Patricia Nelson on "The Queer Child"
The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century
Reviewed by Patricia Nelson
Placing in conversation childhood studies, animal studies, and recent work on queer temporalities, Kathryn Bond Stockton’s The Queer Child traces the figure of the dark, perverse, or “just plain strange” child through a range of twentieth-century American and British literary and filmic texts. Rather than looking narrowly for representations of explicitly gay children, Stockton understands the idea of the “ghostly gay child” as a starting point from which to “see any and every child as queer...to outline, in shadowy form, the pain, closets, emotional labors, sexual motives, and sideways movements that attend to all children.” The figure of the queer child, for Stockton, functions to illuminate childhood in the twentieth century as a space of delay, in which, due in part to increasing “protections” of children that prevent their advance to adulthood, children grow “sideways,” contrary to normative conceptions of time as a relentless vertical movement upward toward marriage, employment, and reproduction.
In undertaking such a project, The Queer Child exists within a recent body of work in queer studies that attempts to think through new visions of temporality, sparked by Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004) and taken up by Judith Halberstam, Heather Love, and Elizabeth Freeman, among others. In contrast to Edelman’s polemical call for queer people to refuse the cult of the child, Stockton draws on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s notion of the “protogay” child to suggest that the child does not necessarily need to represent the future of normativity. Instead, she argues, if considered in terms of sideways growth—the “elegant, unruly contours of growing that don’t bespeak continuance”—the figure of the queer child can actually illuminate yet unexplored modes of queer temporality.
Stockton positions her choice to focus primarily on fictional texts as an intervention into the sociological, therapeutic and legal inclinations of childhood studies, a field that considers the figure of “the child” in the context of social and historical conditions. Influenced by James Kincaid’s exploration of images of child sexuality in Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting (1998), and in contrast to recent social-science research on youth, Stockton turns to fiction to bring into focus aspects of children that have been elided in other discourses, including children’s masochism, their “motives that the law does not believe in,” and their maneuvers around and through mechanisms put in place to “protect” them. Ultimately, then, The Queer Child participates in what Stockton deems an “almost cubist project” of juxtaposing fictions with certain presumptions of childhood studies in order to “broaden the child through a set of broadening questions.”
Five versions of this queer child structure the book, figures that Stockton views as “braided” together in various ways throughout the cultural texts that she analyzes. Only the first two are specifically linked to homosexual identities: the “ghostly gay child,” who might become a gay adult but has yet to adopt that identity, and the “grown homosexual,” fastened to the figure of the child by discourses of arrested development. In keeping with her emphasis on the inherent queerness of all children, Stockton then turns to another form of the child’s “dangerous” sexuality, with the figure of “the child queered by Freud,” a “not-yet-straight” child with sexual and aggressive desires. Finally, she considers the twin figures of “the child queered by innocence,” whose conformity to normative images of childhood, and accordant distance from adult concerns, makes him or her strange, and the converse, “the child queered by color,” made strange by his or her exclusion from this privileged innocence of childhood.
While Stockton continually emphasizes the intersections between these imaginings of queer children, each of the remaining six chapters of the monograph is organized around one or two of these figures as they appear in history and fiction. Thus, although The Queer Child unfolds largely chronologically, Stockton scampers back and forth in time throughout, illuminating the ways in which each figure has echoed through the twentieth- century.
Stockton begins by arguing that Henry James’s novella The Pupil (1891) presents a nuanced image of the masochistic child, a figure that neither Edward Carpenter’s contemporaneous essay “An Affection in Education” (1899) nor the rhetoric of the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) in the 1990s seem able to imagine. This first chapter uses The Pupil to frame the relationship between the ghostly gay child and the grown homosexual as one based on an experience of delay shared by a child who society attempts to shelter from adult experiences and an adult relegated by that society to a state of arrested development. In both cases, Stockton suggests, this delay is experienced as both painful and pleasurable. In the following chapter’s readings of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), and Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (1936), delay again emerges as a prominent theme, in this case specifically delay as routed through dogs that metaphorically stand in for same-sex lovers.
Stockton’s analysis of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) as a revisiting and revision of “the child queered by Freud” further engages these themes. She reads the novel, and to a lesser degree its film adaptations, as depicting Lolita as a queer child whose movements in relation to pedophiles and to animals, such as her movement from Humbert to Quilty, represent “the child’s perversity [as] her path to personhood in a legal sense.” Sideways motion here, as in Stockton’s subsequent analysis of the violence enacted by queer children in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) and Peter Jackson’s film Heavenly Creatures (1994), emerges in response to complicated motives, “a living, growing, cubist form of dramatically mismatched feelings and movements from different temporalities and multilayered sideways intentions,” stifled by the culturally pervasive fiction of the child as innocent.
Finally, Stockton turns to “the child queered by race”—a figure profoundly connected to the child queered by class. Through analyses of films in which a racial Other enters the family, including Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Six Degrees of Separation (1993), and Guess Who (2005), Stockton argues that these films, ostensibly about race relations, can be read as haunted by the specter of the “gay” child who demands inclusion. Ultimately, through paired readings of the documentary Hoop Dreams (1994) and Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Stockton asks how race and class might limit the futures that the queer child can imagine and the freedom to “grow sideways.”
The Queer Child covers an incredible range of texts, and, in doing so, suggests many avenues for future work on the intersections of queer temporalities, childhood studies, and animal studies. Indeed, this breadth emerges as both one of the book’s greatest strengths and its main flaw—featuring in-depth readings of six major literary works and twelve films spanning a century, in addition to engaging with an extensive range of scholars and theorists across disciplines, it often feels as though Stockton races through close readings in an effort to move on quickly to the next material. As a result, theoretical connections between ideas and texts are often left only implicit. Nonetheless, this expansive archive serves its purpose in allowing Stockton to intervene in conversations about children across multiple discourses and disciplines. The Queer Child functions best, as Stockton states in the introduction, when read as an exercise in unlikely comparisons and unexpected juxtapositions that works to broaden the range of questions that one can ask about the child. In this sense, Stockton has produced a text that holds potential to inspire a wealth of future interdisciplinary work about children and childhood.