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Reviewed by:
  • Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children
  • Andrew O’Malley
Stephen Bruhm and Natasha Hurley, eds. Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. xxxviii + 338 pp. $28.50.

In an age characterized (as James Kincaid has frequently observed, including in his article in this collection) by an irrational anxiety over paedophilic sexual predators victimizing innocent children, this book offers a timely and important challenge to the very terms on which such paranoiac fears rest. The essays in this collection, some "classic," some new, reveal the kinds of investments our culture makes in the ideal of childhood innocence and productively interrogates the ideological functions these investments serve. Avoiding the pitfalls of "advocating" childhood sexuality or of denying the "reality" of the sexual abuse of children, the book carefully theorizes childhood and queerness as necessarily linked categories by examining a wide (although not wide enough—see below) range of literary and cultural texts, as well as personal experiences of queer childhood. The result is an anthology that works, though not unproblematically, to demarcate the contours of an emerging area of study.

As Stephen Bruhm and Natasha Hurley remark in their excellent introduction, the innocence we prize so highly in children and struggle so mightily to safeguard is responsible for generating and maintaining the very threats we fear: "To make the child innocent is to suppress the disruptive alternative to innocence—which, in fine binary logic, makes that 'other' essential to our understanding of innocence itself" (xvi). This is an important point (one that echoes Kincaid's position: "Certainly we care about the poor, hurt children. But we care also about maintaining the particular erotic vision of children that is putting them in this position in the first place" [9]) and is an idea that unifies much of the analysis in the anthology.

In the main, the essays presented here are very strong and collectively make a convincing case for questioning our culture's often paradoxical treatment and representation of children: they are meant to be asexual and innocent of sexuality but are assumed at the same time to be heterosexual and destined for reproductive heterosexuality; our desire to protect children from sexuality (especially queer sexuality) is shot through with the desire to consume them as erotic objects. In his engaging discussion of the connections between childhood, queerness, and class in Horatio Alger's books for boys, Michael Moon remarks that the discourse of philanthropic protection of poor boys from which Alger borrows constitutes a "rhetoric [End Page 248] of seduction" (32). Ellis Hanson, in his insightful and highly entertaining reading of The Exorcist, captures another aspect of this hypocrisy/paradox of childhood relationship to sex by speculating that the adult desire to regulate and contain the possibility of children's sexuality is what renders them queer: "Children are queer. Their sexual behaviour and their sexual knowledge are subjected to an unusually intense normalizing surveillance, discipline, and repression of the sort familiar to any oppressed sexual minority" (110).

The prospect of a queer child is, as many of the contributors in Curiouser contend, doubly vexing, as it challenges both the conventions of innocence and heteronormativity. In his persuasive, if overlong, reading of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, Eric Savoy maps the narrative contortions the text makes to stifle the very possibility of a queer childhood sexuality it raises: "[Miles's] mysterious dismissal from school point[s] in turn to other adumbrated 'horrors,' all of which terminate at an anatomical 'behind' at which the narrative cannot bear to arrive" (267). Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's study of how the effeminate boy is pathologized in contemporary clinical psychiatric writing has appeared in a number of other anthologies but certainly merits reprinting here, as it too points out a kind of narrative disavowal of the queer child. Despite the American Psychiatric Association's official removal of homosexuality from its list of pathologies, heteronormativity remains institutionalized in psychiatry in its development of a diagnosis for "gender identity disorder in childhood" (141). In the formulation Sedgwick describes, male homosexuality is considered healthy and normal, so long as it is accompanied by suitable displays of masculinity. No space is...


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pp. 248-252
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