A Child is for Life Not Just for Christmas
Walking through the shopping centre the other night and there amongst the silvery-green, glittery mistletoe and the bright, tacky tinsel was the World Vision stall. I leaned over to my family and said, “want to buy a little black boy?” You see, I can’t help it, but every time I see that stand, wherever it is, I’m reminded of the scene in The Blues Brothers where Jake and Elwood are sitting in the expensive restaurant gesturing at the rich, white man sitting at the next table and shouting, “the girl. How much for the little girl?”. It has to be one of the funniest scenes in film.
So when I pass the World Vision stand, with the faux-framed pictures of all the little black children waiting to be rescued sitting on boxes made to look like shipping crates, I think of Jake and Elwood trying to buy the pretty little blonde girl.
I know, of course, that World Vision actually does vital work with communities and is not in the business of selling children. But in their “sponsor a child” advertising they are in the business of selling a particular idealised image of childhood, and the effectiveness of the campaign relies on an affective response to knowledge of the gap between the reality of the individual (little black child’s) life and the valorised, affluent, white, western ideal.
Another memory. Years ago, I used to work for an organisation that provided disability services. The advertising campaign that they ran featured a cute, blonde, little boy with Downs Syndrome. Subconsciously, they knew, as does World Vision, that a small, attractive child will tug at people’s heart strings in precisely the way that a physically unattractive, loud, stubborn and argumentative adult with disabilities does not.
Our society valorises children (though in many ways I would argue that it does not value them), but only as long as they remain suspended in an idealised imaginary.
The trouble is, real children grow into adults. Advertising or campaigns that focus on ‘the child’ create a disconnect between the imagined ideal and the messy reality of adult life that has a political dimension. Consistent focus on the little black child in Africa who needs our benevolent support makes us feel good about ourselves and distracts us from thinking about the traumatised, violent, and misogynistic young man who arrives on our shores as an asylum seeker. The good thing about the child is that they not only stay a child in our imaginary, but they stay over there, wherever there is. (I expect that the experience is quite different for the dedicated people who sponsor children through to adulthood, but by virtue of the fact that they are already sponsors the campaigns are not addressed to them.)
It’s not just World Vision either. Operation Christmas Child draws on similar images, though usually the child involved is more brown than black.
Interesting that both World Vision and Operation Christmas Child are Christian organisations. One of the common exhortations of Christmas sermons is not to leave Christ as the child in the manger but to walk with the grown and risen Christ in our daily lives. Everyone sits and listens dutifully and most of us (I, too, am guilty) then go about our daily lives leaving him in the cradle. Babies are cute and innocent and not at all like the radical, disruptive, and confronting, adult Jesus of John’s gospel. He is a little too difficult for many of us to handle, and we certainly can’t control him. That’s another thing that’s nice about little kids; we adults remain in control.
This is why I’m so disturbed about an evangelism campaign currently sweeping mainstream churches that advocates concentrating efforts on children under twelve years of age because adults are too “set in their ways”. So, as a Church we give up on adults because they are too hard and go for the easy target of the idealised child?
In so many areas our society has already given up on ‘difficult’ adults. But the image of the idealised child does real children no favours either, particularly as they reach that “difficult” stage of adolescence, youth, teenage years, or whatever we want to call it. The very fact that this time of life, so often spoken of as a “transition” stage, has so many different names for it points to the problem we have with it.
I was at a conference last week, and two papers stood out in this regard. The amazing Kath Albury discussed the inconsistencies around young people’s sexual learning, particularly with regard to the fact that the age of consent is 16, yet young people of 16 or 17 years of age can be charged with child pornography offences for sexting. Sexting is not legal until both participants are over 18 years of age. She also made the very valuable point that there are plenty of negative models of sexual learning, but very few positive models, and posed the question about how you provide positive models in the current legislative environment where there are few legitimate avenues for the representation or depiction of teenage sexuality.
Seems to me that the gap that Kath talks about is a mirror image of that stereotypical image of children putting their fingers in their ears and not wanting to know about their parents having sex. In this case, it is our adult society putting its fingers in its ears and not wanting to know about the expressions of sexuality that indicate what we perceive to be a loss of innocence of the imaginary child. Once again, of course, the experiences of real teenagers and parents around sex and sexuality are often messy and disruptive and difficult. The deafness of society, the refusal to deal with the continuity between adult and child not so much depoliticises the issues, but bends the discourses around them in particular ways that are not always helpful for young people or the organisations providing services for them. In fact, Barbara Baird’s paper in the same session as Kath’s looked at some of the public discourses.
The second paper that stood out in this regard was by Clementine Hill. She talked about the moral panic around Emo culture and how the media associated it with suicide. Consequently, when it became clear that Carly Ryan had been murdered, the press, which had been using photos of her that highlighted Emo connections, found it necessary to resort to her school photo. The school photo, in contrast to the earlier ones, seemed happy and innocent, and as Clementine says, “related to the public needing a guiltless image”.
There are, of course, many other related issues which I’m not going to get into here right now. The main point I’m trying to make is that I find idealised representations of ‘the child’ problematic, even when they are exploited to procure support for real children. I find it incredibly problematic that this representation encourages privileging support and compassion for those who are seen as innocent and easy to control and can be kept at a distance. Eclipsed or resented are those who are difficult, messy, liminal, and uncontrollable; like teenagers, youth, asylum seekers, those with mental disabilities and those who challenge our set adult ways.