Growing up in public

June 14, 2007, 5:08 PM UTC
Fortune

Remember Emerging Adulthood, the book by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett which explores the fairly recent trend of twentysomething people living in a kind of extended adolescence, supported in part by our parents and our relative lack of responsibility? If you still happen to be on the fence about this one, a few episodes of Reunited: The Real World Vegas might be useful research.

I’m embarrassingly familiar with this cast of characters. While I was bouncing off the walls at college, they were bouncing off the walls on MTV. We had Real World parties to revel in the madness; they were our (admittedly crazy) friends. And they were our age.

Sadly, they’re still our age. And watching the now “grown-up” bunch fight, get plastered, and hook up — which invariably leads to the trashing of suites, hurting of feelings, and rejoicing of producers — makes me more than a little apprehensive about attending my five-year college reunion this fall. I already knew better than to expect lots of spouses and new babies, but falling-down drunks and casual encounters? Yikes. Guess we really aren’t ready for the party to end. So much so that our shenanigans make for better television than those of the actually college-aged people.

Come to think of it, this sort of speaks to the whole Paris (Hilton, duh) issue, too. For all the people who thought she was mildly amusing/ridiculously sad/a harbinger of cultural doom before, she sure has picked up some high-profile supporters in the wake of her legal woes. Christopher Hitchens likens Paris’s treatment by the public to child abuse, and our own Stanley Bing asks, “Aren’t we all having way too much fun with this? And why?”

Of course, they’re not so much defending Paris as objecting to our collective relishing of her unfortunate situation. And that’s fair. Sitting through a Sarah Silverman set is punishment enough without having to be the butt of her weirdly bad jokes. (I know boys love her — a dollar to the one who can explain why!)

But the fact of the matter is that Paris is 26 years old — i.e., hardly a newborn babe. And there comes a time in all our lives when we kind of sort of have to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions, no? It certainly isn’t nice that so many people are cheering in less than good-natured glee at this particular fall from “grace,” but Paris chose some shaky ground for her pedestal — reality TV, red carpet antics, some supremely annoying pop songs — so this backlash shouldn’t come as a total shock. And if watching her go through it convinces a few of her young female fans that taking the Paris path is so not hot, well, then, I’m all for it. Really, I blame the parents. Then again, at least she has parents.

Are we ever going to grow up, guys? Or are we just in a culture that’ll let us behave this way as long as we’re able? Even as I was conceiving this post in my crankiness yesterday, I was suddenly distracted by the sound of my own voice; VH1’s Fabulous Life of Filthy Rich Billionaires had come on in the background, and I was saying something only vaguely intelligible about Bill Gates’s billions. Sure, I may not be in rehab, but I’m as caught up in this surreal culture as the next guy. Let he who is without sin…