Don Draper and the Death of God
In a provocative and widely read essay in the recent New York Times Magazine, A.O. Scott argues that American popular culture is witnessing the death of the adult.
Characters like Tony Soprano and Mad Men's Don Draper are the last gasp of white, heterosexual male privilege. This is fine, argues Scott, as it indicates a more inclusive and tolerant society. However, "in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups." From Adam Sandler to The Hunger Games, superhero movies to video games, we now are ruled by an adolescent culture.
In analyzing how we got here, Scott's essay suffers from a large oversight: he forgets God. Scott explores how American culture, from Ben Franklin to Huck Finn to Jack Kerouac, has always celebrated a male at odds both with home and society. "At sea or in the wilderness," Scott writes, "these friends managed to escape both from the institutions of patriarchy and from the intimate authority of women, the mothers and wives who represent a check on male freedom." When you consider American culture from Franklin to Mark Twain, Moby Dick to Holden Caulfield and rock and roll, "from there it is but a quick ride to the Pineapple Express and [Judd] Apatow."
In fact, the distance from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye to Knocked Up and Girls is not a quick ride, but a chasm. Scott is correct that American culture is filled with male characters who reject both societal institutions and traditional marriage. But until recently, these characters were compelling and forgivable because there was a third choice: they were pursuing God. To be sure, they weren't always priests or traditional religious figures. But they were willing to make the sacrifices that hunting for the transcendent has always required of men -- sacrifices that can be more intimidating and deadly than the patriarchy and Huck Finn's repressive Aunt Sally combined. Today's Man-Child has no such interest, or the courage to follow the calling of the spirit.
Take some of the examples Scott cites and representative of male characters in revolt. Scott gives a lot of emphasis to Huck Finn, a character who sets out on a raft to avoid attempts to "sivilize" him. Yet Huck is not fleeing authority so that, like Seth Rogan in Pineapple Express of Adam Sandler in, well, any Adam Sandler movie, he can lounge around, play video games and smoke pot. Huck lights out not only because authority is corrupt, but because life on the raft is a kind of mystical hot spot. Some of the most timeless passages from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are simple scenes of nature at its most awesome. When Huck decides that he "is going to hell" by refusing to turn in slave Jim, it signals a man, or boy, doing what Pope John Paul the Great observed was the duty of every man: to "freely go out and meet his passion." Huck is not avoiding civilization to loaf on a raft down the Mississippi; he's answering the divine calling of conscience. And that can entail great sacrifice and suffering. It's not exactly an episode of The Big Bang Theory.
Moby Dick is as much a metaphysical pilgrimage as a hunting story. Holden Caulfield was not a high school dropout roaming around New York getting drunk and looking for hookers; he was a young man tenuously holding on to his sanity and trying to find some kind of moral stability. Could Dean Moriarty in On the Road, a book that Jack Kerouac described as "two guys out looking for God," really be compared to Ben Stiller in Dodgeball? Woody Allen is often typed in his films as a childish neurotic, but his early films were replete with agonizing about sex, death, and the nature of God -- a far more daring body of work than Louis C.K.'s schlubby observations about being a white middle-aged man.
In his Times piece Scott claims that "the Updikean and Rothian heroes of the 1960s and 1970s chafed against the demands of marriage, career and bureaucratic conformity and played the games of seduction and abandonment, of adultery and divorce, for high existential stakes, only to return a generation later as the protagonists of bro comedies." But these men never really did return. They were replaced by adolescents who, growing up in a secular and PC culture, escape not to the great wilderness but to Las Vegas, where they suffer a great hangover.
That's what makes the modern Man-Child so depressing. It's not that he's avoiding family and the office. It's that he lacks the character and guts to endure the third option: an encounter with God.