- Fantasies of Neglect: Imagining the Urban Child in American Film and Fiction by Pamela Robertson Wojcik
In the recent film coco (lee unkrich and adrian Molina, 2017), twelve-year-old Miguel aspires to be a musician, sneaking away from his disapproving family to perform in the public square. His desperate efforts to find a guitar unintentionally lead him on a journey in which he travels back and forth between the present-day town of Santa Cecilia, Mexico, and the Land of the Dead, where he encounters deceased members of his family returning home for Día de los Muertos festivities. Miguel takes it upon himself to correct his mistakes and his family's history as he navigates the town and the city, continuing the familiar coming-of-age plot of children exploring urban environments on their own. In her recent monograph, Fantasies of Neglect: Imagining the Urban Child in American Film and Fiction, Pamela Robertson Wojcik examines this enduring narrative convention as a historically situated phenomenon that implicitly responds to the changing philosophies of parenting. As a result, Wojcik's careful analysis reveals illuminating transitions in American understandings of not only family life or childhood but the city itself as a social construct.
The introduction of her book offers an ambitious historical and theoretical overview of urban childhood, carefully drawing from popular press sources, history, sociology, cultural criticism, and critical theory. Most impressively, Wojcik places theorists of space like Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau in conversation with influential work on childhood by Marah Gubar, Vicky Lebeau, and Kathryn Bond Stockton to demonstrate the value of spatial perspectives for childhood studies. Challenging the scholarly attention on interior spaces such as homes and schools, Wojcik demonstrates the generative possibilities that lie in studying how children operate in and move through cities in American film and literature. A focus on such mobility provides another avenue for theorizing childhood agency, especially since children have been increasingly protected (and [End Page 80] prevented) from such independent explorations in recent decades out of fear of violence or exploitation. Readers gain a stronger understanding of not only how perceptions of the city as a social space have developed throughout the twentieth century but also how modernity manifests itself in US popular culture.
In the chapters that follows, Wojcik offers in-depth examinations of key performers or texts, followed by analyses of related texts to show the pervasiveness of these discourses. Her chapter on the Dead End Kids explores urbanism as a performative mode in which children's presence and play within city spaces are associated with the poor and working classes. She extends this intersectional discussion of gender, class, and space in her fascinating discussion of Shirley Temple as a streetwalker, which stands as perhaps the book's strongest chapter. Wojcik argues that Temple's performance of the child flaneuse extends from the tropes of the fallen woman and the new girl. Temple both extends and parodies these conventional representations, blurring the line between child and adult to produce a screen image that is arguably eroticized. Taken together, these chapters reveal a different perception of childhood from those found in contemporary renderings, which tend to emphasize care, surveillance, and control.
Wojcik then turns her attention in chapter 3 to narratives that portray absent mothers as negligent, connecting this perceived failure as a response to feminism. Consequently, the fathers in these narratives rise to the occasion either by circumstance or through redemption via their children and/or the children's caregivers. Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964) and Kramer v. Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979) are offered as key models wherein mothers are judged while fathers are celebrated. Wojcik is particularly careful to consider how absent mothers either impair or empower their children, revealing a range of responses and attitudes toward motherhood throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
This thread continues into the discussion of urban black boyhood in the next chapter. Drawing on queer theory by Sara Ahmed and Lee Edelman, Wojcik considers how black children have been historically...