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Wild Things

Arts & Culture | October 26, 2009

I’m sure you’ve heard all about it: Kids today are growing up faster than ever before. But that’s not to say they’re becoming adults faster; they’re simply quick to embrace teen-hood. In our culture, where an insanely high premium is placed on maintaining youthfulness, indoctrination into adulthood seems increasingly elusive. While children eagerly embrace adolescence, we, the waning adolescents, are content to keep adulthood at arm’s length, wading in a state of extended adolescence for as long as possible. And who could blame us? Adulthood sucks. Or so we’ve been told.

Since childhood, we’ve been force-fed really enjoyable anti-adult propaganda. Many of our favorite childhood books and movies simply rehash one of the dominant narratives of our era: the story of the child who faces the myriad adversities of adulthood. It should be no surprise that Dave Eggers was chosen to bring Maurice Sendak’s beloved “Where the Wild Things Are” to film; his principal theme—present in works from ”A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” to ”What Is the What”—has been the struggle of the child forced to deal with adulthood and loss.

Perhaps most artful in its telling of this tale is the classic Disney film, Peter Pan [1953]. Its setting, Neverland, is a fantastic place where children can fly with fairies, befriend Lost Boys, and never ever grow up. Half a century later, Johnny Depp would revitalize the Peter Pan legacy with his role as author J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland [2004], a story of a man incapable of surrendering his boundless imagination to adulthood. But what was a romantic and whimsical idea in these films has become a nightmarish one in our modern society. Neverland isn’t just a pleasant fantasy anymore. We don’t have to fly to the second star to the right and straight on till morning to find it. Neverland is here; we’ve made it.

The figure of the boy-man or girl-woman negotiating the space between childhood and adulthood is rife not only in children’s folklore, but all of American popular culture. We are a people obsessed with youth, and we know this. But we’re not simply obsessed with youthful appearance; we’re obsessed with youthful lifestyle and the seemingly mindless grace conferred by it.

Childhood stardom, once a career nonstarter, is now nearly a prerequisite to bona fide icon status. Every week, in every tabloid and media-borne canard, we see famous children enduring their rites of passage through desperate displays of self-destruction. That’s what most of celebrity gossip is—bearing witness to endless initiation rituals that fail to actually initiate anything.

We lionize these child-adults, set them apart, and take vicarious and voyeuristic pleasure in watching them struggle through the limbo we’ve created for them. We never wanted Britney to grow up, and it can certainly be argued that she never did. No matter how much she ages or how many kids she has, she is, and always will be, the child confronting adulthood too soon and suffering for it.

Britney, Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus and whoever is next—they exist to be beautiful and young, and to suffer visibly. Their tormented bodies—half-rapture, half-ruin—peer out at us from TMZ.com and the grocery-line magazine rack. They are stuck forever between childhood and adulthood, embodying the irreconcilable tension between nostalgia for childhood and the inability to escape it. They truly are where the wild things are.

But young celebrities aren’t the only one’s plagued by our culture’s fixation on youth everlasting. It’s a much broader, far-reaching phenomenon that may be a reflection of the extended adolescence in which we all find ourselves. Even those considered adults—with spouses, jobs, and children—are influenced by its sway. Conservative commentators think this is just rich. If you ask them, every urban American under the age of 40 skateboards through traffic on the way to work, and the criteria that once defined adulthood—giving up bands, quitting drugs, getting a steady job, having normal sex—no longer apply. In a way, they’re right. Hipster parents are the new children raising children. They’ll put the kid down for a nap, check the iPhones to see if the Tokyo office has sent the quarterlies, leave a video message on Facebook, and maybe listen to Vampire Weekend over a joint while playing Halo 8 together. That’s the new happy marriage, the new happy adulthood: all the perks of adolescence empowered by money and gadgets.

Without a culture that honors maturation and individuation, the problem of entering adulthood is compounded by the fact that college no longer serves as an effective passage. For our parents, college was accepted as the last bastion of youth. Once it was over, it was over. After practicing some modest form of rebellion, they would acquiesce, get a job, get married, and raise us. Today, few of us think of college in this way, because, in reality, it’s changed. It doesn’t offer the same guarantee or security it once did. It doesn’t usher us from our callow dorm lives to mature home lives, equipped with jobs and career confidence. If college were ever a rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood, it has ceased to be one.

We can try and hold fast to our illusions and stay young forever. We certainly wouldn’t be alone in doing so. But I think that we’re missing something—that this isn’t the Neverland we wanted.

We’ve divested ourselves of a clear passage, and have only the over-blown and empty sort sweet-sixteens and Bar mitzvahs have become. We won’t, like some Native American tribes, circumcise young men as a mark of entry into manhood. We won’t wander alone into the wilderness to confront the fragility of ourselves so we can return to an established place in society. We won’t, and yet, somehow, we have to make a way for ourselves. Most of us don’t have the slightest idea of how to proceed or whether we’ve succeeded. In place of the missing ritual, we watch and re-watch the story of the child who suffers while earning his adulthood, our need for the story as boundless as the duality within us we cannot assuage.