It’s no exaggeration to say that having large numbers of single young men and women living independently, while also having enough disposable income to avoid ever messing up their kitchens, is something entirely new in human experience. Yes, at other points in Western history young people have waited well into their 20s to marry, and yes, office girls and bachelor lawyers have been working and finding amusement in cities for more than a century. But their numbers and their money supply were always relatively small. Today’s pre-adults are a different matter. They are a major demographic event.
– Kay Hymowitz
On first blush, Kay Hymowitz seems to be talking about the rise of the yuppie and its Brooklyn cousin, the hipster. (Is there a difference anymore?) This pack of pre-adults consists of youngish people, presumably educated, who spend the disposable income they might otherwise drop on diapers or a mortgage to do whatever suits them. In fact, though, she is ranting in the Wall Street Journal about young men who refuse to grow up. Untethered to a wife and children, these strays scrounge around dorm rooms, leaving only to export this way of life to their parents’ homes and eventually their own apartments, all while blithely ignoring demands to grow up. The portrayal of the shiftless young man has only grown more prominent in the grand sweep of recent history, from pitched battles over male irresponsibility on Jerry Springer to the rise of Judd Apatow’s empire. Writers turn a pretty penny dishing advice to frustrated women while Apatow rolls out one blockbuster after another about arrested development, portraying the childlike man as a lovable hero.
But where did this character come from? When did pop culture begin to promote the childless, free-spirited, self-indulgent adult as a cultural ideal? The dream of remaining young and unsullied by maturity is an old one, running from the lost innocence of creation myths through a long cultural tradition of imps, elves, and hobbits, all the way down to naïve Candide and Peter Pan, the lovable permanent child. But the more recent update is deeply tied to consumerism; its origins are largely male-oriented in nature, but it is far from a purely male phenomenon, despite what pundits in the grip of traditional notions about gender, marriage, and parenthood might suggest. The journey of the yuppie/hipster/slacker begins in Chicago, where Hugh Hefner founded Playboy in 1952. Long before the Playboy Mansion moved male fantasy out to the exurbs, Hefner situated his prototypical sophisticate in a hip urban bachelor pad.
The playboy of the 1950s was, in part, a reaction to the so-called domestication of the American male. Shoved into a “gray flannel suit” and boxed in a suburban ranch house world of cribs and Bundt cakes, middle class men yearned for a sense of freedom from the prosaic concerns of child-rearing and breadwinning, especially when their bread was won in a sterile corporate office in the city or a suburban office park. Hugh Hefner’s keen insight was to channel the psychic poverty of suburban manhood into a vision of suave, masculine, uninhibited freedom, defined by discerning taste and consumption of the better things in life – sophisticated drinks, jazz, the hip urban bachelor pad. As historian Elizabeth Fraterrigo has argued, the lifestyle promoted in Playboy was a sort of “answer to suburbia.” At the same time as the magazine promoted the pursuit of individual desires and redeemed the city as a place to live amid the rush to the suburbs, it also set up a sort of mirror image of male domesticity. Interior decorating might seem like a feminine domain in the suburbs, but Playboy actually recast the same activity in acceptably masculine terms. The sophisticated bachelor would seek to emulate Hefner by decking out his apartment in the sleek, high-tech, modernist style depicted in the magazine’s pages. Gone were colors, soft edges, floral prints, and in their place one found “a neutral palette and striking textural contrasts from its cork tile floor, to the stone fireplace heath, to an exposed brick wall” – a hallmark of today’s hip “loft” living, and a fine place for “a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex,” as Playboy said in its first issue.
Clearly, Hefner and his writers were laying out the contours of the single or childless life that many educated, affluent people are embracing in the twenty-first century. The possibility of pursuing one’s discerning consumer taste without responsibility to children or a broader community was pioneered as a fantasy for the men who read Playboy, yet it has mutated into a choice available to anyone who wants to live in a city, dine on Burmese-Mexican fusion, and invite a friend or lover over to discuss The Wire over drinks. (Note the exposed brick in the background.) Once the province of men, the ideal of affluent individualism has been at least partly translated into an option open to women through the sitcom alchemy of Seinfeld and Sex and the City.
Yet this Eden of adulthood without domesticity continues to have a peculiarly male dimension to it, which suggests a deeper tie to the original Playboy idea of unfettered selfishness. In a recent diatribe against prolonged adolescence in men, Kay Hymowitz cited Playboy as the proving ground for a “refusal” of responsibility. “The arrival of Playboy in the 1950s seemed like the ultimate protest against male domestication; think of the refusal implied by the magazine’s title alone,” Hymowitz recently said in the Wall Street Journal. “In his disregard for domestic life, the playboy was prologue for today’s pre-adult male. Unlike the playboy with his jazz and art-filled pad, however, our boy rebel is a creature of the animal house.” The philosopher-quoting, gin-guzzling bachelor of the 1950s had unwittingly fathered the video-game-addicted schlubs who refuse to grow up in movies like Knocked-Up and Pineapple Express.
Growing up, it seems, means getting married and having children – along with, presumably, holding down a mortgage and a job. Without this marker of adulthood, the man drifts further from view and only the manchild remains. Curiously, Hymowitz claims that the transition to adulthood was traditionally clearer for women than men, and has only gotten murkier for the guys in recent years. “It’s been an almost universal rule of civilization that girls became women simply by reaching physical maturity, but boys had to pass a test,” she writes. (Anthropologists would likely quibble with so broad a claim.) “They needed to demonstrate courage, physical maturity, or mastery of the necessary skills.” This argument seems deeply wedded to long-standing claims that men in modern society have had to compensate for the loss of their role as guarantors of physical security (fighting, shooting, performing manual labor) by indulging in a wide array of macho substitutes: playing with guns, buying an SUV, an undue obsession with gadgets and lawncare. Such pop psychological arguments have grown old and stale without losing their ability to hold sway over social critics (as well as the marketers and publishers who have so fiendishly exploited perceptions of male inadequacy).
Indeed, Hymowitz’s critique seems of a piece with the work of many thinkers, such as Susan Faludi and Lionel Tiger (yes, really), who argue that changes in recent American society have put men at some kind of disadvantage toward women, whose skills, capabilities, and personalities are increasingly favored in both the workplace and the family. Many women would undoubtedly deny that today’s economy elevates them to any privileged status, as if everyday sexism had disappeared from the office or the factory floor. Regardless, anxiety over the prospects for men in today’s society has become a bit of a cottage industry. The news media have widely noted the falling rates of male college attendance, especially among African American men. Films such as Failure to Launch have highlighted a supposed epidemic of men staying at home with mom and dad and refusing to start their own “nest.” (That such a phenomenon, which is no media fiction, might have some grounding in a catastrophic job market with high unemployment even among college grads is less often noted.) One controversial column recently suggested that even when men choose to start a family, they find themselves relegated to the status of an “employee” or worker bee for the do-it-all super-mom who manages the whole domestic enterprise.
These perspectives leave much for debate, not the least of which is what defines manhood or maturity in contemporary America. Is it “providing” for a family? The celebration of the stay-at-home dad has done relatively little to mitigate the expectation that a man is not really a man until he’s writing out a check for the gas bill – even as feminists and scholars have tried for years to honor the dignity of child-rearing as a form of labor deserving every bit as much respect as working for wages or a salary. (A scene in the recent indie hit Blue Valentine suggests as much, when a nurse played by Michelle Williams lashes out at her low-paid husband for caring more about child-rearing than career advancement: “Why do I have to be the man?” she asks.)
Perhaps more importantly, why is having a family at all seen as a necessary marker for adulthood, whether for men or women? In his recent book Joel Kotkin essentially castigated countries like Germany, Russia, and Japan for their low birth rates, suggesting that such trends portended “metaphysical boredom” and an impending demographic crunch. In contrast, America’s higher birth rates seem to indicate a greater optimism about the future, associated with a higher degree of religiosity. “Countries where adults’ primary concerns center of saving and investing for their offspring and for their offspring’s offspring are likely to view the future differently than nations dominated by aging, childless adults,” Kotkin writes (24). Anxieties over reproduction and the fate of traditional values have been most eloquently expressed in the film Children of Men, which contemplates how the prospect of a future without children would affect human behavior, as well as works that touch on related themes of immigration and population growth, such as District 9. Taken together, these films and the treatises of Kotkin, Hymowitz and company suggest that life without family or children is desiccated, hedonistic, and empty – the life of a dystopian Peter Pan, a child who refuses to grow up and make way for more children.
This is, of course, a world that could only be made possible through modern technology and consumerism. Whether it’s the development of the washing machine, the birth control pill, or a vast eating-out industry, the conditions of twentieth and twenty-first century capitalism are to be thanked for giving rise to the playboy or hipster. This is not the Communist vision of freedom from toil in which child-rearing and chores would be collectively shared responsibilities, allowing the individual to seek a greater degree of “self-actualization” than traditional capitalist society permitted. Contemporary consumerism has come closer to realizing this possibility for a certain privileged subset of parents, who pursue education and careers while daycare centers and nannies tend to growing the next generation. Indeed, the entire fantasy of an adult life dedicated to self-fulfillment, whether or not children are in the picture, is very much limited to a very small stratum of people in the world’s most affluent countries. The 1950s Playboy, after all, was always much more of a fanciful projection of male desires and anxieties in suburbia than a walking, talking, drink-mixing reality. Far more people watch the libertine adventures of Carrie Bradshaw than actually imitate them for any extended period of time.
If we think of the hipster lifestyle as a form of terminal adolescence, then perhaps we would do well to look at the way youth has been constructed in the seminal pop culture of our time. We could do worse than to look at the films of John Hughes – although over twenty years old now, the portrayal of upper middle class teenagedom in these films serves as a sort of ur-text for a life of comfort without responsibility. People of color and anyone who grew up poor may find little to identify with in the vision of Pretty in Pink or The Breakfast Club, but these films provide a powerful reference point for the generally privileged people who make much of our media and who also make up much of the twenty and thirtysomething hipster class. If people in this age and class bracket are really prolonging their adolescence, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off is arguably what they’re prolonging.
If one believes the four youthful Canadian filmmakers who made Don’t You Forget About Me, a documentary about John Hughes, Bueller serves as an American archetype. Bueller’s daylong Chicagoland adventure continues to resonate with viewers. Traversing the city from its sports icons (predictably the Northside’s Wrigley Field and the Cubs rather than the Southside’s Comiskey Park-bound White Sox) to its legendary Art Museum, Bueller’s endless day off unfolds with the requisite hijinks, pathos, and adult-like reflections on life (remember when Bueller speaks to the camera about topics ranging from the future of his relationship with Sloane to Cameron’s perpetually high stress levels?) many have come to associate with “teen movies” more generally. Having accrued numerous sick days already such that one more threatens his graduation status, Bueller spends the rest of his day in a “cat and mouse” game with his parents and his school’s principal, all in the name of a good time.
Some might see a burgeoning yuppie in Bueller – he likes the Cubs, wears an animal print vest, and appropriates Cameron’s father’s sports car – while others might see the foundation of hipsterdom. After all, Ferris eludes work (i.e. school) to take in the Windy City’s cultural attractions, all while winking at the audience. Irony is not lost on Ferris. Of course, Ferris enjoys his ill-gotten gains in a circumscribed world where minorities only exist as parking lot attendants. Apparently, Chicago’s traditionally black Southside does not figure in the Bueller landscape.
His Chicago is reminiscent of the London described in Jonathan Raban’s 1974 book Soft City. “Living in a city is an art,” Raban declared, “and we need the vocabulary of art, of style, to describe the peculiar relation between man and material that exists in the continual creative play of urban living.” David Harvey cited Soft City as a seminal text that portended the rise of the yuppie, who remodeled the city as a luxurious playground for the affluent and educated – “an emporium of styles,” in Raban’s terms, or “a series of stages upon which individuals could work their own distinctive magic while performing a multiplicity of roles,” as Harvey put it. People as privileged as Bueller or Raban (a young professional getting his first taste of London life, as Harvey points out) are free to enjoy the gentrifying city as a grand stage for artful living, but the image of the clever, smirking proto-yuppie/hipster/playboy continues to appeal to a broad audience. In Don’t You Forget About Me, the filmmakers interview numerous grade school and junior high students who exclaim that Ferris remains a central fictional figure in their lives. Perhaps Ferris’ larger message is that responsibility can be suspended and, by extension, adulthood avoided.
The 1988 Tom Hanks vehicle Big plays on similar themes. After making a fateful wish at a travelling carnival, twelve year old Josh awakes as a grown man, savvy in the ways of children’s toys but oblivious to larger issues of adulthood. Josh thrives in his employment as a creative mastermind at the toy company where he finds himself employed. His youthfulness serves as a point of attraction for both the company’s owner and his female love interest. Josh is a sort of forerunner of the men in Hymowitz’s article, who remain in a state of arrested development, more boys than men. Hymowitz implies that women have some kind internal adulthood switch that men either do not have or refuse to turn on, yet movies like Big or Ferris Bueller imply that immaturity remains paradoxically the reason why women love them. Even early 1990s works like Reality Bites stressed similar themes; Winona Ryder’s character chooses immature, obnoxious proto-hipster Ethan Hawke over driven, genuinely nice, and definitely grown-up Ben Stiller. Of course, the fact that most of these movies were made by men may partly explain why they construct gender and romance in this way.
Underlying Hymowitz’s entire article is the assumption that women are naturally more mature. One’s level of adulthood probably depends on the individual, but if women are somehow more adult, what makes this so? First, historians such as Mary Ryan, Alison Sneider, and Amy Kaplan illustrated how women were long privileged by men as somehow more virtuous. Though their place remained in the private sphere, nineteenth and early twentieth century notions of womanhood granted them superior intelligence in morals and rectitude. Both often attributes of adulthood. These very qualities justified women’s place in the public sphere through domestic reform organizations and progressive movements. For twentieth century examples, we can look to Beth Bailey. In From the Front Porch to the Back Seat, Bailey points out that postwar dating experts placed the role of sexual responsibility with the woman. Men’s sexual aggressiveness was deemed natural, as some experts even “encouraged boys and men to sexually exploit women.” (92) Women were expected to resist and men were to give in to this resistance. Failure to resist reflected poorly on the woman or girl. One can see where such a system suffered from enormous sexual fault lines; rape and sexual assault were portrayed as somehow a result of female irresponsibility. The larger point for our purposes is that the responsible party according to dating experts and etiquette manuals was women.
Still, there could be a simpler explanation. While the ideology supporting motherhood changed over the twentieth century, it remains an integral part of womanhood. Whether innate or socialized, the cultural power of motherhood remains, though sometimes contradictory, a force in modern society. Moreover, the fact of the matter remains that far more men abandon their filial responsibility than women. While certainly popular culture characters like Amy Adams’s criminally negligent Boston mother in Gone Baby Gone or Monique’s abusive matriarch in Precious exist, they are undoubtedly a minority. Further, even if they provide poor models of motherhood, they stuck around; the fathers in these stories and others like them are nowhere to be found. Conversely, “dead beat dads” and the like do not do much for arguments for male maturity or adulthood.
Perhaps, the same apparent fear of domesticity bleeds into other aspects of men’s lives. Pop culture suggests that the retreat into slackerdom could be a response to women asserting their place outside the domestic sphere. It goes without saying that men have struggled to deal with the growing presence of a female workforce over the last fifty years. Bailey, Lizabeth Cohen, and others have shown how these anxieties manifested themselves in tax policies (which favored the male breadwinner while diminishing employment by women) and dating structures (experts and etiquette guides prattled on about what a lady had to do get a man), to name just two areas. As news programs and policymakers bemoan declining college attendance by men, women increasingly occupy roles once held by men. Even if boardrooms, law firms, and other professional domains remain predominantly male, women have moved into these positions in increasingly significant numbers. Movies like The Proposal or Definitely Maybe (both Ryan Reynolds features – who would have guessed the star of the underrated National Lampoon’s Van Wilder would become the hero of rom coms?) show strong female professionals jousting with their just-masculine-enough but still sensitive male leads, creating an impression of workplaces dominated by women even if reality remains decidedly different. The need for these professional women to balance gender expectations with the need to excel in a workplace traditionally defined by male prerogatives has resulted in a confused transition in which some men have, perhaps, opted out. Choosing irony, slackerdom, and obscurity, men see this maneuver not as feminizing but as a means to subvert “the system.” If anything, their ironic appropriation of the trappings of childhood – t-shirts, cartoons, and Robot Chicken kitsch – serves as a winking acknowledgment of this predicament.
The result is a shabby 21st century update of the playboy – the runty grandchild of the urban sophisticate, dressing down for a precarious future. The debonair man who had it all has given way to the Williamsburg flâneur and the suburban stoner of today. The sleek world of the bachelor in the 1950s, the fun-filled landscape of wealth and privilege that Bueller traipsed through in the 1980s, and the glitzy market culture of Sex in the City are all projections of our culture’s rich fantasy life. These dreams were largely men-only at first, but the life of unlimited hedonism and permanent adolescence appears to be open to the precious few, regardless of gender, who possess both the money and the inclination to pursue it. While the yuppie may work twelve hours a day, the hipster may slip from one precarious employment to another, and the slacker may smoke up and slouch into Playstation, one thread unites each of the types: self-interested consumption. In a world where gender roles are in flux as much as the faltering economy, single-minded pursuit of one’s own hungers and cravings seems like the safest bet of all.