The patriarchy is dead, adulthood is in steep decline and A.O. Scott feels Some Type Of Way.
At least, that’s my takeaway from Scott’s rambling 4,500 word essay in this week’s New York Times Magazine. Of course the piece has its supporters (since, after all, Scott is a well-known film critic and noted Man of Words), and some of the folks tweeting about this essay in earnest adulation are people that I typically agree with. But I’ve read Scott’s piece in its entirety three times now, and I can’t seem to get anything out of it other than one lone white dude raging (and raging, and raging) against the dying of the light.
Scott starts out by using the upcoming second half of the final season of Mad Men as proof of the death of the patriarchy. The speculated death Don Draper, he argues, as well as the deaths of Tony Soprano and Walter White, mark a sort of “end stage reckoning” of a certain type of television masculinity. This masculinity is, according to Scott, pretty complicated – after all these men aren’t exactly nice or good (in fact, Scott at one point refers to them as “monstrous”) – but they’re undeniably charismatic and quite often sympathetic. Are we supposed to cheer for them or hate them or just feel sorry for them? The answer, for most viewers, seems to be a strange combination of all three, and their deaths apparently mark a watershed moment in our culture. Scott writes that “Tony, Walter and Don are the last of the patriarchs.”
He then hastens to point out that, although he believes the patriarchy to be dead, that doesn’t mean that he’s denying the existence of sexism or misogyny. No, not at all. In fact, he believes that “in the world of politics, work and family, misogyny is a stubborn fact of life.” But, he adds, “… 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.”
I’m not even going to get into the ludicrousness of a middle-aged white dude announcing that the patriarchy is dead – I trust my readers enough to believe that they can figure out the many ways in which that statement is wrong without me offering them a long-winded explanation. But I do take issue with Scott’s assertion that criticism of male privilege is the uncontested norm in the “universe of thoughts and ideas.” First off, my main concern when it comes to discussions about male privilege isn’t so much that people will “defend” it, but rather that people will ignore it, downplay its cultural effects or flat-out deny that it exists. Those speaking up in “defense” of male privilege are easily discounted; those who don’t even acknowledge it are much more slippery and harder to fight.
Second of all, it is absolutely untrue that assertions of male privilege or belief in the inherent superiority of men (especially when it comes to ideas about the superiority of male intelligence) don’t exist in the “universe of thoughts and words.” Look at Richard Dawkins, for example – even in light of his recent comments on false rape accusations, people are still defending him by saying, “well, he’s still a brilliant scientist.” Or, for a broader perspective, look at the short-lists for the more prestigious book and film awards, and count how many books and films are written or directed by women, versus how many are written or directed by men. Or look at the gender imbalance when it comes to tenured staff at a university. There is plenty of evidence that we still take the superiority of men as the “natural order,” even in the world of deep thoughts and bon mots.
Five paragraphs in, Scott finally comes to what you might call the thesis of his essay. “It seems” he writes, “that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.” So, feminism is to blame for the supposed death of adulthood? Is that what I’m to take away for this? That in exchange for the cultural domination of men, we’ve traded away our ability to grow up? As evidence of this so-called death of adulthood, Scott offers a few brief anecdotes: Nearly a third of young adult fiction is purchased by readers age 30 to 44. Sometimes Scott has seen grown men riding skateboards or wearing shorts and flip-flops. There’s a woman in his office who wears plastic butterfly barrettes in her hair; when Scott sees her, he can’t help but make a disapproving face. That’s just how much of a grownup he is.
“God, listen to me! Or don’t,” he cries, sounding exactly like a modern-day Holden Caulfield. He then goes on to list all of the awful shows, mostly dominated by women (think Girls and Broad City) that have replaced more adult television fare like Mad Men or The Sopranos. Writes Scott, “What all of these shows grasp at, in one way or another, is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore.”
After a lengthy side-step into the apparently childish history of American literature (mostly, according to Scott, “a literature of boys’ adventure and female sentimentality”), and a brief discourse on why the Founding Fathers weren’t really fatherly and should maybe more accurately be called the Founding Bros or something equally un-grown-up, Scott finally swings back around to the cultural force that’s to blame for modern America’s lack of real, bonafide adults: the feminist movement. See, there are lots of young women who self-identify as feminists, most notably Beyoncé (who Scott calls the “most self-contradicting” feminist, which I can only assume is a dig at her overt sexuality and the length of her proverbial hemlines), and they want equality. But these women don’t want the good kind of equality; these women – especially the ones with television shows – want, Scott writes, to be “to be as rebellious, as obnoxious and as childish” as men are allowed to be.
All of which is to say that what Scott refers to as “cultural feminism” (as opposed to, I guess, academic feminism) is ruining being a grownup for everyone. Instead of forcing men to grow up, it’s encouraging women to be just like the man-babies. Instead of fostering a type of equality where everyone has an awesome job and wears a suit, it’s created a slacker equality where we all live in our parents’ basements and make fart jokes. For shame, feminism! What would Susan B. Anthony say? Oh god what hath we millenials wrought?
Finally, in the third to last paragraph, Scott writes what is probably his essay’s most important and most telling sentence: “The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all.” This, you see, is ultimately what Scott believes is holding people back from achieving full adulthood: not wanting to pay attention to critical discourse, a field that, by the way, has long been dominated by white men. And, you see, this is what this whole 4,500 word essay has been about. It’s not about people who read YA fiction or revere Huck Finn or live in their parents’ basement; this whole thing all boils down to the fact that A.O. Scott, and other successful, well-educated white dudes like him feel like they might be losing their audience. This isn’t a brilliant article about the downfall of the patriarchy and who the real grownups are and whether or not Beyoncé is too bootylicious to be a feminist – it’s the sad, dying cry of a white dude who sees all of his unearned privilege slowly slipping away.
It seems worth pointing out that not once in this entire essay does A.O. Scott define what adulthood is; he only tells us what it isn’t. Adulthood isn’t wearing shorts and flip-flops. Adulthood isn’t living in your parents’ basement. Adulthood isn’t liking what you like just because you like it. So from all of these negatives, I guess that we can infer that being a grownup means wearing a suit, living on your own, and only enjoying literature and media that someone else tells you will be challenging and enlightening.
If that’s what adulthood really means, then let me be the first to dance on its grave.