“Instead, we are now in the age of ‘Girls,’ ‘Broad City,’ ‘Masters of Sex’ (a prehistory of the end of patriarchy), ‘Bob’s Burgers’ (a loopy post-‘Simpsons’ family cartoon) and a flood of goofy, sweet, self-indulgent and obnoxious improv-based web videos. What all of these shows grasp at, in one way or another, is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore.”
Scott notes that there is a long tradition of rebellion against the existing vision of adulthood in American mass culture, premised on the idea the childish rascals of today will grow up to be the reformist adults of tomorrow. But today, he suggests, pop culture sees adulthood as an institution that is incapable of change for the better. Men do not want to be obligated to be financially responsible or morally upstanding, while women are disgusted by their assignment to wrangle men into compliance with the norms they resist generation after generation.
While I agree with some of this diagnosis and with critics such as Jeet Heer and the journalist David Roberts, who took to Twitter to try to define what it means to be an adult, it strikes me that there is something a bit off with Scott’s definition of childhood.
“It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young,” Scott writes. “Childhood, once a condition of limited autonomy and deferred pleasure (‘wait until you’re older’), is now a zone of perpetual freedom and delight. Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content.”
There is something strange about both of these definitions, given the nature of much of the popular culture about young people that has become wildly popular in recent years. Stories such as J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books or Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” trilogy are certainly pleasurable in their plotting and characterization. But these books, and even more realistic stories such as John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” are about the intrusion of serious responsibilities and even grave danger on that supposed “zone of perpetual freedom and delight.”
When Harry Potter learns that he is a wizard, the joy of getting to leave the home of his awful aunt and uncle and the discovery that he has magical powers is tempered by the news that his parents were murdered and that he remains a target for assassination. Much of Rowling’s series is concerned with how Harry grapples with the responsibilities that prevent him from indulging fully in the array of treats particular to his childhood.
“The Hunger Games” strips away the idea of childhood idylls entirely. When we meet Katniss Everdeen and her family, she is sneaking outside the fence that surrounds her community to hunt the game that will raise her family above bare subsistence. At age 12, children become eligible for selection for a tournament that forces them to fight to the death. When Katniss’s sister Prim is chosen, Katniss volunteers in her place, preserving Prim’s childhood, granting Prim a few more years of what is still a relatively grim childhood.
In “The Fault In Our Stars,” Green’s teenaged protagonists are taken out of the realm of normal childhood by cancer, then choose to vault ahead into adult experiences of love and sex, sensing that they have little time left in which to live. Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” novels presume that its heroine, Bella Swan, is capable of grappling with enormous decisions about marriage and mortality before she has even graduated from high school.
This narrowing window of childhood before adult responsibility and accountability descends is not merely fantasy — it is a reflection of changing cultural and economic trends that simultaneously ask young people to be more responsible even as it becomes more difficult to live up to the standards set out for them.
We have increased our emphasis on standardized testing, even as it becomes clearer that what happens outside the classroom plays a critical role in children’s ability to learn. New norms make it easier for young people to request sexually explicit images of each other, and new technology makes it incredibly easy to distribute those pictures far beyond their intended audiences.
And as my colleague Catherine Rampell wrote this week, “Standard, American-dream-style signposts still retain an incredibly strong hold over young people’s desires and aspirations. What’s changed is that basic goals such as getting married, having a secure job and owning a home have drifted further out of reach.”
We are setting new benchmarks for children even as we fail to remedy the challenges that made it difficult to clear the old ones. We put responsibility for maintaining young people’s reputations on them, rather than on the technology companies and social norms that render them vulnerable. And when old markers of adulthood become harder to attain, we blame young adults for not wanting them or not working hard enough for them. No wonder childhood and adulthood feels like such a risky, even futile time.
The adult rebels Scott describes are not just rejecting the expectations of adulthood. To a certain extent, they are demanding a shot at a vision of childhood that might seem escapist for plenty of contemporary kids, too. If we are going to talk about what adulthood ought to be, gender roles and all, it might profit us to think about what we want childhood to be as well and what the transition between those states might look like. That is hardly a frivolous or purely pleasurable project. But it is a tremendously important one.