What Happened To Coming Of Age Movies For Boys?
“I knock,” Chris said.
“What!” Teddy screamed, immediately forgetting all about Vern.” You friggin liar! You ain’t got no pat hand. I didn’t deal you no pat hand.”
Chris smirked, “Make your draw, shitheap.”
Teddy reached for the top card on the pile of Bikes. Chris reached for the Winstons on the ledge behind him. I bent over to pick up my detective magazine.
Vern Tessio said: “You guys wanna see a dead body?”
From Stephen King’s, “The Body”
Most every culture in the world has some sort of ritual to signify a child’s passage into adulthood. The transition from childhood to adulthood might be one the most life-changing experiences a person can go through.
The transition from an innocent, wide-eyed child into a mature, sober adult is an incredibly significant period of time in a person’s life. Jewish folk have Bar Mitzvah’s for their boys, many cultures have ceremonies following a girl’s first menstruation. What is certain is that children — passing into adulthood — need guidance from their elders about how to mature into a fully-fleshed adult.
America does not that have that in a healthy way. We get movies — like Superbad — that show boys growing into adults without any guidance from neither their male relatives or female family members. Presently, we get these ridiculous tales about immature boys fumbling around, chasing women in immature ways, only to realize that they are each other’s bros. Sorry, that sounds like an inversion of chick flicks: women fighting over men, only to conclude that their friendship is more important than chasing cock.
It wasn’t always this way. Stephen King’s novella, The Body, was eventually adapted into a movie by Rob Reiner called Stand By Me; it stands in stark contrast with the childish posture of Superbad.
In Stand By Me, a group of young boys go searching for the body of a dead man – the body of a missing person in the community. The body is some miles away in a forest, right beside some train tracks. Their adventure over the course of two days shows a group of young boys — on the cusp of manhood — stridling both childhood and manhood. Their individual struggles are laid bare; their dreams for the future are sketched out. The tale is a retrospective, as we learn that none of their lives play out in ways they don’t expect – only the narrator achieves success in life.
It is a well told tale that has the honesty of a time gone by. The struggle wasn’t over pussy, money or friendship. Friendship was assumed and the needless preoccupation with chasing sex hadn’t taken hold. No, these were four boys who were worried about their future, their place in the world and the personal failings of their respective parents.
The narrator dealt with the death of his older brother, who was the star child. He was the star football player, the popular one in high school. He was killed in Vietnam and his family had never been the same since – it’s clear his parents are indifferent to him. His existential loneliness is matched by his best friend’s abusive, alcoholic father. He is trying to overcome the “white trash” label and achieve success beyond being a union man and addicted to the bottle like his father. His sole source of support is the narrator. The other two boys have stories, but they are not relevant here.
The boys supported one another — faults and all — not with the immature, self-absorbed preening we see in later coming of age movies. They truly support one another, despite all the hell they give each other. The ending isn’t some celebration of friendship, it is a lamentation of the author. He and the best friend study hard through high school and his best friend transcends everybody’s expectations for him, eventually going on to law school after undergraduate.
The narrator eventually learns that his old friend stepped between two men arguing at a McDonald’s – a knife gets pulled and he gets mortally wounded. The story ends with the narrator contemplating the fickleness of success in life and how the more things change, the more they stay the same. How true change is so very difficult. The movie concludes with Ben E. King’s song Stand By Me playing as the narrator goes out to his front yard and plays with his two sons.
The novella was penned in the late ’70′s, the movie came out in the 1980′s. In the 1990′s, a movie called American Pie got released. While it tries in vain to be thoughtful at the end, it seems the growth into adulthood for men had become something of a huge joke.
Admit it, you liked the movie. It was very funny with many memorable scenes and lines. The infantile posture of the movie is worn at the edges a good bit by the pursuit of love instead of sex with women. However, there are two issues here. One, is the fact that the height of a man’s experiences is heterosexual coitus.
Further, a boy becomes a man when he loses his virginity, presumably to a female. The height of a man’s experiences in life are many, but to place sex at the apex is downright lunacy. The mastering of a craft, raising children into adulthood and inner peace are all more important than skirt chasing or a relationship with a woman. Now, this isn’t to say that those former two concepts are not important — they are — but the trick here is to get men to value them in a way that mirrors girl’s growth into adulthood.
Nowadays, as we see in American Pie, is that boys don’t become men because they went on a vision quest or spent great time and effort preparing for their Bar Mitzvah.
No, it’s when they first garner a woman’s approval through sexual congress. It isn’t getting married to a woman, it isn’t working hard through your teenage years to become the man you want to be. No, it is that a man can simply garner a woman’s sexual approval. The whole chasing love in American Pie is simply a poorly veiled smokescreen for a society that does not truly value love and relationships, but one that idolizes sex.
So, it isn’t of becoming a man when you get married and start a family, it shrinks back to simply to be able to say you can have sex with women. This isn’t progress, it is madness. Getting married already implies sexual access, but also the legitimization of a relationship that will result in children and involvement in the community. It is puerile nonsense, but we haven’t bottomed out yet.
Superbad was released in 2007, to great financial success and critical approval. I will assume you have watched the movie, but it involves a group of young men — the same age as the characters in American Pie — but something has changed. One main character (Jonah Hill) is extremely fat, the nebbish nerd (Michael Cera) is many steps back from his counterpart in American Pie (Finch) and the loser (McLovin) is a complete and utter goober. The loser gets laid for a few seconds before getting busted by the cops raiding the party. The other two main characters don’t get laid at all — so they don’t even reach the all-important goal of female sexual approval — but it is hinted at the ending when they might have a shot with their respective ladies.
What do we learn in Superbad? Friendship is important. Sex is something that a man might get. Nothing else. Unlike their counterparts in American Pie, who all actually get laid and make decisions about relationships — in Superbad, all we get are some losers attempting to woo women with being able to acquire booze.
The guys in American Pie tried to learn to eat women out, spread gossip about their cock size and other ways to garner female sexual approval while Superbad is about provisioning women with alcohol. Alcohol has gone from the substantial grease of social interactions between men and women — by the time Superbad rolls around –to the common necessary heterosexual denominator.
All of this stands in astoundingly stark contrast with Stand By Me. First off, the maturation process begins at puberty, not some needlessly delayed state in late adolescence. Second, girls are something discussed, but not obsessed over. The boys in Stand By Me are worried about their parents, their future and what it means to be a man. Superbad doesn’t even entertain any existence outside of chasing pussy; American Pie places vague emphasis on “the next step,” which is inextricably bound up in chasing said pussy.
Lastly, is the seriousness that accompanies the coming of age in Stand By Me. There are more than a few funny, chuckle-worthy scenes. However, there are more than a few scenes that make you think and feel things, instead of the pursuit of sheer hedonism and the all-important approval of women. In Superbad, we get a bunch of funny nonsense that relates nothing to becoming a man, but to the infantile fumblings that Hollywood knows these young men engage in. American Pie is marginally better, but the growth of a boy into a man is heralded by consummating a relationship with a woman; one man is shamed for seeking to take his girlfriend’s virginity above all else.
So what happened to boys’ coming of age movies? Clearly, it has descended into little more than boys — growing into men — tying their sense of self as a man into pussy. The more articulate point is that a man’s worth as a man is determined by his relationship with women – can he get laid? Who are the women he gets laid with? This relates to the general social concept that men need social approval of women to be seen as not a threat. Older men need a wife or girlfriend to voice approval, otherwise said man is a dead man walking in the court of social opinion.
This relates to coming of age movies, as the growth into manhood signified by puberty necessarily entails the concurrent sexual tension. Instead of seeking approval of the mother or female teacher, it becomes a pursuit of female approval in the sexual arena. As evidenced by Stand By Me, this pursuit was important, but simply one folder of issues to discuss. By American Pie it is the largest folder, by Superbad — outside of immature appeals to male camaraderie — it is the sole folder.
Now, there is nothing wrong with the pursuit of sex, obviously. However, when sex revolves around the idea that boys become men via the elusive and ephemeral approval of women, it becomes toxic. Tying manhood to perceptions and approval of women is downright dangerous. All it results in are men with — at best — shifty self-concepts, if not outright low self-esteem and confusion over what it means to be a man. Notice the progression in the three movies: boys growing into men transcending their realities, boys growing into men treading water to boys tumbling down the rabbit hole of sheer insecurity.
Of course, boys are best served with having a strong male father in their life. Most will not be so lucky. A cheap, but positive, consolation prize would be to have positive renditions of boys understanding the growth into manhood in media. Not some mindless nonsense with booze, boobs and tomfoolery. I love all three of those, but those are terribly poor approximations for the growth a boy will have to make into adulthood. It must be tempered with the sober realities of adulthood, the real consequences of your actions when you are no longer considered a child.
Without a critical and honest valuation of one’s own life, a man can never truly life a full life, much less be an adult. Adolescence may be many things, but learning to transcend the infantile and self-absorbed habits of a newly biologically-minted adult is possibly the most crucial thing. When boys are shunted into nothing more than pursuing their base, deeply-rooted biological impulses, they exist as nothing more than caricatures of men – an all too easily mocked segment of society. They are prevented from fully shedding their boyhood and embracing manhood fully – they simply become approximations of manhood. They become the superfan at the Giants game who never bothered to carve out his own legacy as a man. Instead, he proudly wears the jersey of Eli Manning, vainly trying to own the accomplishments of another man.
Media doesn’t do men any favors — media revolves around white women. Any serious movie that tries to display the real growth from boyhood to manhood won’t succeed. Women might like it hypothetically, as it involves children – but there cannot be anything that truly documents a boy’s growth into manhood. King’s Stand By Me wisely only had a tiny bit about the actual future of the boys. Positive masculinity, proper manhood — however you want to characterize it — cannot be broadcast in wider media. Men simply existing without a preeminent level of female approval is absolutely abhorrent to the average female. Women consider it “progress,” but it is nothing but yet another negative yoke foisted on men.
Boys deserve better, we men deserved better. But, this is where we are. The bare shreds of masculinity we are gifted at the apparent expense of women at large are of little consolation for our lack of resources to grow into men. The lack of male role models coupled with the crippling need to chase female approval result in the men we have post Superbad. Soft men, frantically concerned over female approval, substituting pussy for personal growth.
This is what society wants from men. You could say it’s wrong, it’s foul, it’s whatever superlative you want to insert here. However, this what society wants from men. A gang of insecure, immature men who want nothing more than the singing approval of a woman.