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The death of adulthood, or just the exhaustion of the patriarchy?

The death of adulthood, or just the exhaustion of the patriarchy?

A. O. Scott, the chief movie critic of The New York Times has written an intriguing essay for the paper’s magazine, in which he suggests that the fates of various high profile television characters including Don Draper, Walter White and Tony Soprano reflect not only the exhaustion of the patriarchy, but also, perhaps, “the death of adulthood in American culture.” You will want to read the whole thing to get a sense of what he is saying and what he isn’t. But here is a taste:

The monstrousness of these men was inseparable from their charisma, and sometimes it was hard to tell if we were supposed to be rooting for them or recoiling in horror. We were invited to participate in their self-delusions and to see through them, to marvel at the mask of masculine competence even as we watched it slip or turn ugly. Their deaths were (and will be) a culmination and a conclusion: Tony, Walter and Don are the last of the patriarchs.

In suggesting that patriarchy is dead, I am not claiming that sexism is finished, that men are obsolete or that the triumph of feminism is at hand. I may be a middle-aged white man, but I’m not an idiot. In the world of politics, work and family, misogyny is a stubborn fact of life. But in the universe of thoughts and words, there is more conviction and intelligence in the critique of male privilege than in its defense, which tends to be panicky and halfhearted when it is not obtuse and obnoxious. The supremacy of men can no longer be taken as a reflection of natural order or settled custom.

This slow unwinding has been the work of generations. For the most part, it has been understood — rightly in my view, and this is not really an argument I want to have right now — as a narrative of progress. A society that was exclusive and repressive is now freer and more open. But there may be other less unequivocally happy consequences. It seems that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.

Agree or disagree with its conclusions, but the essay is a sweeping joyride/jeremiad on American popular and literary culture in an era that Scott suggests is coming to a close.


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Rod Gillis

A.O. Scott’s essay is intricate and compelling. Its also indebted to the insights of American Literature aficionado Leslie A. Fiedler whom he references.

In the end, I can’t completely agree with Scott. In juxtaposition to pop TV characters like Don Draper are solidly adult characters such as Sheriff Walt Longmire who is

strong, silent, parental, protective, self-giving. There are others as well, parental and adult, both male and female,like Detective Olivia Benson (Law and Order SVU) and Frank Reagan of Blue Bloods, or the elderly retrospective Mattie Ross in, True Grit.

Going deeper into actual current American Lit Richard Ford’s character Dell Parsons from Ford’s novel, Canada, is an example of a character who, while reflecting on youth, has made the transition into adulthood. Notice what Dell says about himself towards the end of the story, ” Along the way I tell them if not the facts, at least some of the lessons of my long life: that to encounter me now at age sixty-two is to be unable to imagine me at fifteen; and not to hunt too hard for better or opposite meanings even in the books they read…”

Far be it from me to take issue with experts, but American literature at its finest tells stories that confront adulthood in as much as its characters take issue with arbitrary authority in favor of the struggle to become one’s true self. It’s Odysseus. Its Huck Finn.Its maturation.

Lance Woodruff

As an ‘offshore’ Episcopal Communicator (I, a distant congregant of San Francisco’s St. Gregory Nyssen, resident 23 years in Bangkok this time around), I have no idea who Don Draper, Walter White and Tony Soprano are and why I should care. I don’t watch television much, although I work for Thailand’s largest broadcaster.

In his ‘Hearts&Minds’ column in today’s Sojourners online, Jim Wallis writes that ‘War Is Not the Answer,’ quoting a bumper sticker, I muse. It has been 20 years since I had a car. How do you ‘read’ a bumper sticker? Normally one must have a ‘bumper sticker reader,’ i.e. a car. And a certain amount of money.

There is still a water buffalo Asia, a world without automobiles.

But my daughter Hannah, at age 11, probably is as good an example of the multi-cultural forever young world culture that is replacing adulthood worldwide. Through the Internet she knows more than I ever did about popular media.

I haven’t read the essay. I will. With thanks to Jim Naughton for posting it. But at first glance I think of the death of critical thinking, of participatory democracy, of adult ways of behavior overall. Of course ‘adult’ has different meaning now than when I was growing up in Ohio in the 1950s…

Visitors to Tamarind House (my abode) are always welcome, to discuss this, life and multi-religions in Asia, and even have the hospitality of a place to stay.

Peace and all good from an American Anglican Franciscan in Bangkok.

Lance Woodruff

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