from the pages of
Sex and Kids
Michael Bronski, Z Magazine
Children and sex are inextricably linked in the conservative imagination. They are the lure and the fear, the bait and the trap, a measure of how far decent social behavior has gone down the tubes, of how a morally corrupt liberal social agenda has replaced God-fearing purity. Whether the issue is sex education, the banning of pornography, condom distribution in schools, or the specter of day-care centers overrun by ritual satanic abusers, the linkage of kids and sex is sure to make headlines, tempers boil, and, unfortunately, bad social policy. But there are plenty of situations where the linkage of kids and sex raises scarcely an eyebrow on the right or the left.
Think of those numerous ads in the New York Times Magazine that feature pubescent boys and girls in scanty, sexy summer clothes by Calvin Klein or Gap. Think of TV soap advertising (particularly Ivory) that depict daddies and children frolicking naked in the bathtub. Or the Fruit of the Loom ad featuring a drop-dead hunk of a dad and his 6-year-old son walking hand-in-hand in their undies to take a morning leak together. Think about 60 years of the Coppertone ad where a dog is pulling a little girl's bathing suit down, exposing her left buttock. Kids and sex have always been a staple in advertising.
In the past Hollywood films have been careful about children and sexuality. Films like Lolita and Baby Doll--both early 1960s--knew they were breaking taboos when they ventured into this territory. Films in the 1970s and 1980s seemed more concerned with presenting children as instruments of evil (The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, The Omen) than as sexual, although in our culture evil and sexuality are undoubtedly linked. But recently kids and sex have reappeared in Hollywood films. The Little Rascals positions its grotesque children in highly sexualized, adult poses. Interview With The Vampire gives us a 9-year-old vampire girl with the sexuality of an adult. The Professional, in its original version, was so explicit about the sexual tension between a 12-year-old girl and a 38-year-old hit-man that the more overt sexuality was trimmed for U. S. distribution. No doubt about it, kids and sexuality are becoming acceptable fare for mainstream movies.
Ironically, this acceptance seems to go against the grain of current social policy and political thought. Look at a recent action by Janet Reno in a "kiddy-porn" case that is on its way to the Supreme Court. Several years ago, a Pennsylvania State University graduate student ordered video tapes through the mail containing images of young girls on a beach. Although clothed in bathing suits the girls were video-taped in a sexual manner with lingering shots of the (clothed) pubic region. The graduate student was charged with violating a 1978 Federal child porn law which makes it a crime to receive or distribute pictures of minors engaged in a "lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area." The graduate student appealed--and lost--his argument being that the existing law, and its repeated interpretations, stipulated that the minors be nude, or at the very least that their genitals be visible under clothing. When Solicitor General Drew S. Days reviewed the Supreme Court brief for the administration he agreed with the defense, disagreed with the lower court rulings, and stuck to the traditional, narrower reading of the law. His decision was intended to preserve the child pornography law by not allowing it to be so broadly interpreted as to be unconstitutional.
The moderate and far-right then accused the Clinton administration of being soft on child porn. Their campaign escalated until the Senate was forced to deal with the issue. All 100 members voted for a resolution condemning the Days brief, stating that it did not reflect Congressional understanding of the scope and intent of the original 1978 law. Several months ago, Attorney General Janet Reno submitted a brief to the Supreme Court in which she endorsed the constitutionality of the State Appeals Court. Arguing that "neither nudity or discernability of the genitals through clothing is a required element of the offense" she added "I believe that the government must argue for that legitimate interpretation of the statute, which prohibits the receipt and possession of child pornography to the maximum extant allowed under the Constitution." In an unusual action the administration's brief was submitted to the Court signed by Attorney General Reno, not Solicitor General Days. Reno added in her statement: "As I am ultimately responsible for the positions taken by the United States, the brief filed today adopts the interpretation made by the Third Circuit, which I believe to be the correct one. For this reason it bears my signature rather than that of the Solicitor General."
So what does all this mean? The law states that minors in child porn must engage in "lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area." Yet in this case the video tapes in question were of clothed children who were apparently unaware that they were being video-taped. The defining element in the "obscenity" here is based more on intent and the perception of the viewer rather then on the material itself. Under the new, broader interpretation other factors might enter into the evaluation of what constitutes child pornography: context, narrative, effect on the viewer, even differing cultural standards.
It has always been hard to talk about kids and sex. We have few guidelines and even fewer cultural support systems that allow us to think honestly about issues of the sexuality of children, exploitation, responsibility, and cultural norms. What we do have, however, is a media and a culture that is obsessed with kids and sex, with representations of sex and innocence, with images of child sexual titillation, and the dangerous, taboo pleasures of sexual menace.
The Little Rascals aims to be a satire on contemporary sexual and gender norms, but what stands out is the odd, preening sexual and gender caricatures that director Penelope Spheeris forces on her young performers. The boys are made into either little romantic fools or women-hating he-men; the girls are cute, sexualized flirts and tempters. No one would accuse The Little Rascals of being child pornography--not in the strict legal sense, even under the most broad interpretation of the law--but it is grossly unsettling and ugly. If Spheeris-- Wayne's World, The Decline of Western Civilization-- has intended to expose the grotesqueness of gender roles by foisting them on children, she has not succeeded. What we are left with is a bizarre, and wholly unpleasant depiction of children mimicking adult sexuality with neither context nor point.
Neil Jordan's Interview With The Vampire is based on Anne Rice's imaginative and witty novel which had clear homoerotic overtones. Large portions could be read as an allegory of pre-Stonewall gay life--vampires live alone in a twilight world, when they do form communities they are covert and underground. Jordan's film (based on a screenplay by Rice) is more polymorphously perverse. Here the vampires exist in a state of semi-sexual arousal. There is a sexual relationship implied between Lestat (Tom Cruise) and his blood-sucking initiate Louis (Brad Pitt), and a full-blown romance between Louis and the older, wiser vampire Armand (Antonio Banderas). But the sexual ambiance is always shifting, neither completely hetero nor homo. Sucking blood and killing become both sexual acts and insufficient ends unto themselves.
This is heady material and Rice and Jordan bring it together in the character of Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), a nine-year-old girl that Lestat turns into a vampire to help bond his failing relationship with Louis. Claudia becomes a pampered toy for Lestat--she is dressed like a doll and treated like a petulant child when she kills her piano teacher--and a daughter/lover companion for Louis. While she and Louis sleep together in the same coffin, a more explicit sexual relationship is carefully left unstated, as are the sexual relationships between Lestat, Louis, and Armand. Claudia is the love child of Lestat and Louis. More innocent and much crueler then either of her surrogate parents, she is a nightmare of childhood, a bitter realization of hopelessness. She is also extraordinarily sexual. In her turn-of-the-century white crinolines and curls, with her coy mannerisms, and her killer instinct, Claudia is the most sexual of the vampires: she is the one who uses her pre-pubescent sexual charms to lure her victims. Later in film Claudia turns on Lestat for making her what she is: a sexual woman trapped in a little girl's body, as well as the third wheel in a male homosexual relationship. Louis even helps her get a companion--an older women who longs for Claudia as both a mother and a lover--but this all ends badly.
This is a Freudian nightmare of family romance, and Jordan's filming is as striking as it was in The Crying Game.But it is the characterization of Claudia that startles. She is the femme fatale projected onto girlish innocence; essential femininity masking death and destruction. With her ultra-sophisticated style Claudia could as easily be modeling expensive children's clothing in the New York Times Magazine or working as a high-priced call girl who specializes in the "little girl look."
This is the deadly girl whore who both wants and can't have sex, whose innocence is incitement to defilement. The power of this image is in sharp contrast to another character--a young boy who seems to be Armand's lover. While Claudia is presented in ravishing detail, Armand's boy-toy simply stands around with bite-marks on his neck, a passive source of blood and pleasure. Rice and Jordan are attempting to provoke here, but it is striking that hardly any critics have mentioned the highly sexualized nature of Claudia's character. Is she simply the acceptable screen presence of a cultural prototype to which we have become so accustomed that no comment is necessary? Or do critics and audiences treat horror movies as a genre with more excusable conventions?
The Professional is a trendy, trashy French thriller by Luc Besson, the director of the equally trendy and junky 1992 La Femme Nikita. The story is minimal: Leon (Jean Reno), an illiterate, childlike hit-man protects Mathilda (Natalie Portman) a 12-year-old waif whose family has been murdered by crazed Drug Enforcement Agency police. Besson presents an urban beauty and the beast tale, but as it progresses and the couple becomes sexually attracted to one another, the film changes not so much in tone as in subtext. Besson presents us with completely amoral worlds--in La Femme Nikita the nearly psychotic punk heroine becomes a state-sponsored assassin; in The Professional being a hit-man is simply another messy urban job. So a sexual affair between a grown man and a pre-teenage girl is no big deal, in this amoral world.
Besson's original European cut of The Professional was far more explicit in its depiction of Leon and Mathilda's relationship. While we never actually see them engaging in sexual activity, they shower together and show more physical affection on screen. The U. S. release cut some of the more implicit sexuality (as well as the brutal killing of Mathilda four-year-old brother), but the film is still clearly about sex. What has not been cut from the film, and is intrinsic to it, is the sexual portrait of Mathilda. The Professional trades on two stock cultural images: the brutal killer with a heart of gold and the sexy girl-child. Like Claudia in Interview With the Vampire, Mathilda is photographed as a sexual icon. But while Claudia's sexuality is highlighted by her apparent (but surface) innocence, Besson films Mathilda in an overtly sexual manner. Dressed in faux Madonna outfits she cavorts for the camera like a sex goddess (even imitating Marilyn Monroe) who knows what she wants despite her age.
We are at a point in culture and politics where discussions about children and sexuality are getting more and more difficult. While consciousness about the prevalence of sexual abuse has been raised, the right wing has captured the topic and use it to their own ends. A decade ago feminist anthropologist, Carol Vance, warned that the child-abuse-in-day-care-centers controversy was a response to feminist progress and was being promoted by the conservatives to put women back in the home as primary care givers. Charges of pedophilia have been used successfully against gay-rights legislation; the same is true for sex education and safer-sex programs. The fight over the Clinton's administration's brief about the child pornography law is another example of how social policy is being formed by conservative, right-wing politicians.
Yet in the midst of this, it is still possible to eroticize children in movies like Interview With the Vampire and The Professional, with little comment from media or audiences. The solution here isn't that films like these should be banned under the child pornography law, but that our cultural anxieties about children and sexuality should be discussed more openly and honestly. In lieu of this discussion, our culture has decided that some forms of eroticized child sexuality are okay--such as advertising, Hollywood movies--while other forms--images of clothed children sold to people expressly interested in such material as a turn-on--are not. The reality is that there is a very thin line between what turns people on and to what purpose. It would be absurd to insist that the depictions of eroticized girls in Interview With the Vampire and The Professional are not intended to turn on some members of the audience. That is clearly the visual and thematic intent of these films.
There are no easy answers here. Children (like all humans) have sexual natures and their sexuality is an intrinsic part of their engagement with the rest of the world. How, where, and with whom they may display or act on this sexuality is an open question and one with which adults have had an extremely difficult time dealing. This is not made any better by a government pretending that it is protecting children from abuse by broadening an already-shaky pornography law. Nor is the discussion made any clearer by pretending that the depictions of eroticized children in advertisements or Hollywood movies have nothing to do with adult sexuality. These are hard issues to discuss or even think about, but if we keep ignoring the questions things are just going to get worse.