In The New York Times Magazine this weekend, A.O. Scott writes at length about the death of adulthood in American (mostly popular) culture. In so doing, he takes a well-informed look at the evolution of both men and women in American literature and culture (“We Americans,” he points out, “have never been all that comfortable with patriarchy in the strict sense of the word”), along with the influence of feminism, the popularity of YA fiction and film, and about a hundred other things. You should just go read it.

In (very) brief, Scott argues persuasively that this evolution has certainly taken place, but that it’s something that may be positive for our cultural production at large—that the sort of playfulness that evolves out of role reinvention (and not “gender” so much as what it means to be an adult or a child) can result in more imaginative works of culture, precisely because who gets to say what is good is often up for grabs:

I do feel the loss of something here, but bemoaning the general immaturity of contemporary culture would be as obtuse as declaring it the coolest thing ever. A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.

As I read it, I wondered how people in the world of more conservative cultural criticism (a place I generally find myself) might react. I’ll admit that I am bracing myself for a flood of editorials about how this signals the death of culture. Of course, as Scott points out, there are both good and bad products of this change in popular culture. But generally, when it comes up, conservative critics have devoted themselves to sniffing at the downfall of civilization as evidenced through the increasing juvenilization of culture.

Sometimes there’s something to that. Books written for children, movies made for and about teenagers, don’t always provide the kind of intellectual meat that helps adults grow in their understanding of the world. Add to that the steady stream of mediocre fart-joke machines that seek to imitate the few comedies in the genre that were genuinely funny and explored interesting questions, and it can be tough for a grownup at the movies.

But in the past few years I’ve learned a lot from other conservative critics who start from the foundation that it is our duty, as created beings, to both preserve the best of the old and champion the best of the new, wherever it is coming from. And part of that is conserving the best of childhood, too—which, let’s face it, lies in the past for all of us, just as earlier eras do.

I am not one of those who quotes C.S. Lewis at every turn (though I guess you wouldn’t know it from my writings on this blog!), but I do find him helpful on this point, again from An Experiment in Criticism:

To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

Growing into a full humanity requires cultivating virtues that temper one another. Some are associated with adulthood—courage, tenacity, autonomy. Others are more closely associated with childhood—curiosity, humility, generosity.

So, yes: only engaging in “juvenile” culture could shape us in bad ways. (And here at CT, anyhow, we try to take part in both—so go read about the Dardennes brothers’ new film when you’re done here.) But only engaging in “grown up” culture can, too, as can reflexively defending sophisticated products and rejecting simpler ones.

As Scott points out, the kind of culture creative output that results from our cultural shift doesn’t merely mean we end up with “juvenile” culture and fart jokes and boy-men and girl-women. It also means we end up with a lot of “childish” culture.

Or maybe “childlike” is a better term. We get things that test the edges of the accepted in playful ways. We have stories that find wonder everywhere. We experience pleasing blows to our self-importance. And sometimes, if we are paying attention, we are even returned to a time when things like faith, and hope, and love came easily.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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