Juvenile desires : the child as subject, object, and mise-en-scène in contemporary American culture

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McKittrick, Casey Douglas

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Scholarship on the cultural status of the child in America has taken diverse and fruitful forms, yet there exists a significant ellipsis within theories of filmic spectatorship regarding cinematic children. This study engages the child figure's relation to the cinematic apparatus and analyzes spectator responses to the child's presentation as a desiring subject and desired object. Within contemporary American culture, the child figure generates at once a mise-en-scène of desire and a mise-en-abime of potential stigmatization, self-abjection and shame. The vexed relation to the image of the child that characterizes the contemporary adult citizen and, more pointedly, the adult spectator, is a symptom of the contradictory discourses of childhood at play in contemporary American media and within its political bodies. The Columbine shootings, the murder of child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, the Catholic Church scandals, many well-publicized child abductions, and countless occurrences over the past decade have produced a climate of moral panic over children's endangerment. Yet, more than ever, the eroticization of children's bodies has inundated cinematic and other media productions, generating anxieties within the adult spectator concerning the propriety of gazing at children. Juvenile desires suggests that the dissonances produced by the contradictory signposts of moral panic and sexual objectification have too often given rise to a homophobically polarizing model of the adult spectator: one the one hand, the ostensibly heterosexual spectator whose relation to the child image is aesthetically distanced, moral, and nostalgic; and on the other, a perverse, likely homosexual spectator whose relation is libidinal, regressive, and genitally oriented. As a theoretical intervention and a reception study, this dissertation examines the term pedophilia as one both culturally over-determined and critically under-investigated. The deployment of the term pedophilia has the rhetorical effect of reducing the complex relations sustained among adult spectators and children to a space of inarticulate abjection or criminality. The dissertation proposes that a deconstructive queer theory can unsettle the recalcitrant association of pedophilia with homosexual pathology, and thereby afford a complex and nuanced account of the roles cinematic children play in generating visual and narrative pleasure across gendered and sexually oriented subject positions.




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