Film critic A.O. Scott has pronounced the death of adulthood in the pages of The New York Times. In a long, winding piece, he attempts to prove through a strange algebra that Don Draper, Walter White, and Tony Soprano are in fact the ghosts of our culture’s patriarchal archetypes. With equal parts snobbery and self-effacement, he argues that the past decade of television represents the final death knell of a long-eroding concept of men, their privileges, and their responsibilities in society. What is new here is not the question—“what has happened to men?” articles abound. Rather Scott’s contribution lies in his celebration of the emasculation he believes is central to the American narrative.
The first object of Scott’s imagination that needs to be tackled is his argument that “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and “The Sopranos” are influencing and reflecting a turn away from male adulthood in our culture. Early on in the essay, one senses a cherry-picking of televisual content to suit his argument’s purposes. At one point, Scott rather strangely states “we’ve…witnessed the erosion of traditional adulthood in any form,” specially mentioning the “urban cop show.” But even a cursory glance at the 2013-2014 ratings reveals NCIS, NCIS Los Angeles, Blue Bloods, and Criminal Minds are all among our most popular shows. As Richard Rushfield points out at Ricochet, “Mad Men at its height was watched by 2.9 million viewers. In contrast…NCIS last week (April, 2014) was viewed by 19.7 million viewers” It is as if Scott has never seen an ad for “Blue Bloods” with Tom Selleck in a police uniform and mustache sitting at the head of the table talking about his family.
Scott also takes aim at the sitcom, suggesting that the animated series “Bob’s Burgers” is some kind of revelatory experience in which finally the dad is a blithering idiot instead of the powerful head of the household. But this is absurd. The last sitcom dad to get any kind of vaunted respect was Hugh Beaumont in “Leave it to Beaver.” By the 1960s, the seminal sitcom dad was Dick Van Dyke, who trips over the ottoman in the opening credits.
In the early 1970s, Bob Newhart was adamant that he did not want kids in his show. One season the writers tried to put in a kid narrative, Newhart famously told them the script was great, but wondered who they were thinking would play Bob. Years later, he explained, “I didn’t want to have kids. I hoped that would set the show apart from the normal thing of ‘Daddy’s not very bright, and look at the pickle he’s gotten himself into, but we love him.’” The idiot dad might have reached its zenith in “Married with Children” but Ed O’Neil is still giving us a version of it today in “Modern Family.”
Poorly Remembered Literary Nostalgia
Scott doesn’t fare much better as he wades into the history of America and its letters to find foreshadowing for our current crisis of masculinity. His readers are treated to a description of the founders of the United States in which they are not fathers, but “late adolescents.” Benjamin Franklin is his primary example, and while it’s true Franklin had his dalliances, he also pretty much invented everything we use in our houses. Meanwhile, the notion that Adams, Jefferson, and Washington were adolescent is really just bizarre. In Scott’s version, the American Revolution is little more than a temper tantrum directed at daddy figure George III.
Similarly, he reduces the works of Mark Twain to one book, albeit an important one, as Scott uses “Huckleberry Finn” to prove America’s distrust of adulthood. Relying heavily on the work of mid-twentieth-century, postmodern thinker Leslie Fielder, Scott reduces the book to a homoerotic attempt by Huck to escape the trap of civilized adulthood. Reading Fielder, one wonders if his sexualization of everything is not itself an adolescent take on culture. But even if this was an accurate take on the book (which it isn’t), it hardly comprises Twain’s total thoughts about the adult American male. In “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” Twain gives us Hank, a Yankee man thrust back to early-medieval England, who spends the entire book bringing them civilization. He even builds a soap factory. This is a strong man with skill and knowledge who can make things, not a scared child escaping his abusive father.
The deeper one gets into Scott’s epic tome on the demise of adulthood, the clearer his actual message becomes. This crisis has nothing to do with the common people who read “The Hunger Games” or wear flip flops or cross the bounds of good taste in any other way. This is a crisis of the elites. The cable dramas Scott discusses are the high art of television, the heart of its “golden age.” But, as we saw above, most people are still watching NCIS. This phenomenon of adolescence wrought by the crumbling of privilege is in general little more than a Progressive myth. But within progressive circles it is very real. For those white men whose self-identity is locked into the opinions of The New York Times or NPR, these are tough times, and Scott offers only two solutions: to “become irrelevant or turn into Louis CK.”
Desperately Desiring to Neuter Men
In the strangest passage of his piece Scott tells us, “Every white American male under the age of 50 is some version of the character [CK] plays in ‘Louie,’ a show almost entirely devoted to the absurdity of being a pale, doughy heterosexual man with children in a post patriarchal age. Or, if you prefer, a loser.” It’s an astounding assertion. Scott assures us that he, too, is one of these pathetic creatures, his position at the Times notwithstanding. As the ennui drips from his pen to the page one can almost hear the sigh of relief as he unburdens himself of the invisible knapsack of his privilege. “I am obsolete!” He seems to shout loud enough for everyone to hear. Let us manage our decline together.
This is where Scott brings something new to the discussion. The “men don’t want to grow up and take responsibility” story is as old as the Bible’s prodigal son. But Scott is rooting for it. Scott sees the emasculation of men, or white men (it’s unclear when he means one or the other) as a good thing that will bring about progress. He sees the age of the man-boy as some kind of opportunity for women. But an opportunity to do what? Pay all the bills? Put up with childish behavior? The striking thing is that Scott’s essay is not a call to action to correct our behavior—it’s an acceptance of a new reality in which such behavior is the norm.
This is a predictable corner into which powerful, privileged Progressives paint themselves over and over. They are capable of identifying the problem and of blaming themselves for the problem, but they are not capable of truly addressing the problem. All they can really do is describe it and then go along for the ride. But this isn’t really a problem for Scott. After all, he can still review movies and have cocktails while the American man plummets to his inevitable and delicious decline.
The good news is that Scott is greatly exaggerating the death of the adult American male. Most American men don’t have the time or inclination to ruminate about being dethroned from the exalted position of master of the universe. They have jobs, and spouses, and kids. They watch Sunday night football (the number-one rated show in America), and sit at workplaces or bars with friends sometimes even talking about how hard things can be. Like all things, the role of men changes over time, but not as much or as quickly as many people suppose. A decade of TV shows, no matter how groundbreaking, is not changing men forever.