New Internationalist

Vanishing Cream For The Mind

Issue 264

Vanishing cream for the mind
The veneration of youth culture is more insidious than many of us realize.
Jeremiah Creedon reports from the edge of the abyss.

Top models of their time: a Greek youth. I had a long talk the other night with a friend about a thing that seems to be on everyone's mind these days, or in it - Prozac, the antidepressant. A bottle of the pills stood between us on her kitchen table. We were debating whether she really needed them. Her doctor thought she did. A 40-year-old graphic artist who designs fashion catalogues, she had been feeling down recently. She wasn't alone. The more we discussed it, the more we felt that most of her colleagues had the same malaise.

These people were magazine editors, journalists, TV producers, photographers, a talent scout for a recording company - creative types, single for the most part, on the threshold of their fifth decades. They'd spent their careers packaging the ideas and sounds and images that form the artefacts of American popular culture. And now they were depressed. Some were already taking Prozac or Zoloft or some other version of Vitamin J, the new one-a-day joy supplements that American doctors are giving out so cavalierly. Depression can have many causes, some organic, some rising from the external circumstances. Could it also be an occupational disease? Other workers fall ill from handling toxic chemicals or breathing hazardous dust.

Maybe these artisans of the modern media have developed a melancholy born of chronic, repeated exposure to images of the gorgeous young. Mad as a hatter? No, these people are sad. Sad as the designer who realizes an idea of beauty she's given her life to shaping, to worshipping, now excludes her. And the reason why is simple. By her own standards, she's too old.

The same forces are at work on a wider scale, if in smaller doses. The Western mind is in love with youth. It is ultimately a hopeless love, a destructive love, a love that is easily exploited. But being love, we are convinced of its nobility, and all warnings against it go unheeded. Nothing can distract our gaze from the freshly-minted face on the magazine cover, the haughty poise of the soccer star, the bared body of the film actress. And this fascination isn't limited to the youthful icons of popular culture; it colors every aspect of Western life, from the family to the workplace.

Eternal youth
The media play a crucial role in the modern youth obsession, but simply to blame the media is like blaming violent films for the urban murder rate. The truth is more complex. The media articulate certain desires that, though long repressed, are integral to the Western character. Thanks to the media, the youth ethos may be more pervasive than ever before, more brilliantly portrayed, more often amplified to grotesque levels. But it certainly isn't new. A journey to its source is a good first step toward understanding the peculiar soul sickness it often induces.

Today, the engine of the youth obsession is indisputably the United States. One of the country's largest exports is its youth-oriented popular culture, which is transmitted to other lands, if not the cosmos, via magazines, music, radio, television and film. In 1977, the US space probe Voyager 2 carried aloft a recorded sample of earthly sounds, including the word 'hello' in 69 languages, a baby's cry, a hyena's laugh and a wet kiss. The hope was this copper disc would help some other race solve the riddle of who we are. But compare it to the vast raw feed of television signals emanating from the planet during the last half- century. Voyager 2 is just now leaving the solar system. Meanwhile, last night's episode of the soap-opera Baywatch, pulsing outward at the speed of light, has already outraced it, bearing young women in thong bikinis to distant worlds.

Top models of their time: Naomi Campell.
BEN COSTER /
CAMERA PRESS

Surely Baywatch provides the better clue to who we are. Movies and TV shows are this culture's myths, and Hollywood is its post-modern Olympus, its pantheon of stars, major and minor, playing roles analogous to the myriad gods and heroes that peopled the myths of ancient Greece. For the Greeks themselves, their gods were no doubt vividly real; only now, from a distance, do we see them as personified facets of the Greek mind. So it is with our myths, which spring from the American imagination like so many undeciphered dreams, their deep meaning opaque to us but perhaps vivid to those watching from afar.

What might they see that the dreamers don't? Well, perhaps what we see in the Greeks. They too were a culture obsessed with youth. The beauty of youth epitomized the Olympian era's idea of perfection, which according to the Italian scholar Roberto Calasso was 'the Greek gift par excellence - the goal this people always sought'. Beneath their pursuit and worship of the body beautiful lay a terribly stark vision of existence. 'Perfection of the outward appearance was indissolubly linked to the acceptance of a life without redemption, without salvation, without hope of repetition,' writes Calasso. 'It is only because life is irretrievable and unrepeatable that the glory of appearance can reach such intensity.'

A similar awareness - of the abyss - lies just beneath the modern youth obsession. Indeed, it may be generating the deep melancholy that seems to afflict those now leaving youth behind. Like the ancient Greeks, modern Americans work more and more without a net, and the collective anxiety is palpable.

We've given the preoccupation with youth a modern spin, of course. In a study of ageing among men conducted during the 1960s, the psychologist Daniel J Levinson found that mourning the loss of youth was common: 'The sense of ageing and mortality is accentuated by the change in generational status around 40,' when 'A man (sic) knows more deeply than ever before that he is going to die.' But this traditional crisis may be getting more intense, or so it seems. The ties to family and religion that once offered some protection against old age and death are even more frayed today. And the insights of modern science are making things worse.

Sex appeal
Consider genetics. The geneticist sees life not as a gradual rise and fall peaking at maturity, but as a grim record of constant, insidious decline. According to the British geneticist Steve Jones, 'Our genes change and decay through our lives', with each day's copy a blurrier version of the one the day before. There's only one way to stop this process. Sex. 'In some ways, sex is the key to immortality', writes Jones. 'It is the fountain of eternal youth - not for the individuals who indulge in it, but for their genes.'

This distinction is lost on those frantic to stay in the sexual swing of things - as the advertisers know. They're masters at shunting an insecurity about one's sex appeal into an impulse to buy things. It may be that single people approaching middle age may be more vulnerable to this panic and thus to those who exploit it. Marriage and family probably do afford some buffer against the pain of witnessing one's own decay. But a peculiar thing about life in a youth-obsessed culture is that everyone is single forever, if only in theory. Marriages, like jobs, are less likely to endure these days, and no-one can dismiss the possibility that they'll soon be hunting for another mate. We're all single in our fantasies as well, as the media constantly remind us. In a land where no-one wants to admit they're old, no-one can admit they're sexually unavailable either.

Advantage youth: at 38 Martina Navratilova is too 'old'.
RICHARD OPEN / CAMERA PRESS

Competition
Gone is the genteel world of Shakespeare, where parents looked on wistfully as their children tasted the innocent joys of first love. Today's paradigm is more akin to a bedroom farce where the sexy mom seduces her daughter's boyfriend - while the daughter videotapes it all from the closet. American culture has a peculiar levelling effect on the generations, a fact portrayed on countless TV shows. Take Baywatch, whose central characters are a strapping California lifeguard and his young son, both of whom spend most of their time chasing 'girls' on the beach. Baywatch may actually be more popular in Europe than in the States, which makes sense. Its appeal isn't just the sexy jiggle - the French can produce that on their own. It's a fascination with the American family, expressed 150 years ago by the first great student of this culture, Alexis de Tocqueville. 'In America the family, in the Roman and aristocratic signification of the word, does not exist,' he noted. In the new democratic family, parental authority diminishes and 'equality prevails around the domestic hearth'.

Equality is not harmony, however. The young and old now tend to see each other as sexual and economic competitors.

'Getting old really stinks,' declared the tennis star Martina Navratilova, 38, after beating Marketa Kochta, a 14-year-old opponent. 'I wish I had her legs,' she told a reporter from the New York Times, 'but I don't envy her all the attention she's gotten: she's been turned into a star before she's even played a match.'

Sport has always been the arena where the consolations of age - wisdom, authority, influence, respect - count for nothing. The generations duke it out in the flesh, stripped of all social armour and the young inevitably carry the day. The fact that we know the outcome beforehand reveals the element of ritual in sport. But this stylized conflict between old and young is no longer limited to the ring; it has spilled over into the stands. Everyone must eventually confront a vast onslaught of teenagers eager to do them in.

There's a fear among American 'Baby Boomers' - the generation born after the Second World War - that the country's social security system will go broke before they collect their pensions. A similar thing has already happened with another so-called entitlement: their right to the mantle of leadership in various cultural fields, including literature and the arts. At last mature enough to have real insights, they discover no one cares. The cameras have swung toward the Marketa Kochtas of the world. Prematurely, it seems, they feel themselves becoming part of what Betty Friedan has dubbed 'the problem of age - all these people refusing to die'.

Returning from exile
The kids aren't at fault. If anyone is, we are. Like my friend the graphic artist, a loyal keeper of fashion's flame, we're all being hoisted on our own petards. Vast market forces are at work, of course, and they no doubt have a great effect on our desires. But we're the ones behind the cameras now. And the sad fact is, we'd rather look at young faces too.

My friend and I stand on the verge of an exile, gazing with sadness down at the valley of youth, longing to return. Someone older, like Friedan, would tell us to get over it, that a good life waits beyond. Friedan has been on the lecture circuit lately, packing halls, peddling a book on the youth obsession.

Not all she has to say is heartening, at least for men. Could it really be that women live longer because they're the spry sex, resilient as willows, while male vanity makes men more rigid? Perhaps not. But good for her and for everyone else in the public eye who does not intend to leave it just because they're old.

Rock stars, professional golfers and other ageing celebrities are joining this effort to redefine what the second half of life should be. Their success reflects a demographic fact; American society is getting older and the elderly command a growing share of the country's economic and political clout.

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), a non-partisan lobby representing those over 50 already has a profound effect on public policy, an impact that seems bound to increase as the AARP roster swells. For most Americans, this new focus on the old will help them leave behind the wider cultural fixation with youth. But the artisans of the modern media will no doubt have a harder time making the break. Their deeper ties to the youth culture have led them to the brink of a true philosophical crisis, which I believe to be the cause of much of their despair.

There's nothing scientific about this diagnosis, but it's clear the doctors now treating their melancholy aren't that informed by science either. We should all ask ourselves if the modern cures for such anguish are really needed or merely cosmetic, a kind of vanishing cream for the mind. If the wrinkles on a face are with us forever, then so are those of thought, and only by seeing them clearly for what they are can we go on with life in something like peace.

Jeremiah Creedon is a writer living in Minneapolis, US.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995


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