Respect for Children

There Are No Children

This is the second of seven posts that proposes a new theory of theatre for youth. Teresa Simone suggests that a deeper respect for children must stem from the assertion: There Are No Children. Using examples from the U.S./Mexico Borderlands, she examines how we might include children, as audience and artists, without the deadening label “children’s theatre.”

In my last post, I made a modest proposal that There Are No Children. I am no misopedist (one who hates children, not feet); rather, I have deep respect for children. Respecting children means refusing the categories of child and adult.

Let’s chew on that some more.

There are constructions of child/adult: children play, adults work; children are innocent, adults are not; adults are smart, children are not; adults are sexual, children are not; adults have rights, children do not. I will dismantle these binaries, except that children do not have rights, which is true. In the US, most conspicuously, this reveals itself in the notion of personhood. Children are precluded from being “persons” in the legal and philosophical sense of being rights-bearers. While almost every other country has ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, the US has not. Children are not fully people; children have no rights. We know this, of course. We knew it when adults ruffled our hair without asking. We knew it when our terrifying grandmas, rife with perfume, demanded hugs we did not want to offer. Perhaps, we knew it when adults spanked us, determining without consent what the limits of our bodies should be.

While some bodies, capacities, and intelligences are coded as “child”/“childlike”/“childish,” their meanings both exceed and fail to fill the limits of child/youth/adult.

Let’s consider other constructions of childhood. It is an extremely privileged notion that only adults work. Of course children work. Over half a million children in the US pick our crops. As theatre artists, we must remember that labor laws do not cover child performers. There are countless examples of how adults have profited from child entertainers. Historically, many child performers were essentially slaves or indentured servants. Children with bodies marked “other” (conjoined twins, intersex, etc.) were attractions. Children with brown bodies were ripe for exploitation: Josephine Baker, carried onto Vaudeville stages as a baby, began her dancing career as a homeless child on the streets at age thirteen. While actors who played roles such as Jim Crow and Uncle Tom were high earners, black children also played racist roles, such as Topsy, Buckwheat, or Eat’N’Sleep. The difference between playing Uncle Tom and playing Topsy is agency. We come to reason number three Why I Hate Children’s Theatre: it has exploited the labor of children, women, and brown people, and perpetuated stereotypes.

a white child with two black children wearing face paint
Still from Kid in Africa (1933).

Consider the ultimate child entertainment icon: Shirley Temple. She was the biggest Hollywood box earner ever, and she did so by age six. While Temple earned millions, the unnamed child stars next to her often worked for free. These films depicted children with overt racist (don’t get me started on Kid in Africa, 1933, or The Littlest Rebel, 1935) and sexual imagery. In her first speaking role (War Babies, 1932), Temple played a prostitute paid in lollipops. An extended sequence showed Temple shaking her diaper-clad booty to the camera. Later, a black boy performed a tap-dance striptease. Many of the tropes established by Shirley Temple continue in modern pageantry: in an infamous episode of Toddlers and Tiaras, Kayla Hatton performed an overtly sexual Shirley Temple-themed dance. This shocked some, yet pageantry continually reproduces the effect. Temple’s dresses were hemmed so that her bottom was revealed; this convention continues, as do huge curls, huge bows, white socks, and oversized lollipops. Sexual entendres underlay the pageantry of “innocence” children are coached to perform. What would Freud make of those incessant oversized lollipops?

a young girl dancing in costume
Kayla Hatton (with lollipop) pops it as Shirley Temple in an infamous act performed on Toddlers and Tiaras.

Neither Freud nor I would venture that children are not sexual beings, but there is a difference between sexuality and sex acts. However, it is clear that notions of childhood/adulthood are culturally and historically bound, and shift. When does girlhood end? Is it at age twelve, with a bat mitzvah, or age fifteen, with a Quinceañera? Is it upon menarche, when one begins (to reference Orange is the New Black) “a-tittin’ and a-hairin’”? Suffice to say, we’re uncomfortable about the uncertainty. We don’t know how to prevent early sexualization without shaming girls’ bodies. Abercrombie & Fitch caused a scandal when it sold thongs in girls’ sizes that said “kiss me” and “wink, wink.” Is that worse than schools that won’t allow girls to wear leggings or tank tops? In the US, we have difficulty drawing this distinction legally: in some states, girls may be married as early as twelve or thirteen.

Let’s look at the construct of intelligence. IQ tests allow for discrimination against broad classes of adults, while reinforcing the idea that children’s intelligences are inferior. IQ tests enforce cultural, linguistic, and epistemological biases, while they create classes of “disability.” At the advent of IQ testing, adults with childlike intelligence were “idiots,” “imbeciles,” or “morons;” we now call them “intellectually disabled.” New term, same old concept. Children who exceed average IQ often become spectacles, made to perform their intelligence. In my home state, Arizona, three-year-old Alexis Martin was recently designated the “smartest kid ever” after being the accepted into Mensa. On reality TV shows such as Child Genius, kids compete in academic “Olympiads.” The earliest Olympics were religious rites, statist spectacles that included human sacrifice.  In shows such as the Scripps National Spelling Bee, I cannot help but see the same coached pageantry of Toddlers and Tiaras, and wonder: what pageantry, to please what Gods?  And who is sacrificed? We make exceptional children spectacles because we are uncomfortable when the distinction between “child” and “adult” blurs. Who, for example, would want to challenge a young Bobby Fischer to a game of chess? Who would want to compete against Gabby Douglas in gymnastics?

While some bodies, capacities, and intelligences are coded as “child”/“childlike”/“childish,” their meanings both exceed and fail to fill the limits of child/youth/adult. The binary constructs fail. Children are liminal citizens; subaltern. Getting back to Why I Hate Children’s Theatre reason number four: identity-based representation practices that reinforce constructions of child/adult will generally limit the meanings of cultural codes, exploit children’s performative labors, promote ideological doctrines, exclude children from voice in production/representation, and reinforce acceptance of the idea that children are not fully people. In my next post, I look more deeply at the limits and borders that mark what can, and cannot, be performed in “children’s theatre.”

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Thoughts from the curator

In this series, Teresa Simone suggests a deeper respect for children must stem from the assertion: There Are No Children. Using examples from the US/Mexico Borderlands, she examines how we might include children, as audience and artists, without the deadening label “children’s theatre.” 

Why I Hate Children's Theatre

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You know, Teresa I respectully suggest that you using the term 'children's theatre', a thoroughly outdated term, seems to me to set up a construct where you define what children's theater is, not how the field of theater for young audiences defines itself. As only a few examples, are you considering the work of Steppenwolf for Young Adults, which has produced Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and the wonderful and controversial This is Modern Art? Are you considering Don't Tell Me I Can't Fly and Luchadora from First Stage Milwaukee, part of their series dealing with diverse populations in their region. Are you considering the often hugely daring bookings of the New Victory Theatre? Are you looking at the European work that, when it tours to the US and Canada, has to create a 'North American' version that removes things that will catch the gatekeeper's hair on fire?
Also, though I'm not an academic by any means, I would make the case that many of the binaries you speak of are not really binaries. Life and art can't, for me, be reduced to binaries, and the relationship of children to adults exists on an ever shifting continuum, not in a series of either-ors

Thanks, Kim. You have a really good point. I'm not trying to set up a strawman, but maybe I am. Your assertion that binaries are artificial or reductive is actually exactly what I'm trying to say.

To be honest, I use the term "children's theatre" because, outside of the specialists in the field, that seems to be the lingering term. When I use the term "theatre for youth" or "theatre for young audiences" with, say, my doctor, or the clerk at the grocery store, I tend to get a kind of blank look. And then they say, "oh, you do children's theatre?" ... ahm, yes. I suppose I do. So I call it "children's theatre", over and over, because it seems to be the layman's term. That said, I'm not trying to advance a layman's theory. I'm proposing something purely philosophical.

Thank you for mentioning Steppenwolf and First Stage. The examples that you bring up are good examples of theatres that try really hard to envision a different standard. And, like I've said before, the non-U.S. works that I've seen have been stunning, truly re-arranging all of my prior notions of what is possible in TFY.