Pop Culture’s Peter Pan Problem

In 1983, The Peter Pan Syndrome, a pop psychology book that examined the phenomenon of men who seem locked into perpetual adolescence, struck a chord in the culture and became a bestseller. Nearly thirty-five years later, the phenomenon doesn’t seem to be any less prevalent. Now, a recent op-ed for The New York Times suggests that there is an ugly racial and sexist dimension to it as well.

In “The Men Who Never Have to Grow Up,” Jennifer Weiner complains that Americans have a soft spot for such “manolescents”—as long as they are white. We are charmed by roguish “good ole boys,” she says, and excuse even their crimes as mere boys-will-be-boys hijinks, but we don’t extend the same amused tolerance to nonwhites and women.

As examples, Weiner lists YouTube clowns Rhett McLaughlin, Link Neal, and Colin Furzelike, all in their late thirties; radio and TV stars Ryan Seacrest, Chris Hardwick, and Billy Bush, all in their early-to-mid-forties, who “have ridden boyish charm into lucrative ubiquity;” and swimmer/reality star Ryan Lochte, age thirty-two, whose drunken vandalism during the Rio Olympics was forgiven by officials even after he invented an armed robbery to cover for it.

In graver examples, Weiner cites Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, convicted at age twenty of sexual assault but given a slap on the wrist by a judge concerned about how the conviction might impact the young man’s future; the late Ted Kennedy, who was thirty-seven years old when he abandoned Mary Jo Kopechne to die in the car he drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, for which he received a mere two-month suspended sentence; and thirty-nine-year-old Donald Trump, Jr., whom Weiner accuses of colluding with the Russians to skew the 2016 presidential election.

Weiner’s argument is that these examples demonstrate a “potent precedent about how we’ve been taught to see whiteness and maleness and when—if ever—we expect boys to become men.”

She is half-right. Weiner neglects to mention that those on the political right never let Kennedy off the hook for his lethal negligence, or that nationwide outrage accompanied the miscarriage of justice in Turner’s sentencing, or that Trump, Jr. has been found guilty of absolutely no wrongdoing. Her claim that America treats bad behavior casually when the perps are white males simply doesn’t hold water.

Her op-ed goes entirely off the rails when she names Tamir Rice as her sole black example that “nonwhite men don’t have it quite as easy.” She states that the twelve-year-old Rice, who was shot by police officers in late 2014, was killed “for the sin of playing in the park with a toy gun,” and “their excuse was that they thought he was an adult suspect.”

It wasn’t an excuse. Rice may have been a pre-teen, but he stood 5’7” and 195 lbs. and the officers did not know when they arrived on the scene that they might be dealing with a juvenile or that the gun he reached for in his waistband was only a pellet gun. The “toy” Weiner references was a realistic replica of an actual handgun, missing the orange safety tip that would have marked it as non-lethal. As tragic as the shooting was, Rice was not killed because our culture doesn’t allow nonwhite men to be naughty. One senses that Weiner is simply attempting to gin up racial outrage.

Her point that women in the orbit of man-boys end up either having to be the adults or being victimized by them has merit, however. If grown men shamefully refuse to grow up, someone has to be the adult in the room, and that responsibility too often today falls to their mothers, wives, girlfriends, or even daughters.

That brings us back to Weiner’s larger point that a strain of Peter Pan syndrome still infects American manhood. You can see evidence of it in our young men who are more committed to gaming consoles than to finding a purpose for their lives, and in the increasing numbers of men postponing or entirely eschewing marriage and fatherhood. This purgatory of adolescence is perpetuated by the relentless messaging of pop culture that grownups and maturity aren’t cool.

Not every young American male has succumbed to this condition, of course—far from it—but it is a trend with often devastating consequences for those who have. How do we combat it? There’s not a simple solution, but following are a couple of steps that would make a good start.

First and foremost, it comes down—as nearly every social issue does—to the values taught early in the home. It is vital to instill in our boys the habit of hard work, a sense of personal responsibility, the self-respect that comes from achievement in the real world, and a confidence and optimism which encourage men to step out in the world to build families and futures.

Another step—easier said than done—is to steer our young men (and young women too, for that matter) away from taking their behavioral cues from our ubiquitous pop culture, which since the 1960s has idolized youth, rebellion, and irresponsibility. “I hope I die before I get old,” sang The Who’s Roger Daltrey in 1965 (ironically, he is now seventy-three and still performing). It’s one thing for that battle cry to resonate with sixteen-year-olds, but it’s not an especially productive motto if you’re twenty-nine and still living at home.

America’s Peter Pans need to accept that life is not an endless spring break, that Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp may not be the best male role models, and that there are more important and more fulfilling dreams to pursue than the hedonistic mirage of fame and fortune that pop culture dangles before them.

Image: Walt Disney Productions

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  • hub 312

    “Weiner is simply attempting to gin up racial outrage.”

    This. It’s what passes for being “educated” today. Kids in college are graded on how imaginatively they can gin up race/class/gender outrage. It’s the one “skill” they have acquired, usually at an extremely high cost, often incuring crushing debt to do so. When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything is a nail.

    • Mack

      Not in my class. I am a teacher, a patriot, and a Viet-Nam veteran. I constantly reinforce the concept that stereotyping is intellectually and ethically dishonest. I also teach that the use of quotation marks for sarcasm is inappropriate, as is sarcasm itself. You might want to explore the life of the mind and learn who you are and who you can be, and not be embittered by the incessant (but profitable to them) crudities of a.m. radio boys.

  • Bob Johnson

    See also Ben Sasse’s book,”The Vanishing American Adult”.

  • Mister Alighieri

    “First and foremost, it comes down—as nearly every social issue does—to the values taught early in the home. It is vital to instill in our boys the habit of hard work, a sense of personal responsibility, the self-respect that comes from achievement in the real world, and a confidence and optimism which encourage men to step out in the world to build families and futures.”

    Certainly in men instilling a good work ethic, sense of personal responsibility, self respect that comes from real life achievement, and the confidence and optimism needed to guide their own life is a great way to go. However what if given all those things, these men look around and realize that they don’t want to do the 1950’s edict to “build families” with modern women and the future they want for themselves is one of relaxed living, working enough to provide for their own needs but not someone else. What if these good men look around and think that living a minimalist lifestyle free of stress is better than the growing envy of the Jones around them? As long as they are taking personal responsibility for their lives and are not doing anyone any harm, why criticize them at all?

    “America’s Peter Pans need to accept that life is not an endless spring break, that Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp may not be the best male role models, and that there are more important and more fulfilling dreams to pursue than the hedonistic mirage of fame and fortune that pop culture dangles before them.”

    Why can’t it be an endless spring break if they can pay for it themselves? While the lifestyles of the rich and famous might be out of most peoples reach, a certain level of comfort can be had once the basics are handled. What if that’s enough for a lot of men? Do tell what these “more important and more fulfilling dreams are” because most of the dreams beyond living a good life are in fact things that simply mean more work for men.

    http://paulocoelhoblog.com/2015/09/04/the-fisherman-and-the-businessman/

    • Rock

      You sir, make some good points.

  • Rock

    You know what…I’m kind of getting tired of women complaining about men behavior. If men can’t dictate to a woman how they should behave or dress, why are we so indulgent of the opposite? “Letting them off the hook?” You do know that for a majority of Christians, we’re taught to believe the only one you’re truly held accountable to is God. If these Man-Boys find girlfriends and get married, then doesn’t that mean that there’s at least one person on Earth who likes them for who they are?

    • M L

      She’s not dictating what you should do.

      • Rock

        semantics. Call it what you will.