- The Queer Child: or, Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century
Queer theory is looking at children. Perhaps its first glance was the collection of essays Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children (2004), edited by Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley, which gathered work by Judith Halberstam, James Kincaid, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Warner, and indeed Kathryn Bond Stockton herself. These essays represent moments over the past twenty years when queer theory, however briefly, has turned to children as a site for inquiry, a powerful location for questions of identity, sexuality, language, and culture. Stockton's The Queer Child: or, Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century is the first of its kind, the first extended meditation on both queerness and childhood. Stockton looks to twentieth-century representations of children in film and fiction to read for images that have recurred throughout the century: the ghostly gay child, the grown homosexual who is made childish, the child queered by Freud, and the child queered by innocence, color, or money. These images of children are seldom acknowledged or accounted for in traditional social histories. Stockton does not do the work of social history, does not [End Page 101] linger long on the discourses of sociology, medicine, or law, but instead aims to supplement these modes of history-making with the stories told by novels and films, stories rich with the gaps, overlaps, and excesses of meaning from which the queer child appears.
The organization of the book can feel thematically strange or arbitrary, though this feature is likely purposeful. Stockton divides The Queer Child into three sections of paired chapters, set up to "freely" explore "three realms of growing sideways: sideways relations, motions, and futures" (52). These notions of sideways growth often collapse into one another or fragment entirely in different manifestations. The Queer Child is stylistically playful, playing with the repetition of words and metaphors, a practice of scholarly writing queer theory has taken from deconstruction to reveal the uncertainties and movement of language. Thus, the initial sections of the introduction may feel unwieldy. Stockton's most vivid and articulate moments arrive in her readings of twentieth-century novels and films. In five chapters, she lucidly unfolds scenes from both the page and the screen to bring the queer child into view.
The introduction, "Growing Sideways, or Why Children Appear to Get Queerer in the Twentieth Century," is much less an outline of what is to come than a substantive argument framing Stockton's theoretically inventive terms and concepts. For Stockton, all children are queer. In one sense, there is the gay child, the child understood as having same-sex desires, a child whose desires are still unthinkable, or only available retrospectively, in our language or representations. Stockton wonders if we are getting closer to the gay child in the present tense, the day that a person might say, "I am a gay child" (19). However, she is led to ask: "What this specific labeling will mean for children's creative occulting of themselves in either metaphors or narrative strings is, of course, anyone's guess. What will get lost through this way of being found?" (19). Children are assumed to be straight, Stockton says, but really they are assumed to be "not-yet-straight," since "they cannot, according to our concepts, advance to adulthood until we say it's time" (6). In this sense, Stockton explains, "the child from the standpoint of 'normal' adults is always queer" (7).
These twentieth-century conceptions produce a number of curious and interrelated versions of the queer child, including the homosexual who is figured as childlike or immature in psychological discourses. Stockton discovers revisions of this figure in works as far-ranging as Radclyffe Hall's Well of Loneliness (1928) and Tim Burton's film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), where Johnny Depp plays an androgynous and child-like Willy Wonka. Closely related is the child queered by Freud. Freud "queered" the child by locating what he called "sexual perversions" in infancy and childhood, perversions that he considered to be a natural...