How Do We Know We Have Come of Age?

The-Three-Ages-of-Woman KlimtI want to tell you right off that I had every intention of writing this blog about coming of age, what it might mean here and now in the States, and even dip into a look at classic and current coming-of-age novels, of which there are many, and which has, at times been a moniker for my own novel, The Conditions of Love.

But true to how my writerly, associative brain works (I’ll actually be exploring using the associative mind to deepen one’s writing in a workshop I’m giving in July—see events page), I started investigating one thing and it led me somewhere other than where I intended.

My mind led me to the HBO series Girls, a show that has garnered much acclaim, as has its author, Lena Dunham, and which, having recently spent evenings in the company of that most deliciously malevolent of couples, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards, and awaiting the availability of the last episodes of Mad Men, in a restless, between-series state of hunting new characters to adore, I discovered Girls.

girls_sexscene14I’d read some interviews with Dunham, heard it was touted as the next Sex and the City, and well, I’m interested in the lives of women and mighty curious about the inner lives and politics of twenty-something contemporary American women. I’m interested in this because I’m a woman and these things concern me, because I have daughters, and because, in part, I write about girls growing into womanhood.

Not too far into the pilot episode of Girls, after Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath loses her job and is rejected by her parents who refuse to support her, Hannah drops by a buddy’s apartment to cheer herself up, and, as therapy or an antidote to despair, has what looks like anal sex.

My first thought was—why this sex scene, front and center, naked butt in the air? Sex depicted so dispassionately, so lacking of the erotic, of ecstasy, fury or fetishistic delight, Samantha from Sex and the City would have yawned and walked away. I had to wonder: what is this about? What’s the meaning here? Is there meaning?

girl-at-mirror-Norman RockwellAnd then I thought—am I watching a rite of passage, a coming-of-age ritual that signifies something I’m too out of it, too focused on the romantic to understand? Is casual, non-emotive sex a marker for a generation that honors irony and detachment, a way of claiming authority over the often urgent needs and drives of childhood, those pressing I needs, I wants of the Id? (Does anyone still talk about Ids?)

I had to wonder, what, if anything, marks the transition from adolescence into adulthood for the representative Hannah and her cohort? Gone, long gone are the days in which the start of menses and a woman’s ability to bear a child held that stature. Especially now when many girls reach menses at the astonishingly young age of eight, long before they are emotionally mature, physical development outpacing moral, ethical, emotional development, it is impossible to consider an eight-year-old menstruating girl an adult.

coming-of-age-sunrise-ceremonyLosing one’s virginity, separating from parents, becoming self-supportive. Marriage, giving birth, at one time these too set the definition for female adulthood. No longer. In other places, rite of passage ceremonies are intact. We do not send our daughters to live for a time with the wise grannies in the Moon Hut; we do not scarify the faces of our young men or set up contests for them to jump over a castrated cow. We do have Sweet Sixteen parties, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, our Quincenaras, but largely these ritual celebrations stay within their communities and do not translate to a feeling of adulthood in the larger world.

Girls’ Hannah H. is twenty-four, unpartnered and unmarried, broke, and seemingly brimming with despair. From Dunham’s portrayal of Hannah, it’s difficult to discern if the character considers herself part of the adult world, or not. Something seems to be missing in her self-image that places her between stages of development. But how does she feel? In this age how does one know they’ve come of age?

So my pondering continues. How do we know we have come of age? But then, how do we define middle age or old age these days? Aren’t our longer lifespans and the changes in our economy changing how we think of age and aging in general? If only humans had clear stages of development, a discreet and recognizable morphology like the cycles of butterfly development, the lowly earth-bound caterpillar so vastly different in shape and function than the gracefully winged creature that emerges from it. Our human skeleton keeps us bound to one form, but within that form our minds change, our hearts hopefully grow wiser. But we have no rituals or ceremonies, no real way of letting others know this has occurred in us.

Or do we?