Thursday, July 05, 2007

Modern Day Peter Pans: Social Retardation or Ironic Undermining of Social Constraints?

Crystal, a former student, sent me this article from the Washington Post on the recent trend towards recreating childhood activities and treats for adults. From adult kickball leagues to gourmet cupcakes to companies that arrange recess for corporate employees, the idea is that those who were supposed to have grown up and acquired more mature sensibilities and preferences have refused.

This trend is nothing new. A stone's throw from the campus at Gettysburg is the Boyd's Bears superstore, a three story massive indoor orgy of stuffed animals of every shape, size, and species. The average age of consumers of these plush playthings, like the beanie babies of a few years back, is closer to 60 than to 6. Adult clothing with Pooh Bear or other cartoon characters may be easily spotted being worn at malls.

What accounts for this? Is it social retardation among gen Xers? The articles' attempt to correlate it with some post-9/11 psychic phenomenon seems utterly spurious to me. But what could it be?

My theory is that we have the baby boomers to blame. They were such a massive demographic and happened by just at the time when mass marketing really came into its own and so were marketed to incessantly, taking it as a mark of pride (and vanity) that they deserved such attention. This attention began when they were young and the cult of youth they spawned has never died down.

That gets coupled with the fact that the the successes of social feminism not only introduced women to the workplace, but did away with the formality of the home. No longer was there someone whose full-time job was to perpetuate the bizarre image of life with a formal living room reserved for entertaining and special china for dinner parties. Now women were living lives and living rooms became the places we live and play. Space was taken up with more and more everyday leisure time toys (and more and more crap) and relations became increasingly informal. The same forces that have the negative effect of making us highly anti-intellectual as a culture, also have the positive aspects of weeding out unnecessary pomp.

High culture has been reduced largely to popular culture, but there is some very smart popular culture out there in addition to the nonsense. Irony has taken its rightful place where social graces used to stand. It is not 9/11, but Nixon that brought on the sense that none of it is real, it's all peculiar artificial silliness. And if it is silliness you want, then we'll give it to you in spaces. To see adults engaged in the activities of the young is on one hand ridiculous. But the twist is that those of us who were weened on irony are able to laugh at and with simultaneously. We know how absurd it is, but can appreciate it at the same time as we authentically enjoy it.