“So the other day, I was naked with a finger wedged deep in my ear and snacking on rice cakes soaked in soy sauce while balancing on one foot on a pyramid of delicate china cups and saucers, and I thought to myself, 'Oh my God, I've become my father!'" - Bob Roth
'Do we inevitably become our parents?' It's a question that plagues my dreams at night, somewhat less frequently than the zombie apocalypse but drastically more terrifying. I'm at least prepared for the zombie apocalypse. I own large knives, I can theoretically use a firearm, I am learning to ride a motorcycle (towards and away from explosions), and frankly I'm prepared to die a meaningless death because I don't have the stamina or cajones to survive the fall of civilization. I'm barely prepared to survive the fall of my wireless coverage.
What I'm certainly not prepared for is giving up my humanities degree and becoming a project manager for a huge, multinational telecommunications company. That's what my parents ended up doing. Three bachelors and two masters degrees between the two of them. And what was my father's choice career advice? “Be a stock broker. Work your butt off for fifteen years and retire by forty.” Sage wisdom from a Philosophy/Psych major.
Yet is it natural, after asserting our independence and striking out on our own, to return to the traditions and behaviors on which we were raised? In exploring this notion we have to examine values of both parent and child, and I can think of no more entertaining and accessible way to do this than through the lenses of two films vastly separated in genre and audience, but closely related by the theme at hand: 1999's SLC Punk! and Walt Disney Pictures' 1995 “Goof Troop” spinoff, A Goofy Movie.
Within A Goofy Movie there are two father-son relationships: predominantly Goofy and Max, but also that of their next door neighbors, Goofy's time-honored foil Pete and his son P.J. (Pete Jr.). While Goofy is a caring and loving father, Pete is the martinet, keeping his son in line through fear and discipline, prescribing an endless series of chores throughout their vacation, which exclusively serve either Pete Sr.'s personal extravagances or to reinforce his supremacy. In giving Goofy parenting advice, he refers to this as “Keep[ing] them under your thumb.” P.J. stands at attention before his father, comes when called to perform tasks, but otherwise avoids spending time with his father, in private company going so far as to openly resent it. Pete's strict mode of parenting does not create the same kind or strength of bond that Goofy and Max develop throughout the picture. Contrarily, Pete doesn't even give his son a personal name, instead bequeathing P.J. his own name in attempt to forcibly mold his offspring into that same identity.
Quite similarly, in SLC Punk! we are introduced to protagonist Stevo's father, who–representing a traditional upbringing–encourages Stevo to go to law school and finish his education, particularly the very college and law school he himself intended. His seemingly lax attitude and post-graduation recommendation of “and then do whatever” is counteracted by the on-its-face ridiculous notion to first “try it for four years and if you don't like it, quit.” Stevo's parents duet an advisory call-and-response: “Be free,” “Be practical,” “Go to Harvard,” “But have fun,” “Be an individual,” but he should get a haircut. Politely and honestly, Stevo begins to criticize his parents for abandoning the “Cultural Mecca” of their former home in New York City and with it the ideals of the 1960s, exchanging them for a white picket fence lifestyle in Salt Lake City, Utah. He later calls his father a hypocrite for being Jewish yet driving a German Porsche, for applying to Harvard Law School under Stevo's name and, more seriously, for getting divorcing Stevo's mother, saying “Y'know, you gave up a good thing in my mother, Sir.” Though he admits to “just busting his balls,” Stevo's disagreements with his father's values are sincere.
The major problem with the question “Do we become our parents?” is it inherently holds a bias towards the child's perspective. That is, it assumes becoming like one's parents is of necessity a bad thing: losing aspects of one's personal identity, becoming subservient and filling assigned roles is a loss of both freedom and self for an individual and (partially) a psychological death. It is an imposition few children appreciate as they grow into adulthood.
But rather than accept this value judgement, we should first examine the values of our parents. If, like 98 percent of children in the United States, a child is not abused, his parents can't have been too morally reprehensible. Likewise, if a child lives in the suburbs like roughly half the U.S. population as judged by the 2006 census, she probably does not have much to rebel against other than being as drearily average as P.J. or Stevo's families.
While these are certainly certain parents not to use as role models, that is not to say becoming like one's parents is universally a poor life. Max Goof shares equally with P.J. and Stevo an apprehension becoming anything like his father, or at least fearful of acquiring the genetic and personal traits he has grown to view as embarrassing, unhip or otherwise unenlightened. The film opens, in fact, with a nightmare sequence in which Max's idyllic pastoral plane is morphs into a grove of thorns as he frightens away his love interest, Roxanne, by undergoing a werewolf-like transformation into his own buck-toothed and clumsy, HYUCK!-ing father.
Throughout the movie, though, Goofy's values are not so terrible. Much the opposite, he prides himself on leniency and understanding of his son's feelings, preferring over Pete's rules and harshness family togetherness and traditions like father-son vacations and the family's secret fly fishing “perfect cast.” Excepting perhaps his father's taste in music, Max's greatest issue with Goofy is not his ideals or even his clumsiness, but rather that he feels smothered under his father's constant and frequently embarrassing presence in Max's personal. This, Max feels, hinders his development and growth as an individual and so he comes to view Goofy's ideals, though wholesome, as an imposition of parental will as antagonizing as Pete's.
The issue at hand is really a value judgement placing a child's accrued morals and experience over those impressed upon him by his parents earlier in life. Learning that our parents might be in possession of values not openly hostile to our own, perhaps even well-conceived and tested by decades of experience beyond our own, the question takes a different shape: “Are our values, if different, really any better than those of our parents?” If our values are no better than those of our parents, even in line with theirs, what can be said of our growth as individuals?
Max Goof feels like a nobody in his high school, at worst a loser to be picked on, at best fading into the background. However he also believes that he does have some innate coolness. If he can do something outlandish and cool he would win the heart of Roxanne.1 The act he chooses is to interrupt a school assembly with a pyrotechnic-laden lip syncing performance while dressed as Powerline, his world's most popular pop star among children his age. Quite literally, Max abandon's his own identity and adopted a preexisting, sauve, well-liked persona which is at once rebellion against the role of his father's son and conformist in regards to his peers, which does manage to impress the latter at the expense of the former.
This is of course the impetus for story's main conflict, wherein Goofy attempts to “save” his son's soul from a life of delinquency while Max tries to maintain his own independence and coolness. Yet Max maintains a relatively stable moral framework, managing to enjoy time alone with his father away from social constraints. When Max alters his father's road map to culminate not in a father-son fishing vacation, but at Powerline's rock concert in L.A., it is for him a devastatingly conflicted choice, but one he feels necessary to preserve his identity from crushed under being his father's will. It is an open deception of his father, something Max is not at all comfortable with and its exposure opens an emotional rift between the two.3
SLC Punk! features a protagonist much more openly dislikable by mainstream society. A punk rocker and anarchist in 1985 Utah, Stevo's values are frequently directly opposed to the ordered society to which his parents belong, often seeking it's partial or total dismantlement. He rebuffs his parents' advice for living a normal collegiate life, calling them hypocrites for leaving a societal hub of counterculture, for exchanging their ideals for high-salary jobs and expensive cars, for rejecting through the dissolution of their marriage even the very notion that true love can conquer all. In one of the film's most quotable moments Stevo asserts his contrarian lifestyle: “I am the future of this great nation! … I love you guys, don't get me wrong … but for the first time in my life I can say 'Fuck you!'”
When asked by his father why he even bothered to major in pre-law at community college, Stevo replies, “I studied law because I wanted to learn how completely full of shit your life's ambition really is.” Yet Stevo's actions undercut his mission statement of no-rules rule. The very fact that he did attend college is evidence of this and, as his father points out, even if he achieved success by cheating for four straight years, Stevo cared enough about grades and his status in society to desire and receive high marks in all his classes. Becoming conscious of this duality, he thinks to himself:
My dad was right about one thing. Why'd I do so well in school? I didn't want to. I mean, I tried. I tried not to give a shit. I knew it was all bullshit and they were trying to mold me into cannon fodder for their wars. And I knew that meaning lie elsewhere, but somehow I studied. Somehow I got the grades and now somehow I was accepted to a fucking Ivy League school–the last place on the planet for a guy like me. I mean I wouldn't even go there unless it was to set it on fire.
Stevo further muses that when he actively takes part in fighting the local rednecks he is partaking in a hierarchal system that is in essence a scaled-down version of war, creating the same Us versus Them mentality underpinning nationalism, colonialism and the irrational, self-propagating discourse surrounding Edward Said's “The Other.” He recognizes that this is a system very similar to the one he rejects as being antithetical to his anarchist doctrine, admitting he can offer no explanation for this. While actively engaged in a fight he concedes, “Everything has a system, even me. I was following nature; nature is order and order is the system.”
So what happens if a child's alternative value systems collapses?
In Max's case the act of duplicity he was already feeling guilty about is discovered, resulting in an impassioned argument with his father, wherein Max argues that his negative actions come about only in trying to distance himself from his father and grow as a person. Their argument grows so heated that they begin to ignore the physical world around them that the two, along with their car, tumble over a cliff and into a rolling river. Surrounded by water and cut off from any other 'human' influence, Max and Goofy are forced to deal with each other directly:
Goofy: You even lied to me.
Max: I had to! You were ruining my life!
Goofy: I was only tryin' to take my boy fishin', okay?
Max: I'm not your little boy anymore, Dad! I've grown up now! I've got my own life!
Goofy: I know that! I just want to be part of it!
It is at this Max realizes distancing himself from his father is causing as much turmoil in their relationship as Goofy's attempts to forcibly bridge the divide. Father and son then come to a mutual understanding via a stirring musical number we shall address shortly.
Stevo, however, is a bit older. Having graduated from college and now living outside his parents' homes, we get to see his alternative values play out in the larger world. Out with his casual girlfriend Sandy, Stevo runs into a fellow punk from high school named Sean, who has since accidentally overdosed on acid and, thinking his mother to literally be a Satanic monster, attempted to murder her with a kitchen knife. Following a brief incarceration in a psychiatric facility, Sean is now panhandling on the street, “FUCK YOU” scrawled across his torn clothes and incapable of the basic human interaction necessary to support himself. Sandy's immediate advice, to which Stevo readily agrees? “You should get a job.”4 When faced with real hardship, the punks' first instinct is not to thrash the system and take what they need to survive by force, but to accede to that system's structure.
Seeing what can happen to people close to him who follow his same anarchistic doctrine to the extreme, Stevo muses:
“I couldn't even look at the guy. I felt a pain in my stomach. I couldn't take it so I turned my back, just like everybody else … It really fucked me up. Not Sean, but turning my back. Ignoring the truth. So what'd I do? I dropped acid with Sandy in Highland Park as to further ignore the truth.”
Stevo openly admits to running away from the harsher elements of his lifestyle, implying that he might be cognizant of his desire for some of the protections offered by an ordered society. As Stevo's personal relationships begin to crumble, he sarcastically mouths off to his best friend and roommate Bob for falling in love and considering marriage and a family and running a business. “You're a poseur,” Stevo says. “Only poseurs fall in love with girls. You're a poseur.” While he quickly reneges, the thought has been vocalized. Stevo cannot reconcile his own desires with his current lifestyle.
The final death of Stevo's ideology comes with the untimely loss of Bob, at which Stevo expresses denial, grief, guilt, anger and bargaining all in the space of about ninety seconds. He insists, “Only poseur's die,” but this is a clear fallacy in his belief structure and an argument that cannot resurrect Bob. As realization dawns over Stevo, he laments that he has lost his last real friend, muttering simply, “Oh man. Oh jeeze. Oh my God. I wasn't ready for this. I wasn't ready.” It may be quick, but in this short line of dialogue Stevo has completely discarded anarchism, invoking first Man, then in minced-oath Jesus Christ, then finally God.
Stevo's penance as the prodigal son of family and tradition is to shave his perpetually blue, spiky hair down to a Spartan buzz cut for Bob's funeral and don in place of his usual t-shirts and razor blades a mournful, black suit. “If the guy I was then met the guy I am now,” Steve says, “He'd beat the shit out of me.” In the final voiceover he openly repudiates his former values and agrees to return to traditional society5:
So there it was. I was gonna go to Harvard, be a lawyer and play the goddam system … I was my old man. He knew….We were certain that the world was gonna end, but when it didn't I had to do something, so fuck it. That was me: a troublemaker of the future … You can do a lot more damage in the system than from outside of it … I was nothing more than a goddam trendy-ass poseur.
Though Stevo is pushed through only the most begrudging reconciliation with traditional family values, Max comes to terms with his father in a much happier, prototypically Disney fashion. Following their shouting match atop the barely-floating car drifting down river, Max and Goofy sing a duet through which they learn to respect and even admire each other's differences. Max chimes in regarding his father, “Though he seems intoxicated/He's just highly animated,” to which Goofy reciprocates with, “Your moodiness is now and then bewilderin'/And your values may be–so to speak–askew.” Max concedes that his father acts only out of love and he will honor that, while Goofy agrees to respect his son's emotional space and allow him to experience parts of life on his own. Newly reconciled, Max and Goofy have an (assumedly) cherished heart-to-heart between scenes in which Max catches his father up on his teenage angst and the Powerline predicament. Goofy then decides that the only appropriate way to end their ordeal is to get Max onstage at the Powerline concert in L.A. as promised, thereby negating his son's lie to Roxanne and getting Max some sweet, sweet dog lovin'.6
However, before Max can gain any real reward from this new acceptance and openness with his father, he must first be tested to see if he is deserving of his father's boon. Max needs a trial-by-fire. Or waterfall. A trial-by-waterfall. That works too. They're already floating downstream through a canyon, after all. Goofy cements his place as a good father by getting Max to (relative) safety fairly quickly, but Max has to find a way to save his father from tumbling over the falls. With only a fishing poll and tea set floating nearby, Max saves his father by correctly executing the family's secret “perfect cast,” despite how ridiculous it makes him look in the process. The adoption of family tradition over 'looking cool' firmly plants Max's morality back in traditional Disney soil. Alive and safe the loving father-and-son duo can now go break into a stadium, sneak on stage, ruin tens of thousands of dollars worth of electronic equipment and then utilize the perfect cast as an original dance step, bridging old and new generations in mutually destructive and illegal havoc broadcast over national television.
In denouement, Max reveals to the disturbingly nubile Roxanne7 that he does not in fact know Powerline, whereby she informs him that she was instantly attracted to not his faux-suaveness or his looks, but to his hereditary HYUK, the very laughter Max had feared, loathed and attempted to hide from her. This happy Disney ending validates Max's choice of family tradition over contrariness for its own sake, whereas SLC Punk! takes the darker approach of effectively punishing Stevo's reluctance to accept his own parents' values. Though Disney understandably portrays this choice as thoughtful and worthy of praise, and though SLC Punk! rather callously defines parents' values as being akin to the 'lesser of two evils,' both convey the solid warning that values which are old and not well understood by some does not make them necessarily wrong in the long-term. More often than not these values endure because they are things we too will come to believe in time, when we better understand the world and are not immediately terrified of possibly, maybe, slightly, even remotely becoming even a smidge like our parents. But Zeus help me if I turn out anything like my father.
1A small sampling of appropriately aged heterosexual middle-class males seems to indicate that Roxanne is by far one of the most common cartoon characters to give little boys funny feelings for the first time. To my knowledge, however, none of these participants have actually engaged in romantic relationships with real dogs.2
2Sub-footnote: Yes, everyone in the Goof Troop universe is a
dog. Goofy's “raucous laugh” predates his screen debut, but he was in his first appearance credited as “Doofy Dawg.” You see that “W” in “dawg?” Yeah, Walt Disney was a real O.G., son. Word.
dog. Goofy's “raucous laugh” predates his screen debut, but he was in his first appearance credited as “Doofy Dawg.” You see that “W” in “dawg?” Yeah, Walt Disney was a real O.G., son. Word.
3A rift that can only be closed with a car-rafting musical duet.
4Officially the third most parental saying in the English language, right after, “When are you getting a haircut,” and “Ask your mother.”
5So long as he can cause trouble by pissing off judges as a lawyer.
6Remember: they're dogs. Still. This hasn't changed in the last four footnotes.
7Seriously? What's up with that? I haven't been this confused since Clueless. (Paul Rudd is just too awesome. Every man bro-crushes on Paul Rudd.)