. He holds some amorphously defined administrative position within law firms and large corporations, where his duties involve no tangible business deliverables except for “managing” junior attorneys (and appropriating their successes to his alleged management skill). They are the legal profession’s middle managers: Parasites who get by on nothing but the privilege of being a straight, white male. Within the past decade, these oafs have been forced to earn their keep, and they have generally fallen on their faces.

      It’s not that our society has come to celebrate Peter Griffin. These guys were never any better than Peter Griffin. They just had the luxury of living in a world that shielded them from exposure because they were straight, white, and male. Sadly, most of these guys could have achieved more had they worked at it. But after 15-20 years of “managing,” they have no skills that are of any value in the marketplace.

      I find that most younger white-collar professionals embrace the destruction of the old patriarchalism because it’s saved us from having to spend the next decade kissing the fat rear-ends of these bumbling oafs as we move up the corporate ladder. It’s no accident, after all, that gay rights resonated most strongly in the corporate workplace: It succeeded because it aligned perfectly with young professionals’ desire to force middle managers to prove their economic worth or get out of the way.

      So, I understand why many may fret about what lies ahead. But let’s not set ourselves up as defenders of what we’re leaving behind. We have to proffer some kind of gospel alternative, not just prop up the world of Don Draper. That is, after all, how we end up with obnoxious bullies like Mark Driscoll and John Piper rising to stardom within evangelicalism.

  • Did you really end your post on a sentence with a footnote that sucks the wind out of said sentence?

    And you could (with a little more effort) pick a variety of popular books & movies that demonstrate meaningful adulthood– and specifically fatherhood– that isn’t susceptible to the Castle criticism: To Kill a Mockingbird if you want to reach back for an American Classic, The Road– heck, even The Wire (the Holy Grail of all elite television) had a whole season that was half-dedicated to exploring fatherhood.

    Overall, I think Marcus and Scott are both overreaching by trying to make an argument that is so broad as to be almost meaningless. Which your footnote sums up well.

    • Sure, and FNL, which I think is probably the best depiction of fatherhood and manhood from the past decade. It’s *always* mixed.

      But it is interesting to me that we live in a world where “bro comedies” are a thing. The expansion of what’s ‘presentable’ to those kinds of areas has to have some kind of effect on our depictions of all this, doesn’t it?

      And yes, yes I did end that way….because I need an editor!

      • ha! I almost mentioned FNL, but I don’t actually know enough about it to really comment.

        And I agree with you absolutely that the Overton Window has shifted/is shifting. Even smoking has made its way into parental guidance warnings, and I’m sure other crimes against progressivism will make their way into the censorship debates soon enough.

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  • Unless I missed something, without really having defined adulthood, it is difficult to tell whether it has died. Somethings are for sure though. In a world that is becoming even more thing-oriented through the increasing influence of business and technology, we are losing our connection to the personal in terms of ourselves and any solidarity we might be called on to have for others. And in our increasing thing-oriented society, as we become more like the machines we use, we become more oriented to following the commands of others regardless of how what we do impacts others. BTW, the thing-oriented vs person-oriented model I am referring to was first recognized by Martin Luther King Jr.

    If being responsible for others, especially those who are different, is part of adulthood, then the path back to adulthood isn’t through the seeking of some sort of authoritarian model, but through becoming more personal with others. And becoming more personal with others will eventually cause us to choose between our thing-oriented bosses and person-oriented responsibilities. Such will tell us what is driving us to lose adulthood.