The awful return of innocence
Now that she’s 14, maybe Malia Obama needs to start causing trouble. As a service to the country.
I’m not talking about her going on a crime spree, or getting involved in anything dangerous. Maybe a good toilet-papering of a boy’s house. Kids today have been so smothered in affection, attention, cell phones and obsessed parents that they are no longer allowed to be jerks — or even show the mildest signs of rebellion. Gone are the days when presidential offspring would make fools of themselves. Ronald Reagan’s son Ron danced in his underwear on “Saturday Night Live” in 1986. In 1974 Jack Ford, Gerald Ford’s son, brought drug user, hippie, rock and roller and mystic George Harrison to the White House. Amy Carter had a genius reply when the media asked her if she had a message for the children of America: “No.”
We don’t remember it, but American kids were once allowed to be mean, vulgar, foul-mouthed little bastards — and borderline dangerous. There used to be a place for such behavior, an adolescent zone between Shirley Temple and Charles Manson. If you think I’m exaggerating, you should check out, or re-check out, the movie “The Bad News Bears,” which came out in 1976. It’s about a little league baseball team that’s full of tough kids and misfits who are coached by a washed-up alcoholic played by Walter Matthau.
I was 12 when “The Bad News Bears” was released, and I still remember the buzz it caused among my friends. Here were kids our age who smoked, cussed and did not hesitate to revolt against their parents. And yet the actors also showed moments of the kind of insecurity and vulnerability that are part of being an adolescent. “Bears” was genuine realism in a time before the choices were either Disney sugar pop fantasy or sickening “Hunger Games” brutality. Especially noteworthy in the film is the character Amanda Whurlitzer, the star pitcher of the team who is played by Tatum O’Neal. Amanda, the daughter of Coach Buttermaker (Matthau), is wise and in fact much smarter than her father. But she is also a 13-year-old girl, and her budding sexuality is treated with real grace and humor. Again, there is vulnerability there, and shyness. Amanda, like her teammates, is a kid with a big mouth and a lot of disgust for the failed adults who try to control her, but she is never exploited in the film. There is none of the creepy tabloid titillation that arrived with young Britney Spears in the 1990s.
One of the others stars of “The Bad News Bears” is Jackie Earle Haley, who plays Kelly Leak, a juvenile delinquent. The team tries to recruit him. Whurlitzer goes to an arcade to get him to sign up. He wants no part of it: “The baseball you guys play is for faggots and old farts who have nothing better to do with themselves.” When they shot the movie, O’Neal was 13 and Haley was 15.
A comment about “The Bad News Bears” left on the movie website IMDb.com sums it up precisely: “The children’s use of even mild profanity would never be permitted now in a ‘family film,’ and the wonderful scene at the end would certainly send the Thought Police running for their placards and boycotts. It’s worth watching this film again just to remind ourselves that only 30 years ago children still enjoyed some autonomous space in which to grow, and the iron doors of the Nanny State had not yet completely swung closed upon them.” Bingo. We are producing generations of bland Bloomberg babies, kids who carry cell phones, obey curfews and have never seen the inside of a principal’s office. Their major offense is too much texting.
At the end of “The Bad News Bears” — spoiler alert — the Bears lose the big game and their coach rewards them with cold beers. Back then, that sort of thing happened in real life, too. I was 15 in the 1970s when I went to my first “Beach Week,” the annual bacchanal on the beaches of Maryland that high school students in the D.C. area used to go to. I went with a bunch of guys from my high school, and our “chaperone” was a teacher. He had two rules: we weren’t to drive anywhere, and he would buy us as much beer as we could drink. But it wasn’t just a party — it was a way for us to carve out our own space and identities, away from parents and school. It was a way to become responsible for ourselves and each other. It was a way to not just have safe play-date fun, but experience some reckless joy.
Twenty years later, there was absolute media hysteria when, in 2001, the Bush twins tried to drink a beer — at 19 years old. The twins then dutifully closed down, got married and avoid having any fun. Since then, the moral clampdown has stripped the world of pranks, wedgies and other harmless fun — to say nothing of more hard-core Bad News Bears trouble. Once upon a time, the president’s kid brought a Beatle into the White House. These days, Malia Obama doesn’t speak, at all, and only appears briefly in public to hug Justin Bieber. What a dull, Disneyfied country we’ve become.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.