Dads Against the Divorce Industry

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DA*DI offers contemporary reports and commentary on culture; its aberrations and its heroes.

The bizarre triumph of youth

by James Bowman

Mr. Bowman is American editor of the (London) Times Literary Supplement,
and film critic of The American Spectator.

November 8, 1999

That America invented both the teenager and youth culture is not new information, but it is conveniently documented by Thomas Hine in his new book, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager. Hine shows that the American teen was a product of the Depression, when, for the first time, partly as a result of laws reserving jobs for heads of families, high school became an all-but-universal experience. But if the first teenagers were to some extent the product of national poverty, those of today are the product of national wealth, which in the latter part of the century has become so great that young adults expect to prolong the teen experience into their thirties and beyond.

In fact, as Robert Samuelson has pointed out, "our culture is quietly erasing the idea of age. All ages are blurring with all other ages. Children shall become grown up as soon as possible. Young adults shall remain children as long as possible." Newsweek asks about the "Tweens"—kids between 8 and 14—"Are they growing up too fast?" Of course. But where "growing up fast" once meant going to work and assuming adult responsibilities in the teenage years, now it means acquiring a facile sophistication about the adult world—especially sexual matters—while holding on to a child's economic dependency and emotional immaturity for longer than ever.

One result is that what used to be known, often pejoratively, as "the youth culture" has become the culture of an increasingly larger segment of the population. In fact, it is in the process of becoming culture tout court. This is particularly noticeable to anyone who sees, as I do, a lot of first-run movies, all but a few of which seem to be made to suit the tastes and sensibilities of 13-year-olds. This is only to be expected. The demographic profile of those who pay full price to see first-run movies (often more than once) is skewed towards those who are old enough to want to meet friends, including those of the opposite sex, at places away from home, but who are not old enough (or rich enough) to go to restaurants, bars, and clubs. Grownups tend to think it's not worth the trouble just to go out to a movie. They prefer to wait until it comes out on video.

You might think that soon they would be finding, if they haven't already, that there isn't even anything to rent. Their taking themselves out of the market for first-run films must produce a vicious marketing circle, guaranteeing that the entertainment industry will cater even more to kids, which will make their parents even less likely to want to go to the movies. Yet it also seems to be the case that adult tastes are undergoing a process of juvenescence. When the boy-man Adam Sandler has had two monster hits in the last year (The Waterboy and Big Daddy), both of them holding up for admiration the star's trademark case of arrested development, you know that something essential but not very complimentary is being said about our culture. And on television, we have shows like Seinfeld and Friends — now joined by Oh Grow Up and others—that celebrate the long twilight of adolescence, lingering like the midnight sun into middle age; we also have a plethora of frank celebrations of the teenage sensibility, such as Dawson's Creek; Sabrina, the Teenage Witch; Freaks and Geeks; Popular; and Manchester Prep, to name only a few.

As a result, we have by now become so accustomed to the bias toward youth of popular entertainment that we have almost forgotten what grown-up movies look like. Or so I conclude from the outpouring of critical praise that has greeted American Beauty. Written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes, this is a movie that has been widely praised for its seriousness and intelligence, but that is saturated with the peculiar ethos and aesthetics of the youth culture—not only in its enthusiastic embrace of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll as a tonic for the over-forties, but also in its easy self-righteousness, its programmatic romanticism, its pose of perpetual disillusion and psychic scarring, and, above all, its huge appetite for self-pity.

Kevin Spacey plays Lester Burnham, a middle-aged man who has a job he hates and a wife and daughter who, apparently, hate him. He no longer enjoys a real marriage with his wife and is hardly spoken to by his daughter, who becomes even more hostile when she sees that he is attracted to her best friend and fellow high-school cheerleader. There is more than a hint here of Death in Venice, particularly as we are told from the beginning by no less an authority than Lester himself that he is going to die soon. The young blonde cheerleader, whom he imagines in a bath of crimson rose petals, becomes the image of life and liveliness that he is soon to leave behind—once, that is, he has quit his job, gone to work in a fast-food joint, bought a late-1960s-vintage muscle car, and taken up weightlifting, pop music, and pot-smoking again.

Like so many other baby boomers, he continues to cherish the illusion that real life is, or ought to be, the life of his adolescence, free of marital or material encumbrances. And, also like so many other baby boomers, he is frightened (or, to be more precise, the filmmakers are frightened) by military men, who seem to represent to them the world of "rules, structure, discipline" that they so desperately want to believe is merely optional, a relic of various political and sexual "repressions" in the past. The representative of "rules, structure, discipline" in American Beauty is a violently homophobic Marine colonel, who, of course, turns out to be repressing his own homosexual desires. "You can't just go around doing what you want to in life," says the Colonel to his son.

"What a sad old man you are," says the son to the Colonel.

In other words, the bedrock truth about life that all previous generations have assumed must be learned in order to obtain one's passport to responsible adulthood is, in American Beauty, denied by the adults themselves. High school is seen, not from the perspective of adulthood, but as children see it—that is, as the world itself. The conceit of high-school-as-the-world is naturally attractive to a generation inclined to accept Kevin Spacey's regression to adolescence as a form of personal liberation and spiritual fulfillment, and more ambitious filmmakers have taken a leaf out of the book of Amy Heckerling, whose Clueless (1995) transplanted Jane Austen's Emma into the Lilliputian setting of a posh Beverly Hills high school. This year we have seen similar adaptations of Laclos's Liaisons dangereuses in Cruel Intentions and Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew in 10 Things I Hate About You.

In addition, there have been more films than ever on the theme of what used to be called "coming of age"—only now it's more like not coming of age. In Outside Providence, young Shawn Hatosy escapes from the spiritual and intellectual poverty of working-class life in Pawtucket in the mid 1970s to a posh academy in Connecticut—only to replace the beer and poker of his boorish and ignorant dad with their preppy equivalents in drugs and a high-minded but essentially childish resistance to authority. At least he learns something. In The Adventures of Sebastian Cole, the hero knows everything that's wrong with the adult world from the beginning and never encounters anyone from that world who has a thing to teach him, save a former stepfather who is undergoing a sex-change operation (and so is an outcast like him).

Sometimes, these films deliberately adapt the scenario of the old-fashioned coming-of-age movie to its new purpose. In Varsity Blues, the classic story of young men goaded to athletic achievement by a tough but successful coach is repeated with this variation: The crusty exterior of the coach (played by Jon Voight) no longer conceals real affection for the boys, who are being held to high standards for their own sakes. Instead, he is merely corrupt, self-obsessed, and power-hungry, and uses the boys' efforts for self-aggrandizement. The moment of not growing up comes when the football team, led by the classic rebel and malcontent, refuses to play for him, forces him to leave the locker room at half time, and goes out to win the big game by doing things their way instead of the coach's.

Likewise, in Teaching Mrs. Tingle, the classic figure of the tough teacher whom a talented pupil can never satisfy is introduced only in order to be demythologized. Mrs. Tingle does not insist on redoubled efforts from the pupil in order that she should learn to get the best out of herself, but for sadistic reasons: Mrs. Tingle herself has never managed to escape the hellhole of the small town where they live, and she is wildly jealous at her pupil's chance of a scholarship, which will presumably allow her to do so. The scene of not-growing-up in this case is even more spectacularly at odds with tradition: The pupil and two of her classmates kidnap and hold hostage the hapless Mrs. Tingle until they are able to discredit her and have her fired.

The best and most interesting of the Peter Pan genre are Rushmore, written and directed by Wes Anderson, and Election, by Alexander Payne. Both films use essentially the same device—namely, high school as a metaphor for life itself—in order to make an ambiguously satirical point. In Rushmore, 15-year-old Max can't imagine any life outside Rushmore Prep and has no higher ambition than to make Rushmore his whole world. His motto is: "Find what you like to do and do it for the rest of your life. For me it's going to Rushmore." Yet, paradoxically, where it seems to be the ambition of everyone in America born since the war to remain a child for as long as possible, Max can't wait to grow up. It's just that he has learned to regard adulthood as consisting of ever more elaborate denials of reality.

For if adults like Herman Blume, the millionaire father of two of Max's more moronic classmates and a man with whom he forms an improbable bond, can continue to pretend that they are children all the way through their forties, why should Max not pretend that he is grown up at 15? To do this he must deny his abysmal academic record and his humble origins and build a career as a schoolboy entrepreneur—with the help of Mr. Blume. And when he finds himself attracted to Miss Cross, a young widow who teaches first grade at the school, he simply ignores the age difference between them and tries to convince her that they have a "relationship."

Like Miss Cross, we don't quite know what to make of Max's easy but comic assumption of the prerogatives of adulthood. "Neither one of us has any idea where this relationship is going," he says to her in one of several surreal conversations, as she tries both to agree and to tell him as gently as possible that there is no relationship. When Mr. Blume becomes his rival in love, Max does not hesitate to declare war on him. Both the man-child and the child-man assume their essential equality, and even Miss Cross can hardly prevent herself from taking Max at his own valuation. "You know, you and Herman deserve each other," she tells Max in exasperation. "You're both little children." Or else, they're both what passes for adult these days. It comes to the same thing.

A similar approach is taken by Election, in which a high-school pupil named Tracy Flick, who is older than her years and whose ruthlessness is exceeded only by her smarminess, draws a rather sleepy teacher named Jim McAllister into the comically trivial but deceptively serious world of school politics. As a candidate for student-government president of George Washington Carver High School, Tracy couples Clinton-like assurances that "I care about Carver" with pathetic stories of alleged suffering, as in the case of one student said to be "alienated from his own homeroom."

McAllister, out of sheer dislike for Tracy's insufferable phoniness, encourages a dumb football hero to run against her and so calls down upon his own head her terrible, career-ending wrath. As in Rushmore, the world that we know is shrunk to high-school size as a way of satirizing it, but where Rushmore is gentle and rueful and good-humored about it, Election has an almost Swiftian edge to its disgust with Tracy's combination of pettiness and viciousness. But neither of these films could succeed as it does without the culture's tacit acknowledgment of American Beauty's vital principle: The highest good of man—and of woman—is to remain a spiritual teenager for as long as possible.

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