In this installment of our continuing series of conversations with authors of new books on cities and urban culture, reviews editor Noelle Griffis talks with Pamela Robertson Wojcik. Her new book, Fantasies of Neglect: Imagining the Urban Child in American Film and Fiction, was published recently by Rutgers University Press. (Full disclosure: Wojcik sits on Mediapolis’ advisory board.)
Hello Pam, first let me say that your book was a pleasure to read. In Fantasies of Neglect you trace representations of the urban child in film, literature, and the occasional comic strip in different periods of the 20th and 21st century. In doing so, you address the lack of attention to children/ childhood representation in film studies despite the significance of children in canonical film texts and at key moments of film history (you mention Chaplin’s The Kid and Truffaut’s 400 Blows as two examples). At the same time, you provide a compelling piece of cultural criticism that comments on the current state of “helicopter parenting” and total supervision, which has severely restricted the ability for real children to explore their environment on their own terms. Could you tell us more about what brought you to this project and how you developed your approach?
Pam Wojcik: Noelle, thanks for your interest. My work tends to move around a bit – my previous books include one on feminist camp and female spectatorship and one on the apartment plot as genre, along with edited collections on film acting, stardom in the 1960s and the use of popular music in film. Until this book, I never wrote about or taught anything related to childhood. I came to this project initially through my interest in film and urbanism. As I wrote and taught about the apartment plot, in particular, I noticed that the filmic imagination in that genre tended to represent the city as almost exclusively an adult space – showing mainly singles or older married couples, but not families. This was especially striking because my work was looking at domestic urbanism – life in apartments, not nightclubs or other adult-oriented public spaces. At the same time, much of the discourse on the city that I was reading – aside from Jane Jacobs’ tremendous The Death and Life of Great American Cities – tended to either not discuss children at all, or talk about why the city was unfit for children and families. And none of the papers I saw in journals or conferences about urbanism and film ever touched upon the figure of the child – there seemed to be an assumption that the city meant largely singles, and definitely adults, if scholars discussed people at all, which often in urban studies they do not, focusing instead on streets, buildings, locations.
I probably would not have noticed this except that I was a mom raising kids in the city, writing about the city, and writing in part from my memory of watching urban films and TV shows that made me, a suburban child, want to be a city person. This included adult-centered films like the apartment plots, romantic comedies, and musicals that dominated my childhood and formed the basis for my book The Apartment Plot, but also representations of city kids. Children’s books like Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh 1964) and The All of a Kind Family (Sydney Taylor 1951), or on TV, “Sesame Street” (1969), “Fat Albert” (1972) or “Family Affair” (1966) had produced for me a fantasy of the urban that made me want to live in the city and to raise city kids. But as I shared these texts with my kids, along with things like Mary Poppins (Stevenson 1964), Oliver! (Reed 1968), Annie (Huston 1982), The Magic Tree House books by Mary Pope Osborne (1992), Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007), Eleanor Estes’ The Alley (1964) or TV’s ‘Maya and Miguel,” I realized that they not only ran counter to the negative discourse on children and cities that had dominated 20th century urban discourse, but also ran counter to the reality of my kids’ lives in the city today. The fantasy of the urban relates not only to the urban child’s knowingness, street smarts, pluck, resourcefulness and spirit of play, improvisation, and masquerade, but also, crucially, his or her mobility and ability to colonize space — kids being free to roam city streets, have encounters with strangers, take risks, and have fun without adults. However, contemporary kids exist in the world of what has come to be called helicopter parenting and what geographers refer to as the “islanding” of children, in which children are driven from one child-sanctioned place to another, do not walk streets alone, and have lost their mobility and freedom.
So, I became interested in the relationship between children and the urban as an historical set of questions both about the ways in which kids have been represented and about how ideologies of childhood and ideologies of the urban have intersected, and why and how have they changed. I started simply: Where are urban kids in cinema? What genres? What time periods? Has the urban been seen as a negative or positive for kids, or both? What has changed in our conception of childhood or of the urban over time to make their pairing seem less natural than when Jacobs wrote? What can films and books tell us about how we historically imagined the relationship between children and the city and what can they tell us about how we might re-imagine it now?
Then, the fun began. While childhood was a new topic for me, it was by no means an untapped arena of study. I needed to learn the rich body of work on childhood across disciplines including geography, sociology, literature, film and media studies. That work informed and enriched mine.
Central to your book is the idea that fantasies of childhood mobility depend on a fantasy of neglect. You make clear that stories of urban children on the loose due to absent or inattentive parenting–from Little Orphan Annie to the boys in The Little Fugitive—hardly reflected the realities or norms of their time. However, since a greater degree of unsupervised time was considered acceptable when these texts were produced, there was more space to imagine “streetwise” children exploring the city on their own terms. What I find really compelling here is the idea that fantasies become more or less possible and/ or permissible depending on cultural climate. Could you discuss the way fictional representation can help us to “think about the values ascribed to urban childhood, what has been lost as children have left urban space and what can be regained or reimagined” (7)?
In Fantasies of Neglect, I wanted to figure out what philosophy of urbanism might not only encompass but be shaped by the figure of the child. I discovered that, often, the urban child is seen as inherently denied, lacking, or otherwise neglected because the urban environment is seen as somehow insufficient or dangerous to children. But, numerous texts posit the fantasy for the child of being neglected, or let alone. Both senses of neglect hinge on the child’s spatial mobility. On the one hand, the child appears to be unmoored, unsupervised, and unprotected. On the other hand, the notion of neglect points to the positive thrill and possible risk of the child’s freedom, independence, and movement. To be clear, I am talking about neglect in terms of supervision and emotional neglect, not physical abuse.
I decided to organize the book chronologically because it would enable me to think about historical shifts in ideologies of childhood and the urban. What I did not realize initially was that I would also be tracking changes in the concept of neglect. Ideas about what constitutes neglect change over time and reflect and refract other social issues. In my research, the biggest shift in ideas about neglect not surprisingly related to mid-twentieth century shifts in ideas about parenting. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, neglect was portrayed largely in terms of social and economic factors: the neglected child lived in poverty and was homeless, orphaned or otherwise displaced or removed from traditional structures of family and home. Such 1930s texts as Little Orphan Annie, The Wizard of Oz and films starring The Dead End Kids, Jane Withers and Shirley Temple link neglect to ongoing concerns about urbanization, overpopulation, immigration, tenements, and slums that date back to the nineteenth century, and they stitch those concerns to issues specific to the Depression such as unemployment, child abandonment, child homelessness, and the disintegration of the family. By midcentury, however, in America, the discourses on both the child and on neglect move away from issues related to social and economic factors toward an emphasis on individual personality and psychological well-being.
The 1950 White House Conference on Childhood and Youth explicitly shifted the emphasis of the preceding four conferences – one each decade — from child welfare and the problems of children who might lack access to school, health care, or stable homes, to the child’s personality, and especially the idea of the happy personality as related to Eriksonian models of personality development. The report of the White House conference makes clear that the onus for developing the child’s happy personality falls on the mother, and thus redefines what counts as supervisory or emotional neglect. “Momism” or over-mothering prevents the child from attaining growth and independence, but the White House Report interestingly allies “momism” with its seeming opposite in the concept of “rejecting motherhood.” In tandem with this, mothers who give the child too much freedom, under so-called “permissive parenting” models – notably Dr. Spock’s child-led care — are also viewed with suspicion. Thus, too much mothering and too little are one and the same.
While moms were often critiqued in the 1950s and 60s for falling down on the job, 1970s popular discourse explicitly linked feminism to the figure of the rejecting mother; and women were chastised even more in the context of the Women’s Liberation Movement for seemingly rejecting their role as mothers.
So, what began as query about space – about the place of children in the city and in urban studies – became, not surprisingly, a project about gender and parenting that helped me map some of the conditions that have led to the contemporary situation in which children’s well-being is imagined as requiring constant attachment and supervision.
Of course, these shifts in conceptions of neglect are unequal: conceptions of childhood and neglect differ not only across different time periods but across different communities, regions, identities. In the early and mid-twentieth century, African American children are consistently seen as systematically neglected and are blocked from the discourse on happiness. Therefore, I try to map some of the different ways in which the African American urban child is represented differently from the white child. I also attend to differences in gender, as neglect of girls is viewed differently from neglect of boys, in terms of the appeal and the risks associated with each.
In terms of the last part of your question– how does all this help us rethink childhood now – I hope that I can help denaturalize helicopter parenting and reframe supervision in ways that enable kids rather than contain them. In this, I view my work as similar to what people like Lenore Skenazy seeks to do with Free Range kids and what others have addressed as a real crisis in parenting.
You look at both film and literature, but I wonder if you saw any specific cinematic influence on the representation of childhood in the culture at large. In other words, do you think cinema produced new tropes or new ways of imagining the child in the city distinct from literature?
In part, there is a different affective experience in seeing a mobile child on film as opposed to reading about a child in a book. Watching Shirley Temple walk alone in the streets of Shanghai or hitchhike alone – as phony as the backdrop is, as insulated in a studio setting as she is — produces a thrilling feeling, a mix of excitement and fear, more visceral than a sentence saying “she walked from the boat to the city streets.” Location shooting, especially, dynamizes the image of the mobile urban child. There is a scene in Claudine (Berry 1974) in which two young boys ride a bike, one on the handlebars, through the streets of New York. It is terrifying for me every time, but also exhilarating.
Film also develops certain generic conventions in relation to the representation of the urban child. In the 1930s, for example, the heyday of the child star, a slew of films about girls will show her not just as mobile, but as meeting an adult male and forming a de facto family with him. The relationship depends on the charm of the child star and on conventions of romantic comedy, often. This raises the possibility of a pedophilic encounter. But the films instead turn optimistically toward a new ideal of family, based on care and friendship rather than biology. Currently, our fascination with dystopic worlds, violence, and large-scale special effects movies means that the child is figured often as a warrior.
You make a case for neglect. Or really, you take a stand against the idea that anything less than total supervision is a parenting failure. Could you elaborate more on the need for neglect?
I jokingly dedicate the book to my kids and say “I hope I have neglected you enough.” Neglect to me is about letting a kid be, letting them figure things out – how not be bored, how to talk to adults, how to navigate the world. It is not about putting them in dangerous situations, but about trusting them more. It is about not asking parents, especially moms, to glue themselves to their child and view anything less as failure. There is a lot of concern today about how college-age kids seem less autonomous than previous generations. We talk about the need to teach grit. To me, allowing a bit more neglect is an important piece of this. If we do not allow our kids to walk down the street by themselves, or ride the subway, if we drive them everywhere and supervise every activity, how do we expect them to miraculously know how to negotiate the city as adults or handle challenging situations in college?
I saw Ira Sach’s Little Men (2016) around the time I started reading your book and it seemed to offer some of what you argue has been missing from recent representations of urban childhood. Perhaps because the parents in the film are distracted by their own dramas, they allow their pre-teen boys unsupervised time to explore their neighborhood on foot and the city by subway. Significantly, the film takes the children’s personal and geographic journeys seriously. Did you see the film or have you seen any others since you’ve written the book that perhaps represent a new direction or at least a new addition to the representation of the urban child?
I have not seen Little Men, but will check it out. In the main, I see contemporary representations as doing one of two things: 1) displacing the narrative into the historical past, so that the child’s mobility is somewhat naturalized by a sense that things were different then. Wonderstruck (Haynes 2017) would be a good example of this. 2) Placing the child in a fantasy or dystopic scenario, and removing them from ordinary life, as we get in The Hunger Games trilogy, Harry Potter, and other texts. There are some exceptions, but more with teens than kids – like Dope (Famiyuwa 2015).