THE FLOWER OF YOUTH


Awww, aren’t they impeccably flawless? Must be nice.

Greetings (long post, be warned),

On reflection of my birthday the past few days, I’ve written some thoughts involving the growing trend of young people in the West not always being able to grow up and settle into a career or find adult direction in life.

Like a lot of things in this supremely transitory era of ours known as 2007, it feels like so many aspects of modern life, whether they be technological, cultural or social, are in such a rapid state of flux that no rules are in place to define what is “right” behaviour as opposed to what is merely tolerable. The flux we’ve created has made all sorts of ideas about structure, authority and clear, definable boundaries between childhood, adolescence and adulthood fluid, rendering almost all of them either dysfunctional or even irrelevant (God, can you tell my degree has sociology in it?).

Take two of the most difficult topics of youth social mores affecting us today: Peter Pan Syndrome for males and The Bradshaw Syndrome for females. Thing is, these conditions exist largely because we’ve built up a world for young people that has ridiculous, illusion-driven expectations of gender roles, relationships and love and the harsh, unflinching realities of What Is.

First off, the guys. Last year a movie called Last Kiss with Zach Braff (man, he’s one of these actors you like on TV but is surprisingly hard to like in movies), Jacinda Barrett and Rachel Bilson came out. Basically, the story’s about a twenty-nine-year-old guy scared shitless about turning 30 and facing up to reality. He’s got a fiancée (Barrett) that just became pregnant and he’s hooked up on the side with a college girl (Bilson). It’s not the best of movies by any means. Garden State was a better, more sensitive film than Last Kiss, which feels kind of like Beautiful Girls (remember that ode to masculine denial from 1994?) but with writing and dialogue akin to digispeak on MSN Messenger between immature college students at 2 a.m.

The point of this movie is obvious: there’s a lot of guys out there, like it or lump it, that delay facing up to reality for a lot of reasons. The first and most alarming one is the sad, sad state of the relationship between Jenna’s (Barrett) parents, Anna and Stephen (Tom Wilkinson and Blythe Danner).

They don’t so much love each other as much as tolerate each other. Anna’s got explosively unmet needs and Stephen, well, to call him boring would be polite. It’s not exactly a match made in suburban heaven. You know there had to be some passion there at some point, but for whatever reason they’ve fallen out of love and into habit.

Unfortunately, Western civilization has placed the whole notion of eternal, unblemished marriage and love together in the same sentence, a linguistic short-hand for passion first, co-dependency later if you’re not careful. I’ve seen so many peers’ parents in relationships well past their best before date, staying together simply out of routine, habit or because building a life together has meant so many of those silent anger moments that some people hope get pushed out by what drew you to them in the first place. Thing is, those things build up over time. Guilt trips, egotism, selfish behaviour, unmet needs, it all adds up when it comes to marriage sometimes. Ergo, Anna and Stephen’s fault lines in the marriage grow. Sometimes it happens earlier than others. Some couples can’t deal with the idea of one partner wanting something the other can’t (Hell, sometimes it involves sex, but that’s a little later on in this post). I’m not saying this happens to every couple, but it’s surprising how much of a gaping, gasping abyss between our theoretical, tidy, romantic ideals of marriage and how people (men and women) really are has become. For every show like The Bachelor (which presents scary, twisted, unrealistic ideas about gender roles for both men and women alike), there’s a thousand realities similar to Anna and Stephen, no rose at the end or fancy new million-dollar house.

Second comes to the very jerkish nature of men themselves. Men are selfish assholes sometimes. Men don’t listen well sometimes. Men don’t always expand their minds or experiences when it involves money sometimes. Men can be afraid of women sometimes. All of these factors speak to general immaturity though, and in a society that routinely makes the argument (mostly powered by some Boomers, an age group constantly celebrated as great and wonderful but has some members in it enjoying a denialist, hypocritical streak like no other) about staying young and delaying growing up for as long as possible can’t turn around and turn all tut-tut about not facing up to reality. People do grow up. Men do grow up. Women do grow up. But you can’t send mixed signals as a society and expect it all to conform to a 1960’s era of life in Canada. Again, another huge divide between ideals and reality that people can’t resolve.

Peter Pan Syndrome feels like an admission on some guys’ part, at least unconsciously, they’re not entirely ready to face up to adulthood because it feels like adulthood kind of sucks in comparison to the kidult realities of “barely-there” adulthood.

(Just to be clear, I’m not putting any value judgment here on these conditions good or bad, I’m just describing a particular idea)

These are brutal challenges to the young man (and woman) today. Men have no clue anymore. We’re stuck in a holding pattern, unable to figure out exactly what it means to be a guy in a time when every single social more, value or idea has been thrown into chaos. Can you blame a lot of men (not all, but a lot) for feeling confused about what even constitutes “adulthood” or “facing up to reality” when a lot of us have been given no guidance, no clue? I like being an adult with adult responsibilities, but does that also mean my generation’s perceptions of our parents’ age group (toxic marriages, unfair expectations on each other) are wrong?

On the flip side, let’s talk about women. If you want an even more unfair divide between our collective illusions and reality, here’s one example.

I have a good female friend (no names, sorry) who could be described as having it all. Almost, that is. She’s in a situation a lot of women in our age group seem to be facing more and more.

She’s what most guys would call a head-turner – she’s beautiful. She’s got a career in the marketing industry, a home she owns with her husband whom she married straight out of university and all that jazz.

Thing is, she’s not really happy. Aside from some stuff I won’t write about here on financial matters, she’s facing that terrible moral and ethical quandary that a lot of men (and some women) in unhappy marriages faced for a long time but is now becoming a more and more common occurrence among both genders. She’s bored. She’s questioning her relationship with her husband. She’s thinking about a torrid, purely sexual affair on the side with a theoretical man (she hasn’t done anything, but she’s had some thought about it) that excites her in ways her husband can’t do. She knows it is wrong without his knowledge or consent, but those thoughts can’t escape her so easily.

So why the Bradshaw Syndrome? Because, like so many of the illusions we’ve created and have now invaded our media ecology like a virus, Sex and the City has created the false notion that being a complete young woman can feature “have-it-all” ideas about life that simply can’t hold up extremely well in today’s world. A lot of women I know face the same dilemmas, only with terrible pressures to conform to the ubiquitous sexualization of the female form and all the other challenges of womanhood.

I now know six people from my days at Queen’s that have either split up with their former significant others from their university/post-graduate days, are in the midst of divorce proceedings, conducting trial separations or seriously considering such a move. This is a big change, isn’t it?

Do they delay kids to focus on career? How will a woman’s husband/partner react to the idea and make child-bearing and raising a true partnership (as guys always should)? How can I rightly have what guys have had for generations? How do I resolve all these actions in my head when one constantly receives mixed signals from society about what it means to be a woman (also, as one woman I know says, women may think about sex the exact same way as men, but it remains a deep hypocrisy with Canadian society that, unlike men, women can’t publicly discuss ideas about sex with other partners as readily)

Bradshaw Syndrome might just be the twin of Peter Pan Syndrome: recognition that part of becoming an adult means, rightly or wrongly, making compromises and choices you may not always want to make. Does this make my friend unwilling to compromise? No, but it does mean harder choices could come down the road.

The truth is I have no idea what this all means. I’m only some dude writing an opinion in the blogosphere that probably doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. But it does all speak to the idea that men and women are moving closer and closer to each other, not just in common social mores but also in our intrinsic desires and needs. What does it mean for the future of our age group? Are we becoming more honest with each other as an age group? Are we setting more realistic expectations of marriage, love and relationships? Are we growing up in a healthy media environment (short answer: no if you’re not careful)? Or are both men and women under 35 really not growing up? And by which standards are we not? Or are people, regardless of their genders, just becoming more selfish?

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