Would you pay ÂŁ17.90 for Bubble Planet? Getty Images.

November 28, 2023   5 mins

Kids like pretending to be adults. They give dolls haircuts and make plastic meals in little plastic kitchens. They gawp in wonderment at diggers and bulldozers, then use miniature versions for their own grand construction plans, building imaginary cities where Nimbys don’t exist. They raid parental wardrobes and prance around in huge, David Byrne-esque jackets, or smear makeup on each other like drunk, giggling Cubists.

At some point after the angsty vortex of teenagerdom, this flips around. Kids who want to be adults grow into adults who want to be kids. Many young(ish) professionals in their twenties and thirties are “kidults”: they spend their free time and disposable income on experiences such as Bubble Planet, which opened last weekend in London. This 11-room “immersive experience” is filled with giant pink balloons, bouncy inflatable clouds, a hall of mirrors, and an LSD sheet’s worth of colourful projections.

There’s also Dopamine Land, an “interactive sensory museum” with pillow fights and musical tiles, and Ballie Ballerson, where you drink cocktails and flail in ball pits with other consenting adults. The London Transport Museum, ostensibly aimed at children, has offered evening “Permission to Play” openings for grown-ups. Kidults are also propping up the physical toy industry, particularly at the higher end of the market — £150 water guns and £735 Lego kits are a bit out of reach for pocket money. “Disney adults” dedicated to Mickey and friends are such an established subculture that they’ve got their own gift guides.

The reason why adults might want to pretend to be children is obvious: growing up has turned out to be a trap. Buying a home, particularly in a city, is nigh-on impossible. With so many young people stuck in a cut-throat rental market, or even living with their parents, it’s unsurprising that they’re getting married and having children later, if at all. Why not spend the little income that doesn’t go to your Boomer landlord on tranquillising yourself with nostalgia?

At KidZania, in the Westfield shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush, children can explore a miniature city in which they do work-like activities and earn pretend money called kidZos. The professions on offer skew towards what kids think are cool (pilots and firefighters), and those that uphold KidZania’s state security apparatus (spies, police officers and bank guards). The kind of midrange email jobs which most kids will grow up to do are absent. KidZania has adults-only nights too, where you can put yourself in “the driver’s seat of your dream career”. Adults are playing at being kids playing at being adults, because the grown-up futures they used to act out were so much more hopeful than the ones they got.

Childishness is also rampant in cinema. Marvel’s all-conquering superhero films, numbering 33 and counting, have generated a combined $30 billion at cinemas. The beginnings were inauspicious: the first movie based on a Marvel comic character was 1986’s Howard the Duck, about a duck from outer space. It didn’t do well. Robin Williams voiced Howard for about a week before quitting in disgust. “I can’t do this,” he reportedly said. “I am being handcuffed in order to match the flapping duck’s bill.” But since Iron Man was released in 2008, things have gone rather better, and Marvel has absorbed practically every A-list actor and director into its sprawling, easy-watching empire. (One notable exception is Leonardo DiCaprio, who once warned Timothée Chalamet: “No hard drugs and no superhero movies.”)

After the success of Barbie, the toymaker Mattel is trying to emulate the Marvel empire. We can look forward to Daniel Kaluuya starring as Barney the purple dinosaur; Lena Dunham directing Lily Collins as Polly Pocket; and J.J. Abrams cook up an “emotional and grounded and gritty” take on Hot Wheels, those tiny cars that do loop-the-loops. Mattel executive Kevin McKeon is clear about the intended audience. “We’re leaning into the millennial angst of the property rather than fine-tuning this for kids,” he told The New Yorker, in reference to the Barney project. “It’s really a play for adults.”

Why are so many talented artists debasing themselves like this? It’s not just about money. There has always been money in trashy films. But there used to be some amount of stigma around “serious” people getting involved. The art critic Clement Greenberg, in his 1939 essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch, set out the binary: avant-garde art of all mediums was abstract and hard to understand; kitsch, a product of industrial capitalism, could be gulped down effortlessly. “Kitsch’s enormous profits are a source of temptation to the avant-garde itself,” he wrote, and many ambitious artists “will modify their work under the pressure of kitsch, if they do not succumb to it entirely”. Hence all the discourse around Barbie: did director Greta Gerwig have her pink, frosted cake and eat it, by making a weird, ironic film about a doll, or did she lose by the very fact of making a corporate-sanctioned film at all?

That the critics squabbled over this shows that any remaining stigma about “selling out” is too partial to be effective. The battle has already been won on a different terrain: pop music. In 2004, a New York Times article by Kelefa Sanneh took a stand against “rockism”. “Rockism,” he wrote, “means idolising the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionising punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.” Old dudes who played “real” instruments like guitars did not have a monopoly on quality.

The opposite to rockism is “poptimism”: successful music is often very good, the thinking goes, and should be treated as such. Poptimism has largely taken over music criticism. Pitchfork, a website once synonymous with snooty taste, went from reviewing Kylie Minogue as an April Fool’s joke to putting her in its “Best Songs of the 2000s” list. A lot of pop music, Kylie included, is very good, and it’s good that it can be properly appreciated. Poptimism can also apply to children’s art: for example, the Studio Ghibli cartoons. Plays based on My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away are currently running or scheduled to run in London, thanks to demand from adults as much as kids. And why not, when the works in question are brimming with soul and subtlety?

But poptimism comes with a bias towards celebration rather than critique, which obsessive fans of stars like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift zealously enforce. When one Pitchfork writer only deigned to give Swift’s album Folklore an 8/10, she got death threats. Another poptimist assumption is more sinister: that might is right. If millions of people like something, then who are you to disagree? When anyone, from Martin Scorsese down, suggests that filming people in tights against green screens isn’t the pinnacle of cinema, they get called elitists. It just so happens that going along with this non-elitist conception of quality makes a lot of rich people in Hollywood even richer. People have sleepwalked into arguing that the LA executive is more a man of the people than the struggling indie film director.

There are no kidults without poptimism. You can only jump into a ballpark aged 30 without shame if you’ve been warmed up on Harry Potter reruns. So what’s the alternative? High culture is silly too. Arthouse films generally consist of rich Europeans being sad or poor Europeans being happy. Contemporary art sometimes feels like a practical joke pulled by PhDs on the public.

But at least it preserves your agency. Being a kidult is about more than activities or aesthetics — it is about throwing away responsibility and letting other grown-ups, whether they be events companies or film studios, take control. These grownups are not your parents, and they do not have your best interests at heart. They want your money, and your pliant acceptance of their output.

The subversive beauty of high culture — or simply carving out your own tastes, whatever they are — is that it encourages self-improvement for its own sake. It provides pleasure that is heightened because it is difficult and demands effort. (And gives you a bit of cultural capital to flaunt at friends who might have more money than you.) So stop listening to mum and dad, because you’re an adult with a self to form.

Josiah Gogarty is assistant editor at The Knowledge, an email news digest, and a freelance writer elsewhere.