Evil Children: Children and Evil
An Inclusive Interdisciplinary Conference
Monday 15th July 2019 – Tuesday 16th July 2019
Tales from the Nursery: Re-reading the Jamesian “Turn of the Screw”
Johns Hopkins University, US
City University of New York, US
knowledge – affect – bodies – ghosts and memories – Freud – Lacan – Winnicott—Nietzsche – Agamben – object relations
Responding to the prompt “the nature of evil children as social and cultural constructs,” our joint presentation aims to expose and loosen up a number of epistemological knots implied in this formulation. We will do so in tracing across our conversation two distinctive, though convergent strands of psycho-analytic thought that can help nuance the conceptual dichotomies as well as the concrete failures and impasses that the notions of a “bad” or “evil” child conjure up.
Our joined, though differently grounded perspectives (as one of us is a practicing analyst) will aim to create openings towards a question that calls now more than ever for all the intelligence and intelligibility researchers and practitioners can give it, namely “is it possible do imagine a different philosophy of childhood?”.
Working on one hand with the concepts of a transferential stage and with phenomenological aperçus afforded by clinical practice and, on the other, with fictions of the child traversed by notions innocence and corruption, we explore a space or stage —– “the nursery” — that can help situate what is at stake when we, adults, intervene in the development of a child within a moral framework.
We owe this different path to the fortuitous encounters of two brilliant readers of the intricate relational web of assumptions, principles, norms, and discourses that surround the child. So we start with two texts that provide us with initial materials as well as rich cross-disciplinary perspectives on the theme of the conference: Henry James’s masterful mind game on Victorian childhood staged in The Turn of the Screw (1898) and exposed in Shoshana Felman’s hermeneutical tour-de-force “Turning the Screw of Interpretation” (1977).
Building on these textual materials, we will dwell on the peculiarities of a space, conceptual as well as “real,” of the nursery” – and with the aim, at this intersection of the clinic and the history of ideas and science, of highlighting the need for a humanistic critique that is nourished by and also engages with the notion of childhood in radically trans-disciplinary ways.
Proposed format a prepared dialogue or a round-table. Indeed, as discussed with Jen Baker, if another proposal reveals affinities with our themes, we would be happy to consider a broader collaboration.
From the Sacred, Secular, to the Demonic: How Much Innocence is Left for Children in the 20th Century?
University of Glasgow, United Kingdom
Innocent Evil Children and Childhood Divine Origin, Secular Realism Demonization Comparative Literature
‘Childhood as a social category is part of the historical process and subject to change over time’ (Hiner and Hawes 1985: xvii; Kennedy 2006: 27), which also shifts people’s views of children in different historical and social context. The changes of people’s attitudes towards children would be manifested in the image of children in various cultural forms. One aspect of the children’s image seems discursive through the history, and it is the term ‘innocent’ which is constantly used to describe them that problematizes the innocence of children. The project as a whole is to see the ironic narration of ‘innocence’ of children. 1.This presentation would first compare historically how the term ‘innocence’ is applied to the narration of the children in the British literature and Chinese literature through a historical from 200 BC to the end of the 19th century. At this point, it would be found that the term ‘innocence’ experienced a change from the divined and sacred to the secularization, namely, secularism in both cultures. In the twentieth century, after experiencing secularization, it went through demonization. Correspondingly, the narration of a personal growth of a child epitomizes this historical trend of the divined, secularization and the 20th century demonization of the term ‘innocence’. 2. Since ‘the child as a manifestation of the transference of cultural and social ills in their contemporary context’ (Foster 2013: 93), then, the presentation would focus on the narration of depraved, corrupted, dark and evil children in the 20th century British literature and Chinese literature to see why the troop of evil, dark, depraved and corrupted children was increasing in both cultures and even globally in literature.
Childhood Re-edits: Challenging Norms and Forming Lay Professional Competence on YouTube using Images of “Good” and “Evil” Children
Linköping University, Sweden
Child studies; Media and communication studies; Evil children; Childhood innocence; Children’s culture; Participatory culture
This presentation/paper presents the initial findings of research into how YouTube culture can become an arena for young YouTube videographers to remodel mainstream, sub-cultural, and media content (YouTube clips, music, film content, and 15 viral memes). We juxtapose analyses from both media and child studies to look at the ways in which preferred images and notions of the ‘‘good’’ and idyllic childhood are re-edited into a possible critique of the prescribed Swedish childhood. One strategy to pursue the critique is to replace supposedly good children taken care of in good family environments with evil and demonic children. Also, we look at ways in which these media-literate actors use YouTube to display their skills in both media editing and social media ‘‘savvy.’’ We discuss how ‘‘lay’’ professional competence in digital culture can be inherent in a friction between popular (children’s) culture and social media production, where simultaneous prowess in both is important for how a mediatised social and cultural critique can emerge. We highlight how images of good and evil children take an important role in these manifestations.
Reconceptualising Protective Factors in Response to Risk with Dangerous Children Leaves Little Scope for Evil
University of Strathclyde, United Kingdom
Protective factors, Risk, Critical thinking, Children, Evil
Labelling dangerous children as evil might be tempting for some professionals, however, it reflects a lack of critical thinking, not least of all in terms of a child’s vulnerability and the way in which the social construction of risk and protective factors are applied in practice. This presentation reports on a study that examines the way protective factors are discussed by professionals in response to risk and extent to which critical thinking is demonstrated.
Data is collected from 30 multi-disciplinary childcare meetings, which are attended by staff from statutory and voluntary agencies with social workers and psychologists being the most commonly represented. Each meeting focuses on a child deemed to present a serious threat to other people. A discourse analysis is used to show the frequency and patterns in the way critical thinking about protective factors is used by professionals. The patterns reveal a level of splitting between protective factors and risk, which suggests professionals are more susceptible to engaging with ritual thinking than critical thinking. Ritual thinking is problematic because it reflects a tendency for professionals to prioritise their own (individual and organisational) needs over those of the child. In doing so, it distorts the way children are viewed, how their behaviour is interpreted and possible interventions. It is suggested that a professional construct of ‘protective factors versus risk’, which is applied with critical thinking, will reduce distorted thinking and offer a more robust way of conceptualising the support provided to vulnerable children. In particular, it will limit the temptation for more emotive, albeit less useful constructs, such as ‘good versus evil’ within the realms of childcare and protection.
The Good, the Bad and the Neither Nor. The Child Portrayed as a Complex Human Being in Swedish Cinema.
Stockholm University, Sweden
child in cinema, children’s film, representation of childhood, Swedish cinema, the child’s realism, generational order
Cinema history has a long tradition of depicting children as either spectacles or symbols, which implies that the figure of the child primarily serves one purpose: either as an object for the adult gaze or a tool for an artistic concept. As such, the child is a one-dimensional figure, frequently portrayed as either thoroughly good or absolutely evil. But there is also another, less utilized alternative: to depict children as subjects. As such, the child in film is a complex figure; good, bad, both and neither nor.
This paper demonstrates a long tradition in Swedish children’s film portraying the child as a subject. It dates back to the construction of the welfare state in the 1940’s, but grew prominent in the 1970’s, when children’s right to be heard was argued. In films such as Hugo and Josephine (1967) or The War Game (2017), the young protagonist is a person with a wide spectre of emotions and framework of action. Furthermore, the child’s subject position is also manifested in the cinematic form, i.e. aims to see the world from the child’s point of view. This is a filmic mode I’ve named the child’s realism, with allusion to magic realism, since it combines realism with fantasy seamlessly, resembling the way a child perceives the world.
The theoretical framework of this paper is profoundly interdisciplinary, deriving from cinema studies as well as childhood studies. By intercrossing these research fields my approach considers the heavily charged concept of childhood and the unique cinematic language alike. Thereby, children’s film is illuminated as an arena for the generational order where adults reproduce their power, but also as an artistic and potentially political space where the child’s perspective enables a complex depiction of the joy as well as the frustration of being a kid.
Otherness and Ambivalence: The Evil Child in Cinema and Contemporary TV-Series
Institut für Film-, Theater- und empirische Kulturwissenschaft, Germany
This paper examines the trope of the evil and uncanny child in horror cinema and TV-series in relation to works like The Village of the Damned (UK 1960), The Shining (USA/UK 1980), The Children (UK 2012) and also Stranger Things (USA 2015). Initially, the cultural origins of such child figures shall be located as showing an ambivalent spectrum which reaches from the Puritan idea of original sin to contemporary discourses of social abjection in order to maintain the normative notion of childhood’s purity and innocence. Additionally, correspondent cinematic manifestations shall be likewise considered from a decidedly multi-discursive and ambivalent perspective in order to transcend seemingly monothematic definitions such as evil or depraved, thereby functioning as prescribed tropes of the horror genre. For this purpose, this paper will also revise and critically discuss contemporary positions in film studies in regard to the figure of the evil child (e. g. Stewen 2011, Lennard 2014, Bohlmann/Moreland 2015, Scahill 2015, Renner 2016) as well as corresponding cultural historical as well as sociological positions (see Kincaid 1998, Jenks 2005). Besides, especially different modes of cinematic staging of child figures will be observed as offering plural and contrary ways of interpretation. In this regard, the aesthetic possibility of cinema to stage the child in a form of photographic stillness, thereby inscribing different meanings, will be examined. Finally, the evil and uncanny child figure shall also be considered with regard to complex character-paintings and different narrative aspects in contemporary television series to relocate the observation in a transmedia context.
The Man of Whom We are Afraid
Tara R. D. Fietz
University of St. Andrews, School of English, United Kingdom
“evil children who become evil adults”; “abusive fathers”; “personal experience paper”; “non-fiction exploration of abuse”; “children and evil”; “children of whom we are afraid”; “innocence and evil”; “original sin”; “sexual psychopathic”; “childhood evil”.
First, I heard the stories. Told by the man who held me down and forced me into acts foreign to a ten-year-old. Who cornered me as I brushed my teeth and pushed the brush down my throat to test my gag reflex. Who, after one beating too much, was observed in whispers by the emergency room nurses as a textbook sexual psychopath as my mother deafly clutched my unbroken arm. But first, it was the stories— how he tortured his siblings and the household pets. How he plucked the wings from butterflies and tore off spider’s legs, leaving them alive on anthills to watch as they were carried within and eaten. How at eight he played a game with his little sister in the bathtub, holding her underwater until she almost drowned, every single Wednesday bath night. How he was tortured by his own father. Those stories about all the signs of what television crime shows like to tell us are the markers of a dangerous being. And in this case, he was my father. I will explore the topic of evil children who turned into evil adults in a nonfiction essay that explores the roots of a deeply disturbed man whose childhood the and trauma sustained therein contributed undeniably to the evolution of his particular brand of psychosis in adult life and abusive form of marriage and parentage. This paper will incorporate first-hand experience, interviews with surviving members of his own family and mine, as well as police information and jurisdictional reinforcement to create and investigate the profile of a man whose childhood circumstances and proclivities towards the unsavory created an adult who is capable, and culpable, of atrocities inherent from his youth. I believe that I have experience and insight valuable to the discussion of children and evil.
That could have been me!
Sheffield University, United Kingdom
Children, evil, abuse, trauma, art therapy, relationality, creativity, spirituality, transformation.
“This is your baby’s head!” the child declared, glancing at me and deliberately using his small, strong hands to crush the wet papier maché ball he was holding.
It was 1993. I was working in a residential setting for child survivors of organised abuse. The same child had murmured ambiguously, in response to news of infant James Bulger’s murder by two ten-year-olds: ‘That could have been me!’ Three years later, his early traumatic memories had healed enough for him to settle in a foster-home. Working through ‘as if’ experiences with his creative imagination, had helped.
If such children do not have opportunities to acquire a sense of internal and external safety, and healthy attachments the consequences can be dangerous, even fatal. Despite serious relational problems they were not ‘born evil’, even if sometimes described as ‘feral’ or ‘evil’.
Working with such children, as teacher and art psychotherapist since the 1980s, in various settings, and now leading a team of arts therapists [author’s publication], I have found that processes involved in creativity and art-making, within the context of a safe therapeutic relationship, hold extraordinary transformative power for positive change. My paper will explicate how school-based art therapy harnesses this power.
The Evil Child in Spanish Cinema
Abraham Hernandez Cubo
University of Melbourne, Australia
evil child, cinema, Spain, dictatorship, transition, trauma, memory, growing sideways
This paper examines the subject of the evil child in Spanish cinema. Evil children started to populate Spanish screens from the moment the country transitioned from a dictatorship to a democracy in the 1970s, putting forward representational codes of childhood that proposed a rupture with the naïve cinematic portrayals of children common during the Francoist regime. While during the first years of democracy these cinematic evil children acted as counter-representations of the imposed memories of cheerfulness promoted by the dictatorial regime, they have become a mainstay in Spanish film, reflecting the Zeitgeist of different historical periods. By discussing characteristic films made during the 1970s, the 1990s and the 2010s, this paper studies the evolution of this film figure as one representing a relation between film discourses and socio-historical circumstances. Cría cuervos (Raise Ravens, Carlos Saura, 1976) epitomises the phenomenon of the “children of Franco”, as coined by Marsha Kinder (1983). After the dictator’s death and with the end of censorship, these cinematic children turned into murderous characters as a result of personal and collective traumas, seemingly suggesting that their evil response may be generated by a repressive fascist upbringing. Although after the consolidation of democracy evil children seemed to vanish from the Spanish screens, they reappeared in films from the 1990s, as in Tacones lejanos (High Heels, Pedro Almodóvar, 1991). These murderous children act as a subversive memory prompt that haunts the present and a reminder of the unresolved traumas from the past, while they also contest the inheritance of Francoist ideologies. The recent portrayals of evil children in the 2010s, as in Los héroes del mal (The Heroes of Evil, Zoe Berriatúa, 2015), propose a deviation from trauma and memory perspectives that suggests that this trope may no longer be associated with Spain’s national past, but with post-modern frameworks, such as the growing sideways model coined by Kathryn Stockton (2009).
“Evil Freaks of Human Nature”: The Legacy of the James Bulger Case
University of Strathclyde Law School, Glasgow, United Kingdom
Bulger case; children who offend; childhood and crime; youth justice; law and popular culture
The murder of two-year old James Bulger in 1993 by two ten-year old boys was a shocking event which was reflected and magnified through the lens of the mass media spotlight causing it to be characterised as a moral panic. It has continued to have resonance over the whole of the 26 years following, both as a short-hand signifier for a variety of issues, including evil children, and as a point of reference in academic and policy debates around legal developments from the age of criminal responsibility to the fairness of the trial process. Its continuing reach can be seen currently in relation to the Oscar-nominated short film entitled Detainment, dealing with the interviews of the two young suspects. This paper will consider the case’s legacy in terms of these lingering cultural and legal reverberations. It will examine it in relation to the discourse surrounding the role of childhood and the nature of children and alongside the legal treatment of children who offend. Ultimately, it will place the question of the characterisation of these two children as “evil”, in some quarters, at the time, and subsequently, in the context of a moral response to children who commit crime.
The Queer Monster: Evil Children, Queer Futures
York University, Canada
Queer, Evil, Happiness, Futures, Horror, sexuality
Horror films allow us to examine what is perverse, evil, and abject. The most uncomfortable aspects of human life including sex and death, dismemberment, decay, and all manner of suffering are safely contained by genre for our investigative pleasure. The genre is a screen upon which we are permitted to project the most taboo relations, one of which is that of the sexual child. In dominant culture, it is taken for granted that children are a-sexual unless, that is, something is wrong with them. The horror genre allows a subversion of this assumption on the one hand (i.e., children are not a-sexual) because it reinforces it on the other (i.e., sexual children are evil); where children are concerned, the line between what is evil and queer is often blurred, because the queer child is troubled, abject and perverse, much like Eli in Let the Right One In (2009) and Rhoda in the Bad Seed (1956).
On-screen, these evil child protagonists mutilate other children and adults. They make other children complicit in their nefarious exploits. It is the sexual queerness of Eli and Rhoda, however, that is the most sinister facet of these children: their sexualities are monstrous and represent the greatest threats to the nuclear family in heteronormative society. Their unbridled sexualities depict an unhappy future. According to Sara Ahmed, to be happy is to be heterosexual thus when children “come out,” even the most well-meaning parents may respond that their only concern for their queer child is that they be happy, which is to say that being queer leads to an “inevitably” unhappy future (92-93).
Using Julia Kristeva’s The Power of Horror, Kathryn Bond Stockton’s The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the 20th Century and Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness, this paper examines the positioning of queer children in horror films as the evil that threatens the stability of the nuclear family. It contends that the representation of queer children as monstrous in horror film perpetuates the myth that queer (i.e., sexual) children are disruptive and even dangerous members of society. It ultimately challenges the notion that the queer child is or should be treated as the evil that threatens a perverse future.
When is Murder not Murder? Homicide, the Boy-Hero, and Rite de Passage in Treasure Island and Tarzan
University of Chester, United Kingdom
This paper will explore the link between the cultural construct of Christian morality and heroic ‘transgression’ in R.L Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1881) and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan (1912). According to Joseph Kestner, the fin-de-siècle white male adventure hero is enabled through a four-stage process: departing; encountering; transgressing; and potential re-integrating (Masculinities in British Adventure Fiction, pp.10-11). The four stages constitute a rite de passage in which the hero, in particular, the boy-hero, can journey into manhood. His adventures often mean ‘transgressing’ Christian morality to surmount the hazardous challenges, and include activities such as spying, ‘going native’, and even murder. The transgression allows the boy-hero to become a re-formed/transformed concept of masculine identity in a way that measures his masculinity identity in relation to his contemporaries. Jim Hawkins, in Treasure Island, follows this trajectory and after he kills the pirate Israel Hands, his heroic position among his homosocial group is established. Rite de passage through the four-stage process presents an aspirational spectacle of masculinity, in which atavism becomes a symbol of might as opposed to weakness or criminality, and irrationality and impulse is described as ‘passionate masculine authenticity’ (Kestner, p.207). The paradox is apparent: a boy-hero must breach conformist masculine behaviour to realise the conformist masculine identity constructed by his culture. But what happens when murder is a way of life, even fun, as for the titular character of Tarzan of the Apes? Tarzan is brought up by apes outside the cultural construction of Christian moral codes, yet he possesses an ‘inherent instinct’ which prevents him from crossing certain boundaries: his ape-family may eat humans for food but Tarzan will not partake in cannibalism. This paper discusses whether recognisable codes of behaviour belonging to Christian morality surrounding transgression change the presentation of the boy-protagonist from evil to heroic?
Playing at War: Institutional(ly) Evil (and) Children in Ana María Matute‟s Primera Memoria
Nora Lynn Gardner
Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, USA
children and memory, Francoism, Spanish Civil War, Spanish Inquisition, Kristevan abjection, children and guilt, lost childhood, childhood trauma, war games
As Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini fine-tuned their troops and battle tactics, oiling and unleashing their war machines on Spanish soil in aid of Francisco Franco’s Nationalists during The Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939), an entire generation of Spanish children was robbed of their childhood. Hundreds of thousands of los niños de la guerra were evacuated, killed, orphaned or left destitute in the wake of the armed conflict that served as prelude to the Second World War and resulted in Franco’s fascist dictatorship that would last 36 years. Ana María Matute’s Primera memoria (1959) invokes a powerful and provocative vision of the loss of Spain’s youth’s collective innocence through a narrative in which children are portrayed more often than not as eager participants in the war, in lieu of its tragic victims. This paper focuses on how fictional protagonist and narrator Matia lays bare the perverse intersection between children and the institutional and societal evils they play at, imitate, and eventually adopt, espouse and perpetrate. In my analysis of Matia’s reflections on her last childhood memories that span the first months of the war, I trace parallels between her observations of male children playing at war and genocide, and Spain’s history of ethnic cleansing espoused by the Inquisition during the Middle Ages and resuscitated by fascism during the twentieth century. I incorporate Julia Kristeva’s theorization of abjection in order to analyse how encounters with classism, patriarchal order, Catholicism, violence and war signal not only the loss of innocence for Matia, but require her to assume and conscientiously perform injustices and evils innate to and inseparable from upper-middle-class Spanish womanhood. As both literary and feminist criticism, my intervention seeks to place Matute’s novel into broader interdisciplinary conversations regarding evil in relationship to society’s institutions, children, innocence, and moral responsibility.
The Child Soldier in Nigerian Literature
Elizabeth E. J. Gilbert
University of Cologne, Germany
Child Soldier; Nigerian Literature; Ken Saro-Wiwa; Chris Abani; Elnathan John; language and trauma
A new literary archetype has been established in the past twenty years in Nigerian literature: the child soldier. The mere existence of a child that takes on the officially sanctioned function of killing is an atrocity in itself. This talk will present a variety of Nigerian texts from Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy (1985) via Chris Abani’s Song for Night (2007) right up to Elnathan John’s Born On A Tuesday (2015) to analyse how and to what effect authors introduce child protagonists that virtually go through hell. Whta is the role of language in these attempts to show traumatised lives? How do these texts negotiate their culture’s history from colony to post-colonial disillusionment, and what is the role of children in this?
Of Chai-paus and Chandni-bars: Destiny‟s Children in Films from India
Shibpur Dinobundhoo Institution (College), West Bengal, India
caste, heredity, blood, impurity, purge, pollution, dirt, redemption, transgression, ‘horrorism’
This paper explores the world of children from India’s underbelly as depicted in a few films of international appeal such as Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and Madhur Bhandarkar’s Chandni Bar and Traffic Signal. In India, where casteism rears its ugly head every now and then and economic inequality is rather steep, slum and street-children find little sympathy among the common public and the law. They are believed to be predisposed towards evil through their ‘dubious heredity’ or ‘low caste origins’ or ‘dirty environs’, such notions being deeply ingrained in the collective psyche of a large number of Indians. Ironically, this fixation goes a long way in determining the destinies of these children. Easy prey and easy pawns in the hands of pimps, peddlers and traffickers, exposed to wanton violence and abuse, these children are often, unquestioningly, branded as ‘depraved’, since moral integrity is regarded as closely bound to bodily integrity. These films expose the ‘horrorism’ (Adriana Cavarero’s term) of children indulging in rampant violence and adult crimes, sucked into the quagmire of crime and corruption to which they ultimately succumb, despite their “innate goodness”. This paper probes into the deep-seated ideas of ‘dirt’, ‘impurity’, and ‘propensity for evil’ that seemingly condition children, as depicted in these films, while distinguishing between ‘pure evil’ that operates for its own sake, as noted by Terry Eagleton (On Evil), from the evil that is occasioned by circumstances. Hence, it also takes up some of the child characters who are ‘Iago’-like, as Eagleton identifies, who breach all boundaries of morality, who evoke horror, whose evil actions remain unjustified, and who remain irredeemable despite opportunities to the contrary.
The Village of the Damned as a Metaphor for the Treatment of Australian Indigenous Children as Evil
University of Melbourne, Australia
Evil Children; Australian Indigenous Children; Evil Children in Literature; Evil Children in Film; Science Fiction Film; History; Racism.
The Village of the Damned was first written as The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham I see the cuckoo who lays eggs in the nests of other birds as the Midwich Cuckoos of the State which places Australian Indigenous children into foster homes in the Stolen Generations. The alien babies in The Village of the Damned are seven-month-old embryos after five months.
The alien children quickly become youths that roam in groups. Similarly, it is gangs of youth who are represented in the media as the scourge of Australian society (e.g. African or Muslim gangs). The incarceration age at Don Dale Detention Centre in the Northern Territory in Australia is 98% young Indigenous people from the age of 11 to 17.
According to Karen J. Renner in Evil Children in the Popular Imagination the evil children in The Village of Damned are changelings. Renner defines changelings as the children of other species such as fairies, elves or trolls who are exchanged as human babies (2016, 153). The other species in The Village of the Damned are the alien species that implants embryos in all the women of child bearing age in Midwich. Similarly, Australian Indigenous children in the colonization of the Stolen Generations have the hybridity of the changeling as seen by racists. Indigenous children were categorized as sub-human, as flora or fauna by racists in Australia. The evil children in The Village of the Damned are white skinned and blonde haired. Conversely, Indigenous children who are taken in the eugenics of the Stolen Generations are fair skinned. The hybridity of the Stolen Generations is about turning black children into white children.
At the end of The Village of the Damned the children are killed. This too is the goal of the racist state: to kill Australian Indigenous children by the white government and vigilantes.
Legalizing Abuse: Culture, Evil and Childhood in Sub-Saharan Africa through Kim Nguyen‟s Rebelle (2012)
MPhil Student at University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
children, childhood, Sub-Saharan Africa, superstitions, cultural ideologies, evil, child witches
The idea of childhood propagated in present-day society is of ideal innocence and a blank slate. Yet, this comprehension is often the product of a westernized notion of children, which leaves the many variant cultural notions of childhood to not receive attention. Though the westernized conception of childhood is often linked with elation and hope, childhood, as witnessed in many parts of the world, is construed as property, weakness and even evil and demonic. Children in many areas of Sub-Saharan Africa are targets of cruel exorcisms, rape, and even death, on the suspicion that they are indeed witches and bodies of Satan. Fierce Nigerian speaker Helen Ukpabio in her exploitation of the vulnerable and cultural superstitions deems children to be the sole bearers of demonic spirits and ideologies, stating them to be “feverish and painful.”
The superstitious cultural ideation of childhood legalizes the violence the many children face, thereby also providing new narratives and associations to the inceptions of childhood, family and evil as well.
The representation of the same is realized in Kim Nguyen’s 2012 film, Rebelle which sheds light on the various cultural beliefs regarding Satanism, albinism, childhood and witchcraft. The film follows the life of Komona, a young girl who is suspected to be a witch, which leads to a life of constant turmoil and torture. Set in an unnamed place in the Sub-Saharan region, and was shot in both French and Lingala languages. The film explores the lives of child soldiers, children of witchcraft and their struggle with their association with evil, while attempting to prove their innocence and build a positive narrative of their own.
This paper attempts to deconstruct the cultural ideology so heinously imposed and realized in many childhoods across Sub-Saharn Africa, while utilizing the film’s narrative of the same to uncover unfortunate, yet prevalent socio-cultural ideologies regarding children and their childhoods.
Coming to Terms with the Sociopathic Child: Existentialism, Evil, and Boredom in Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin
University of Leicester, United Kingdom
boredom, absurdity, existentialism, evil children, contemporary literature.
Lionel Shriver’s bestselling novel, in her words, divides readers into two ‘ferocious camps: one convinced that the boy was evil from day one, the other just as convinced that his mother’s coldness was criminally culpable’. Alternatively, this paper argues that Shriver’s narrator takes a decidedly different path. In rejecting determinist and mother-blaming explanations of the evil child, Shriver’s focaliser, Eva Khatchadourian, comes to understand Kevin through an existentialist lens.
We Need to Talk About Kevin approaches the concept of the evil child through a mother struggling to reconcile herself with the violence of her child. To ‘come to terms’ implies an active journey towards a certain state of mind. It suggests an ideological shift that requires both temporal distance and a ‘trying on’ of ideological stances to move towards a state of reconciliation or acceptance. The paper discusses how Eva uses letter writing as a process of coming to terms. These unsent letters allow Eva to experiment with cultural and scientific notions of evil in a safe ideological space. Through her letters readers can also undergo the ‘trying on’ of a multitude of perspectives on evil children.
DOLLED UP: A Staging of Maternal Anxiety
The University of British Columbia, Canada
It is perhaps a happy accident that new materialism- itself fairly new to the critical stage- lends itself so fruitfully to my stage of choice: the theatre. Progressive Connexions’ interdisciplinary conference seeks to interrogate the innocence of the child. I ask: how might we stage such innocence? Indeed, how might we stage such a child?
My answer lies in a new materialist reading of the doll as theatrical prop, specifically in contemporary Shakespeare adaptations. I fear that my question will become, instead, how might we stage such a mother? Here, I turn to Polly Findlay’s 2018 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth, for which Findlay cast three doll-bearing children as Shakespeare’s three witches. Findlay’s decision, dramaturgically, echoed the maternal anxieties within the text, loyal to the ‘misery, and indeed insecurity’ (Richard Fullerton) of Shakespeare’s childless protagonists, for whom violence and childhood are intertwined. For Findlay’s childish witches, violence is play: the ‘finger of birth-strangled babe’ merely an ingredient for the cauldron.
Dolls, one might assume, enkindle play: but as Barbara Johnson reminds us in Persons and Things- her study in the personhood of puppets and prostheses- the ‘doll cannot stand alone’. Critics of Findlay’s production differed in their analysis of her ‘bloody dolls’ (Sarah Compton) and ‘plastic dollies’ (David Cavendish). It is here that a crucial tension lies. It is these dolls, this girlish performance of reckless motherhood, which threatens an audience.
This, I propose, speaks of our cultural tendency, as Jacqueline Rose so eloquently claims in Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, to render mothers ‘the objects of idealization and unlicensed cruelty… the place where we lodge, or rather bury, the reality of our own conflicts’. Why, she asks, ‘should it fall to [mothers] to paint things bright and innocent and safe?’. How might, I ask again, we stage such innocence? This is where, to use Rose’s phrase again, ‘dolls are central’: to cast away the innocence of the child is to cast the child as a mother. To animate the doll, then, is to breathe new life into Rose’s insistence that ‘unless we recognise what we are asking mothers to perform’ (emphasis mine), ‘we will continue to tear mothers to pieces’. To interrogate the impetus of the doll in a new materialist framework, therefore, is to discover that the innocence of the child appears to be rooted in the innocence of the mother. This is the lens through which I intend to read the contemporary prop box, seeking violence and innocence in all forms of play.