Sometime this spring, during the first half of the final season of “Mad Men,” the popular pastime of watching the show — recapping episodes, tripping over spoilers, trading notes on the flawless production design, quibbling about historical details and debating big themes — segued into a parlor game of reading signs of its hero’s almost universally anticipated demise. Maybe the 5 o’clock shadow of mortality was on Don Draper (fig. 1) from the start. Maybe the plummeting graphics of the opening titles implied a literal as well as a moral fall. Maybe the notable deaths in previous seasons (fictional characters like Miss Blankenship, Lane Pryce and Bert Cooper, as well as figures like Marilyn Monroe and Medgar Evers) were premonitions of Don’s own departure. In any case, fans and critics settled in for a vigil. It was not a matter of whether, but of how and when.
TV characters are among the allegorical figures of our age, giving individual human shape to our collective anxieties and aspirations. The meanings of “Mad Men” are not very mysterious: The title of the final half season, which airs next spring, will be “The End of an Era.” The most obvious thing about the series’s meticulous, revisionist, present-minded depiction of the past, and for many viewers the most pleasurable, is that it shows an old order collapsing under the weight of internal contradiction and external pressure. From the start, “Mad Men” has, in addition to cataloging bygone vices and fashion choices, traced the erosion, the gradual slide toward obsolescence, of a power structure built on and in service of the prerogatives of white men. The unthinking way Don, Pete, Roger and the rest of them enjoy their position, and the ease with which they abuse it, inspires what has become a familiar kind of ambivalence among cable viewers. Weren’t those guys awful, back then? But weren’t they also kind of cool? We are invited to have our outrage and eat our nostalgia too, to applaud the show’s right-thinking critique of what we love it for glamorizing.
The widespread hunch that “Mad Men” will end with its hero’s death is what you might call overdetermined. It does not arise only from the internal logic of the narrative itself, but is also a product of cultural expectations. Something profound has been happening in our television over the past decade, some end-stage reckoning. It is the era not just of mad men, but also of sad men and, above all, bad men. Don is at once the heir and precursor to Tony Soprano (fig. 2), that avatar of masculine entitlement who fended off threats to the alpha-dog status he had inherited and worked hard to maintain. Walter White, the protagonist of “Breaking Bad,” struggled, early on, with his own emasculation and then triumphantly (and sociopathically) reasserted the mastery that the world had contrived to deny him. The monstrousness of these men was inseparable from their charisma, and sometimes it was hard to tell if we were supposed to be rooting for them or recoiling in horror. We were invited to participate in their self-delusions and to see through them, to marvel at the mask of masculine competence even as we watched it slip or turn ugly. Their deaths were (and will be) a culmination and a conclusion: Tony, Walter and Don are the last of the patriarchs.
In suggesting that patriarchy is dead, I am not claiming that sexism is finished, that men are obsolete or that the triumph of feminism is at hand. I may be a middle-aged white man, but I’m not an idiot. In the world of politics, work and family, misogyny is a stubborn fact of life. But 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.
This slow unwinding has been the work of generations. For the most part, it has been understood — rightly in my view, and this is not really an argument I want to have right now — as a narrative of progress. A society that was exclusive and repressive is now freer and more open. But there may be other less unequivocally happy consequences. It seems that, in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.
A little over a week after the conclusion of the first half of the last “Mad Men” season, the journalist and critic Ruth Graham published a polemical essay in Slate lamenting the popularity of young-adult fiction among fully adult readers. Noting that nearly a third of Y.A. books were purchased by readers ages 30 to 44 (most of them presumably without teenage children of their own), Graham insisted that such grown-ups “should feel embarrassed about reading literature for children.” Instead, these readers were furious. The sentiment on Twitter could be summarized as “Don’t tell me what to do!” as if Graham were a bossy, uncomprehending parent warning the kids away from sugary snacks toward more nutritious, chewier stuff.
It was not an argument she was in a position to win, however persuasive her points. To oppose the juvenile pleasures of empowered cultural consumers is to assume, wittingly or not, the role of scold, snob or curmudgeon. Full disclosure: The shoe fits. I will admit to feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games.” I’m not necessarily proud of this reaction. As cultural critique, it belongs in the same category as the sneer I can’t quite suppress when I see guys my age (pushing 50) riding skateboards or wearing shorts and flip-flops, or the reflexive arching of my eyebrows when I notice that a woman at the office has plastic butterfly barrettes in her hair.
God, listen to me! Or don’t. My point is not so much to defend such responses as to acknowledge how absurd, how impotent, how out of touch they will inevitably sound. In my main line of work as a film critic, I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises (some of them based on those same Y.A. novels) that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart.
Meanwhile, television has made it very clear that we are at a frontier. Not only have shows like “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men” heralded the end of male authority; we’ve also witnessed the erosion of traditional adulthood in any form, at least as it used to be portrayed in the formerly tried-and-true genres of the urban cop show, the living-room or workplace sitcom and the prime-time soap opera. Instead, we are now in the age of “Girls,” “Broad City,” “Masters of Sex” (a prehistory of the end of patriarchy), “Bob’s Burgers” (a loopy post-“Simpsons” family cartoon) and a flood of goofy, sweet, self-indulgent and obnoxious improv-based web videos.
What all of these shows grasp at, in one way or another, is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore. Adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable. It isn’t only that patriarchy in the strict, old-school Don Draper sense has fallen apart. It’s that it may never really have existed in the first place, at least in the way its avatars imagined. Which raises the question: Should we mourn the departed or dance on its grave?
Before we answer that, an inquest may be in order. Who or what killed adulthood? Was the death slow or sudden? Natural or violent? The work of one culprit or many? Justifiable homicide or coldblooded murder?
We Americans have never been all that comfortable with patriarchy in the strict sense of the word. The men who established our political independence — guys who, for the most part, would be considered late adolescents by today’s standards (including Benjamin Franklin (fig. 3), in some ways the most boyish of the bunch) — did so partly in revolt against the authority of King George III, a corrupt, unreasonable and abusive father figure. It was not until more than a century later that those rebellious sons became paternal symbols in their own right. They weren’t widely referred to as Founding Fathers until Warren Harding, then a senator, used the phrase around the time of World War I.
From the start, American culture was notably resistant to the claims of parental authority and the imperatives of adulthood. Surveying the canon of American literature in his magisterial “Love and Death in the American Novel,” Leslie A. Fiedler suggested, more than half a century before Ruth Graham, that “the great works of American fiction are notoriously at home in the children’s section of the library.” Musing on the legacy of Rip Van Winkle and Huckleberry Finn (fig. 4), he broadened this observation into a sweeping (and still very much relevant) diagnosis of the national personality: “The typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat — anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage and responsibility. One of the factors that determine theme and form in our great books is this strategy of evasion, this retreat to nature and childhood which makes our literature (and life!) so charmingly and infuriatingly ‘boyish.’ ”
Huck Finn is for Fiedler the greatest archetype of this impulse, and he concludes “Love and Death” with a tour de force reading of Twain’s masterpiece. What Fiedler notes, and what most readers of “Huckleberry Finn” will recognize, is Twain’s continual juxtaposition of Huck’s innocence and instinctual decency with the corruption and hypocrisy of the adult world.
Huck’s “Pap” is a thorough travesty of paternal authority, a wretched, mean and dishonest drunk whose death is among the least mourned in literature. When Huck drifts south from Missouri, he finds a dysfunctional patriarchal order whose notions of honor and decorum mask the ultimate cruelty of slavery. Huck’s hometown represents “the world of belongingness and security, of school and home and church, presided over by the mothers.” But this matriarchal bosom is as stifling to Huck as the land of Southern fathers is alienating. He finds authenticity and freedom only on the river, in the company of Jim, the runaway slave, a friend who is by turns Huck’s protector and his ward.
The love between this pair repeats a pattern Fiedler discerned in the bonds between Ishmael and Queequeg in “Moby-Dick” and Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels (which Twain famously detested). What struck Fiedler about these apparently sexless but intensely homoerotic connections was their cross-cultural nature and their defiance of heterosexual expectation. At sea or in the wilderness, 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.
Fiedler saw American literature as sophomoric. He lamented the absence of books that tackled marriage and courtship — for him the great grown-up themes of the novel in its mature, canonical form. Instead, notwithstanding a few outliers like Henry James and Edith Wharton, we have a literature of boys’ adventures and female sentimentality. Or, to put it another way, all American fiction is young-adult fiction.
The elevation of the wild, uncivilized boy into a hero of the age remained a constant even as American society itself evolved, convulsed and transformed. While Fiedler was sitting at his desk in Missoula, Mont., writing his monomaniacal tome, a youthful rebellion was asserting itself in every corner of the culture. The bad boys of rock ‘n’ roll and the pouting screen rebels played by James Dean and Marlon Brando proved Fiedler’s point even as he was making it. So did Holden Caulfield, Dean Moriarty, Augie March and Rabbit Angstrom — a new crop of semi-antiheroes in flight from convention, propriety, authority and what Huck would call the whole “sivilized” world.
From there it is but a quick ride on the Pineapple Express to Apatow. 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. We devolve from Lenny Bruce to Adam Sandler, from “Catch-22” to “The Hangover,” from “Goodbye, Columbus” to “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin.”
But the antics of the comic man-boys were not merely repetitive; in their couch-bound humor we can detect the glimmers of something new, something that helped speed adulthood to its terminal crisis. Unlike the antiheroes of eras past, whose rebellion still accepted the fact of adulthood as its premise, the man-boys simply refused to grow up, and did so proudly. Their importation of adolescent and preadolescent attitudes into the fields of adult endeavor (see “Billy Madison,” “Knocked Up,” “Step Brothers,” “Dodgeball”) delivered a bracing jolt of subversion, at least on first viewing. Why should they listen to uptight bosses, stuck-up rich guys and other readily available symbols of settled male authority?
That was only half the story, though. As before, the rebellious animus of the disaffected man-child was directed not just against male authority but also against women. In Sandler’s early, funny movies, and in many others released under Apatow’s imprimatur, women are confined to narrowly archetypal roles. Nice mommies and patient wives are idealized; it’s a relief to get away from them and a comfort to know that they’ll take care of you when you return. Mean mommies and controlling wives are ridiculed and humiliated. Sexually assertive women are in need of being shamed and tamed. True contentment is only found with your friends, who are into porn and “Star Wars” and weed and video games and all the stuff that girls and parents just don’t understand.
The bro comedy has been, at its worst, a cesspool of nervous homophobia and lazy racial stereotyping. Its postures of revolt tend to exemplify the reactionary habit of pretending that those with the most social power are really beleaguered and oppressed. But their refusal of maturity also invites some critical reflection about just what adulthood is supposed to mean. In the old, classic comedies of the studio era — the screwbally roller coasters of marriage and remarriage, with their dizzying verbiage and sly innuendo — adulthood was a fact. It was inconvertible and burdensome but also full of opportunity. You could drink, smoke, flirt and spend money. The trick was to balance the fulfillment of your wants with the carrying out of your duties.
The desire of the modern comic protagonist, meanwhile, is to wallow in his own immaturity, plumbing its depths and reveling in its pleasures. Sometimes, as in the recent Seth Rogen movie “Neighbors,” he is able to do that within the context of marriage. At other, darker times, say in Adelle Waldman’s literary comedy of manners, “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.,” he will remain unattached and promiscuous, though somewhat more guiltily than in his Rothian heyday, with more of a sense of the obligation to be decent. It should be noted that the modern man-boy’s predecessors tended to be a lot meaner than he allows himself to be.
But they also, at least some of the time, had something to fight for, a moral or political impulse underlying their postures of revolt. The founding brothers in Philadelphia cut loose a king; Huck Finn exposed the dehumanizing lies of America slavery; Lenny Bruce battled censorship. When Marlon Brando’s Wild One was asked what he was rebelling against, his thrilling, nihilistic response was “Whaddaya got?” The modern equivalent would be “. . .”
Maybe nobody grows up anymore, but everyone gets older. What happens to the boy rebels when the dream of perpetual childhood fades and the traditional prerogatives of manhood are unavailable? There are two options: They become irrelevant or they turn into Louis C. K. (fig. 5). Every white American male under the age of 50 is some version of the character he plays on “Louie,” a show almost entirely devoted to the absurdity of being a pale, doughy heterosexual man with children in a post-patriarchal age. Or, if you prefer, a loser.
The humor and pathos of “Louie” come not only from the occasional funny feelings that he has about his privileges — which include walking through the city in relative safety and the expectation of sleeping with women who are much better looking than he is — but also, more profoundly, from his knowledge that the conceptual and imaginative foundations of those privileges have crumbled beneath him. He is the center of attention, but he’s not entirely comfortable with that. He suspects that there might be other, more interesting stories around him, funnier jokes, more dramatic identity crises, and he knows that he can’t claim them as his own. He is above all aware of a force in his life, in his world, that by turns bedevils him and gives him hope, even though it isn’t really about him at all. It’s called feminism.
Who is the most visible self-avowed feminist in the world right now? If your answer is anyone other than Beyoncé (fig. 6), you might be trying a little too hard to be contrarian. Did you see her at the V.M.A.’s, in her bejeweled leotard, with the word “feminist” in enormous illuminated capital letters looming on the stage behind her? A lot of things were going on there, but irony was not one of them. The word was meant, with a perfectly Beyoncé-esque mixture of poise and provocation, to encompass every other aspect of her complicated and protean identity. It explains who she is as a pop star, a sex symbol, the mother of a daughter and a partner in the most prominent African-American power couple not currently resident in the White House.
And while Queen Bey may be the biggest, most self-contradicting, most multitude-containing force in popular music at the moment, she is hardly alone. Taylor Swift recently described how, under the influence of her friend Lena Dunham, she realized that “I’ve been taking a feminist stance without saying so,” which only confirmed what anyone who had been listening to her smart-girl power ballads already knew. And while there will continue to be hand-wringing about the ways female singers are sexualized — cue the pro and con think pieces about Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, Lady Gaga, Kesha and, of course, Madonna, the mother of them all — it is hard to argue with their assertions of power and independence. Take note of the extent and diversity of that list and feel free to add names to it. The dominant voices in pop music now, with the possible exception of rock, which is dad music anyway, belong to women. The conversations rippling under the surfaces of their songs are as often as not with other women — friends, fans, rivals and influences.
Similar conversations are taking place in the other arts: in literature, in stand-up comedy and even in film, which lags far behind the others in making room for the creativity of women. But television, the monument valley of the dying patriarchs, may be where the new cultural feminism is making its most decisive stand. There is now more and better television than there ever was before, so much so that “television,” with its connotations of living-room furniture and fixed viewing schedules, is hardly an adequate word for it anymore. When you look beyond the gloomy-man, angry-man, antihero dramas that too many critics reflexively identify as quality television — “House of Cards,” “Game of Thrones,” “True Detective,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Newsroom” — you find genre-twisting shows about women and girls in all kinds of places and circumstances, from Brooklyn to prison to the White House. The creative forces behind these programs are often women who have built up the muscle and the résumés to do what they want.
Many people forget that the era of the difficult TV men, of Tony and Don and Heisenberg, was also the age of the difficult TV mom, of shows like “Weeds,” “United States of Tara,” “The Big C” and “Nurse Jackie,” which did not inspire the same level of critical rapture partly because they could be tricky to classify. Most of them occupied the half-hour rather than the hourlong format, and they were happy to swerve between pathos and absurdity. Were they sitcoms or soap operas? This ambiguity, and the stubborn critical habit of refusing to take funny shows and family shows as seriously as cop and lawyer sagas, combined to keep them from getting the attention they deserved. But it also proved tremendously fertile.
The cable half-hour, which allows for both the concision of the network sitcom and the freedom to talk dirty and show skin, was also home to “Sex and the City,” in retrospect the most influential television series of the early 21st century. “Sex and the City” put female friendship — sisterhood, to give it an old political inflection — at the center of the action, making it the primary source of humor, feeling and narrative complication. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spinoffs did this in the 1970s. But Carrie (fig. 7) and her girlfriends could be franker and freer than their precursors, and this made “Sex and the City” the immediate progenitor of “Girls” and “Broad City,” which follow a younger generation of women pursuing romance, money, solidarity and fun in the city.
Those series are, unambiguously, comedies, though “Broad City” works in a more improvisational and anarchic vein than “Girls.” Their more inhibited broadcast siblings include “The Mindy Project” and “New Girl.” The “can women be funny?” pseudo-debate of a few years ago, ridiculous at the time, has been settled so decisively it’s as if it never happened. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Aubrey Plaza, Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes: Case closed. The real issue, in any case, was never the ability of women to get a laugh but rather their right to be as honest as men.
And also to be as rebellious, as obnoxious and as childish. Why should boys be the only ones with the right to revolt? Not that the new girls are exactly Thelma and Louise. Just as the men passed through the stage of sincere rebellion to arrive at a stage of infantile refusal, so, too, have the women progressed by means of regression. After all, traditional adulthood was always the rawest deal for them.
Which is not to say that the newer styles of women’s humor are simple mirror images of what men have been doing. On the contrary. “Broad City,” with the irrepressible friendship of the characters played by Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson at its center, functions simultaneously as an extension and a critique of the slacker-doofus bro-posse comedy refined (by which I mean exactly the opposite) by “Workaholics” or the long-running web-based mini-sitcom “Jake and Amir.” The freedom of Abbi and Ilana, as of Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna and Jessa on “Girls” — a freedom to be idiotic, selfish and immature as well as sexually adventurous and emotionally reckless — is less an imitation of male rebellion than a rebellion against the roles it has prescribed. In Fiedler’s stunted American mythos, where fathers were tyrants or drunkards, the civilizing, disciplining work of being a grown-up fell to the women: good girls like Becky Thatcher, who kept Huck’s pal Tom Sawyer from going too far astray; smothering maternal figures like the kind but repressive Widow Douglas; paragons of sensible judgment like Mark Twain’s wife, Livy, of whom he said he would “quit wearing socks if she thought them immoral.”
Looking at those figures and their descendants in more recent times — and at the vulnerable patriarchs lumbering across the screens to die — we can see that to be an American adult has always been to be a symbolic figure in someone else’s coming-of-age story. And that’s no way to live. It is a kind of moral death in a culture that claims youthful self-invention as the greatest value. We can now avoid this fate. 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. We have our favorite toys, books, movies, video games, songs, and we are as apt to turn to them for comfort as for challenge or enlightenment.
Y.A. fiction is the least of it. It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young. Childhood, once a condition of limited autonomy and deferred pleasure (“wait until you’re older”), is now a zone of perpetual freedom and delight. Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content. These symptoms of arrested development will also be signs that we are freer, more honest and happier than the uptight fools who let go of such pastimes.
I do feel the loss of something here, but bemoaning the general immaturity of contemporary culture would be as obtuse as declaring it the coolest thing ever. A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.
I’m all for it. Now get off my lawn.