- Innocence, Heterosexuality, and the Queerness of Children's Literature
Tison Pugh's latest book, his first since Queer Movie Medievalisms (Ashgate, 2009), brings to light the problem inherent in creating sexless constructs of childhood in a society that mandates compulsory heterosexuality. A culture's attempts to purge evidence of sexual desire from texts intended for children, Pugh writes, produce a queerness among child characters. To demonstrate, Pugh traces examples of this queerness across seven British and American fiction series. Pugh, who currently teaches at the University of Central Florida, writes in terse, clear prose; he is careful to note that his definition of queerness aligns with the theory that "uncovers the ways in which ideological normativity relies on perverse foundations to cloak its invisible claims to power" (8). Homosexuality in children's literature is not his primary focus, although this topic receives attention in the book's conclusion.
Pugh points out that, like childhood itself, innocence is a societal construct. In contemporary Western thought, innocence is constructed as more than just a lack of sexual knowledge: it is also a lack of sexual orientation. As he puts it, "Innocence is thus in many instances a 'virtue' of inaction" (161). This creates a problem when societies mandate compulsory heterosexuality. Pugh reminds us that "Children cannot retain their innocence of sexuality while learning about normative heterosexuality, yet this inherent paradox runs throughout many classic narratives of children's literature" (1). As he shows, "[S]exuality cannot be quelled in a narrative in which a child's maturation is [End Page 86] depicted" (5), but in the effort to quell these forces, authors use euphemism and ambiguity. At the core, then, the assumption is that any given character—adult or child—in children's fiction is asexual for now, but will, at the appropriate time, reveal him- or herself to be heterosexual. This convoluted construction of innocence and heterosexual outcomes, Pugh reminds us, creates queerness in the characters. He says, "This tension between innocence and sexuality renders much of children's literature queer, especially when these texts pointedly disavow sexuality through celebration of innocence" (1).
Pugh explores the queerness created by this contortionist act within series fiction by L. Frank Baum, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Philip Pullman, J. K. Rowling, Lemony Snicket, Eoin Colfer, and Stephenie Meyers, and he concludes with a reading of David Levithan's novel Boy Meets Boy. In each series, he examines two to four characters and explains the particular way their asexual "innocence" creates a type of queerness. For example, Pugh explores the queering involved in Colfer's Artemis Fowl, a series intensely concerned with the anality of its male dwarves. For a series so focused on the anus of at least one of its male characters, there is no mention whatsoever of homosexuality, let alone homosexual sex. Pugh also mentions the queerness that resides in the deep relationship between Laura and Alamanzo's horse in the Little House series, which borders on a bestiality love-triangle.
The absolute high point of the book is when Pugh reminds us that Bella Swan, the heroine of Meyer's Twilight series, functions in the same way as a "bug chaser" (156). Compulsory heterosexuality would have us read Bella's relationships as courtly love brought into the twenty-first century, yet we easily can see the queerness in Bella's desire. Much like the small sect of people who seek out sexual partners infected with HIV in order to become infected themselves, we must wonder if it is vampire Edward that Bella wants, or if Edward is merely a convenient partner who enables Bella to gain what she really wants, vampiric undeath. Bella is not heterosexual but instead monstersexual, having deep romantic and sexual feelings for both a vampire and a werewolf.
In his conclusion, Pugh focuses on the ways that children's literature, bowing to the forces of compulsory heterosexuality, often renders homosexuality invisible. Until quite recently, one had to go to young adult fiction to find any gay characters at all. Pugh focuses on the somewhat utopian vision of high...