Hijacked bodies. How do adults construct a child?
In the narratives created by the contemporary Western media, both image and the very concept of a child are becoming increasingly distorted. They are strongly affected by conflicting images produced by the media which objectify, sexualise and traumatise the perception of children’s bodies. The images of Malala Yousafzai clash with these of almost dehumanised child pageant contestants and child supermodels striking provocative poses. Mainstream news channels present footages of child soldiers, while Vogue releases photo sessions of little girls stylised as femmes fatales, with captions that read cadeaux – little presents.
The concept of a child and childhood is probably one of the most fluid and difficult to define out of all cultural ideas. This problem has been reflected by literature: there has always been a clear dominance of focus on woman/man (rather than girl/boy) representations. The very category of childhood has been developed relatively lately in literature: the idea of a “child” has only widely emerged in the 19th century literature, and before the 17th century the amount of books produced specifically for children was close to none. The narratives referring to childhood have been mainly created for purely functional reasons: they were shaped mostly by ideological and didactical purposes. After all, it has always been the adult voices that spoke of, about, and in the name of children. It’s hardly possible to undervalue the role played by the adult perception in creating the very notion of childhood.
An image and the very concept of a child in the Western media seem increasingly distorted. However, it is necessary to discuss this phenomenon from the wider perspective: as mentioned before, the idea of childhood has never been as clearly defined in culture as the ideas of manhood and womanhood, which, although also were subject to change in different places or time periods, were relatively consistent over time in comparison to those of children and childhood. The idea of a child was prone to change many times over time due to both cultural shifts and for purely practical reasons, such as life expectancy, which for the majority of our history did not allow a prolonged period of life without social and economical responsibilities.
However, in today’s world of Western media culture, we are experiencing an interesting confusion of various images and ideas of childhood accumulated through the past two centuries of the development of our understanding and conceptualising the child.
Today’s culture is struggling, possibly more than ever before, with two contradictory approaches to children and childhood – and it could be argued that both of these approaches are more closely linked to children’s bodies than to their intellectual and emotional capacities. On one hand, the perception of children is strongly affected by conflicting images produced by the media which objectify, sexualise and traumatise the perception of children’s bodies. On the other, we are witnessing an omnipresent and overwhelming celebration and desire for youth and for everlasting childhood, which results in desperate efforts to capture and prolong the period of preadolescence in the way we look and behave, leading to fetishisation of childhood.
These contradictory ideas are very clearly visible in the media: children are expected to grow up without growing up, and the idea of childhood has become somewhat translated into a set of conflicting images from very different orders.
The notion of an ideal, innocent child has been introduced to the Western culture as a Victorian middle-class fantasy and has not been a mainstream idea before. Quite the opposite, from the Enlightenment onwards, children were perceived as evil-natured and in dire need for rigorous discipline – which was considered the only way to replace the natural state of sin with goodness and ability to form moral judgments.
However, even during the Romantic times, the notion of children’s innocence was accompanied by a great deal of ambivalence. As Raymond Chapman points out, ‘children were liable to lose their innocence very easily and needed to be protected against the world and against their own propensity towards evil. This was especially for girls, for whom one false step could be social disaster as well as spiritual peril’. Louise Jackson on the other hand recalls the Victorian innocent child’s counterpart, a delinquent child. This term, coined in the early 19th century, referred to juvenile offenders, street children and semi-criminals, impossible to fit the idealized concept of childhood innocence the adults fantasized about. Another clash of ideas would occur on the field of children’s sexuality – although adults were keen to portray and perceive children as innocent and pure, it was also not uncommon to sexualize them from a very young age. In 1800s, carnal knowledge of a girl as young as 10 was a misdemeanour only, and it would be punished even less severely if her moral integrity could be questioned. Many sources also draw attention to child prostitution being commonplace in 19th century Europe (especially England) – which stands in stark contrast to the fantasy of a child as an ideal, almost angelic creature.
The difficulty in defining children and childhood, along with this very confusing split in conceptualising children and their bodies, has, especially most recently, echoed in the themes that appear in literature for young readers and featuring children and young adults. Many of the books emerged as a direct response to the confusion created in the popular discourse, as it was with immensely popular Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, or Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies. Both of these book series scrutinise and highlight the dangers emerging from our culture that increasingly warp our perceptions of children’s physicality. Another issue frequently tackled by these and other similar novels is the problem of the adult culture and the adult universe of discourse ‘claiming’ children’s bodies as their own – to name such titles as Victora Aveyard’s The Red Queen, Selection by Kiera Cass, or Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. It is also worth mentioning that such issues as race, disability or sexual orientation still do not appear in literature about and for children and youth frequently, and they often tend to be marginalised and not taken very seriously.
The problem of children’s bodies as a beauty battlefield is the main subject of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, where children are socialised to perceive their own looks as ugly and unattractive. In the world imagined by Westerfeld the only socially acceptable appearance can be achieved by a series of highly invasive surgical procedures, performed on the day of one’s sixteenth birthday. The scientifically defined idea of beauty is imprinted into children’s minds from the young age, prompting them to consider themselves less valuable as human beings until undergoing the surgery – and it should be mentioned that the procedure is compulsory.
Although Westerfeld’s novel takes this idea to the extreme, it is not as far from our reality as we would like to imagine. Mini beauty pageants are causing a great deal of controversy in the U.S. and Britain, but still, they are getting increasingly popular. According to The Guardian, fifteen years ago there were no child beauty pageants in Britain – today, there are over 20 of them held annually, and many of them do not allow the contestants to be over 12 years old. One of the contestants interviewed by The Guardian journalist is a seven year old Amber, an aspiring child beauty queen. When asked if she will enter any more pageants, the girl answered: ’yes, if Mummy told me so’. One of the most controversial aspects of child beauty pageants in Britain and the U.S. is the amount of ‘improvements’ enforced upon the children by the adults, usually their mothers: fake tan, nails and eyelashes, special underwear, wigs and even teeth whitening are common practice.
In Westerfeld’s series, the division between natural and surgically improved society members is drawn very starkly both in semantics, and in the social order. Children before the surgery are labeled as ‘uglies’ and live in an isolated part of town, which they are not allowed to leave. The novel takes the heroine through various stages of learning body acceptance and understanding the connection between one’s body and one’s identity. To an extent, it also stigmatises the world created by adults, in which body control is a major means of both political and emotional oppression. The trilogy ends on a rather upbeat note – interestingly, the conclusion of the trilogy, while sending a message highlighting the importance of accepting one’s own body, also manifests appreciation for body modifications, even extreme ones, as long as they are consensual and fitting one’s own idea of beauty.
In Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, the boy named Jacob endeavours to solve the mystery of his grandfather’s death. The quest for truth takes him to an abandoned, ruined orphanage on a small Welsh island. The boy finds a secret passage which takes him to the very same place, only locked in a 24-hour time loop on one summer day of 1940. He finds that the orphanage is not meant for ‘regular’ children, but for ‘peculiar’ ones. Their peculiarities take various shapes and forms: there is a girl who defies gravity, an invisible boy, a girl with a second mouth in the back of her head, or (my personal favourite) a boy whose stomach doubles as beehive. The children have been locked in the loop by the orphanage director and their guardian, Miss Peregrine – they spent over 70 years inside, reliving one day over and over again, never growing older. The ultimate reason for such drastic step is, according to Miss Peregrine, children’s safety: because of their differences, they would not be accepted in a society and therefore need to stay hidden and never participate in the outside world’s life. They are also not allowed to interact with the ‘regular’ inhabitants of the island and, although protected by Miss Peregrine, are also taught that their differences will never allow them to lead normal life.
It is not difficult to see the analogy between Miss Peregrine’s children – isolated by their guardian ‘for their own good’ and the situation of many ‘peculiar’ children of today’s world. Such ‘peculiarities’ as physical, mental or emotional disabilities, or not fitting the black and white scheme of gender and sexuality, are still in majority of cases, treated as something to be tamed, controlled, and isolated by the children’s guardians. Often against their will and sometimes against their own good: to mention the 2014 case of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager who has committed suicide after her parents refused to accept (or even acknowledge) her sexual identity.
The problem of childhood innocence and its loss, with its unavoidable connection to adult intervention, has been captured brilliantly by John Connolly in The Book of Lost Things. David, the main character of Connolly’s novel, is very fond of fairy tales, to which he has been introduced by his late mother. After her passing, David accidentally finds himself in an alternative, fairy-tale reality world with a sinister twist. The malice seeping through every crack of this world can be explained as a result of the intervention of the world of adults. It is adults who are responsible for both isolating children from the world in an attempt to preserve their innocence, and for invading children’s world with it at the same time. David, whose childhood happens to take place during the outbreak of the second World War, has been sheltered by his father from the harsh truth of the world around him as much as possible. The death of his mother was not explained to him, just as his father’s second marriage and the appearance of his baby half-brother. He was also not exposed to the horrors of war directly, as his family has moved from London to the more rural part of England for safety. However, the adult world enters David’s life anyway, seeping through the cracks of the shelter created by his father. In the ‘real’ world, these glimpses of the adult world, while disturbing, could still be marginalised. As David notices:
True, squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes often passed over the house, and there were always dogfights over the Channel. German bombers had been carrying repeated raids on airfields to the south, even dropping bombs on St Giles, Cripplegate and in the East End [...]. Nevertheless, David felt removed from it all. It wasn’t as if it was happening in his own back garden. In London, people were taking items from crashed German planes as souvenirs [...]. Here, even though they were barely fifty miles from London, it was all very sedate.
However, one night a German aircraft does crash in David’s very own back garden, and the boy manages to escape the danger into an adjacent world. When David enters the fairy-tale world, it turns out that the adult reality has managed to enter it as well – and now it is no longer kept at bay. In this new world, the boy is exposed directly to the horrors of war, and no morbid details are spared to him anymore:
A dark shape flew through the air and landed close to David. It was the head of the German gunner, all cindery black and charred red. His flight helmet had melted into his scalp, and […] David glimpsed his teeth still locked in their death grimace.
In this new, fairy-tale world, David no longer has his father to protect him from the outside world. Instead, he meets the Crooked Man, who seems to represent the other sin of adults towards children: that is, exposing them to the adult world too soon and too drastically. For example, the Crooked Man suggests to David that his new friend, knight Roland, is homosexual with paedophiliac inclinations, which makes David feel threatened and confused. Crooked Man knows many ways to spoil children’s innocence. When David enters the Crooked Man’s lair, we learn about various rooms where he would take lost children to torment them – one of the most sophisticated, and also most disturbing torture is what could be called a room of knowledge:
A bedchamber containing a naked woman and a naked man [who] would whisper things to them in the darkness of their chamber, telling them things that children should not know, dark tales of what adults did together in the depths of the night while their sons and daughters were sleeping. In this way the children died inside.
The worlds of YA fiction discussed here often present adults imposing their own standards of both what’s beautiful and what’s “normal” upon children. And in doing so, they refuse children the right to their own bodies, claiming ownership over them or fetishising them. This, sadly, reflects very little change in adult perception of children over time. The contemporary popular culture is yet to fully acknowledge children as human beings in their own right. Contemporary children do not seem to be perceived that differently from their Victorian counterparts – and we still cannot stop ourselves from recreating, repurposing and redefining them over and over again.