The Adorable Child

excerpt from Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting, a study of the sexualization of children. Its author, James Kincaid, is a professor at University of Southern California and also wrote Annoying the Victorians and Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Literature. My cousin's children are adorable, a point established at the last family reunion. My own children were adorable too until they got to be 14, at which stage not even Shirley Temple was adorable. I was especially adorable myself as a child. No one has ever said so—not even my mother—and photos from that period are alarming, but photos are a dead thing, and I know what I know. What I know is that just about all American children are, in our mythology, adorable. Perhaps the erotics of adoration work best when we can calm our fears about children leaving us. We need somehow to collar and hold the child, the memory, to keep it where it is, available anytime for viewing and reviewing. Comic strips, advertising, and television have always been full of children, all useful to us but none so useful as the movie children we skillfully manufacture and consume. Current films work obsessively with a single plot: a child, most often a boy, possessed of either no father or a bad one, is isolated, sexualized, and imperiled, whereupon he or she runs into an adult, often a male, who is down on his or her luck, outcast, misunderstood, sensitive, on the lam, romantically irresistible—usually all of these, and always the last. The child falls in love, initiates the love, and it blossoms, fed eagerly by the child and resisted by the reluctant adult, who is, however, finally overcome as the love takes over, bigger than both of them. The plot creates a special space, harbors the pair for a few moments from an unfeeling world that soon, however, crashes in and kills or exiles the adult. Sometimes this plot is submerged or only hinted at, but it is so strong and so often repeated, so central to our erotic mythology, that we can complete the story ourselves from a few scraps. We have it by heart. Not incidentally, this is the plot basic to most child-loving, even pedo-pornographic storytelling. It is the fantasy that animates Humbert Humbert as well as Holden Caulfield, the narrative that gives power to Silas Marner, Oliver Twist, Little Girl Lust, My Frolics with Timmy, Shane, and The Client. (The middle titles are invented; do not alert the authorities.) The adorable child often talks dirty and may engage in imitation sexualized behavior, but the imitative quality, the make-believe, is often stressed so as to disguise the appeal, allow the audience its safety screen. Planting sexuality unequivocally onto the child requires a willingness on the part of filmmakers to invent quite extraordinary sleights of hand, to be satisfied with a marginal movie, or to bear up under a storm of outrage. Stanley Kubrick's Lolita is perhaps the only film to tackle the pedophile subject head-on, but of course it does everything it can to avoid that head-on collision. Kubrick complained that he "wasn't able to give any weight at all to the erotic aspect of Humbert's relationship with Lolita," but his feathery touch was certainly enough to rock audiences. Perhaps Kubrick did much more than he thought, made even the standard cover stories into accusations of his audience, and the usual disguises into revelations. Although Lolita (Sue Lyon) is always clothed, and erotic play between the child and Humbert (James Mason) is indicated only indirectly (by such things as toenail painting), Kubrick made this film as offensive as perhaps any has ever been by ripping away many disguises built into the standard pedophile plot, so many that I'll just list them: *The kid is not cute but vulgar, not innocent but merely indecent; she is vastly informed (much better than the adult pedophile) on the mechanics of sexual performance. *The parent (Shelley Winters) forfeits any claim on the child (or us) by hating her so venomously—"the little beast"—and by being so delightfully pretentious that she seems to have waived her very reality. *The pedophile is driven not by lust but by rapture, capturing the most subversive feature of Nabokov's original work: Here is the great, the only, American novel about dizzying, transforming love. *When it is not elegaic, the tone of the movie is absurdist and comic, never shocked and certainly never pious. Lolita, then, plays out boldy every part of the pedophile plot except the central scenes, which can safely be left to the audience.

 
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