As much as I hate to admit it, the nightly parade of television pundits who hit us with damning statistics, straw-man arguments, and emotional human-interest stories, all in order to convince us America is in trouble, are right. This is a time of crisis. We do have to make America great again. But it’s gone well beyond Donald J. Trump and some stupid hat. We’re becoming a nation of adult children, of insipid man- and woman-babies struggling to do as little as we can to get by.
The signs are all around us. Ever overhear a coworker at the water cooler lament the choice between paying bills and buying the latest set of officially licensed Star Wars Legos? How about that old high school friend who brags about skipping work to eat canned pasta in his PJ’s while watching reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation? Or that dopey sales associate who shows up to meetings wearing Poké Ball earrings and complains that no one takes her seriously?
My friend actually said this to me the other day: “Ugh. Don’t make me adult today! I just want to stay home and finish coloring this wicked sweet dragon!”
Adulting. It’s a word now, a contentious verb spit in the face of the hurricane of the day-to-day living. And we need to do our best to bring down the beast. Because if we don’t, if we let it slide, if we acknowledge adult coloring books as a form of “meditation,”…well, at least in a small way, we’re letting evil win.
Big budget franchises are in. Comic books. Toy lines. Video game tie-ins. Rebooted children’s shows. They’re vogue, delighting both children and adults.
For older audiences, part of the joy is the nostalgia. It’s nice to hear that Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers is being introduced to a younger generation or that we, as adults, can take our kids to a new Star Wars movie. It’s admittedly kind of cool to think those things that captured our imaginations as kids are still chugging along. But there’s a dark side to this renaissance of nostalgic children’s entertainment, and the evidence is there, at your local Target.
I was wandering the refrigeration aisle the other night (ISO orange juice), when I passed the coffee creamer and found myself staring at an entire collection of Star Wars Coffee-Mate® bottles. These weren’t bullshit cereal boxes with the Dark Lord of the Sith offering up a sugary bowl of marshmallow garbage. These were licensed products for adults. (I work in marketing, so I can tell you that a lot of thought goes into how and where to place advertisements.) This wasn’t some mistake.
It wasn’t long before I noticed more licensed children’s entertainment products aimed at adults. For Star Wars alone, adults could buy pajama costumes, toasters, “sexy Princess Leia” outfits, showerheads, bed sets, jewelry, wedding bands, shot glasses, waffle makers, Bluetooth speakers, measuring cups, briefcases, ties, flatware, USB car chargers — the list goes on.
It’s not just Star Wars. It’s everything. All around us, we’re surrounded by licensed goods that remind us of things we loved from childhood. It’s almost like the products are talking to us, whispering stay at home and “finish coloring that wicked sweet dragon!”
Super Villainy 101
For those who know their comic books, one of the more common tactics villains use to defeat their archenemies is to infantilize the opposition. Often, this is accomplished through some form of sorcery or child-rendering gizmo developed in a secret lab somewhere, transforming the Caped Crusader from man to baby, for example.
Of course, evil never succeeds in the world of comics, and the idea of a device that morphs a man into a baby is completely insane and implausible. But it’s the metaphor we should be thinking about. After all, good marketing isn’t just selling someone on a product, it’s selling someone on a lifestyle.
Consider this hypothesis: The growing use of the term “adulting” is relative to the widespread licensing and resurgence of yesteryear’s childhood nostalgia. Taken together, that means we’re being sold regression, reversion to childhood as some sort of lifestyle.
Forget about independence and craftsmanship. We’re being sold lives of hoarding, our daily advertisements littered with toys, collectibles, and “nerd” gear. If we’re excited about the next addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we’re sold on preparing ourselves for the experience of a lifetime (even though Marvel movies seem to come out every other month). We can’t just walk into a theater wearing plain clothes. We need our gear: licensed T-shirts, keychains, backpacks, sunglasses, and plastic figurines. Like attending church on a Sunday, we need to dress up for the occasion, standing in line behind the nerd royalty with the most accoutrements.
The nerd royalty sold to us in advertisements, then, the chosen few highlighted as the most elite “fans” ready to witness Captain America’s next outing, are often seen standing in front of backgrounds that look a little like this:
(© 2015 Funko.com)
I’m sure the gentleman who owns these is very nice, but in no way should he be a role model or hero to anyone. He’s just a guy who spent way too much time and money obtaining plastic molds. He didn’t build anything. He didn’t help anyone. The folks at Funko just plucked him from the masses and presented him as an elite. The ideal. The Vitruvian Man.
And Funko is not alone. For many companies, this is standard operating procedure. They reinforce what we should be doing and how we should be spending our time with a minuscule fifteen minutes of fame. And the people they’re rewarding? The deities displayed upon Mount Olympus? Were it not that these collectibles revolved around a popular franchise, we’d call these people hoarders, or worse.
Many of the franchises sweeping Hollywood revolve around superheroes who sacrifice everything in order to save strangers they’ve never met. These beacons of light are willing to give up their own lives if it means stopping the bad guy, if it means helping one more person out of a dire situation. One would assume then that the elite fan would walk in the hero’s footsteps, that the greatest gift the fan could grant the idol would be to live with similar virtuosity.
But the reality of our lives is far different. We live in the slacker shadows, watching cinematic supermen save the day while we call off work to eat SpaghettiOs in our pajamas. We emerge only on the weekends, stolen evenings, or not at all, waiting in those same PJ’s for the knock at the door, the friendly face of the UPS man bringing us our latest fix of plastic collectibles or nerd gear.
As a society, we tell heroic tales to our children to inspire them. We want the next generation to marvel at our role models, to admire and cherish the incorruptible feats of Superman as he saves the world one more time. These are tales of hope, tales of values and morals and strengths. They’re the essence of what we want out of tomorrow’s society, our fantasies for a Utopian future. At least, that’s what we say.
But maybe instead of saying it, we should try doing it for a change. Maybe instead of dreaming dreams for tomorrow, we should be dreaming dreams of today. Maybe, just maybe, we need to shake off our collective toy-fueled bender, shrug off our dreams of being “Funatic of the Week”, and just, for once, “not finish coloring that wicked sweet dragon!”