Big Lebowski: What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski?
The Dude: Uhh…I don’t know, sir.
Big Lebowski: Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost? Isn’t that what makes a man?
The Dude: Hmm…Sure, that and a pair of testicles.
* * *
The Dude, Jeff Bridges’ character in The Big Lebowski (if you needed that last tidbit of information, we’re probably not friends anyway, so you can just stop reading now), is probably one of the most worshiped anti-heroes in American pop culture. In some circles, Dude-isms are more ubiquitous than Bible quotations, Ben Franklin aphorisms, or Shakespeare lines. The Dude’s followers admire his ability to shun lofty ideals, traditional societal expectations, and conformity in general, in favor of honest, simple – if not selfish – living. He’s a bohemian Ayn Rand. He’s Peter Pan in bowling shoes.
In a fast-paced, money-driven, capitalist society like our own, The Dude is an odd icon. But, he resonates with so many people because, as the quotation at the onset of this essay shows, The Dude doesn’t believe in any kind of essentialism. There is no essence of a man; there is just a pair of balls. The Dude not only doesn’t buy into gender essentialism, but he doesn’t buy into age essentialism either. Meaning, The Dude is not bound by what the society expects of someone his age.
Most Hollywood movies that have a Dude-like character always end with that character “growing up” (think Seth Rogen in Knocked Up, Adam Sandler in Big Daddy, or Bradley Cooper in The Hangover). These guys always learn some kind of “valuable” lesson, usually at the demand of their wet-blanket female counterparts, about what it really means to be an adult, and what it means to be an adult is settling down, getting married, and having kids. But, The Dude…he’s above all that. He doesn’t change at the end, even with a little Lebowski on the way. In fact, he learns the complete opposite lesson of the other goofballs mentioned above: “adulthood” is not all it’s cracked up to be. When it is said that The Dude is “takin ‘er easy for all us sinners,” the sinners are the adults – the people who take themselves too seriously and tether themselves to too many responsibilities.
Most people now accept that there is a difference sex and gender, wherein sex is mainly biological and gender encapsulates the characteristics associated with the sexes, typically imposed by the society and its expectations. Age works much in the same way in that there is a numerical age – as in the specific number of years since birth – and a more metaphorical age that could possibly be described as maturity. Meaning, beyond the scientific number, there is another, more abstract way, that we define age – as in “act your age” – that implies that people should be behaving in a certain way once they have reached a certain number of years on the planet.
Our view of age, pretty much like our view on everything else, is full of inconsistencies and contradictions. On the one hand, we are a society of Toys R Us Kids and Benjamin Buttons, where 40 is the new 30, 20-somethings are still in adolescence, 55-year old men who cheat on their wives are having a midlife crisis (which, technically, would mean that we consider the end of life to be somewhere in the ballpark of 110 years old), and Oil of Olay can reverse the signs of aging. On the other hand, we have expectations for certain ages, in the same way that we have expectations that girls will smell nice and boys will play rough. Our popular culture tells us to stay young forever but also tells us to stop taking bong hits and get a job, sir.
If age is a concept and is so relative, so mutable, how is it that we still seem to have expectations of and judgments about what people should or should not be doing with themselves at certain ages? Why is it that some people are “adult” and others are not? What if you have some but not all of those “adult” characteristics, as in a house, a job, but no kids…or kids, a job, but no spouse…what about a part-time job…does an apartment count? Is adulthood like a restaurant where you will not be seated until your whole party has arrived? And, what if by a certain age you have none of the above? Is that really so wrong?
While I don’t necessarily want to wear my bathrobe to the supermarket or pay for a carton of milk with a check, I do want to be able to embrace the terms for adulthood that I have set for myself (“I drive around. I bowl. The occasional acid flashback…”) regardless of what others think I should or should not be doing at a certain age. And this is at the core of what makes The Dude, despite his shortcomings, a hero – or, at least, my hero. The Dude sets his own standards, and when he says “The Dude abides,” he does not mean he abides by the conventional rules; he means he abides by himself and by the things that make him happy. The Dude stays true to who he is and, more importantly, stays comfortable with who he is despite the imposing pressures to be something else. And, I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that…
Thanks to Kerri and Tom for reminding me that I haven’t written a blog in two months. I needed a swift kick 😉