Childhood, adolescence, and adulthood are three moments that mark the passage of time in a person’s life. However, these moments of life are greatly shaped by the culture in which the individual grows up. What have art and history taught us about growing up in the English-speaking world?
I) Becoming an adult: a cultural challenge
1) The trials of adolescence
The concept of adolescence is a modern one: prior to social changes brought about at the turn of the 19th century (Child Labour laws and universal education), children worked early on and were considered adults in their teens. 20th and 21st century art has endeavoured to tackle this new stage of human development during which major physical and psychological changes occur. In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963) the heroine, epitomising (est l’emblème de) teenage years in the 20th century, fails to fit in and find her self in spite of her attempts to do so.
Critically acclaimed British TV show Skins (2007-2013) portrayed the sense of loss common to a generation of millennials growing up in the early 21st century. Focusing on one character at a time, the series expanded on the protagonists’ experimenting with drug taking and sexuality to reflect upon the experience of adolescence as a difficult moment of passage.
Millennials refers to the generation of people born between the early 1980s and the mid 2000s thus coming of age during the growth of the Internet.
2) Meeting with the other to become oneself
Life experiences also help shape the individual self of an adult for better or for worse. Travel can constitute an important experience during which the individual learns from the discovery of a different culture. In Britain in the 17th and 18th century, the Grand Tour was a part of the education of young men from the gentry. Young men who had come of age were sent to Europe to learn about culture and the arts.
Some encounters may be significant in a person’s life. Meeting with a mentor or a spiritual guide sometimes helps the individual discover themselves. In Million Dollar Baby (2004), a young woman decides to take up boxing and forms a strong relationship with her boxing trainer, which will eventually end up in her downfall.
II) Growing up outside of the norms of society
1) Growing up the hard way
Exterior events sometimes force the individual to find the means to survive. World War II left thousands of children orphaned. While childhood usually is a stage of life in which the individual is protected by his parents, these children had to survive and learn how to live in horrific socio-economic conditions.
In his famous novel Lord of the Flies (1954), William Golding depicts a dystopian fictional world in which young boys stranded on a desert island attempt and fail to establish law and order among themselves, leading to atrocities. In the absence of adults the boys learn about human nature without civilisation, only to revert back to being children when rescued, crying.
2) Emancipation or confrontation with society
Emancipating may entail the building of one’s self in spite of or against social norms. Up until the early 20th century, women were considered as children. During World War II, figures such as Rosie the Riveter, a fictional character used in several propaganda posters (including J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It”, 1943), were used to incite women to take part in the war effort. Rosie later became an American icon for the feminist movement.
In Crossing the River (1993) Caryl Phillips discusses the African diaspora by giving a voice to fictional characters who have had to face racial prejudice throughout their lives. Spanning over two centuries, the novel focuses on how those characters eventually overcome this prejudice and become emancipated.