Adolescent fantasy thread

click tracking

You state [fantasy’s place as an exclusively adolescent genre] as if it’s a universal, but that attitude is a pretty new development in literary culture.swan_tower

This discussion touches on a whole host of issues like middlebrow vs. high brow; entertainment vs. art; fantastic genres vs. realistic genres vs. non-genre dramas.curt_holman

That Homer’s fucked. — iainjcoleman

Ms. Tower correctly points out that "fantasy" as a genre was not always exclusively for the young. I would have done better to add "these days" to my description of the role of fantasy in our common storytelling world.

Some have asked me to define "adolescent" stories as opposed to "adult" stories. I would say that an adolescent story is designed to appeal to a primarily adolescent mindset — that is, the mind of an adolescent. The concerns of the adolescent are different from the concerns of the adult, and there’s not much you or I can do about that. The adolescent mind is still asking questions, taking its measure of the world and seeking its place within it. (Kurt Vonnegut was often accused of being "sophomoric," which he said was entirely intentional — he knew that if he really wanted to change the way people think, he had to do it while they were still young — the people with real power don’t read novels.) There is no qualitative difference between a story designed to appeal to children, a story designed to appeal to adolescents or a story designed to appeal to adults. Each can be well executed or poorly executed, transcendent or trashy, innovative or rote. "Children’s movies" includes both Bambi and Ernest Goes to Camp, and the realm of the adolescent movie, as I’ve said, spans almost our entire release schedule.

As for Homer, two things:

1. Yeah, Homer wrote adolescent power fantasies. Sorry. They are very good, and they have lasted a long time, and they bring great storytelling talent to bear on their narratives, but they are still, primarily and essentially, adolescent power fantasies.
2. That said, the fact that we’re still talking about Homer thousands of years later indicates that there is hope for the superhero genre. There’s no reason why, given time and development, Superman will not take his place in the mythological pantheon next to Odysseus and Achilles, to say nothing of Arthur or Heracles, or Cinderella or Peter Pan.  All are fantastic stories that plumb the depths of what it means to be human, the only thing separating them is time.  There is no reason why, a thousand years from now, people will not study superhero stories in serious college courses or create serious, adult dramas from what will then be considered classics.  Superman, Batman and the rest, it seems to me, share a lot of things with those older characters, including being constantly reinvented as the society that imagined them shifts in its needs. 

Superman belongs to no one, or rather he belongs to everyone, and always has — that’s one of the interesting thing about comics.  The creator of a superhero may have something specific to say, but it’s the audience who actually decides who the hero is, and they decide by buying one comic and leaving another on the shelf.  I was surprised to learn that when Superman first appeared, Siegel and Shuster hadn’t actually figured out his origin story or basic character outline.  They tried out this, that and the other personality trait, letting the readers respond and thus re-shape the material.  The audience would love one kind of story and shrug at another, so the material was tailored to meet the audience’s expectations.  In seeking only to keep their aborning creation in print, they — through a kind of Darwinian process — created a strong, resonant hero that became the first, the original and, even today, the most influential character in his genre.

Fun fact: when I Googled "Homer" to find an appropriate image for this thread discussing this whole adult/adolescent fantasy debate, I had to wade through three pages of Homer Simpson until I found a picture of the Greek bard.  I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.


31 Responses to “Adolescent fantasy thread”
  1. samedietc says:

    reality testing and utopian drive

    That does help; certainly I think connecting “adolescence” with what we could call “reality-testing” (the process by which the psyche measures the distance between the internal and external world) does help preempt some of the negative connotations of “adolescence” (while leaving open the purely non-judgmental connection between adolescence and biological age–it may in fact be that our brain-structures do change over time, so that the correct response to “oh, grow up!” would be “like I have a choice”).

    The reason why I asked about adolescence & fantasy has less to do with elves and more to do with a desire for utopia. That is, you define the adolescent mind as a psyche taking the measure of the world and finding its place within it, with the corollary (correct me if wrong) that fantasy comes to an end when the self finds a stable position in the world. (Note: How does one find a stable position in capitalism?)

    Which is exactly my (well, a lot of people’s) problem with utopias: after the one chapter titled “The Day Everything Changed,” nothing ever changes. (Where this problem is especially obvious in Utopia books is that they have such trouble imagining what art would look like in Utopia. Once there’s utopia, apparently, no one needs to imagine fictional scenarios.) In other words, the problem with utopias is that they short-change the utopian drive almost as much as realistic fiction does. (I realize, while I’m saying this, that the number of Utopian films could possibly be counted on one hand, which may very well short-circuit the discussion.)

    Which is exactly what still doesn’t entirely satisfy me about this notion of reality-testing adolescence & fantasy. (At the same time, it seems right inasmuch as we can say that the young use fantasy to help test reality, whereas the not-as-young use fantasy to help reinforce reality by channeling, containing, and expressing their desires for difference.) I want to make a Vonnegutian brief for on-going reality-testing in the face of the claim “this is how it is.”

    I mean, what’s more fantastic than the notion that “this is how it is”?

    • Todd says:

      Re: reality testing and utopian drive

      “How does one find a stable position in capitalism?”

      I have a feeling that capitalist domination of our culture is actually a large part of why Americans are so strongly encouraged to remain adolescents — there’s more money in it somehow.

      • sbrungardt says:

        Re: reality testing and utopian drive

        From my exposure to the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement, I believe it has to with what Adolescence, the first stage of moving toward adulthood, garners.

        According to the founders of that movement (Bly, Johnson, Campbell, Jung, et al.), as it pertains to men, specifically, adolescence is the time in which young men begin to go out into the World to carve a name for themselves. This, to me, seems like the epitome of Capitalist ideology. Capitalists are “carving out names for themselves” by earning more money, succeeding in achieving their goals, and (I’m going to risk saying) perpetuating an American Dream.

        Compare this to what Robert Bly describes as the place of Adulthood, which transitions into a broader sense of service to Community, and a capability to develop an innate sense of what is the “Right” thing to do – the “Good” thing – for the people and oneself. I see very few entities in our Capitalist society that step into this place; I might, might put a company such as Google in that place. Maybe. Certainly there are a lot of people claiming to do it, and using in actuality for their own ends.

        As it pertains to the superhero genre, I find it interesting that superheroes claim to be in service to the people (the place of the Adult), yet the stories themselves are adolescent (fantasy about the ability to change the way things are, or have a Name in the world). If I had to point a finger at what would make an “Adult superhero story”, I’d say it’d have to do with service to an ideal larger than an individual, and a deconstruction of the self-empowering actions of most superheroes we’ve seen.

        In congruence with how you differentiate the “child”, “adolescent”, and “adult” stories and label them each as still having the capability to be worthwhile, valid, artistic, etc., I find it interesting that Robert Bly’s analysis of the Iron John fairy tale is that it’s actually for adult men, rather than children; the normal fairy tale audience.

  2. popebuck1 says:

    One thing that hasn’t changed: society has always been full of gatekeepers telling us which art forms are to be taken seriously, and which are not. Back in Mark Twain’s day, he was heavily outsold by the odious James Fenimore Cooper, whose works were considered “serious” while Twain’s were not. Sir Arthur Sullivan considered himself first and foremost a classical composer, and was deeply ashamed of the lighthearted little “trifles” he composed with W.S. Gilbert – which are now, of course, the only Sullivan works that have lasted.

    And then there’s jazz music, which back in the day was treated with just as much alarm and scorn as gangsta rap gets today – jazz musicians were even held up in the pulpits and by “serious” black intellectuals as a destructive force, encouraging drug use and promiscuity with their hedonistic lifestyles. The idea that jazz music might be seriously analyzed in college courses one day would have gotten you laughed out of the room.

    • Todd says:

      I kept thinking of Twain while I was writing these entries, and how he somehow took the “boys’ adventure” genre and created Huckleberry Finn from it.

      Jazz is respected as “serious” these days, and even reviled as “too serious,” as irrelevant to popular discourse as avant-garde novels. Rock music, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have gotten that kind of respect, or disdain.

  3. stormwyvern says:

    So just to make sure I understand, would it be fair to say your point is that if you have a film for children, a film for adolescents, and a film for adults- all of which can be said to be of fairly similar “good” quality – the film for adults is not automatically the best of the three just by nature of it being made for an adult audience?

    • Todd says:

      That is indeed a fair understanding.

      • stormwyvern says:

        OK, good. I think a lot of the concerns you got over your previous comments come from “adolescent” being something of a loaded word. There are people who believe that the term “kids’ movie” means that the film in question can only appeal to young kids and no self respecting adult would be caught dead seeing such a film without being dragged there by one or more small children. Which is true of some movies aimed at the younger set, but certainly not all. Same goes for adolescent films and other fiction, as you were pointing out with the mention of Harry Potter. The fact that the books and subsequent movies focus on adolescents and their concerns doesn’t prevent them from being enjoyable to kids, adolescents, and adults. Stories for kids and adolescents are among the many genres and even media that all to often get dismissed as “low art” or “not art,” even though our society would be well and truly screwed if every talented creator said “Well, there’s no prestige in telling stories for children, so I’m going to devote myself exclusively to serious realistic adult dramas.”

  4. iainjcoleman says:

    The concerns of the adolescent are different from the concerns of the adult, and there’s not much you or I can do about that. The adolescent mind is still asking questions, taking its measure of the world and seeking its place within it.

    You see, I just don’t buy this distinction. Are scientists adolescents? Are philosophers adolescents? The world is big and complex, and you can’t take the measure of it in a single lifetime, let alone a few teenage years. The distinction you draw between “adolescent” and “adult” is the one I would draw between “alive” and “dead”.

    • erranthope says:

      I also find the distinction troubling. To accept that the comparison between an adolescent and an adult mindset is the willingness to question the world and one’s role in it is very, very cynical.

      Although it would explain a lot, I find very little hope in believing that being adult is akin to being unwilling to accept new or different values. Peace, in such a world, has very little chance. Discussion, as well, has no hope.

      I prefer to think of the adolescent and adult mentalities as two different literary devices: the metaphor and the simile.

      An adolescent view of the world does not possess the tools to directly address certain subjects. Instead, it must completely change the subject into something else entirely. At no point does it point out the comparison (the adolescent is most likely not aware anything is really being compared). This is how we wind up with a Batman in lieu of a direct discussion of the power of symbolism or the complex responsibility of society to maintain order and define right and wrong.

      An adult view is one that *can* directly address these subjects. An adult view knows that it’s comparing two things (hence the use of “like” or “as” in the literary construction). It knows that its comparison is imperfect. Adult subjects willingly examine the construction of an argument or work itself. I don’t think all works have to be “meta” to be adult, but I do think they have to acknowledge their form/imperfection in some manner or another.

      In Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story” the titular story is a metaphor for one of the character’s attempts to express himself and make human contact. The Story within “The Zoo Story” is itself adolescent, but the play is entirely adult in its ability to demonstrate that this is all a simile for what Albee is trying to express himself.

      You can *think* about superheroes in an adult fashion, but that doesn’t prevent them from being inherently adolescent material.

      Sorry for the wall of text.

    • A scientist is still asking questions about the world, but they know for sure that they’re a scientist. They know what kinds of questions they have the capacity to answer, where they can look for knowledge, and what the answers might mean when they find them. A teenager who’s interested in science might dream bigger dreams about being a rock star and creating a grand unified theory of physics, virology, and macroeconomics, but they don’t know how to get there. I think that’s the difference, and probably the reason superheroes are more “adolescent” in nature — they resonate with the ubiquitous, archetypal questions that apply to you even if you don’t know who you are yet. Certainly adults can reach back to that way of thinking, and should once in a while. But when they do operate within more realistic constraints, the reward is that they can actually do what they dream of, and that’s awesome in a different, and maybe even awesomer, way.

      • swan_tower says:

        But adults lose that sense of themselves, too, and have to reinvent. We joke about mid-life crises, but people do that at all kinds of points in their lives. The days when most adults really did leave school and go to work in a job they stayed in for the rest of their lives are long gone, I suspect; we all have to be willing to reinvent.

        For me, the major difference between the adolescent and the adult is that the adolescent is more often experiencing something (love, the death of a family member, the chance to make a difference) for the first time, whereas for the adult that’s more likely to be tempered by and compared to previous experience. An adolescent narrative is one that speaks to that newness, that lack of previous experience — finding one’s way blind through unfamiliar territory.

        • Though I don’t have much time or mindshare to reply, I agree with you. As a complement to your second point, I’d note that adults have the option of thinking about certain domains and opportunities in more specific, attainable terms; adolescents might not have that expertise with anything yet.

      • erranthope says:

        Whoa. Whoa. A scientist? Need I remind you that nothing is impossible. Not if you can imagine it. That’s what being a scientist is all about.

        • I’m not talking about deciding what’s possible in the universal view, but in terms of what you’re able to do. For example, if a good scientist wants to create a three-headed vulture (an ambitious goal by any standard), they don’t just jump in. First they sequence the relevant parts of the vulture genome and perfect a transgenic delivery technique that works on vultures. Also, a good immunologist would realize that they might be able to contribute to the development of transgenic techniques, but that they’re better off contacting a geneticist to figure out the sequencing part. That’s the kind of systematic and realistic view you need in order to actually make it happen.

  5. I hear that Samuel Beckett did an early draft on Ernest Goes to Camp.

    • mcbrennan says:

      He did. But he was fired–he turned in a draft where all Ernest did was sit around arguing with Lyle Alzado for two hours waiting for “Vern” to show up.

  6. lupa says:

    I find it completely fascinating that people have such a negative connotation with the word adolescent, while at the same time trying to adopt the romantic definitions of adolescent so that it can apply to adults.

    The manner in which I’d describe my personal distinction between adolescent fantasy and adult fantasy would be with the language of the power differential between them. Many adults forget that in western culture, adolescents have NO real power. In America, the vast majority of rights adolescents have are proxied through adults. They cannot directly inherit money; they cannot pursue their own health care; in many states they cannot even charge anyone with a crime against them without an adult to back them up. Subsequently, the typical teenage measuring of life, the pushing of boundaries, and the seeking of place is in the context of “how much power will I be given, when I have no true power on my own?” Because of this context, the satisfaction of an adolescent fantasy requires the escalation into a kind of power that is not seen in real life.

    My opinion is that the adolescent power fantasy ends up with extremes of personal ability/skill, has very few nods to societal conventions (versus nods to laws, which are something else entirely), and while it would have romance, it frequently has no marriage or young children involved. It’s indicative that in the Batman mythos, Robin is frequently considered a partner – not a child.

    At the other end, an adult power fantasy is based in the type of circumstances that actually *can* arise in real life, involves a real, flawed person overcoming terrible odds (sometimes at great cost to themselves), and in many of the good ones I’ve seen, involves a threat to the safety of the protagonist’s children or marriage – both things that a large number of adolescents don’t relate deeply to in the context of their own lives.

    The examples I’d use would be –
    Adolescent power fantasy: Superman.
    Adult power fantasy: Die Hard.

    I’m aware people probably won’t share my particular spin, but I agree with your viewpoint, and just think the terms themselves are fraught with unexpected connotations.

    If I think about it a bit more, I’d say there are many movies that take both viewpoints, too. Silence of the Lambs is one – I could theorize that Starling is clearly based in adult lore, as someone who “adopts” children-figures even though she has none of her own, but Lecter is definitely an adolescent: someone you root for even though he’s unrepentantly outside norms.

    • Anonymous says:

      I was wondering about that too… what makes up an adult fantasy, as opposed to an adolescent fantasy?

      I’m suddenly reminded, of all things, of the Shrek movies. One reviewer said that the 3rd movie in particular lost some appeal to the kids because Shrek was dealing with some very adult concerns: fatherhood and family.

      I do wonder: do adult fantasies necessarily have to deal with marriage and kids? As a 25-year-old law student and single woman, it seems that you are not considered an adult without kids and a mortgage. Surely, there must be a third option somewhere. Would the desire to be a grown up without the tedious bits be an adolescent or an adult fantasy?

      Or to put it another way, what is adulthood REALLY about?

      And on the subject of American adolescent enforced by the powers-that-be: society really does seem to think of kids/mortgage as the end of the world. The more I think about it, the more I notice that movies nowadays skewer young. I think that’s why I stopped reading manga: I feel old compared to the mecha pilots that save the world.

  7. noskilz says:

    Interesting set of threads today – unfortunately, since my biggest concern with a piece of entertainment is whether it’s worth the time and money I have to spend on it, I don’t really have much to add, but it’s been neat. The realistic-fantasy divide often fascinates me because of they way many people tend to assume that the trappings of realism make something realistic – as long as there’s something about a piece that holds my attention, I couldn’t care less about the fine details; but if not, my mind drifts to parts of the TV Tropes website and I become very unforgiving. Not that unreal “realism” makes fantastic material more real.

    Since people seem to have homed in on the adolescent appeal aspect, what’s the adult sort of story? I’d assume one that would be heavy on interrelationships with family or society would be something of the sort, but that’s not really my cup of tea (like King Lear?)

  8. gilmoure says:

    This is sorta’ happening with multiple versions of movies like Cleopatra and such. And now that a second group of actors are doing original Star Trek characters, how long until people talk about an actor’s Kirk or Spock, the way they do about Hamlet and Shylock?

  9. swan_tower says:

    It was the aura of universality in the original phrasing that I most objected to, yes. If we’re talking about “these days,” I still have an itch to complicate the picture by talking about a) the large numbers of adults who produce and consume fantastical narratives in the fantasy genre and b) the large number of fantastical narratives that escape the confines of the fantasy genre and thus get plenty of adult respect, but the prevailing cultural attitude still is that it’s for kids, yes. (Witness what happened after Harry Potter and LotR were successful: a giant stampede to option every classic of kids’ fantasy the studios could get their hands on. I didn’t hear of a quarter so many deals on the adult end. Even though LotR is an adult book.)

    It is not, incidentally, that I object to “adolescent” as a pejorative term. I object to the limitation it imposes.

    Given the way you framed your point here, though, I would say that precisely the shift we’re seeing in superheros (and other things) is that the narrative concerns are moving from adolescence to adulthood. Batman driving a cool car and fighting crime and so on is awesome from the adolescent power fantasy perspective; it offers the dream of agency, of being able to make a difference in the world all by yourself. Batman angsting about his inability to have a normal life and the ways in which his helpful efforts end up creating worse problems? That’s an adult perspective, one that has the experience and knowledge to say, “but it’s not that simple.” Batman’s gotten darker because his audience has grown up, and wants a story that speaks to the problems they’re dealing with in their lives — even if those problems are dressed up in moderately outrageous costumes.

  10. I don’t have anything to add, but I wanted to link to this cartoon by user that is relevant to the conversation.

  11. Almost seems like a bit of a pointless distinction to make, then.

  12. quitwriting says:

    I’m an American, and it strikes me as funny (ha-ha, not weird) that we’re examining such a deep and widely-felt issue through a lens of almost purely American ideas and ideals. Not that these were our ideals first… they were England’s before they were ours, and Rome’s before that. Before that, who knows?

    I was going to respond to your last post with an exhaustive explanation about how superhero comics (and thus superhero movies) and their “4-color sugar coating” as I like to call it are a direct result of the tampering of Queen Victoria and her “no naughty bits” version of the Romantic Sagas (aka Idylls of the King), but I see now that this is further reaching than old Vicky.

    I wonder if these are even considered to be valid topics of conversation in other cultures?

    If I had the attention span, I’d write more.

  13. robolizard says:

    Here’s another question: should they grow up?

  14. Hey Todd,

    Not able to read through all your comments, but a good place to look is Erikson’s stages of development (esp. Stage 5 Identity vs Confusion), and then add on Marcia’s identity statuses…