A New Generation of Conservative Thought

Whatever happened to ‘adults’?

By Dr. Grace Vuoto
January 11, 2011

We are currently losing two distinctions that have defined the family as we have known it: childhood and adulthood. Our children are being turned into miniature adults and our adults are being turned into big children. The spectacle is grotesque.

This reflects the general disorder we are creating since the sexual revolution of the 1960s. “Don’t trust anyone over the age of 30,” coined radical social activist Jerry Rubin, creating the mantra that defined the era. The countercultural radicals of the day saw the main enemy as “authority”—that is, anyone other than those who championed sexual freedom and personal liberation. That they were actually replacing one authority (a family and social structure rooted in Christian ethics) with another one (a social structure rooted in the pursuit of pleasure) is an irony that was lost on most who embraced the rebellious creed.

Yet when we fast forward to the results 50 years later, we note that when a society at large adopts these values, the youth in effect are forced to become their own parents. As a result, they raise themselves. This leads to a devastating, almost crippling mental and emotional solitude. Without the proper guidance and authority, the young ultimately self-destruct.

This is the brilliant insight of the critically-acclaimed film, Black Swan. It is currently nominated for four Golden Globe Awards: best picture of the year, Natalie Portman as best actress, Darren Arronofsky as best director and Mila Kunis as best supporting actress.

The dark psychological thriller portrays the competitive world of the New York City ballet. Natalie Portman is Nina Sayers who is cast as the prima ballerina in the company’s production of Swan Lake. She struggles to adopt the ideals of her elders: the perfectionism of her mother, Erica, played by Barbara Hershey, and the sensuality of her mentor and artistic director, Thomas Leroy, played by Vincent Cassel. As she desperately attempts to please both, she descends into self-loathing with tragic consequences.

Nina inhabits a world in which the adults are themselves incomplete—they are adolescents too. Nina’s mother, Erica, a former and failed ballerina, is a bitter woman who drives her daughter toward excellence while nonetheless being deeply concerned that her daughter is engaging in acts of self-mutilation under the strain of competition. Nina’s mentor, Thomas, indulges in sexual games with the young girls of the company while nonetheless driving them toward artistic excellence. In other words, the adults uphold values and standards that on the one hand Nina admires, on the other hand she despises and recognizes as wrongheaded. The young girl is caught in this vice grip of confusion and starts to crack under the strain.

Nina cannot be both a young woman in search of her identity and an adult that can put these struggles in their proper context. There are simply no adults in her world that are complete enough, whole enough to act as her bulwark and guide. She is ultimately alone in her attempt to navigate her growing pains. And the other young women around her are in a similar predicament, as depicted by the lascivious Lily played by Mila Kunis and the distraught previous prima ballerina portrayed by Winona Ryder.

One might argue that the real problem in this story is that the authority figures, Nina’s mother and mentor, are suffocating the ballerina with the wrong values. Hence, the trouble in her world is that “authority” is to blame after all and the anti-authority 1960s mantra is ultimately a good one. Yet that is the unresolved conundrum of any attempt to eliminate authority—the adults are still authority figures of some kind; it is an inescapable reality simply because of their position of power. Hence, the beautiful dancer is caught in a world in which there is no escape to anything better. The adults have twisted values that they impose fitfully upon her. Even while she sees their flaws, she cannot escape them.

In essence, the movie depicts in a vivid and compelling fashion that by abandoning the creed of Christian authority, we are not helping but greatly harming our children. In the first place, authority abhors a vacuum. Hence, the elimination of Christian ethics only means the young will be reared according to another set of ethics—vanity, materialism, perfectionism, hedonism. In the second place, they cannot handle the strain of being both undeveloped and told that ultimately they have to figure it all out for themselves.

The movie sums up the chaos of our time. As the decade of the 2000s has come to a close, more Americans see their society in negative terms. “The single most common word or phrase used to characterize the past 10 years is downhill, and other bleak terms such as poor, decline, chaotic, disaster, scary, and depressing are common,” said a December 2009 Pew Research report that polled respondents on their view of the last decade. Less than a third of all respondents in all age groups rate the decade positively, according to the report titled “Public looks back at worst decade in 50 years.” The survey also reveals that the majority of those younger than 50 view the 1960s and 1970s as mixed or negative; whereas those who are 50 and older have favorable views of these decades.

The young are trying to tell us: Grow up, please, I beg you: I need you. But adolescents, as the Baby Boomers amongst us still are, generally do not listen, do not like to be told what to do and do not take responsibility for their colossal mistakes.

“Discipline your son, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to his death,” states Proverbs 19:18, one of many Biblical injunctions to parents to exercise authority over the young as vital to their well-being. We have come a long way from the Christian view of adulthood: to lead the youth toward God. Such was the example of the prophets, Abraham, Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus, among many others who knew how to exercise benevolent authority. We will continue to look with fondness to the heyday of the Western nuclear family, 1850-1950, and pity the poor children and youth who have to deal with the subsequent wreckage.

-Dr. Grace Vuoto is the Executive Director of the Edmund Burke Institute for American Renewal.