The Revolt Against Authority
We are experiencing a society-wide rebellion not only against parental authority, but against the ultimate authority that is reality.
As my thoughts began to coalesce around the subject of this essay–adolescents in history rebelling against their parents–memories of an old movie from my childhood kept coming to mind. Even readers who haven’t seen it have probably heard the name–Gidget, a low-budget California beach movie starring Sandra Dee, James Darren and Cliff Robertson. It was released in 1959 and spawned two film sequels, two TV series, and several made-for-television movies. In early December of last year, I tracked down the original Gidget on YouTube and watched it again–some 50 years after I’d first seen it.
The title character’s obsession with surfing, and her transformation from tomboy to infatuated teenager and finally to wise young woman don’t concern me here. It’s the subplot focusing on two other characters that resonates with my subject matter. Kahuna, a man somewhere in his late 20s or early 30s, lives in a shack at the edge of a surfing beach. After serving as a pilot during the Korean War, he has decided to drop out of society and live as a bum, following the sun and traveling the world in search of waves. His only true companion is a parrot named Flyboy, although the gang of teenage surfer boys who hang around him that summer look up to Kahuna as their leader.
One of those surfers, nicknamed Moondoggie, is home for the summer after his freshman year at college; he has resolved to drop out instead of returning to campus in the fall, team up with his hero Kahuna, and pursue the life of a beach bum. Both men have rejected the rules-driven adult world. Neither wants the responsibility that comes with adulthood, viewing it as a kind of prison. In a gesture of defiance, Moondoggie tears up the allowance check he has received from his father and vows to go it alone.
In 1959 when this film was released, Western Civilization was on the verge of major social upheaval as youth culture began challenging long-standing social norms about sexuality, marriage, and family. But there on the cusp of this revolution, Gidget’s world seems confident that the generation of young people coming of age will eventually submit to the values of their parents. At the outset, Moondoggie and Kahuna are both adolescents rejecting the authority of the existing social order; but in the end, they embrace it. Kahuna gets a job as a pilot. Before returning to college, Moondoggie gives Gidget his pin, a promise of future marriage and a new generation of children to come.
Adolescents rebelling against the authority embodied in an existing social order and eventually becoming reconciled to it—this is a story we’ve been telling for generations.
By identifying as “trans” in today’s youth culture, adolescent rebellion has found a new way to express itself. I don’t want to be simplistic about the society-wide dynamics here. There are other obvious factors involved: a permissive social order in which it’s hard to find any behavior extreme enough to count as true rebellion, for example, and a social media landscape that makes teens feel insecure, insignificant, and desperate to prove they’re unique. But here I want to talk about the way a rebellion against authority can fuel trans-identification in our children.
My 16-year-old client Sophia, for example, had given her parents no trouble as a younger girl. For most of her childhood, she’d been a respectful daughter and a good student. Because her family had moved around quite a bit due to her father’s shifting business, she hadn’t made close friends and rarely socialized outside the family. Her mother had always taken an active interest in Sophia’s schoolwork and athletics. And then one day, Sophia announced that she was trans, told them she wanted to be called Finn, and insisted that her parents use he/him pronouns.
I’ve had other female clients with a nearly identical background, and I’ve heard similar stories from other parents who’ve consulted me about their trans-identified teens. The announcement often comes out of the blue following a mostly non-conflictual childhood, causing a lot of angst and opening a rift between child and parents. Nothing the parents say–no evidence they bring or logic they apply–makes any difference. The child rejects it all from a place of absolute certainty. “I know I’m trans,” they’ll say. “I’ve always known it.”
These children have often been a bit different from the other kids, struggling to fit in. Maybe they were highly gifted or on the autism spectrum. They might just have been “quirky” and beloved for it by their parents. But especially during the teen years, the need to belong to one’s peer group overrides almost everything else; and as American teens have done for generations, these quirky kids reject the values of their parents for new ones held by other kids their own age, especially as they pertain to sex and gender.
Back in the 1970s, Goth became the dominant form of youth rebellion. The Goth scene rejected traditional sexual mores while celebrating new and occasionally deviant forms of sexuality. There are obvious similarities between that movement and today’s transgenderism. Dr. Az Hakeem, a British psychiatrist with extensive experience treating gender distress, has actually referred to Trans as “Goth 2.0.”
The main difference between the two is obvious, however: teens and young adults immersed in Goth might have pierced or tattooed their limbs, but they didn’t have healthy body parts removed by surgeons. They no doubt consumed illicit drugs, but not off-label anti-cancer medications and cross-sex hormones that may leave them sterile. Once they grew out of Goth, young adults were probably left with a few embarrassing tattoos or piercings but no other visible scars, unlike detransitioners today who may be scarred for life.
Contempt for parents often plays a role in youth rebellion, be it mild or toxic. Back in Gidget’s day, the kids were hip while the adults holding onto their old-fashioned ways were square and not at all with it. Today, moms and dads who quaintly cling to the duality of biological sex are clueless about the multiplicity of possible genders; if they refuse to affirm their child’s new identity, insisting it’s impossible to change from one sex to another, they’re deemed transphobic and therefore unworthy of respect. Most of the trans-identified teens I see in my practice feel and express utter contempt for their mothers and fathers. Two of them will turn 18 within the next six months; they both regard their parents with scorn and intend to have no further contact after coming of legal age.
Behind the contempt, I sense a lot of terror about impending adulthood. The teens in my practice look forward to their medicalized transition as if it will be a major accomplishment, more significant than anything else they’ll ever do, but they have little understanding about how to lead a responsible adult life. I often say to my young clients that transition is not an achievement: they still have to figure out what career they’d like to pursue, and how to make enough money to support the lifestyle they want. One of these clients poo-poos the very idea of earning money and insists she’ll live in a camper van, free from responsibility. Another imagines devoting her life to collecting vintage motorcycles, believing that about $30K per year is all she’ll need. None of them ever imagines having children or building a family, much less planning ahead for retirement. They have a narrow vision of their own future that seems to go no further than attaining the freedom to start taking cross-sex hormones.
In this sense they remind me of Kahuna and Moondoggie, those two characters from Gidget in flight from the responsibilities of adulthood. While my clients apparently look forward to escaping their parents’ control and attaining the legal right to make their own choices, they don’t really want the responsibilities that go along with such freedom. On some level, they see transition as an escape from the dreaded reality of adulthood, a triumph over the tedious world of facts, financial obligations, and inevitable limits.
There’s another classic film you might know, The Graduate, directed by the brilliant Mike Nichols. Benjamin Braddock, the main character, spends most of the movie rebelling against the limitations and responsibilities imposed by the real world, the world of his stodgy parents; at the end, after he has relentlessly pursued young Elaine and disrupted her more-or-less forced marriage to another man, the two run off, she still in her wedding gown, and escape on board a city bus. The final shot shows realization slowly dawning upon them, their facial expressions collapsing from elation into dread.
Now what are we going to do?
At the close of The Graduate, Benjamin and Elaine realize that however fun and even exciting it might be to rebel against their parents, at the end of the day, they’ve achieved nothing beyond wrecking their families; in the aftermath, they’ll have to pick up the pieces and make a life for themselves in the real world. You can’t outrun reality, of course. It will always prevail in the end. In a softer way, you see Moondoggie and Kahuna coming to this realization at the end of Gidget.
For millennia, parental authority has been the primary means of transmitting a culture’s values: parents teach their children to abide by standards embodied in their culture, and the world-at-large has almost always supported the parents in exercising that role … at least until now. Honor thy father and thy mother says the Fifth Commandment; today, children learn that if Mom and Dad won’t affirm their new identity and use the designated pronouns, they should cut off those parents and embrace a new glitter family online. In California, a state court deprived Adam Vena of visitation rights because he wouldn’t affirm his four-year-old son’s new gender identity. The modern world often undermines parental authority when it takes a stand against gender ideology.
By severing ties between parent and child, a cult does the same thing; it appropriates parental authority onto itself as a way to bind members more tightly to the group. The votaries of gender ideology likewise subvert parents, replacing their guidance with cultish dogma. A great many influential forces today promote this dogma, from primary education to medical boards to professional associations–a society-wide rebellion against parental authority and, I would add, against the ultimate authority that is reality.
Every parent I’ve consulted with has felt helpless in the face of this phenomenon. Based on their love and better knowledge of their own children, they believe they know what’s best for those kids but feel unable to wield authority as parents to guide them. In my own case, when I insisted there were obvious psychological reasons why my daughter might have wanted to become a boy, I was treated with contempt by the medical establishment and colleagues in my profession. Meanwhile, all around my daughter, every influential voice in her world told her that I, her father, was wrong.
But I also believe that we, as parents, bear some responsibility for the erosion of our own authority. Many mothers and fathers today seem uncomfortable with the very idea of parental authority, preferring to be buddies with their kids rather than authority figures. Maybe we don’t want to be viewed as square or stodgy, droning on about antiquated notions like taking personal responsibility and showing respect for your elders. I remember the slight feeling of shock and discomfort I felt upon first hearing myself say the words “because I said so!” to my own kids. Why should I have felt so uneasy when exerting myself as the adult in charge and expecting my children to mind me?
Writing for The Atlantic, the psychologist Joshua Coleman says that family ties have shifted over the last century from a focus on duty and obligation to one promoting personal growth and the pursuit of fulfillment. He quotes the historian Stephanie Coontz, who says: “For most of history, family relationships were based on mutual obligations rather than on mutual understanding. Parents or children might reproach the other for failing to honor/acknowledge their duty, but the idea that a relative could be faulted for failing to honor/acknowledge one’s ‘identity’ would have been incomprehensible.” In our youth-driven culture, words like duty, obligation and authority sound almost quaint. Today there seems to be no valid authority outside of one’s personal “lived experience.”
What’s to be done? How are we as parents to regain authority and prevent our children from permanently damaging their bodies when a cultish ideology encourages them to do so? This is the question every parent of a trans-identified child would like to ask, I imagine, and I wish I had a simple answer. The longer I work in this field, the more I feel that gender ideology must be questioned in every area where it dominates; only if we loosen gender ideology’s stranglehold on our cultural institutions can we hope to return parental authority to its rightful place. Get involved in the pushback–that’s my advice to parents. Run for your school board, get to know your local politicians, challenge this new orthodoxy wherever you see it. Don’t play the pronoun game.
I’d also like to say something in particular about fathers. As a father myself, I’m concerned with specifically paternal sources of authority: What is the role of fathers in helping our families to navigate this crisis? Does paternal authority differ in any important ways from maternal authority? And where are all the fathers, anyway? I’ve had a few joint consultations with both parents of a trans-identified child but it’s invariably the wife who does the talking. More often, I have consultations with the mothers alone. I sometimes wonder whether empathic, nurturing mothers are so desperate to maintain contact with their children that they won’t or can’t draw a firmer line. Perhaps the fathers, by deferring to their wife’s lead, have failed to mount a more vigorous defense of reality.
Could that be a paternal function? I honestly don’t know. I think of Chris Elston–better known as Billboard Chris–who addressed himself to Rachel Levine on Twitter, saying that puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones would be normalized for children “over my dead body.” Is that an implicit threat of violence? As fathers, do we need to take a more aggressive stance?
I’m prepared to be told that I’m just projecting here, or possibly overgeneralizing. Questions about my exercise of paternal authority within my own family–or my failure to exercise it properly–are on my mind a lot these days. With the modern world the way it is, it sometimes seems as if there’s nothing that even an authoritative and loving father can do. I often feel helpless and without any real power, an ineffectual if well-intentioned dad.
Which brings me back to Gidget. We’re all familiar with the bumbling father motif in television and commercials today–the clueless man set right by his clever wife and children. Al Bundy, Homer Simpson, Ray Barone. I used to think this was a more recent phenomenon but there it was in a movie from 1959. Gidget’s dad seems constantly baffled by his daughter’s behavior, issuing hasty pronouncements that are promptly undermined or ignored by his wife and child. He wears an expression of near constant bewilderment. It’s up to the two women in his world to set him on the right path.
I dug a little deeper and learned that father figures from 1950s sitcoms like “Make Room for Daddy,” “My Little Margie,” and “Life with Father” typically tended to be hapless buffoons. As a culture, we’ve been ridiculing the very notion of paternal authority for decades. Even the series title for “Father Knows Best” was originally intended to have a question mark at the end, to make it ironic and thereby underscore the well-known reality that mothers were the real heads of households. My friend the historian Peter Filene tells me that this belittling of fathers goes even further back–to the 1920s when comic strips began depicting men as shorter than their wives.
Then there’s the classic teen rebellion movie Rebel Without a Cause from 1955, with James Dean playing the main character Jim Stark. Jim’s father, overshadowed by his domineering wife, is a weak man unable to wield any kind of authority. In one famous scene, Jim comes upon his dad kneeling on the upstairs landing of their home wearing a frilly apron. Dad has dropped a dinner tray he prepared for “mom” and is cleaning up after himself, obviously fearful that his wife will discover the mess he’s made. Jim clearly wants and needs his father to stand tall and stop humiliating himself.
This might sound like I’m blaming women for usurping authority from their husbands by belittling them, but that’s not what I believe. I think it’s a society-wide problem where, for more than a century now, the force of paternal authority has been undermined through ridicule and mockery. In recent years, our ongoing critique of the “patriarchy” often makes it seem as if all sources of power and authority exercised by men are inevitably bad.
In Totem and Taboo written back in 1913, Freud opined that fathers embody the symbolic order of society, law, and external reality; they set boundaries, establish rules, and help their children to navigate the external world by introducing principles of discipline and order. A lot has changed in the last hundred or so years, and even to my ears, Freud’s view sounds quaint and out of date. Besides, how can you maintain rules and boundaries when the external world will only encourage your children to violate them?
But still, I cling to the belief that there’s an important and distinctive role for fathers to play in fighting this gender madness, even if I can’t yet define it. If you’re a father who’d like to discuss this issue, I invite you to reach out, in confidence and at no charge.
You can contact me at: joeburgo at gmail.com
Reality’s Last Stand is 100% reader-supported. If you enjoyed this article, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription or making a recurring or one-time donation below. Your support is greatly appreciated.