The Death of Adulthood in American Culture: Nerd Culture Edition

When Pokémon XY was released, my Twitter list exploded with excitement. Who wanted to trade? What was your battle team of choice, and how did you choose to balance out your team’s skills? What goofy names are you giving your Pokémon?

My Twitter list does not consist of children and teenagers, by the by. These were adults, all spreading the gospel of the pocket monster. Granted, I deal with a lot of gaming and nerd culture videographers and bloggers so it wasn’t too shocking, but it wasn’t just them; people who had nothing to do with gaming—successful authors, bloggers, film critics—all playing this game, discussing the trading of their digital beasties and posting share codes. But the remarkable thing to me was the lack of shame in these adult consumers. They weren’t consuming their children’s media in secret, the way a fifth grader in the 90’s might have hidden away to indulge in watching some Power Rangers despite knowing they were “too old” for it (I may or may not be speaking from experience), but rather they were sharing in a community, enjoying it openly and shamelessly.

This, I realized, was a shift that had been so slow and careful I’d barely noticed it. It takes a certain sort, obviously—not everyone is ready to commit a slice of their adulthood to the capture and battle of Pokémon. But there are people who are playing their DS’s on the subway during their morning commute, trading Skitties and Fennikens as opportunity allows…and this signals a change in what is fast becoming acceptable for grown people to do with their time.

Pokémon has transcended its original intended demographic, and its parent company and marketers have been openly encouraging this shift. As with reading Twilight and other blockbuster young adult novels, Pokémon had become a common, even (arguably) acceptable pastime for adults. Pokémon has expanded beyond the province of children and into the broader and ever more mainstream realm of nerd culture. More than that, the province of children, by becoming a part of nerd culture, is becoming mainstream, becoming adult.

Though our generation isn’t the first to redefine what it means to be an adult, we can attribute some unique characteristics to this particular rebranding of adulthood. We read and enjoy our Harry Potters and our Games of Hunger, play our Pokeymans and tromp down to the theater to watch (and complain about) our Transformers and Ninja Turtles, and then debate about who is “ruining our childhoods” when really we should be too old to care. But given the ubiquity of some of these franchises, how can you be expected to grow past your childhood if your childhood never leaves the cultural landscape?

I mean, the children of the 70’s didn’t exactly embrace any multi-billion dollar gritty reboots of H.R. Pufnstuf thirty years after the fact.

What was once the realm of children is changing, and media for children and adults bleed into each other. Cartoons like Adventure Time and The Legend of Korra draw a huge adult audience. Even franchise reboots like the Hasbro brands produce children’s shows like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and Transformers: Prime, which are far more sophisticated than their forebears and therefore palatable to adults, as well. Children have become more media savvy and their tastes are more refined than they were twenty years ago; in turn, adults are seeing fewer and fewer compelling reasons why they should live out their lives consuming media only produced for adults.

One can easily put this in the context of wider phenomena; people are getting married and having children later, the idea of the lifelong “career” is dying, student loan debt postpones or halts many life milestones altogether, and financial dependence on parents well into one’s twenties has become more and more commonplace. The definition of “adulthood” is shifting, as is its starting point, and to some if it isn’t the herald of the end-times, it’s at least a problem that need be addressed.

Pearl-clutching op-eds concerned about the mindset and well-being of millennials written by the Boomer-aged old guard of journalism is practically a cliché at this point. AO Scott’s piece that ran in the New York Times last week is a more sympathetic example of such pieces, or at the very least well-aware of its own biases, but also takes an eye to how the media has changed as a result of this new, fluid definition of adulthood. And while Scott does spend some time on some of the more obvious signifiers—the growth of an adult readership for young adult books, for instance—he spends little time on the ever-expanding market for media and brands that were once consumed mostly by children.

Scott’s article doesn’t really come to any conclusions—and in fairness to Mr. Scott, I don’t see how one could come to a definite set of conclusions to such a hairy, complex and contentious topic. The aimless nature of the article, plus the tone of forced optimism (“No, this shift we’re seeing is great… no, really… I love it. Get off my lawn.”) leads me to think that he, like most of us, is still coming to terms with this shift in the cultural landscape and trying to figure out both his own place, and the role of media criticism, within it.

There is, however, a salient point to be made regarding the shifting idea of adulthood if you look at the changing face of nerd culture over the last twenty years, as well as how it’s become more mainstream. Video games are no longer products for children and shut-ins. Everybody plays them, and this is reflected in our wider media; even the morally bankrupt Frank Underwood relaxes to the occasional first-person shooter in both seasons of House of Cards.

But we aren’t only seeing the growth of certain types of media, like video games and comic books, expanding their market into the adult realm. The value of branded nostalgia has radically changed the type of movies that we see getting made. The most successful example of this is Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise, which with their PG-13 ratings, 2.5 plus hour run times and scary action violence was not made primarily for children. Sure, children will watch them, in the way that children watched Jurassic Park, peeking between their fingers and trying to be brave (again, I may be speaking from experience), but they are not the primary audience. In this instance and many others, that original child audience has been left by the wayside in favor of the nostalgic adult audience. Sure, the kids get their own part of the franchise (the cartoons and the toys), but the biggest and most lucrative part of the Transformers franchise? Ten years ago that would have been the punchline to a joke. Now it’s an inescapable reality. Starring Mark Wahlberg.

I would argue that reinterpreting the media you grew up with for a more general, adult audience is nothing new: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg found great success with this formula with Indiana Jones and Star Wars, which were inspired by the pulpy sci-fi serials they grew up with. This is taking nostalgia and reshaping it for a new audience. The fundamental difference with then and now is that then it was thematic—now it is branded. The idea of branding may not make all the difference, but it is a crucial point, especially where nerd culture is concerned. If there is one thing the modern geekosphere latches onto, it is branding. And all of this is to say nothing of the neverending deluge of branded superhero movies.

In addition to the spheres of childhood and adulthood bleeding into each other, the idea of the “nerd” simply can’t be used as pejorative anymore. Their numbers are too many, they are far from oppressed, and that which was once the mark of the nerd is now mainstream, popular, and extremely lucrative. A movie like Revenge of the Nerds would be irrelevant and out of touch now—a fact of life that many in older generations (and even some in mine) are still figuring out what to do with. A colleague of mine who is in his mid-forties once jokingly referred to me as a “nerd” for watching Game of Thrones. This threw me for a slight loop. “Nerd” for still having fifteen-year-old MST3K quotes memorized? Sure. But Game of Thrones, the critically acclaimed, multiple Emmy-winning most popular show on premium cable? The most pirated show on television? The days of taste-shaming so-called “nerd” interests are long past, buddy, and I’m not the one who’s out of touch!

While I think most millennials take umbrage with the idea that there is a fundamental flaw in our generation (especially when we certainly didn’t create the wider societal circumstances that are making life for our generation less than optimal in the first place), I think most of us would agree that the definition of “adulthood” has now shifted to the point where most of us are unsure what it even means, and will readily admit that no matter how many life milestones we’ve hit, we certainly don’t feel it.

You can still play video games, because they’ve grown with us. You can still read comic books, because they’ve grown with us. You can read young adult novels, because they’re often as sophisticated as any adult commercial fiction and may cater to a kind of wish fulfilment you don’t find there. You can even collect toys and memorabilia—you certainly won’t be starved for other adults that share your interests. The idea that they might harm your ability to get a job? Start a relationship and have children? The idea seems laughable now.

Even though I recognize the wider acceptance of both children’s media and of nerd culture, it still gives me pause on occasion, especially when I look at it through the lens of my own life. Is this simply a new form of normality, or is this a form of arrested development? Am I, by giving into the DS and playing that new Pokémon game for weeks on end, simply indulging in a common hobby on my daily commute, or am I allowing myself to devolve back to a larval state? Am I giving in to my own lack of sophistication by reading YA literature? And shouldn’t I be entirely too old to still derive so much giddy enjoyment from the 1980’s Transformers cartoon?

And, at the end of the day, might all this not have to do with our growing discomfort with what even defines “adulthood” in the first place? Is adulthood the idea of having one’s shit together all the time, always being in control of one’s life and putting away childish things? If that is the case, perhaps adulthood was always a lie, and our generation was simply the first to recognize and embrace that. Perhaps “adulthood” never really existed, and therefore cannot be killed.

I’ll let you know, as soon as I beat this gym leader and evolve my new Froakie.


Lindsay hosts the web series “Nostalgia Chick” and “Booze Your Own Adventure” and is co-founder of ChezApocalypse.com. If you want your timeline flooded with tweets about cartoons from the 90s and Michael Bay, you can follow her on Twitter.

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