- Editor’s Introduction
A twelve-year-old boy is ushered into an older man’s private apartment. The man switches off the intercom, and instructs the boy: “‘Move to the bed, and lie face down. Remove your tunic first”’ (79). “‘Close your eyes,” the man continues. “‘Relax. This will not be painful’” (79). “What are you going to do, sir?’” the boy asks nervously as the man places his hands on the boy’s bare back. “‘I am going to transmit the memory of snow,’” the man explains.
The boy is Jonas, and his teacher is the Giver, in Lois Lowry’s Newbery Medal winner The Giver (1993), a utopian/dystopian novel in the tradition of 1984 and Brave New World. This scene is the first private lesson for Jonas, who prepares to be the next Receiver of Memory. Jonas must store (indeed embody) all of the experiences of civilizations past, so that the members of his community will not suffer from freedom or pain. Notable in this scene of instruction is the privacy and the intimacy, especially since the community is so phobic about secrets and the body (exposure is shameful, and everyone takes pills to alleviate sexual “Stirrings”). The physical contact between Jonas and the Giver is reminiscent of the Vulcan mind-meld, the evangelical laying-on of hands, and the pederasty of ancient Greece in that it enables the transmission of male homosocial culture. While I wouldn’t argue that The Giver promotes pederasty per se—there is, after all, no explicit sexual activity of any kind in the novel—its vision of culture and pedagogy seems classically Western and implicitly sexual. 1
The Giver is just one of many contemporary children’s texts in which sexuality is both specific and diffuse, at once a physical reality and a polyvalent social form. Sexuality seems to be virtually everywhere in children’s literature and media, from classic folklore to sex education picture books to young adult novels, films, and television shows. Thanks to the scholarship of Jaqueline Rose, Anne Higonnet, James Kincaid, and many others, we now understand the allure of Little Red Riding Hood, Alice, Peter Pan, and Shirley Temple as, to a degree, an adult construction/projection. This special issue is part of an ongoing dialogue about childhood and sexuality, particularly indebted to feminist and lesbian/gay [End Page v] studies. The six essays in this issue pursue some of the multiple meanings of sexuality in and around children’s literature and culture. Each offers specific historical and theoretical contexts for understanding the bodies, genders, experiences, and desires of the young, as well as their caretakers. While acknowledging the historical reality of sex and gender oppression, each also challenges the repressive hypothesis, showing how sexuality has been sanctioned as well as policed.
The first two articles address (neo)classical and Judeo-Christian traditions of social/sexual life, both residual in The Giver. Gillian Adams opens the issue with her investigation of the fifteenth-century Medici Aesop, designed as a teaching tool for the eight-year-old Piero de Medici. She reads the text and its miniatures as an index to the emergent neoclassical, humanistic pedagogy of the Renaissance that eroticized men—often at the expense of women—and the fundamentalist medieval backlash. Adams concludes that the Medici Aesop was probably designed to teach young Piero to respect and later protect gay artists and intellectuals. In a similar vein, Elizabeth Goodenough reassesses the fairy tales of Christina Rossetti, George MacDonald, and particularly Oscar Wilde, which she argues “revitalized Christianity with energies of the body suppressed in the dominant culture.” Goodenough demonstrates that sexuality is a vital component of fairy-tale poetics, not only for individuals (for example, the “gay Wilde” of recent acclaim) but for the suffering social body, whose fantasies of atonement cast the child as the “redemptive heart of life.”
The next two essays focus on nineteenth-century American narratives. Etsuko Taketani points out that the child’s biological sex was not always understood as static, but also as developmentally malleable (subject to change) and as performative or theatrical (subject to costume). Through engaging readings of the cross-dressing fiction of Eliza Leslie and the...