This week New York Times movie critic A. O. Scott announces that the patriarchy is dead. In the worlds of American thought and art the values associated with white male dominance have been soundly defeated.
It is important to say, as Scott does, that he is talking about attitudes that prevail in the world of thought and the arts.
Those who despise the patriarchy systematically repress the positive achievements of men—like World War II—and ignore any writers and filmmakers who seem to promote a different set of values.
Thus, “Girls” is exalted while “Ray Donovan” is ignored. The latter show reaches a larger audience, but it is a man’s show, so thought leaders tend to ignore it.
Most of those who are fighting on this front in the culture war are happy to see the patriarchy die. And yet, Scott argues, the new culture seems to have killed adulthood.
Apparently, a matriarchal culture tends to infantilize people, leaving them in a state of permanent childishness.
One should not be surprised. Create a cult to a Mother Goddess and you will find that those who join the cult are either children or eunuchs.
Scott seems more interested in describing what has happened than in judging it. Fair enough. But, his analysis does tell us that overthrowing patriarchy has exacted a price.
Here is Scott’s presentation of the issue:
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.
Of course, Scott is describing the continuing work of the Vietnam counterculture, an effort to subvert patriarchal authority, to liberate people from the civilizing rules and to undermine the military ethos.
Scott is correct to say that for its proponents this culture shift is seen as progress. And he is also right to point out that they have completely ignored the negative effects—the general infantilizing of the nation.
Anyone who thought that the transformation would be cost free was deluded.
He continues to note that he does not really approve of this phenomenon:
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.
Surely, Scott is well-qualified to comment on the state of the film business. He might have added that the box office has been declining to the point that movie studios are announcing layoffs.
In his words:
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.
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?
If we are dancing on the grave of the patriarchy, we might also save a dance or two for the Hollywood studios who are suffering from a drought of viewers.
On television, Scott reports, the story is the same:
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.
Scott recognizes that, within the arts, the assault on the patriarchy has come from the counterculture. He quotes no less a figure than literary critic Leslie Fiedler whose analysis of American culture slanders and demeans men. Note well that Scott labels this vision “stunted.”
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.”
Fiedler is best known for having suggested that the story of Huckleberry Finn involves a perfectly Freudian case of repressed homosexuality. For those who still cling desperately to Freud, let that be a caution.
As for Fiedler’s will to censor those novels that did not fit his ideological preconception, Scott remarks:
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.
In truth, Henry James was the greatest American novelist. Many of his books address marriage and courtship in a highly sophisticated way. Dismissing Henry James as an outlier or an aberration is a sign of ideological blindness.
One might also mention Hawthorne, a great novelist and certainly not an outlier.
And then there is history. There were the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, TR and FDR, Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall. The pages of American history are filled with great male leaders, great political leaders and great military leaders.
More and more their achievements are being erased from history books.
Within the world of the arts and thought the culture warriors seem to have won. If Scott is correct, they might find that their victory is a mixed blessing.