- Dangerous Images:The Pictorial Construction of Childhood
Not since Martha Banta's Imaging American Women (1987) have I experienced the kind of intellectual excitement over reading a study about images that I felt while reading Anne Higonnet's Pictures of Innocence. On one level, Higonnet's findings are even more challenging than Banta's, for Pictures of Innocence has the courage to rise against a dangerous and politically empowered point of view in late twentieth-century America. It is a point of view that raised "misreading" to the level of legally constituted public policies. The misreading in question is that any photograph of a child's body, clothed or unclothed, is suspect because it could lead some perceivers to engage in pornographic fantasies and even act out such fantasies through criminal behavior against children. As Higonnet puts it: "Recent child pornography laws cast shame on the child's body" (180). How we got there and what we can do about it is a primary concern in Anne Higonnet's Pictures of Innocence.
The nine chapters of her study divide into two parts: "The Invention of Innocence" and "An Ideal in Crisis." The first part subdivides into "Pictures' Imagination," the creation of the Romantic child in a golden age of innocence; part 2, "Photography's Truth," shows how the ideal and conventions of innocence began to be challenged with the advent of photography at points of vulnerability that could and did unravel the ideal. With its claim to representational truth, photography confuses the boundary between the imitation of an image or action and the lived experience that the photograph ostensibly records. At the same time, the traditional conventions of a "golden age of innocence" either persist in the new medium or are altered through an ironic mode to the extent that at times the archetype of innocence becomes an inversion of its former self. [End Page 262]
The negation of innocence, either in the image itself or in the perception of the beholder, has raised the social and legal specter of child pornography. It is this issue that provides both text and subtext, academic investigation and personal motivation for Anne Higonnet. As a parent, she feels the threat of even the remote possibility of a child being exploited and abused sexually; as an academic, she is anxious that she might become suspect because she analyzes and interprets the sacred conventions of childhood innocence. Moreover, her field, child studies, is still dismissed by the academy as trivial and sentimental, appropriate for women and second-rate minds (13). Writers and scholars of children's literature will find in Anne Higonnet a kindred spirit. We know all too well the attitudes of the "literary establishment" to children's literature and we, too, must remain alert to the attacks and actions of those who would censor children's literature. It may well be that one of the reasons for the academy's continued resistance to studies (other than psychology) of children and their world is precisely the assumption that children are pictures of innocence, untouched by the complexities of human existence, even though the individual academic may silently admit that his or her neurosis had its origin in childhood. Moreover, culturally, politically, and legally the binary child-sexuality, a persistent topic in Higonnet's study, retains its rigidly defined separation along with conventionalized denotations and connotations as to the meanings of child and sexuality.
Ironically, it is not, as some envision, the legions of child pornographers nor artists such as the photographers Sally Mann or Robert Mapplethorpe who threaten the binary division; rather, it is the commercialism of a consumer society that has conventionalized the child as object of desire. That advertisers are conscious of the ambivalences constructed into their images is made glaringly evident by the fact that Higonnet was not granted permission to reproduce even one contemporary advertisement that includes a child. Higonnet must, therefore, rely on description, as she does in her introduction, where she describes the Estée Lauder advertisement (1997) for the fragrance Pleasures for Men...