I want to try out an idea. I might be crazy, or this might already have been done - if so, I really, really hope someone will point it out to me. It's something I've been thinking about, in the back of my mind, for well over a year - since teaching Representing Adolescence, and even before then, in tiny embryonic form.
Where it goes is kind of a surprise to me, because I've always been very much of the belief that kids are an oppressed other, that the things we think about children are bad for children, etc. A child-centric view. It's also one that focuses almost entirely on the middle-class, or what passes it for it today; these things do not necessarily apply to those living in or near poverty. But then, our definition of The Child comes from the middle- and upper-classes; the factory worker child or climbing boy isn't the child we think of when we imagine The Child. So there's a huge class problem here, and I'm not trying to avoid it; it's just not part of the current equation of thinking.
So here it is: I think the way we've constructed adulthood against and alongside our construction of childhood is bad for adults. It's bad for children, too, but it's also bad for adults. In the same way that sexism is bad for women and men, so too is our adoration of The Child bad for the child and the grownup.
Disclaimer of sorts: Children, actual children, are still very much an oppressed group in most legal, economic, and political ways. To be a child is to be entirely at the mercy of the adults both local and national (and international, really), without a voice - and that is no good place to be.
But socially, culturally, we've made children into the repository of almost everything good in life. Think about it: when we talk about the way The Child is popularly constructed, we use words like innocent, carefree, playful, natural, free or unrestrained, curious, imaginative. These are all loaded terms, of course, but for the most part they are also positive terms. Who doesn't want to be carefree and unrestrained and imaginative? [okay - there are people who don't want these things. but I'm thinking about our mainstream cultural connotations here]. Even innocence is given positive value, it's seen as a virtue - it doesn't just mean unknowing or virginal, it also means something like trusting, uncynical, believing, unaware of, or protected from, the bad things of this world.
It's easy to see how these are bad things for children, and if you can't figure it out for yourself, there's a ton of writing on the subject for you to read (I recommend, as always, James Kincaid, particularly Erotic Innocence).
It's also been fairly easy to unravel the way that our adoration of youth and youth culture has been bad for women (Kincaid unpacks this very quickly and tidily, in talking about the infantilization of women as sex objects).
But we don't seem to talk much about the blowback these attitudes have for adults. When we're little, we all want to be older. But by college, or so it seems, no one's too eager to fast-forward the clock. Part of the crippling nostalgia we seem to indulge in more and more is provoked, I think, by the fact that we have established childhood as so ideal that adulthood looks like a misery by comparison.
One of the reasons we get freaked out by the toddlers in tiaras is that they are little girls staged as adult women. Yes, sexualized kids is creepy as all get-out; but we also talk about kids who have "grown up too soon," in a very tragic way, as if this is the worst thing that can happen to them.
There are positives to adulthood that adults can identify - you can drink, you can have sex, you can drive a car and set your own bedtime - but they are often counterweighted by some accompanying problem: you can have sex, but babies. diseases. relationships. cheating. You can drive, but fossil fuels and the cost of gas and car repairs and you mostly only drive to work. You can go to bed later, but you're so tired from your day at work and driving and paying bills and grocery shopping that those later hours are just glassy-eyed tv-watching.
Sex and drinking do have negatives, but both are a kind of play, and play is revoked once we pass out of childhood. Right now, Comic Con is going on - thousands of adults convening in san diego to dress up like steampunk gentlemen and anime girls and slave Leia and Batman and Pokemon. And it's become a huge big deal, and grown in popularity. It's a socially-sanctioned playspace for grownups, and not all of the play is about sex, either.
Videogames are another place where we can see play breaking through - gamers aren't just kids and teenagers and slackers in their early 20s. All the multiplayer games and create-your-own-character games and whatnot - those again are all forms of imaginative play. They invite the player to play on several different layers, and millions of adults are happily doing this, and receiving less and less censure from the culture at large.
But we still see adulthood as a fairly rigid, square space. It's all the things childhood isn't - it's restrained, it's not free, it's not innocent (it's knowing, it's experienced, it's jaded), it's artificial. The kind of artistic and playful imagination and curiosity we encourage in young children is not valued once it's being practiced by adults.
I think right now we're seeing some pushback from adults - Comic Con and videogames and the boom in popularity of children's & YA literature, the boom of people doing creative artsy things, even poorly, making their own steampunk hats and goggles and whatnot. There's a huge drive to play that we've repressed for a long time, and I think people are reaching out for that playspace. There's still a lot of resistance to the idea of grownups as play-full, though; play as we conceive of it for children is seen as frivolous. Adults need to be serious. This is a demand of capitalism - play doesn't generate money. Work, the "opposite" of play, does.
There's a lot more to be said here, but this is long enough, and I am really curious about anyone's thoughts on the subject. I may be way off, making things up to stretch a point in the dissertation, or to justify my own issues.
But I do think that, as with most binaries, the one we've constructed of The Child/The Adult needs to be complicated, broken down, made multiple and varied, queered.