Compulsory Fun

April 24, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I don’t want a ‘fun’ beer,” said my father. (This was a long time ago.)

It took me a second, but I realized he was talking about the ad that had just been on the radio. I had mentally tuned out the commercial, background noise between innings in a ball game broadcast, and I was far too young to drink beer. But I knew the jingle (“ . . . blended into one beer / a light, bright, fun beer . . “). I had just never thought about the words. Now my father had pointed out their absurdity. What is a fun beer anyway? More to the cultural point, why must a beer be fun?

In last week’s New Yorker (April 18, here, gated), Yiyun Li has a short piece about her first months in the US as a graduate student in Iowa. What astonished her at first was the lighting -- every place was well lit, and Americans left lights on all the time. That and fun. “Be there or be square,” said the instructional voice on her four-cassette course in American English. The phrase did not turn out to be especially useful.

No one told me to “be there or be square,” but everyone I met, it seemed, expected me to have fun.
Her science adviser (“Have fun”), the nurse she saw regularly because she had not passed the TB skin test (“Have a good time”), and a sorority mother who
asked repeatedly, “Did you have fun?” after I visited the sorority house and dined with her girls.
Cultural help for foreign students also included a midnight to 3 a.m. ride-around in a police cruiser.
In parting, I said goodbye to the officer, and he wished me “a fun time in America.”
Not all cultures think so highly of fun, and I don’t just mean dour dictatorships and theocracies. In France, for example, as people mature into their late teens and beyond, they are supposed to become sérieux. Those stereotypical left-bank students deep in philosophical discussions. But look at the pictures here on US students’ dorm-room doors and on the walls of their rooms and Facebook pages. The dominant value is fun. The snapshots, with their laughter and exuberance and ubiquitous red plastic cups, proclaim the ideal: we are wild and crazy guys.

Fun is a newcomer in the house of American values. I doubt Toqueville had much to say about it. The Google Ngram chart shows fun rising steadily to mid-century, then declining briefly in the 1950s only to zoom in the 1980s.
(Click on the chart for a larger view)

The first academic mention I know of is Martha Wofenstein’s 1951“fun morality” article (in the context of the Ngram chart, it now seems unusually prescient).
A recent development in American culture is the emergence of what we may call “fun morality.” Here fun, from having been suspect if not taboo, has tended to become obligatory. Instead of feeling guilty for having too much fun, one is inclined to feel ashamed if one does not have enough.
It often takes an outsider to see the obvious. I didn’t notice all those fun messages flowing in the media. But Martha Wolfenstein and my father did – they both had come of age in a pre-fun America. Then, forty-five years after Wolfenstein’s article, a Chinese girl arrives in the American heartland.
What a strange country, I thought, where fun, like good lighting, seemed mandatory.

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