Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Age of Reason

Question of the day: When did Western culture shift from privileging age to privileging youth? Socrates takes it as a given that "the elder must govern, and the younger be governed" (Republic 412c). But look at the discourse surrounding Barack Obama (and Kennedy before him): He's young; he's HOPE FOR AMERICA! (The most common criticism of him, of course, is that he's inexperienced, but that gets lost in the shuffle.) When did youth in and of itself become a positive?

I suspect it was during the Romantic era, with its elevation of childhood, or else during the 1960s, when age became a signifier of The Man. You can't trust anyone over thirty, after all.

This continued and expanded in the popular culture of the 1980s and '90s. Michael Medved (whom I usually can't stand) points out in Hollywood vs. America that films of the era--particularly children's movies--feature kids who are far more noble than their parents. Think about Disney's The Little Mermaid, in which Ariel is intelligent and open-minded, while King Triton is an unpleasant bigot who opposes interracial marriage. Family sitcoms of the era feature an idiot father and his brilliant kids, The Simpsons being the worst offender. (The only post-Cosby Show counterexample I can think of is King of the Hill. Hank is clearly the most level-headed and intelligent character, and his son needs a good deal of guidance.)

(When we discussed this earlier today, V. pointed out that most sitcoms are now vehicles for male comedians, who play up this boneheaded angle. But Cosby was a comedian, too, and he was never dumb on his show--he was silly, but he was a great father figure, the kind of father most of us would appreciate. I suspect part of that was that because it was a "black" sitcom that featured upper-class African-Americans, he felt he had to be an example.)

Asian cultures, we're told, esteem and revere the elderly. I wonder if this system is changing in Japan with the influx of American pop culture. The fact of the matter, though, is that age doesn't make you The Man and that authority is not necessarily a bad thing. I'd definitely rather be sixty than nineteen, which, as the Old 97's tell us, "is not the age of reason." No offense to the nineteen-year-olds reading this (and I know a good deal of intelligent and thoughtful nineteen-year-olds), but it's the age of confusion, the age of incompetence, or at least the age of inexperience. Plato was right: Let's let the aged lead us, and let's stop making youth something to hold onto forever.

Old 97's, "Nineteen"


distractedblues said...

Somewhat on the other side of the coin, few mainstream network TV shows feature children as major characters anymore, either. Shows like that appear aplenty on the Disney channel (then ABC on Saturday mornings) or other channels geared toward "family" (read: children), but the current trend for network programs is for major characters between 16-50. Children exist as foils, sidekicks, etc., but don't lead the plotlines. King of the Hill serves as an exception in this case, as well. However, in the shows you mention that primarily feature a male comedian clowning around as "Dear Old Dad," the kids essentially act as little straight characters or as pulling wacky students that give him fodder for hilarious one-liners and witty monologues.
A couple exceptions do toil away in obscurity. Everybody Hates Chris comes to mind, as does Heroes, since one of its major characters was a prepubescent. Weeds (on Showtime) also isn't afraid to explore stories featuring its younger characters, either.
It's not as if a few other shows haven't tried. "Jack and Bobby" on the WB. On the same network, shows like The Gilmore Girls and Seventh Heaven started out with younger protagonists, but the success of the show led to those characters aging into older teens and young adults.

I don't bring this up because I think it's terribly negative. I think American television's lack of senior citizens speaks a lot more negatively about our culture. Incidentally, some of the UK's most popular programmes do in fact feature older characters, and those shows often wind up on PBS stations for American consumption. If you want to see some fantastic older characters, definitely check out Last of the Summer Wine, As Time Goes By, Keeping Up Appearances, and The Vicar of Dibley.

Ford said...

Have you heard of Diana West's The Death of the Grown Up? While it sometimes careens into nostalgia, she makes a pretty strong case that nostalgia may not be so bad after all. Check it out if you have not already.