The Queer Child, or Growing Up Sideways in the Twentieth Century by Kathryn Bond Stockton
In The Queer Child, Stockton sets out to illuminate representations of queer children, both those that are explicit and also those ghosted in the backgrounds and margins of Western texts and films spanning the last century. Given the breadth of her exploration Stockton relies on an antiquated definition of ‘queer’ as weird and strange. She derives the book’s subtitle and one of its central constructs from the word’s 16th century German origins: quer, meaning “across, at a right angle, diagonally or transverse.”
In her introduction Stockton examines how our concept of the modern child has been depicted in literature and informed by historical incidents, such as the inception of child labor laws and the Mary Ellen Affair, which created the first laws against child abuse after a social worker successfully prosecuted abusive parents by arguing that children were protected by the law that prevented cruelty to animals. Stockton also points to the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case In re Gault, which raised the question of whether or not children should be treated as equal to “people.” Stockton writes, “The child is…defined as a kind of legal strangeness. It is a body said to need protections more than freedoms. And it is a creature who cannot consent to its sexual pleasure, or divorce its parents, or design its education—at least not by law.”
Stockton lays out how the child has moved from a nonentity, not even worthy of protections against abuse, into a romanticized, enforced innocence. This innocence can only fall away when adult society permits it to, through various milestones referred to as “growing up.” Stockton contends that the phrase “growing up” implies an upward, teleological movement: the “average” or “normal” (read as future heterosexual) child will “grow up” through various events (puberty, first dates, proms, etc.) that eventually see the child arriving at adulthood, where the growing ends: the adult is married and produces children of its own. Given how heteronormative “growing up” is, how does the queer child fit into this ascension? Stockton asserts that it does not.
The queer child lives outside of our culture’s paradigm of childhood because queerness is so married to presumptions of subversive sexuality that it’s severely problematic to apply the term to children, who are not allowed to consent to sexual pleasure, let alone pleasure that is seen as subversive. “Growing sideways” is Stockton’s analogue for queer children, who given their abject nature, are unable to “grow up.” According to Stockton, a queer grows sideways due to a myriad of factors, such as their ethnicity, their relationships with dogs and pedophiles, or even their lust for candy. Stockton’s outline of the evolution of the present delineation of childhood is engaging and insightful, but the actual meat of her book, the ways in which Stockton chronicles “growing sideways” are sometimes tenuous.
In a close reading of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Stockton provides an example of this sideways growth, one that revolves around “canine connections, making animal/child bondings, especially for girls attracted to girls, an outlet for feelings they long to express.” Stockton gloms onto the scant references to the dog that belongs to Mrs. Dalloway’s daughter in an attempt to paint “the dog as delay—the dog as pause—marking Elizabeth’s space for suspension and lateral movement on the threshold of adulthood…an ally in schemes of resistance.” Stockton holds that in certain literary works, the girl/dog relationship is a way for the child to hold on to her childhood and thus delay growing up, but the concept itself seems tangential and questionable.
Sometimes a dog is just a dog. While reading this I couldn’t help but think that the trope of the tomboy would provide a much stronger subject in regards to the lesbian child pushing against growing up. The late Southern writer Carson McCuller’s body of work is populated with such girls. In McCuller’s short story “Like That” the narrator refuses to grow up. She proclaims she wouldn’t wear stockings or lipstick if you paid her a hundred dollars, doesn’t want to be hurt by a man like her sister has, and when her schoolmates start to talk about getting married, she gets up to play basketball. The narrator of McCuller’s story blatantly refuses to grow into the heterosexual strictures and rigid gender roles society has prescribed for her and by comparison the girl-dog relationship seems overly subtle.
Much stronger than Stockton’s theories on girls and animals is her discussion of how ethnicity can queer a child. Stockton offers a novel reading of the films Six Degrees of Separation, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and its racially reversed 2005 remake Guess Who. In each of these films a child is seeking a way into a family of a differing ethnicity than his own. Stockton conjectures that the child in these situations is a child birthed backwards. Because of its strangeness the child doesn’t start out as a child, but as a ‘queer.’ Stockton writes, “the black male protagonist seeks the approval of a white father—seeks to be his son—through different sets of knotted and strange deliberations…in each film, the child-intruder (a child queered by color) yearns to be Oedipalized to a white man…”
An interesting facet of Stockton’s reading of these films is how the “child-intruder” forces the seemingly liberal parents to actually become the liberals they fancy themselves to be. It’s easy to espouse liberal beliefs, to chat about support for interracial marriage and accept the notion of homosexuality until it arrives in your living room, posing a palpable challenge to previously stated philosophies. As Stockton explains, “The parents…are truly becoming who they have not been, since, until now, no one has helped them be their words. Theirs is thus an analogue, in temporal terms, to Lacanian (mis)recognition in the mirror: what sits between them and themselves is time, rendered by a queer child who gets inside their image.”
Overall The Queer Child doesn’t offer much new insight into depictions of queer children. Too often Stockton focuses on the minutia of inopportune literary sources in the crafting of her theories instead of turning her attentions to more rich and solid sources. Stockton’s book leads off a strong overview of the subject but misfires repeatedly when it attempts to formulate fresh theories.
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