I’m a fan of old movies, the black-and-whites from the 1930s and 1940s, in part because of what they reveal about how American culture has changed. The adults in these films carry themselves differently. They don’t walk and speak the way we do. It’s often hard to figure out how old the characters are supposed to be—as though they were portraying a phase of the human life-cycle that we don’t have any more.
Take the 1934 film Imitation of Life. Here Claudette Colbert portrays a young widow who builds a successful business. (Selling pancakes, actually. Well, it’s more believable if you see the whole movie.) She’s poised and elegant, with the lustrous voice and magnificent cheekbones that made her a star. But how old is she supposed to be? In terms of the story, she can’t be much more than thirty, but she moves like a queen. Today even people much older don’t have that kind of presence—and Colbert was thirty-one when the movie came out.
How about Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, smoldering away in Red Dust? They projected the kind of sexiness that used to be called “knowing,” a quality that suggested experienced confidence. When the film came out Gable was thirty-one and Harlow ten years younger. Or picture the leads of The Philadelphia Story. When it was released in 1940, Katharine Hepburn was thirty-three, Cary Grant thirty-six, and Jimmy Stewart thirty-two. Yet don’t they all look more grownup than actors do nowadays?
Characters in these older movies appear to be an age nobody ever gets to be today. This isn’t an observation about the actors themselves (who may have behaved in very juvenile ways privately); rather, it is about the way audiences expected grownups to act. A certain manner demonstrated adulthood, and it was different from the manner of children, or even of adolescents such as Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.
Today actors preserve an unformed, hesitant, childish quality well into middle age. Compare the poised and debonair Cary Grant with Hugh Grant, who portrayed a boyish, floppy-haired ditherer till he was forty. Compare Bette Davis’ strong and smoky voice with Renée Zellweger’s nervous twitter. Zellweger is adorable, but she’s thirty-five. When will she grow up?
In a review in the Village Voice of the film The Aviator, Michael Atkinson dubbed our current crop of childish male actors “toddler-men.” “The conscious contrast between baby-faced, teen-voiced toddler-men movie actors and the golden age’s grownups is unavoidable,” he wrote. “Though DiCaprio is the same age here as Hughes was in 1934, he may not be convincing as a thirty-year-old until he’s fifty.” Nobody has that old-style confident authority any more. We’ve forgotten how to act like grownups.
Maybe “forgotten” isn’t the right word, for the Baby Boomers fought adulthood every step of the way. About the time we should have been taking on grownup responsibilities we made a fetish of resisting the Establishment. We turned blue jeans and t-shirts into the generational uniform. We stopped remembering the names of world political leaders and started remembering the names of movie stars’ ex-boyfriends. We stopped participating in fraternal service organizations and started playing video games. We Boomers identified so strongly with being “the younger generation” that now, paunchy and gray, we’re bewildered. We have no idea how to be the older generation. We’ll just have to go on being a cranky, creaky appendix to the younger one.
Picture the World War II generation, returning home after seeing too much agony and bloodshed. The world had felt like a dangerous place for a long time. Their own parents had vivid memories of World War I, and their childhood years had included the starvation and misery of the Great Depression. And now here they were after the war, newly married and living in the new, quiet suburbs. As they looked at their tiny newborn babies, these brave young survivors felt a powerful surge of protection. They wanted their little ones never to experience the things they had, never to see such awful sights. Above all, they wanted to protect their children’s innocence.
In the days when large families lived together in very small houses, when paralyzed or senile family members were cared for at home, when families bred and slaughtered their own livestock, even the youngest child knew a lot about the facts of life. Until very recently, it was not possible to protect children from knowing such things. Nor was it thought desirable: Life was hard and dangerous, and the sooner you learned how to handle things, the better. But in the 1950s and 1960s there was a stretch of time in which parents could keep their children separated from the hard adult world until they were well into their teens.
That separation ended with the advent of cable television and the Internet. Now parents have to learn all over again how to deal with a world in which children can get at all the information adults can. The silver lining is that the generation gap has disappeared; today’s teens and twenty-somethings watch the same movies and listen to the same music their parents do. Less silvery is the fact that so much of this material is coarse and obscene, and even children’s entertainment is littered with potty jokes.
There doesn’t seem to be a way to stop this, but if it’s any comfort to you, it was probably the same in the time of Chaucer. Once again, as through most of human history, we’re not able to protect children’s “innocence” about the facts of adult life. We’ll have to figure out how to equip children to deal with these facts, as previous generations did. That will require parents to be more directive, more authoritative and “parental,” than Boomers have ever felt comfortable being.
The well-meaning parents of the 1950s confused vulnerability with moral innocence. They failed to understand that children who were always encouraged to be childish would jump at the chance and turn childishness into a lifelong project. These parents were unprepared to respond when their children acquired the bodies of young adults and behaved with selfishness, defiance, and hedonism.
The World War II generation envisioned a sharp contrast between childhood and adulthood: Childhood was all gaiety, while adulthood was burdened with misery and toil. The resulting impulse was to place children in a hermetically sealed playroom. Childhood, once understood as a transitional stage, was now almost a physical place—a toy-filled nursery where children could linger all the golden afternoon. Parents looked on wistfully, wishing their dear children could stay young forever.
As they say: Be careful what you wish for. When conservatives get nostalgic for the Ozzie-and-Harriett parenting of the 1950s, they should remember how the experiment turned out. The children got older, but they never grew up. They continued to show the same self-centered and demanding behavior that had fit so well with their parents’ desire to pamper and protect. They continued to expect that life would be arranged to please them, as it had been in the playroom. They ridiculed their parents’ values, slept around, and trashed all forms of authority.
Of course, when all the authorities have been trashed, the world doesn’t feel very secure. Anxiety hangs over a culture when adults act like children. The Baby Boomers rejected not just grownup life but grownups. They rejected the parents who had worried so much over them. If something looked like what grownups would do, Boomers wanted no part of it.
to read our look at "Twixters", the inevitable byproduct of a culture that frowns on growing up.