Don’t Worry, Adulthood Still Alive

NY Times with a “culture is going downhill”-type article by A. O. Scott. It’s an enjoyable-enough read, but as a piece of cultural criticism it’s awfully naive. Scott extends the eternal adolescence of comedy actors like Adam Sandler to the U.S.’s male population as a whole, pining for some vaguely-defined adulthood that seems to have slipped away from us.

It’s currently fashionable to reject outright anything that, like this article, suggests a longing for the past. I’m skeptical of this. Certainly there’s a tendency to idealize the past and ignore the serious problems that we only began to overcome in the past grueling century. Certainly, for instance, the fifties were not as neat and tidy as the TV shows and movies that serve as some of the decade’s main emissaries to people of my generation. But it’s easy to overcorrect in attempting to avoid this glamorization of the past. It’s easy to wind up denying not just that the past might be better that the present, but that it could be different from the present at all. Of course the past is different, and it would be foolish not to consider the possibility that the present might, in some ways, be worse.

But we do have to be careful to avoid giving in to nostalgia – we have to carefully examine the terms on which we’re talking, and even more carefully consider just where our judgments about what is better than what come from – we don’t want to apply the standards from some time in the past to the present.

The NY Times article could easily be accused of that. It never makes it quite clear what it means by maturity and why we should aspire to it – no doubt we should aspire to maturity, but a concept like “maturity” is not the sort that does well outside of its natural habitat. There is a core meaning involving doing the right thing even when it involves giving up on pleasure or comfort, and that’s certainly a virtue, but “maturity” and “adulthood” carry massive loads of cultural baggage, and though we don’t have to reject this baggage, we do have to acknowledge it as cultural if we’re going to apply the terms to culture. A. O. Scott seems to treat adulthood as an eternal unchanging truth, which it is not.

But that’s not Scott’s most overt critical sin. I would just like to point out that, though Sandler’s characters are typically meant to be likable, the audience is supposed to be laughing at their childlike behavior. Laughter is basically incompatible with approval. I don’t think, like Umberto Eco, that comedy is necessarily conservative, but Adam Sandler’s characters make no sense unless we keep in mind the particular ideal of masculine adulthood that they so flagrantly fail to realize.


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