By Jennifer Miller, University of Texas at Arlington
Presented at Children’s Literature Association Conference 2021
My presentation, “(I Just Can’t Get No) Satisfaction: Locating Longing in Benjamin’s The Arcades Project and Our Queer Kid Lit,” identifies insights from Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project that have helped me think through LGBTQ+ children’s picture books as both a historical archive and an archive of longing.
The nineteenth century Paris arcades Benjamin writes about as well as the archive of contemporary LGBTQ+ children’s picture books I study, both reveal a binding tension that fuels oppressive systems generally. This binding tension is characterized by a longing for change constrained by attachments to existing systems of oppression. As a result, the change we settle for within both a capitalist system and a normative sex-gender-sexuality system continues to produce domination and oppression.
II. The Arcades Project
In The Arcades Project, Benjamin catalogues and reflects on 19th century Paris arcades after they were abandoned. The highly sought-after commodities that once stocked the Paris arcades soon became waste – abject, no longer longed for, objects. Benjamin hoped that in seeing the transience of longing, as manifest in capitalism’s waste, we would see the futility of directing our own longing for newness at commodities, and, by extension, the impossibility of satisfaction within capitalism.
Capitalism, as an economic system, does a phenomenal job directing longing for newness at objects of its own invention, displacing desire for change in the social world to desire for new objects that help maintain the existing one. Moreover, capitalism obscures the conditions of its perpetuation: oppressive labor conditions and unsustainable consumption practices.
The tension between longing for newness and affinity to the familiar can only be resolved once it is recognized that radical transformation is required for lasting “satisfaction.” By seeing the present as it is, not as we wish it, the gap between what we want and what we have becomes a critical space to reflect on what we must change.
Like capitalism, the normative sex-gender-sexuality system is both oppressive and resilient. It flexes enough to incorporate some queer others while reproducing conditions of otherness and obscuring the limits of inclusion. In doing so, it gives the appearance of newness while remaining unchanged.
III. Habitable Contradictions
I refer to the tension between affinity to the familiar and longing for change that is manifest in both the capitalist economic system and the normative sex-gender-sexuality system as a “habitable contradiction.” I argue that to accept this habitable contradiction is to accept injustice. Like Benjamin, I am hopeful that we can forge critical collective consciousness of social conditions, but, I also recognize that attachments to the familiar are a deterrent to radical change.
I use the idea of “habitable contradictions” to explore LGBTQ+ children’s picture books, focusing specifically on picture books about queer youth written by cisgender heterosexual parents, which I suggest are limited in their transformative potential. Specifically, I argue that even as the desire to do justice to LGBTQ+ youth is textually performed in these picture books, justice cannot be imagined or delivered within a sex-gender-sexuality system anchored in oppression, and any demand for conformity is inherently oppressive.
IV. LGBTQ+ Children’s Picture Books
Queer kid lit often both confronts and denies the oppressive work of the normative sex-gender-sexuality system.
My understanding of the normative or dominant sex-gender-sexuality system is derived from feminist theorists including Gayle Rubin, Anne Fausto-Sterling, and Judith Butler. In her 1975 publication, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” Rubin theorized the relationship between sex, gender, and sexuality arguing that normative links between them are socially constructed. For Rubin, sex is raw material that socialization transforms into gender. Even more, she argues that heterosexuality requires a binary sex-gender system to naturalize and normalize itself. Later scholars, including Anne Fausto-Sterling and Judith Butler, challenge the naturalness of the sexed body, arguing that it too is a social construct.
In LGBTQ+ children’s picture books, particularly those written by parent-advocates of queer youth, the thing longed for is queer acceptance within the existing social world. I argue that this is an impossible goal, and one that must be confronted and redirected towards transformative ends.
V. Cheryl Kilodavis’s My Princess Boy
Cheryl Kilodavis’s My Princess Boy (2009), illustrated by Suzanne DeSimone, is based on the author’s experience raising
her gender creative son. Instead of foregrounding the affective experience of being a gender creative child, the book is focused on helping cisgender children (and adults) understand gender difference. Kilodavis’s narrative strategy and assumed audience forecloses identification with queerness by positioning readers as “normals” encountering queerness in the form of a gender creative child.
Throughout the text, the gender creative child, who is never named, is depicted interacting with several cisgender characters. These characters model affirmative ways of interacting with gender creative boys. First, the gender creative child interacts with his brother, a cisgender boy who appears unbothered while twirling his tiara-wearing younger brother in circles. Then, the gender creative child is shown with his traditionally masculine khakis-wearing father who holds his hand and tells him he is pretty. In addition to family members, the reader meets two of the child’s friends, a boy and a girl. In the illustration, his boy-friend wears a blue t-shirt and dark pants, his girl-friend wears a red dress accessorized with a purple bow. In stark relief to their subdued, albeit normatively gendered clothing, he wears a green leotard, pink skirt, and pink shoes accessorized with a wand and tiara.
The gender creative child’s gender expression doesn’t influence the gender expressions or identities of his family or friends who remain rigidly cisgender. Although, the book seems to celebrate the queer child’s gender expression, it neutralizes the transformative potential of queerness.
Gender creativity is disruptive. It disrupts a visual field based on binary genders as well as a dominant cultural logic that suggests gender expression and identity is naturally linked to the sexed body.
Additionally, illustrations of the gender creative child show him in costume-like clothes. As mentioned, his feminine performance is excessive. In fact, at the start of the text Kilodavis writes: “He plays dress up in girly dresses.” This description explicitly associates his gender expression with play and dress up, which is reinforced in illustrations.
VI. Sarah and Ian Hoffman’s Jacob’s New Dress
Like Kilodavis, Sarah and Ian Hoffman are the parents of a gender creative child. They are coauthors of Jacob’s New Dress (2014), which is illustrated by Chris Chase. The title character, Jacob, is a blond white boy, whose best friend is a black child named Emily. Both children enjoy dressing-up at school.
Jacob is particularly fond of a fancy princess costume. No one, other than the requisite bully, is bothered when Jacob wears the costume. After all, dress-up connotes play, so the dress-up corner functions as a space-off, a term feminist film theorist Teresa de Lauretis uses to describe “spaces in the margins of hegemonic discourses” (Technologies of Gender 25). In the dress-up corner, children can pretend to be what they are not, including dinosaurs and princesses. In these spaces, play can have real effects, manifesting new ideas in the ignored cracks and corners of conceptual and material social worlds. The inability of dominate cultural forces to contain and control the crevices of the most normative institutions, in this case school, permits queerness to seep in. Disguised as play and easily dismissed, queerness, understood here as an antinormative social force, does serious work.
However, relegating queerness to the realm of play, which also occurs in Kilodavis’s My Princess Boy, seems to be an attempt to render boyhood femininities harmless. In Jacob’s New Dress, this tactic is motivated by a desire to protect the queer child. For instance, Jacob’s mother initially draws a line between appropriate and inappropriate times and spaces for “dress-up.” She identifies his bedroom as a safe space and identifies his Halloween costume, a witch’s gown, as an appropriate outfit.
Jacob is shown dancing around his bedroom in his witch costume, striking poses with a big smile on his face. Empowered by the pleasure he feels, Jason informs his mother that he wants to wear his costume to school. She rejects the idea, suggesting the costume is for playing dress-up at home and might get dirty at school. The excuse is an attempt to protect Jacob from identifying wearing dresses with stigma or shame while also shielding him from the consequences of public displays of queerness.
However, it doesn’t work. A resilient Jacob requests a regular dress he can wear to school. Again, his mother hesitates before telling him she needs to think about it.
After Jacob’s mother denies him permission to wear a dress to school, Jacob takes matters into his own hands and creates a makeshift dress with a towel.
Jacob’s father tells him he cannot wear a towel to school. However, his mother grants permission, but makes him put the towel over a t-shirt and pants. This scene depicts a parental struggle to simultaneously meet the needs of the queer child and meet social expectations, what I would suggest is both impossible and undesirable.
At school, Christopher challenges Jacob, asking him what he is wearing. It is Jacob’s mother who responds, committed to her role as protector: “Jacob’s wearing something new he invented. Isn’t it nice?” By not referring to the towel as a dress, but instead “something new,” Jacob’s mother attempts to remove gender from the equation.
Later that day, while the children play outside, Christopher pulls the towel off Jacob who cries. An angry Emily is shown glaring at Christopher. When Jacob is back home, he tells his mother about being bullied. However, instead of desiring to stop wearing dresses, he asks his mother to help him make a real dress. Again, Jacob’s mother hesitates before offering to help him make a dress, noting that there are many ways to be a boy. The reassertion of Jacob’s gender identity attempts to render gender categories malleable without questioning their existence.
The next day, Jacob shows up to school in the dress he made with his mother. Emily accepts his outfit, noting that they are both wearing pink and white. The pair continue with their day. During circle time, Jacob shows off his dress while surrounded by a dozen of his peers. Unsurprisingly, Christopher interrupts Jacob, asking why he is wearing a dress. The teacher quickly defends Jacob, stating: “I think Jacob wears what he’s comfortable in. Just like you do. Not very long-ago little girls couldn’t wear pants,” a comment that explicitly connects boy dress-wearing to girl pants-wearing. However, the school bully isn’t convinced. On the playground, Christopher stands with a group of boys who appear to mock Jacob, and when the children play tag, Christopher suggests that Jacob belongs on the girls’ team.
Jacob, prompted by Christopher’s bullying, undergoes a metamorphosis on the playground. The Hoffmans write: “Jacob felt his dress surrounding him. / Like armor. / Soft, cottony, magic armor.” The book ends with a depiction of Jacob and Emily running from a perplexed Christopher who Jacob has marked as “it” in their game of tag. The authors write: “Jacob sprinted across the playground, his dress spreading out like wings.” Here, the dress represents mobility, flight, the opposite of its usually connotation of restriction; in a dress the girl child must sit like a lady, but the boy child flies like a bird.
VII. Concluding Thoughts
In these books, the importance of normative gender expression recedes, even as normative gender identity is constantly reaffirmed. To be clear, the gender identity affirmed in these texts supports natal sex-assignment even as gender expression is allowed more fluidity and flexibility. This textual ambivalence, namely a commitment to gender that reinforces sex assignment, may relate to authorship. After all, these books are written by cisgender heterosexuals and demonstrate attachments to the normative sex-gender-sexuality system even as they clamor for the acceptance of queer kids.
I’m interested in charting the distance between the hope of acceptance manifest in the mission of these books and the real constraints on imaging queer futures also evident. As I read these sweet picture books, I keep thinking: You can’t get there from here. You can’t get to the world these advocates desire, one in which queer kids are celebrated, without imaging and enacting a queer new world. That work isn’t done in these books. Instead, the imperative of these books is to destigmatize boyhood femininities by constructing them as harmless variations of gender expression. The “problem” of queerness is resolved when dress-wearing boys are no longer bullied. The straight world isn’t transformed or even critiqued, since all the oppressive and regulating power of society is consolidated into the form of a little school bully who is easily dismissed.