Act Your Age

Swapping bodies, swapping ages, and re-inventing youth

Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey
Still from Pen15, a television show
Still from PEN15. Courtesy Hulu.

In the spring of 1877, a bored Cambridge University student started writing a story we’ve been retelling ever since. It began soon after Christmas, in the home of London merchant and unfeeling father Paul Bultitude. Desperate to send his son Dick back to the boarding school Dick despises after the holiday, Paul argues that school is the best time of life. “I only wish, at this very moment, I could be a boy again, like you,” he lies. And then—due to a series of unforeseen circumstances involving a magical Indian wishing stone—his wish is promptly granted. Father and son swap bodies, and the ancestor of the Freaky Friday plot was born.

That basic premise—adults and kids switching bodies—has been an often popular, usually absurd mainstay in books and films ever since, but it has changed meaningfully over time. Freaky, in which Vince Vaughn plays a serial killer who swaps bodies with a teenage girl, is only the latest entry in the nearly 150-year-old genre. It joins several other recent films and shows in updating that plot, including PEN15, which stars two thirty-three-year-old women who play seventh graders. Things are, it seems, getting a little out of order. Taken all together, the recent crop of inversion stories reflects just how much the body-swap’s traditional notions of adulthood have disintegrated—especially for its millennial and Gen Z characters and viewers.

These kinds of switcheroos descend from the novel that Cambridge student—Thomas Anstey Guthrie, under the name F. Anstey—wrote, Vice Versâ; or, A Lesson to Fathers. The book popularized the age-bending body-swap and defined its chief concerns. Most kids become adults slowly. Age-bending body-swaps are tales of kids who become adults suddenly, by magic, and adults who do the opposite. They are stories about the differences between children and adults and what it means when one becomes the other. Childhood and adulthood, though, are ever-changing ideas. And for the past century, new versions of that body-swap plot have tracked those changes like an ice core—one that begins in late nineteenth-century England, runs to Freaky and PEN15, and reveals how our understanding of growing up has altered and, lately, collapsed.

In Vice Versâ, Paul Bultitude becomes his son and is sent to school. Dick becomes his father and happily remains in London to enjoy his newfound wealth and unsettle his colleagues. The book is all comic schadenfreude. Paul swiftly realizes that he was mistaken about the joys of boyhood: the school’s headmaster (the subtly named Dr. Grimstone) is a committed sadist. Dick’s classmates find Paul insufferably pretentious (he is), and, gruelingly, he begins to empathize with his son. Five years after Anstey began writing, a publisher bought the book for fifty pounds.

It was an instant bestseller. “Nothing could have prepared me for so immediate and striking a success as Vice Versâ obtained,” Anstey wrote. He became a wildly popular figure in British letters. “If there ever was a book … in the reading of which a sober man may laugh without shame from beginning to end, it is the new book called ‘Vice Versâ; or, A Lesson to Fathers,’” The Saturday Review gushed. “We close the book, recommending it very earnestly to all fathers, in the first instance, and their sons, nephews, uncles and male cousins next.” Adults of all stripes thrilled to read Anstey’s book. Royalty read it. Even Anthony Trollope read it; he was reading it aloud with his family when he laughed so hard that he had the stroke from which he eventually died.

Stories about transformations were nothing new in Anstey’s day, but he popularized the sort of transformation plot in which children and parents exchange bodies across an axis of age. Vice Versâ depended on a clear sense of that axis, and Anstey got it from an ascendant set of Romantic ideas about childhood. Even a century earlier, Paul’s notion that school was the “very happiest time of … life” would have struck many as strange, both because childhood was not often so uniquely regarded and because work (rather than school) defined childhood for many. Victorians responding to the ravages of industrial growth worked to elevate the status of childhood in the nineteenth century. They thought of it as a time of rare goodness and innocence, worthy not just of protection but also of lifelong engagement. The rise of compulsory schooling in England in the late nineteenth century further entrenched its distinction as a phase of life. “It became almost a duty to stay in touch with childhood,” Hugh Cunningham writes of the Romantic turn in his social history The Invention of Childhood, “to remember as an adult what it felt like to be a child.”

Anstey’s comedy was a kind of social commentary on those themes, a way of metabolizing changes in the world and in the boundaries of age. It descended from the topsy-turvy style of early modern European festivals like Carnival, in which outlandish role-swapping was essential to the celebrations. According to the historian Peter Burke, these inversion rituals functioned as part of a “safety-valve” for rigidly hierarchical societies—subversive, but usually only to a point. To flip something upside down makes clear what right side up is meant to look like. Vice Versâ arrived in a topsy-turvy England marked by the sweeping changes of industrialization and liberalizing political reform that reshaped childhood and adulthood alike. One way to read Vice Versâ, then, is that a thirteen-year old boy wielding a magical talisman taken from a British colony rips a successful man from his domain and forces him, in the book’s words, to try and “regain … his rights.”

The world was upside down. It must have been satisfying, then, to see it set right again. At the end of Vice Versâ, Paul Bultitude is back in body and power, renewed. “Mr. Bultitude would never after this consider his family as a set of troublesome and thankless incumbrances,” Anstey writes at the book’s Dickensian close.

A hit in England, Vice Versâ spread to America. A century later, filmmakers were still riffing on it. Vice Versâ’s most famous descendant in American culture is probably Mary Rodgers’s 1972 novel Freaky Friday (and its numerous film adaptations) which shares Anstey’s penchant for meaningful alliteration but broadens his plot to include mothers and daughters dealing with problems once reserved for fathers and sons. The first Freaky Friday film premiered in 1976; the body-swap genre would grow and morph throughout the subsequent decade. By the late 1980s, the plot was so popular in Hollywood that there were multiple body-swaps released in the span of one year. Roger Ebert called this procession of films the “Body-Exchange Sweepstakes.” Two of the most enduring were yet another adaptation of Vice Versa and the massively successful Big.

In Anstey’s book, the child’s adult life is mostly out of view, but we eventually learn that the younger Bultitude’s time as an adult has gone as poorly as you might expect—towards the end, his health and business are largely in shambles. But in the eighties films, the man-children prove uncommonly talented at adulthood precisely because they’re children. In Big, Tom Hanks plays Josh, a child in an adult’s body who finds entry-level work at a toy company and swiftly rises to become its vice president. In the updated 1988 Vice Versa, Judge Reinhold plays Marshall, a divorced father and executive at a major department store who switches bodies with his son Charlie. Charlie succeeds improbably in the office, and then, in a head-spinning twist, proposes to his father’s girlfriend right before changing back to his kid self. She says yes. “Sure feels good to be 11 again,” he tells his dad. “And you must be glad to be … how old are you?” “Younger than I used to be, kid,” his newly engaged father replies, smiling.

The lesson of those eighties-era body-swaps is not, like Anstey’s, to empathize with young people; it is that adults should be like children in all ways. This focus on kids was good business in the eighties. E.T., a sentimental film about a wonder-filled child navigating a confusing adult world, was the top-grossing film of the decade. Look Who’s Talking, a film about a newborn baby voiced by Bruce Willis, was not too far behind. The eighties were a time of rampant anxieties about children, which often took the form of moral panics about childhood cut short: the wave of preschool molestation allegations, the concern about Dungeons & Dragons corrupting kids, the fears that mass consumer culture forced children to grow up too soon. “The idea of childhood,” social critic Neil Postman wrote in a polemic early that decade, “is disappearing, and at dazzling speed.” Big and Vice Versa dreamed of kids being safely returned to that vanishing kingdom, and the adult world with them.

Three decades later, we are in the middle of a minor revival of those body-exchange sweepstakes, now with a distinctly millennial—and, more recently, Gen Z—bent that reveals the deeper meaning of Anstey’s plot and demonstrates that its notion of adulthood has faded. Even before Freaky, 2019 saw body-swaps Shazam!, about a boy who can become a super-powered man by saying the film’s title; and Little, about thirty-eight-year-old Jordan Sanders, a Black entrepreneur who is a bully as a boss until she is changed into her thirteen-year-old self as punishment. As in Big, Sanders is the only character undergoing a magical transformation, but as in Vice Versâ, she has to let a younger surrogate replace her at work. She does not swap with a child though. Instead, Sanders must allow her long-suffering assistant, April, to serve as interim boss. This is April’s chance to grow up too: not by reconnecting with childhood but by actually experiencing an overdue adulthood. In this way, she’s neither a child nor, really, an adult. She presents, instead, as a stereotypical millennial.

Millennials muddle the world of the body-swap—and maybe the world outside the body-swap too. Millennials are wont to be dismissed for living a sort of permanent, entitled childhood. Recall the backlash the Obama administration unleashed when it tried to get young people to sign up for health insurance with an ad featuring a pajama-clad twenty-something, swiftly nicknamed “Pajama Boy.” “He is the picture of perpetual adolescence,” fumed Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review. “Hey girl, I live with my parents,” one right-wing meme-maker wrote on the picture.

Actually, about 14 percent of millennials do live with their parents. As of 2014, it was the most common living situation for Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. And during the early months of the U.S. COVID-19 pandemic, nearly three million adults—mostly members of Gen Z or younger millennials—moved in with their parents or grandparents. In part, that’s because millennials form the largest share of the American workforce and yet possess just 4.6 percent of the country’s national wealth. And that is where the basis for Lowry’s condescension unravels: a generation that takes on astronomical student debt to enter an economy recently wracked by two historic recessions (to say nothing of rising home prices) is a generation largely unable to attain the traditional status markers of adulthood, left—through no fault of its own—in a Vice Versâ where the transformation is never undone. In short, many younger adults live in the world of PEN15.

PEN15 follows two best friends, Maya and Anna, as they navigate the frequent indignities and occasional triumphs of seventh grade back in 2000, a year when many millennials actually lived them. Lead actresses Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle are both thirty-three-year-olds playing versions of their seventh-grade selves opposite actual middle schoolers, sometimes blending seamlessly, sometimes sticking out awkwardly the way middle schoolers often do. This casting is never explained. Likewise, PEN15 toys with the passage of dramatic time. Maya and Anna are there in a kind of goofy purgatory, always coming of age, yet somehow never grown: season one opens with the start of seventh grade. In the show’s second season, Maya and Anna are still in seventh grade. “The idea,” Erskine told Vulture, “is you never get to leave this place.”

You never get to leave: PEN15’s swap is a key part of the show but not of its story. Like the older body-swaps, the show is still about growing up, and it’s still nostalgic for childhood. But it no longer treats youth as a foreign terrain. Instead, it suggests that the past never really leaves us, so growing up is not a radical departure after all, just one very long continuum between youth and an increasingly out-of-reach notion of adulthood. Erskine remembers thinking of the idea for the show with Konkle after going to a party together and wondering, “How am I still dealing with the same insecurities I had when I was 13?” It’s a coming of age, then a staying.

Maybe age was the wrong axis after all. The Victorians separated childhood from adulthood, in part to keep children from the painful realities of industrialized adulthood—brutal factory labor and debilitating poverty among them. By Freaky’s release in 2020, the adults on offer include a police officer who lives at home with her widowed, alcoholic mother and a middle-aged homicidal maniac. Why does this plot endure? Not because childhood is better than adulthood, but because it’s the long shadow of it: the place adults project their fears about what life demands. Kindness, empathy, imagination, hopefulness, openness—body-swapped adults re-learn these qualities by becoming children again. And that’s not because these are childish attributes but because they are the qualities many people had once and lost somewhere along the way in a society that seemed not to value them.

The old body-swap doesn’t quite work anymore. The new one looks more like never quite growing up—maybe because you cannot afford to buy your own place, or to have health insurance, or to have children. Or maybe because our own topsy-turvy world has so muddied the border that it would not be clear what there is to gain in a crossing. In Washington, a childish, senescent president ordered migrant children locked in cages. In Nashville, six teenagers too young to vote began a protest thousands strong after George Floyd was killed.

Kids acting like adults, adults acting like children. It doesn’t take a wishing stone or a topsy-turvy Carnival: only the nagging sense that nobody quite acts their age.

Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey produces The Last Archive at Pushkin Industries. His essays have appeared in Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, and other publications.
Originally published:
December 21, 2020


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