“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
I have, of late, become somewhat obsessed with this picture. Theodore Gericault’s ‘Raft of the Medusa’ (1818-19) retains the power to shock, all the more so if we consider the horrific story behind the painting. On 2nd July 1816 the French naval frigate ‘Meduse’ ran aground just off the coast of what we now call Mauritania. In a desperate bid to reach safety, 147 people set out to find safety on a hastily constructed raft. Upon their eventual rescue 13 days later only 15 had survived.
The history is certainly tragic. But what is it that means that I keep thinking of the picture? Why does a depiction of an event that happened over 200 years ago mean anything to me now? The answer is in childhood or, rather, in the slippery art of growing up…
Adults are drowning in a sentimental yearning for our past, lost in a miasma of wistful nostalgia. It seems those of us who are the wrong side of 30 are afraid to let go of our childhoods, and those over 50 are unable to accept that they are becoming irrelevant. In other words, we are not growing up. The clearest evidence of this infantilization can be found in our popular culture. Grown men and women have threatened extreme violence against those they perceive to be blocking the release of a Superman movie. (Worst still, just like the spoilt toddler screaming their lungs out in the sweet shop, they eventually got their way). They have resorted to cheap, petulant rubbishing of all attempts to diversify their childhood heroes. The introduction of stronger female characters in James Bond films, the increasingly diverse roster of Marvel characters or the arrival of a female in the TARDIS: all have created a furore amongst ‘fans’ old enough to vote in national elections, drive cars and have a mortgage.
In fact, it has become almost demanded that we not lose sight of our ‘inner child’. JM Barrie’s Captain Hook or Mr Banks from Mary Poppins were both examples of the idea that growing up was to be avoided. Maturity meant sobriety where once there was fun, responsibility where once there was freedom. Adulthood was a time of bitterness, annoyance, anger, disappointment. CS Lewis, whose Narnia books were perhaps the defining statement of the magic of childhood, chose to reinterpret the words of Paul the Apostle when he wrote: ‘When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.’
All of these writers, though, were fighting against the staid, cold and unimaginative ethics of the early Twentieth century. The world where children were seen and not heard and where, soon, the worst caprices of the adult world would be unleashed in two long and brutal wars. Theirs was no time for childlike innocence and it is easy to see why writers like Lewis were moved to search for something less cynical, less brutal. And any decent therapist will tell you that losing touch with the child you once were is a short cut to unhappiness. But the danger of clinging on to childhood is that it becomes nostalgia for a past where problems were all somebody else’s and could be sorted by someone else. In short, too much clinging on to our past stops us from growing up.
We see it in the peculiar relationship adult males have for comic book characters. Fans have grown to believe that they ‘own’ definitive iterations of the characters. These characters and stories had formed a part of their childhood, and they have ‘grown up’ together. They want the nostalgic buzz of old but with more ‘adult’ stories. For them, the ones who are insistent that The Godfather is the greatest film of all time, the ultimate movie would be one where Darth Vader was Michael Corleone. Films like Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ and Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’ gave them what they wanted, to considerable acclaim. They delivered the moral ambiguity, the darkness, the philosophical musing, all without stinting on the ‘ass-kicking’. It’s no wonder Mark Millar’s titular hero was named as he was in the 2008 comic book satire on all things ‘adult’ in the comic world ‘Kick Ass’. Above all, fans wanted security in knowing that their version of the character was the ‘right’ one.
The response to the Disney + show ‘The Book of Boba Fett’ exemplifies this strange desire to cling on to the past. After tasting success with ‘The Mandalorian’, Disney’s first foray into the world of TV, it was inevitable that Disney would look once again to the coolest of all the franchise’s helmeted (anti) heroes.
But, far from riding the coat-tails of The Mandalorian’s success, the show has not been well received by the ‘fanbase’. Very few, it seems, are happy with this iteration of the character. In all honesty, the show, which attempts to provide the once taciturn and sinister bounty hunter with a redeeming character arc, is a mess. Structurally, it is disjointed, even abandoning the central character and story arc for two whole episodes. It wants to to be an epic space-crime saga but has none of the required scale, or complexity in character development (there is no successfully drawn ‘big bad’) and plotting to pull this off. In the finale, these problems reach their nadir. A ridiculously simple shoot-out aped Rio Bravo or The Alamo with the brave few fighting off an entire town of outlaws plus a well-armoured crime syndicate with no losses and no real consequences; positively awful decision-making backed our heroes into a corner just so the writers could show Boba rampaging on the back of a Rancor; impossibly childish solutions were offered for what seemed to be a complex society of various races on Tattooine.
But, it was while watching the final episode that the penny dropped. I had been missing the point entirely. Of course the ‘fanbase’ were outraged. Of course they were disappointed with the representation of the character, the world-building, the lack of any real sustained menace or ‘real-world’ consequences.
They were no longer the target audience.
Maybe Disney is giving Star Wars back to the children. This stuff is for kids, they seem to be saying, and if you can’t let it go and entertain yourselves with more appropriate content then, well, that’s your problem. Commercial self-interest demands an ever-recycling consumer base. Disney know this better than most. In order to maintain their dominance of global markets in the future, the corporation must grab the attention of the young now. The old ‘family’ market is struggling. It is harder and harder to please everyone. The gulf between the young and the old is as wide as it has been for decades as the young, empowered by social media, push for radical change in gender politics, race relations and environmental issues whilst the older generation seek to defend increasingly tenuous traditional views. The days of the whole family settling down to watch a movie or TV show together are short. We are divided in what we watch and how we watch it. Entertainment is increasingly personalised: whilst the children watch YouTubers on mobile devices in their rooms, the parents are most likely watching their own shows separately too. Disney has had to make a choice: target their most popular franchises at the vocal but ageing demographic, or try to get the kids on board, thus ensuring longevity for the corporation. Disney have chosen to play the long game.
And times have changed. Society is changing: the young, as we have already noted, are challenging gender stereotypes and rigidity, and calling out racial bias or toxic masculinity more actively than ever before. Why aren’t more heroes anything but white? Why are female characters reduced to supporting roles? Where are the LGBTQ+ community represented? Disney have made clear efforts to respond to the criticism of the younger audience they seek and in the process further angered the predominantly white, male, thirty and forty-somethings that made up the core of the old audience, the ones who believed that these characters were theirs to command. These aren’t the characters they knew. This isn’t ‘grown-up’ Star Wars.
Well, no, it isn’t. Star Wars is a fairy tale set in a distant galaxy. It was never really intended for adult audiences; it was the 7 year old me that was blown away by the opening shot of the huge Imperial battle ship thundering over my head. I can attempt to recreate that feeling of awe by seeking out more of the same but it never quite works in the same way because I’m not 7 any more. And, anyway, is it healthy to be indulging in such shallow escapism, especially when it means holding on to something so tightly that we destroy it for others? Similarly, it is possible to write intelligent, challenging, ‘adult’ stories using these characters – but does that have to be at the expense of lighter, more child-friendly stories? Why darken the innocence of childhood heroes with the cynicism and moral complexity of adulthood all the time?
We see the same thing played out regularly with each new episode of pre-existing franchises be it James Bond, or Marvel superheroes, or Doctor Who. Superman resolutely refuses to fit this model; as the embodiment of light and hope he has proven impossible for film makers with darker intent to handle (just look at Zac Snyder’s tedious ‘Man of Steel’ for the evidence of that). But this desire to cling on to out pasts has broader and more concerning implications. For example, perhaps it explains the strange and disturbing post-millennium Western world we have made; where leaders behave like children who have realised that they don’t have to listen to the grown-ups anymore; where normally sensible people prepare for open insurrection if COVID plans had ruin their Christmases; where, terrifyingly, nobody seems to want to take the desperate situation with the climate seriously. It is as though we are all waiting for someone more grown-up to come along and make it all alright again.
When Dylan Thomas wrote about ‘raging hard against the dying of the light’ I don’t think he was suggesting that we become fixed in our minds, unyielding statues, rejecting progress and afraid of change; I think he meant that it is crucial to experience new things and embrace change to stay truly alive. And so, I see Gericault’s image of the remaining crew straining to hold on as their raft disintegrates beneath them as one which perfectly encapsulates the fear of dying and, perhaps just as powerful, the terror of becoming irrelevant. I imagine the raft to be crewed by middle-aged white men. The raft drifts towards the future, disintegrating as it does so. Those towards the front are reaching for salvation by welcoming change but those at the back are lost, desperate, clinging on the what they once had and, Gericault seems to say, doomed to lose their grip and be swept away by the tide of time. They’d probably post something unpleasant on Twitter as they go.
Anyway, as Henry Rollins likes to say to younger members of his audience, just let the old ones talk. It won’t make any difference. They’ll all be dead soon…
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