- Playing with Children:What the "Child" Is Doing in American Studies
Our children are in danger. At least, this is the impression you will get if you open many American newspapers. All along the political spectrum, children are invoked as "innocent victims": of the mortgage crisis, of divorce, of gay marriage, of poverty, of No Child Left Behind, of the Internet, of various media. "Family" values protect children from, among other things, "adult" bookstores and movie houses. FBI agents pose as pedophiles to catch FBI agents posing as thirteen-year-old girls.1 Culture jamming projects like the Barbie Liberation Organization's voice box exchange between G.I. Joe dolls and Barbies point to concern over how children's mass culture influences them. The reactions to the perceived dangers say as much about our culture and its contradictions as do the perceptions themselves.
Children have long been sites of cultural and patriotic projection. Seen as transitional subjects as well as the citizens of the future, they have been subjected to various and changing practices aimed at raising them according to the current notion of propriety, delivered with an urgency that reflects their importance in the cultural imaginary as well as anxiety about what might happen without intervention. Even Puritan theories of innate infant depravity focus on the child as a subject to be changed: the notion of a "hardened" adult speaks to a model of the child as ductile, if temporarily so. Later theories of [End Page 151] the child as a garden to be tended, a vessel to be filled, or clay to be molded speak to this same tendency.2 In the late twentieth century, books like Between Parent and Child appealed to an idea of some kind of purity that needed to be respected for children to reach their full potential.3 While these moments reflect admittedly contradictory notions of what a child is, they share the notion that dangers to children must be addressed and corrected before it is too late. Seen through this lens, the view of the American child has been remarkably consistent. While theories differ in terms of how children should be influenced, if at all, they present the stakes as important because of the role of children as the future of U.S. society, culture, and nationhood.
Critical interest in childhood has grown in American studies in the last few years. Literature and other cultural products aimed at children are often balder in their transmission of cultural values than similar materials aimed at adults. And cultural fixations on children and childhood reflect theories of what the child represents (what is at stake when children are in "danger"). While scholars have traditionally treated the child as the recipient of cultural precepts, three recent books break new ground by treating the child as an agent in cultural change. Their work follows a trend in recent scholarship that looks at the child, along with its treatment and figuration, as a barometer of cultural pressures. Howard P. Chudacoff unearths a history of children's play freed from the prescriptions of mass-produced toys, separating children's own popular culture from the mass culture foisted upon them. Caroline Levander looks at the figure of the child and its role in the construction of U.S. nationhood and culture. And Karen Sánchez-Eppler's approach is particularly nuanced in its examination of the dialectical nature of ideologies of childhood: how children as individuals and groups are influenced by ideologies about them, as well as how changing ideas about children have influenced ideology. Read together, these books help us to see the breadth of possibility for playing with the role of...