le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Kid Pickers: early lessons in capitalism

Evidently the American emphasis on teaching kids to be capitalists has moved well beyond the old standby lemonade stand; Macmillan Kids has published Kids Pickers: How to Turn Junk into Treasure "by" Mike Wolfe, star of the History Channel show "American Pickers."

I came across this via the Children Book Council's Pinterest, which is pretty terrific and very worth following.

I have many thoughts on "American Pickers," but in the interests of ever getting anything done I'll skip most of them except to say that it's a remarkably queer show putting up a 'brave' front of butch masculinity, and that I find both Mike and his co-star rather repellent; their open greed and capitalistic fervor disguised as genuine affection for and interest in history and material culture makes my stomach turn. At the Console-ing Passions conference in Boston last July (2012), I attended a panel that included a talk about "mantiquing," which didn't go as far as I wanted it to (i.e., dissecting the queerness/butchness of the show) but which did introduce the word "mantiquing" into my vocabulary.

And now mantiquing goes kid inclusive with this book. I can't think for the life of me how kids, who for the most part lack the essential picking resources (transportation, time, knowledge, and capital to buy 'junk') are supposed to launch their picking careers, but I guess that's why Mike Wolfe had to write a book. I hate the language of "turn junk to treasure," because it totally removes the value of any material object as anything but a money-maker; that is, the social, historical, cultural value of, say, an antique book is erased and replaced with nothing but its current market value. The things of history become metonyms for cash, and nothing more.

Because I get interested in about 18 different things each week, I don't have time for them all and I have to watch myself so I don't run after Shiny Objects and neglect things like teaching or dissertation. this is why I don't know what kind of critical work has been done on indoctrinating kids into commercial enterprise (that lemonade stand) - but I do remember talking about it in connection with (I think) The Great Brain when I took a children's lit class at Georgetown. Perhaps the most famous of Tom Sawyer's escapades also centers on moneymaking - the whitewashing of the fence. Kids in books are always trying to figure out how to get money, which is both totally reasonable, since kids in general are demographic without the power of the purse, and totally distasteful in its capitalism.
Making the leap from fictional moneymaking schemes to an actual how-to centered around this most peculiar of occupations - picking - is unsurprising but still deeply unpleasant. I'm curious about the gender implications of the book - the TV show really works hard to make picking a Man's Job, full of motorcycles and gasoline signs and jokes about wives. I also wonder how well this book will sell: what parents will support their child's new career as a picker? Or will it be a 'family who picks together...' kind of scenario?

Friday, March 22, 2013

tweens, adolescence, and sexgender

I've been thinking a lot about adolescence for the last few years, and one of the things I've thought about - but not had time to really pursue - is the way American adolescent culture plays to/engages with/creates sex/gender in different ways. [note: I have not yet come to any satisfactory conclusion about how to refer to sex or gender, because neither term quite gets at what I want to express, which is something to the effect of traditionally-understood, normative traits and qualities associated with males or females, regardless of how an individual is constructed biologically (sex) or psychologically (gender - and psychologically is a problem term here too). For the purposes of this post, I'm going old-school regressive and just saying "boy" or "girl" to mean those normative, traditional qualities and characteristics, with many apologies to trans-and-pan-and-queer-and-counteridentifying persons]

Recently - a week ago or so - I wondered on facebook if "tween" is just girls, or if it includes boys as well. I always think of tween as girls; when I first encountered the term "tween," it was in an article about Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, and I've rarely, if ever, seen it used in connection with boys. I was surprised that my friends - all of them academics of one sort or another - replied with certainty that of course, tween includes boys.

I was pleased, then, earlier this week to read Tyler Bickford's post of the text of his paper given at this year's SCMS conference, because he writes

the sphere of children’s entertainment that is emerging the most rapidly is directed to “tweens,” who a category that is presumptively (if not categorically) made up of girls. The term, which is a cutesy play on “teen” and “between,” emphasizes an age-based tension between grown-up autonomy and childhood domesticity that resembles nothing so much as the postfeminist tension between feminism and femininity. So talk about tweens is always already gendered. It’s also always already white, affluent, suburban, and consumerist, but then childhood also, as it’s hegemonically constructed, is itself presumptively feminine, white, affluent, suburban, and consumerist.
(emphasis mine)

I felt slightly vindicated in my conviction that tween is predominantly female, and that it at least is far from obviously a category that extends itself to include males in that Awkward Age (because really, that's what tween is: ages around 11-14).

So if, as Bickford claims (and as far as my exceedingly cursory sense of it goes) the most rapidly emerging sphere of children's entertainment is for tweens, where are the boys left?

It's a rare occasion when I say "but what about the boys?!" and mean it in anything but a sarcastic way. I say it when I think about Disney Princess culture, especially as it's enacted at Disney parks, where little girls (and big girls, and adults) are routinely addressed as "Princess." There's just no character set analogous to the princesses that is "for" boys. Of course, and obviously, plenty of little boys play princess quite delightedly, and plenty of little girls scorn princessing. But the culture emphasizes little girls in its focus on princesses, and that leaves the boys with...what?

I feel like this a bit about adolescence and boys. When I browse the teen section of my library (which is often, and it's a good teen section), I'm continually aware and reminded of how many of the books have pink covers, or purple covers, or sparkly covers. Many of them have images of girls on their covers. Many of them have girls as their protagonists, and many of them are written by women, or under female pseudonyms.

When I've asked my undergrads - and because I usually teach children's lit courses, I have a painful dearth of male students - what they read while they were themselves in high school or younger, the girls can usually rattle off lists: Sarah Dessen, Twilight, Hunger Games, Gossip Girl, Maggie Stiefvater, Libba Bray, and so on. The few boys, when I put them on the spot, usually say they didn't read much, then go on to mention James Patterson, Stephen King, maybe Neil Gaiman. Once, I had a boy student who was really into Neal Shusterman - possibly the only boy to name a young adult writer as someone whose books he read as, you know, a young adult.

Despite my general avoidance of Real-World studies and surveys and things that look like social science, I would be extremely interested in surveying a whole lot of teenage boys to see what books they read when they read voluntarily, or get to pick their material. I suspect it would be a whole lot of James Patterson-type stuff.

In class once, talking about something related to adolescence, I mentioned teen magazines - 17, YM (if that even still exists), Teen Cosmo, Teen People - then realized these were all girls' magazines. Then further realized I couldn't think of any teen magazines that weren't for girls. Once again, I put the few boys in my class on the spot and asked about magazine-reading (I supplied them with Maxim and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition just to get that awkwardness out of the way; some day I need to write and think deeply about how incredibly uncomfortable Kids These Days seem to be even acknowledging sex and erotics). The boys said: yeah, things like that, Rolling Stone, snowboarding or dirtbiking magazines, or other sport-specific ones. Those are adult publications - not in the brown-wrapper kept behind the counter sense, but just in that they are not produced with a teenage audience in mind.

so how come girls get to (or are forced to) have this distinct experience of teenager-ness, complete with rituals (prom, homecoming), periodicals, literature, movies, music, and so on?
why do we expect 14-year-old boys to be reading the same material as 34-year-old men? Is one group being "forced" to grow up too quickly? Or is one group being expected to act like teenagers their entire adult lives? Some combination of the two?

I'm concerned about the alienation of boys from YA fiction, in particular. There are some great YA books for and about boys, and plenty of the male students I teach end up really liking a lot of the "girl" books, too (Speak, for instance, always resonates with boys; they are very often the first to initiate class discussion and talk in very serious ways about how the book felt real and relatable). But the YA section as a whole looks extremely girly, and that turns boys off.
Women are attending college in markedly greater names than men now, and while I am not worried about men being oppressed and made into sad minorities, I do think that any kind of substantial gender imbalance - in schooling or in most other places - is not likely to turn out well in the end on a society-wide level. I can't help thinking that there is, or might be, or could be, a connection between the ways boys seem to be left out of this tween/teenage space of cultural production/consumption, and declining rates of college attendance. I could be totally wrong, and that's fine, but I do, for now, have the feeling that something is slightly askew here. Can't quite figure out precisely what it is, or how to correct it - is it a problem of how we're targeting girls? or a problem of how we're failing to target boys? is a creepy normative set of boy-oriented teen crap what I really want to see? (but then, how is that different from Maxim?)

I'm exceedingly interested in this, and I think it's important. I'm near the end of the list of the last people who would say that men in this country are sad, oppressed victims, but I do think that boys are being left out of an important cultural space. And that space also seems to be dedicated almost entirely to building and reinforcing traditional ideas about girl-ness and femininity in a way that is very hard for me to see as feminist or empowering or anything progressive and positive. This is a problem, and I think it's a big one - and it's one we need to be thinking about closely and carefully.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

cuteness studies

I am teaching assistant for a lecture course this semester, and today's lecture dealt largely with questions of cuteness. I am not an expert in cuteness studies, which, if it is not yet a thing, will probably be one soon; I realized today, in thinking about it, that despite being intensely interested in most things child-related, I don't spend much time seriously thinking about children's stuff and cuteness. My cuteness-related contemplations are primarily reserved for baby pandas, and kittens, and miniature horses, and miniatures in general.

At the start of lecture, the professor put up a few cute-related questions on her powerpoint. This set caught my attention, and is now buzzing in my brain:
"Why might cuteness have been so attractive to people living in early 20th century America or Europe? Why are we invested in children’s cuteness as a culture?"

I've been thinking about nostalgia a lot, and also about reception theory, and so this pair of questions set off all kinds of bells and whistles and whirling lights.

First of all: Cuteness is a thing that happens in the audience. There has to be someone looking (or listening, or reading) for a thing to be cute, because cute is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, there are all kinds of studies trying to science-ize why I enjoy looking at baby pandas, but - as with many psychology studies - I am skeptical. Cuteness is a construct that happens outside of the thing or creature "being" cute.

Which brings me to the second point, which was actually raised (sort of) by a student in the fall: cuteness HAS TO BE unintended. The second a child (or anyone) starts trying to be cute, trying to perform cuteness, it ceases to be cute. I think this is one of the reasons people find *Toddlers & Tiaras* so unsettling - it's an endless stream of very determined, conscious efforts to be cute.

Because...cuteness is "natural." It isn't, almost definitionally cannot be, something you do on purpose. It's un-self-conscious. It's "authentic." Perhaps most importantly, it's not manipulative. Cuteness, and the cute, can be manipulated, for sure - this is how advertising works - but it cannot originate in a place of intention. It has to be natural and authentic and unprompted, unscripted. Cute stops as soon as a script or intention can be detected.

Cuteness is non-functional, non-utilitarian. Those same kinds of studies which I regard skeptically occasionally suggest that we find babyness (big head, big eyes, roundness) cute so we don't just throw our offspring into a river when it starts shrieking, but even for me this seems hopelessly cynical. Biological imperative for survival keeps humans, like most animals, from eating their young (so to speak); I don't think panda mothers hang on to their absurdly small panda cubs because the mothers are ga-ga for big round eyes.

But because cuteness comes from a place of no intent, it is never selfish, always selfless, always a kind of gift or benevolence. The only thing cuteness does, in a functional way, is make the viewer feel good. Good can mean amused, or content, or pleased, or amusedly perplexed, or surprised, or satisfied - but it's not a productive response. Cuteness is not productive. It doesn't make or do anything until it's manipulated by a third party (and then it can do almost anything).

So in the 20th and 21st centuries, when we're as industrialized and mechanized and computerized as we've ever been, when humans feel increasingly isolated or alienated from themselves and other humans, when everyone with the wealth privilege to experience it is feeling the many pressures of modernity, a thing that is not manufacture, non mechanized, non technological has tremendous appeal. There's a lot of buzz about "the search for authenticity," blah blah, but that drive to locate something real in a world that feels chock-full of artifice is very strong. The fact that authenticity is as much a construct as anything else is beside the point (for the moment, anyway).

Cuteness isn't manufactured, and it doesn't ask anything of us except that we enjoy it. It's also got the weight of nostalgia, and all the unattainable longing that nostalgia carries with it. Since cuteness is unconscious of itself, we can never BE cute, or be the cute. We can, perhaps, recognize our past cuteness - look at a photo of yourself from when you were three or four or six, or listen to a parent or someone recount a charming story of something you said or did when you were a child; it's eminently possible to see cuteness there. But in the moment of the Cute-ing, the Cute cannot recognize itself as cute. And because it can't be intentional, we can't plan to be cute in the future (though we may be). So our own cuteness is always, forever, constantly retrospective; it is always something we cannot ever have or be. Cuteness, in a weird way, is always vicarious. Cuteness is a reaction, a response. In our nostalgia-saturated culture (see Svetlana Boym for some brilliant work on nostalgia), cuteness is another mode for our nostalgia to work in, or on; that intense, desperate longing for the thing which can never be again, maybe never wasto begin with, is at the core of nostalgia; it is identical to the way in which we are positioned in relationship to our own cuteness. We can never have it (again), we can never intentionally do it, we can only mourn its loss and furiously desire to have it. It has to be experienced vicariously, so we seek it out, and when we find it, we fawn over it.

I am not sure that I would argue - not yet, anyway - that cuteness is harmful to children or adults. I just don't know. I don't think cuteness has to be, or can only be, exploitative - it's how that cuteness is deployed and maneuvered that becomes the problem, but that, as I suggest, doesn't reside in the thing of cuteness itself. Still, it's an interesting and probably vexed (if not more disturbed) set of relationships and conditions that circulate around cuteness and The Cute and the viewer of that cuteness.