The XX Factor

“Kids These Days” Hits Rock Bottom

“Kids these days!” is a time-honored narrative, not because it’s true that things are on a constant downhill slide and each subsequent generation is worse than that last, but because it’s a nice little fiction that makes older people feel better about aging. When we indulge in some “kids these days!” worrying, we get to take a break from thinking about our decreasingly athletic sex lives and our increasing obsession with bowel movements, and instead think about how we’re so much better than those among us with bright futures and energy to spare. The problem is that the “kids these days” narrative is so often factually incorrect.

Take, for instance, this silly story from the BBC bemoaning the supposed downhill slide in role models for young men.

Modern-day superheroes promote a macho, violent stereotype for young boys, according to a US psychologist’s study.

They differ greatly from superheroes of yesterday, who had a more vulnerable side, an American Psychological Association meeting was told.

The notion that pop culture in the past was somehow less sexist than it is now struck me as close to impossible. Then again, I watch a lot of Mad Men , which fills my head with crazy notions about how American society was way more sexist prior to the feminist movement. But to double-check my inclinations, I asked someone who actually reads comic books for his take on the subject. “That is ABSURD,” he said, adding that superheroes didn’t have some glorious feminist past, complete with vulnerability. But perhaps the researchers only meant that superheroes in 2009 were a teeny less vulnerable than the heyday of 2006. We don’t know the frame of reference here.

There’s also a bunch of hand-wringing about the evils of “slackers” as role models, making me wonder if they did part of this study in 1993, the official last time the word “slacker” was used unironically. The argument of the article is that young men are given a choice between “macho pig” and “slacker” as role models, and neither is very good.

They perhaps published this article at the worst possible time in pop-culture history, however, because it came out right as the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was released, a film about a slacker who also happens to be a superhero (granted, in a world where apparently everyone has super powers). Can we expect a flurry of articles about how kids these days will be ruined for life because they think they can grow up to shirk work but nonetheless bring fists of fury on their supernatural opponents? Will we start seeing arguments implying that sweet Michael Cera is secretly teaching young men to be sexists far beyond the imaginations of those who lived in an era when women were legally forced out of holding certain jobs?