January 13, 2012

Mid-century man-children

One of the striking features about our culture since the early 1990s is how juvenile people's interests have become, among younger and older alike. Going from a world where the most popular icons for children were He-Man and G.I. Joe to one where they are the Teletubbies and SpongeBob is sad enough, but it's not the end of the world if elementary school kids prefer kiddie junk.

What's really worrying is the juvenile tastes of so-called grown-ups. Being addicted to video games well into one's 20s and 30s (and before long, 40s). Creating a mass market for blockbuster movies based on kid's toys and cartoons. They made a Transformers movie when I was little, but it wasn't marketed to everyone. Even I didn't see it, and I was part of the small target audience. Listening to pop music that is so drained of emotion it sounds like they haven't even gone through puberty yet. And on and on...

If the main driver behind changes in the zeitgeist is whether the violence rate is rising or falling, we should expect to see something qualitatively similar from the mid-1930s through the late '50s, another falling-crime period. Since most of that time has faded from memory, we have to turn to historians of popular culture, as well as look into things on our own.

John Springhall's book Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics: Penny Gaffs to Gangsta-Rap, 1830-1996 details the elite outrage over penny gaffs and penny dreadfuls in Victorian England, gangster movies and horror comic books mostly in mid-century America, and gangsta rap during the '90s. For that decade he should have included the violent video game panic, which gave rise to the ESRB rating system. Not surprisingly these are all from falling-crime eras, when moral reformers act more like thought police and media censors, whereas in rising-crime eras they act to keep out poisonous physical substances like drugs. (That's another topic, which I'll get around to sometime.)

For now, let's stick to the mid-century period and comic books. Although there were a few, admittedly very popular, superheroes introduced through comic books in the 1930s, like Batman and Superman, by the '40s that trend died off and would not be revived until the '60s. During the '40s and '50s, comic books moved more toward the genres of horror, crime, Westerns, romance, etc.

Relying only on others' descriptions, the Western genre sounds like simplistic war movies like 300, and the romance genre like your standard chick lit. The covers and content of horror comics are strikingly similar to the recent "torture porn" in movies and video games. The crime genre sounds and looks more like the Law & Order TV show, especially its lurid spin-off Special Victims Unit. There were entire series of crime/gangster comic books from the '40s and '50s that focused just on women criminals. And they peddled exactly the same fierce-minded butt-kicking babes and GIRL FIGHTS! that provide shower-nozzle masturbation material for today's emotionally stunted and feminized nerd audiences. (See here for a great gallery of crime comic covers.)

Were comic books back then just kids' stuff? Not at all (p. 129-30):

An American survey of 1950 revealed that there was indeed a large adult readership for comic books, horror and otherwise. Roughly 41 per cent of adult males and 28 per cent of adult females read comic books regularly. In the same year a government-sponsored survey of an Ohio town found that 54 per cent of all comic book readers were over 20 years of age. These percentages are placed in perspective by the 95 per cent of boys and 91 per cent of girls between six and 11 who read comic books, while 80 per cent of all American 'teenagers'... read comic books as well, usually a dozen or more every month in the 1950s.

Thankfully they weren't as common among adults as among children, but it still should have been about 0% of grown-ups who read goofy immature junk like that. I'm not slamming popular vs. elite entertainment, but the specifically juvenile aspect of it all.

I wish I knew more about the history of radio dramas, since that was another huge form of popular entertainment that we don't remember anything about by now.

As for popular music, I'm not going to rate every top song for how childish it is, since that's a bit subjective. It's easier to find hit songs that are clearly kiddie stuff, and to treat them as the tip of the iceberg (or the tail of a distribution). Here are just those that reached #1 on the Billboard charts:

1948 "Woody Wood-Pecker"

1949 "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)"

1950 "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"

1953 "(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?"

1958 "The Purple People Eater"

1958-9 "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)"

Remember, this isn't a list of songs that were played on the radio at all, but those that topped the charts, and not for a children's category but for pop music overall. Some of those are likeable enough for adults to listen to them, although not so great that they should reach #1. And others can't even say that -- even as a child I couldn't stand that annoying doggie in the window song. I heard more grown-up music in the theme songs to my cartoons.

When the crime rate started rising in 1959, people wanted to grow up sooner, so this trend gradually died off. In 1962 "Monster Mash" hit #1, although at least that one was about parties and dancing. The last major entry was "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh", which reached #2 in 1963. After that, when "Sixties music" proper began, you didn't hear any of that stuff. At least not until 1997, when "Teletubbies say 'Eh-oh!'" topped the UK Singles chart.

Obviously other factors contribute to grown men acting like 10 year-olds, like living at home into their 20s, not having to earn their keep even if they do move out and get a job, working in a more feminizing service as opposed to a manufacturing economy, and so on.

Still, the influence of the rising vs. falling crime trend is strong enough that you can see a lot of today's man-children culture thriving in the mainstream during the '40s and '50s. Particularly compared to the Jazz Age before and Rock and New Wave Age after, the relative immaturity of the mid-century period jumps out. Movies like Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Rear Window really were exceptional, the refugia of a cultural ice age.


  1. So what is it, "lets unleash the black hordes to rape and steal" again?

    I admit I also hate comics and kiddy music, but if its the price to pay for security I guess I can stand it.

  2. That kind of hysterical exaggeration confuses the absolute level and the rate of change, which I keep emphasizing through the cumbersome and probably annoyingly repeated term "rising-crime times."

    There were no black hordes raping and stealing back in the good old days. Mad Max, Ghostbusters, RoboCop, etc., were works of fiction that symbolically heightened our concern with rising violence rates.

    The actual chance of being raped, killed, or robbed was quite low -- just higher than it had been within the recent past. If you talk to anyone who grew up in the '60s, '70s, or '80s, they never mention anything like "thank god we've left those dark ages of raping and pillaging." If anything they're wistful.

    And on the other end, you exaggerate how safe we are now, as though we've got the problem licked. You say "the price we pay for security," as though security has cleared some absolute threshold.

    But we're only safer than we had been earlier. Raping, killing, kidnapping, etc., are still out there. That's why I state it as the price we pay for a falling crime rate.

    In any case, the man-children phenomenon is only one of the many costs we pay. The main one I've focused on is cocooning, the loss of community, the evaporation of a thriving folk culture, less expressiveness, and the shift from transcendent values to trivial materialist values, existentialism, and the glib empty forms of atheism.

    That is all far too much of a price to pay just to go from the scarcely dangerous world of the 1980s to the even less dangerous world of today.

  3. I wasn't hysterical, just making the opposite position simpler. Rhetorical exaggeration is a useful tool in my opinion .

    So if its not security then what is it that caused cocooning on the 50s and 00s? There sure seems to be a demand for it.

    Isn't it just cyclical? People get social, proles get uppity, people get scared, stay home, get bored, get social again.

    The Schopenhauer cycle between suffering and boredom.

    By the way the 1960s 'trascendental values' pretty much murdered Western culture, so I don't see much to celebrate. I'm sure people were more fun to hang out with though.

  4. Cocooning is the desire for "greater security than in the recent past," not simply "security." To put it more formally, they achieve a negative first derivative in the crime rate -- not some "low level" on the absolute scale.

    The cycle goes:

    - People leave their cocoons, spending more time in public spaces.

    - Criminals now more opportunities to prey on people where they're vulnerable (i.e. public spaces). Crime rates go up.

    - The rising crime rate causes people to band together, while they're still out and about. Eventually the violence level gets high enough that people feel there's nothing left to try in the form of mutual aid, so they return to their cocoons.

    - With far fewer people out in public anymore, criminals have fewer targets. Crime rates go down.

    - After crime rates have gone down for so long, people sense that it's finally safe to come out of their cocoons, which starts the cycle all over again.

  5. I kind of enjoy the paradox(?) that being more OK with rising violence (which is what analysing the patterns the way agnostic does seems like it leads to) actually seems like it would kind of inhibit the rising-crimes attitude that would be theorised to lead to the cultural trends he enjoys, i.e. feeling that you're in an apocalyptic bad time where you have to band together and be creative and on edge and out and exploring your environment to stay ahead of the curve.

    If people if rising violence periods thought "These are the good times and the increase in violence isn't that big a deal, because the absolute chances are still pretty low" it probably wouldn't lead to the same trends?

    More on topic of this thread, I'm probably normalised to the level of manchildishness from the late 90s (adults playing videogames, relatively delayed adulthood) but I seriously kind of hate that some young men of my generation think it's OK to like My Little Pony though... The ponies!

  6. So if its a natural cycle, and a pretty reasonable one, then why are you so disgusted? Why do yo call it 'cocooning', 'autistic', 'inexpressive', 'immature' ?

    What is it you want? That people stay out while criminals increasingly prey on them?

  7. Not reasonable but "understandable" in the sense of "I can build a simple model to understand it." And definitely not in the sense of "desirable." It's an over-reaction.

    And again with hysterical sociophobic remarks like "people stay out while criminals increasingly prey on them". You think and talk like a woman.

    Either you have no memories of those times, and are trying to understand it abstractly, in which case you need to just look at the real world, how it was portrayed then and remembered now. There was no feeling of "Holy shit, can't go to the supermarket or I'll get killed."

    Or you were there but are a socially avoidant type, the one group that becomes even more avoidant when primed with thoughts of death.

    It's not just criminals preying on people in public spaces, though. It's also that when more people are out in public, they knock into each other more at random (mass action law). So there will be more little accidents and misunderstandings that escalate into fights, e.g. at a bar.

    That's just part of being a social species. Do you never visit your family because there's a non-zero chance of getting into long arguments over dinner?

  8. Through a friend's girlfriend, I was introduced to a subculture of adults who devote loads of time, effort, and income to making regular (annual, give or take) visits to Walt Disney World — occasionally with kids, should an adult sibling brings their children along, but just as often in parties of all grown-ups. There are Walt Disney World online forums, and the devotees are knowledgeable in how to procure the best deals, when to visit each park to ensure an optimal experience, etc., to an academic degree of fine detail. They create "challenges" for themselves such as drinking a beverage in every one of EPCOT Center's world locales and taking photographs as proof of the feat. This means that, over the course of an afternoon and evening, they walked 4-5 miles, visited about a dozen bars, ordered a cocktail at each one, drank it, and took a picture at the same time. It is also a common marriage proposal location for young men going with their girlfriends. All seem to enjoy themselves tremendously and unironically, however, and so any feeling of minor disgust this gives me, makes feel like the Grinch looking in upon Whoville. What is your take on this phenomenon? Do you know whether this is recent, or did grown-ups do this 15-20 years ago?

  9. For what its worth, here are some photos of Disney World from the 1970s:


    As to your question, its not so much that adults are going there by themselves as they see it as being a lifestyle contest.

  10. Those 1970s pictures are very interesting. I like seeing the costume characters from movies now considered obscure. Whereas that Rapunzel face actress looks like a piece of work.

    I notice a couple differences from modern photos: the park guests themselves are, as far as I can tell, not dressed up themselves as Disney characters. And there are a lot of children... I would guess that many of them have children in company.

    Some 2015 Disney pictures:

    a work retreat -- no under-20s in sight: http://imgur.com/r/WaltDisneyWorld/ZlnJZmW

    princess cosplay -- two adults, one actual child, all dressed as Disney princesses: http://imgur.com/r/WaltDisneyWorld/B3khJep

    If you click through the related pictures shown to the right of the pictures linked above, which appear to be selected from the same Disney themed forum, you will see some park photos with all adults, a few with children, a few of exhibitions (which the 1970s photos show also). But many of the photos simply depict purchased merchandise rather than people/ exhibitions, such as commemorative cups and personalized wristbands that savvy guests can apparently use to expedite certain aspects of ride waiting — essentially an upgraded ticket with an identifying magnetic signature that is worn on the wrist. I notice that none of the 1970s photographs depicts merchandise or park tickets. None of the 1970s guests are even wearing Disney tee-shirts, let alone dressed up as characters. In the photos stamped as 1989, the park guests are seen wearing some Disney tee-shirts and light amounts of merchandise.

    Here is a text posting by a self-identified "Millenial with no children" providing lengthy suggestions regarding strategies for getting the best dining experiences. He recommends spending many hours on your smartphone starting about a month in advance of the trip to attain the optimal reservation time, while suggesting that those who make reservations further in advance have "too much free time" as he discovered by sinking his own free time into this endeavor and finding that they change reservation times often. He also generously offers advice on the correct appetite level and restaurant-dependent rate of food & beverage consumption, like when it would be best to sip versus drink at an average pace — thank GOD somebody demystified these confusing activities:

  11. I haven't been since the early '90s, although my brothers and my nephew went when he was just 2 or 3, about 4 years ago. They were both very clear about how boring, chaotic, and embarrassing it has become -- more like Walmart Disney World.

    Lardasses on power scooters zipping all around you, like you were in the middle of rush hour traffic. School-age kids being pushed around in SUV-sized strollers. Endless lines, having to pay extra to get to the front, lardasses on power scooters EVEN WHILE WAITING IN LINE. Etc. Thanks, but no thanks.

    Disney World is going to get much worse now that the Millennials are kicking into high gear on lifestyle striving. Remember that their entire childhood consisted of watching Nicktoons on TV, playing video games, and Disney movies on VHS. No outdoor life, no playing with other kids. Re-living your childhood for Gen X meant starting up an "is it ironic or not?" kickball league. For Millennials, it means Disney-themed consumerism, now with way more disposable income.

    In that Reddit post on making Disney World your lifestyle striver getaway vacation, only 8 people commented, but 25% of them (2 of 8) said they were having their HONEYMOON AT DISNEY WORLD. As they would say, "Wow. Seriously? I literally just... can't even."

    It's depressing and shameful to see Disney World catering more to adults than to children. Have to upscale the hotels, make the restaurant menus foodie-oriented, and so on.

    If you image-search Disney World people, you see far fewer small children than in the '70s or '80s. It's common for parents to be taking their teenagers there -- something that would've mortified my generation when we were that age. Not because we hated Disney or thought it was uncool -- just not cool for us teenagers, but fine for little kids.

    Another disgusting sign of catering to adults -- look how many photos there are of virgin adult men taking their picture with Ariel from Little Mermaid. It's even more cringe-inducing than those awkward pictures of nerds at a comic-con taking a selfie with some butt-kicking babe from some Sci-Fi channel show they've been masturbating to. These are children's cartoon characters, in a supposedly children's theme park. Gross!

  12. Virgins and doofus dads with Ariel-as-booth-babe:






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