Kid Knowledge: An Interview With J. Jack Halberstam (Part II)

December 27, 2012, 5:23 pm

SpongeBob SquarePants, a veritable font of gaga kid knowledge, debuted on the Nickelodeon channel in 1999.

Halberstam and I planned part II of this interview about Gaga Feminism: Sex Gender and the End of Normal (Beacon 2012) around the topic of taking the observations of children seriously. History then intervened.  In Sandy Hook, CT, 20 children and 7 adults were shot to death by a young man barely beyond adolescence himself; suddenly, this post became difficult and poignant. However, as Jack pointed out in an email, “perhaps it is even more appropriate” to talk about what children know, and what they care about, at this time.

I agree. We at Tenured Radical honor all of the deceased in Sandy Hook by reminding ourselves of why adult teachers, six of whom deliberately sacrificed their own lives for their students, love listening and talking to kids.  Children are resilient, they are keen observers, they are ethical, they are smart, and perhaps if we listened to them a little more we might learn something.

(Read Part one of the interview here.)

Tenured Radical: In the introduction to Gaga Feminism, you urge us towards “what ifs;” one of these is reversing generational authority when it comes to knowledge. Children, you observe, may have an easier time with gender than adults do, and perhaps we should follow their lead rather than trying to gender the world for them. In the book you connect this question to your own explorations of parenthood — but is this, perhaps, a simpler way of making some of the arguments you made in Female Masculinity (1998)?

J.Jack Halberstam: On a day when 20 young children have been shot dead because of the refusal by lawmakers in this country to restrict gun ownership and impose stringent gun laws, it is hard but maybe appropriate to talk about what kids know. In Gaga Feminism, I am drawing attention to the calculus of authority that always presupposes that adults know more than kids and that kids need to know what adults want to pass on to them.

However, childhood, as a space of anarchistic play, a pre-social and pre-normative space of queer revelry (and cruelty), has its own forms of knowledge embedded within it and instead of only trying to impose the lessons of adulthood upon kids we should also be trying to extract from kids their goofy and unknowing views of the world they have entered. For kids, much of what they encounter produces questions and while adults try to answer those questions, for kids, I think, the questions inevitably remain open.

The connection to Female Masculinity is interesting – as a kid I had so many questions about why the world worked the way it did; about gender and which toys, activities and interests were “for boys” and which “for girls.” As a parent, I try not to impose my queer reading of gender upon kids I know, but I do tell them things that I wished people had told me!

Gertrude Stein once asked: “What is the use of being a boy if you are going to grow up to be a man?” I know what she means! Boys tend to be quite open and tolerant and sweet and accepting under the right conditions, while manhood basically offers them some rewards if they enforce social norms. Boys that I meet through my partner’s son, are all respectful of my gender variance and call me “Jack” and “he” while acknowledging to each other and to me that they recognize that I am a different kind of masculine subject than they are. I used to worry that it would be embarrassing for the kids I know to claim me but actually I think it is enriching to have this expanded horizon of gender available from the get go.

TR: You’ve been working on the world of cartoons for some time. One of the things that a popular cartoon has done historically, as a cultural form, is to speak to adults and children simultaneously. Because adults control children’s access to media, a cartoon tends not to be commercially successful unless it bridges that gap between adult knowledge and kid knowledge.

JH: True! A successful cartoon must speak both to the kids who will be the repeat viewers and to the adults that must accompany them. That said, not all cartoons that appeal to adults and have some success appeal equally to kids. Chicken Run (2000), one of my all time favorite films, was a critically acclaimed success but kids find it a little boring. It appealed to adults who marveled at the claymation, and who found a very adult story about struggle, emancipation and utopia embedded in a narrative about chicken-brained schemes for escape.

Notice though that what is dropped into the mix to appeal to adults is always the normative stuff – the romance, the resolution, the clichéd lessons! Think of Happy Feet (2006) – why did it need a romance? That part of the film is boring and depends upon the vacuousness of the lucky lady penguin – we cannot even remember her name at the end! Kids, of course, are not coupled, not in romantic relationships anyway, and so the romance is not necessarily of interest to them.

Similarly, kids don’t need resolution – they don’t watch for the ending the way adults do. Kids are repeat watchers of films and so knowing what happens is clearly not why they keep watching. You might say that the child watches films in the way that [Gilles] Deleuze understands the truth of cinema – a procession of images that has its own logic separate from the plot. For Deleuze, cinema is a way of seeing that should change or transform not the world, but the way we interpret the world. Therefore cinema can become a philosophy precisely because it is a mode of seeing not tied to the individual eye. It is the organization of a mode of understanding and when organized in a certain way, it can rupture the everyday presumptions that prevent us from changing the world. Possibly, the child viewer embodies this way of seeing.

TR: In my favorite chapter of Gaga Feminism, “Gaga Genders,” you use some critical approaches to the lesbian parenting movie The Kids Are All Right (2010) that you began to develop in a much-commented upon post in Bully Bloggers. Before we get to that — has blogging moved you towards writing for a wider audience? Do you think of a blog post as a first draft of something that later becomes “scholarship” — or is it something else?

JH: I wish I could blog more! In graduate school I was a film reviewer for a local newspaper in Minneapolis and blogging, for me, works the same way. Reviewing gave me a way of channeling some ideas, mostly connected to film and popular culture, to a larger audience and getting immediate feedback.

I think one of the hard things about academia and academic writing is the long drawn-out temporality of it, the long lag between writing and publication, and then the even longer gap between having readers and getting a response. Many academics never get a sense of how people are reading their work or even if people are reading their work. Given that we read, write and speak for a living, we should, some of us, be able to experiment with multiple platforms for writing and speaking – this was the point I made in The Queer Art of Failure (2011) in relation to Low Theory. We can and should, some of us, write at several different levels for multiple audiences, because this is one really effective way of bringing the critical edge of academic thought to the public. It is also a way of interacting, in a common language, with other intellectual realms where knowledge is produced (activist events, libraries, political meetings etc.) Think of Raymond Williams’ Keywords project in this vein – that was a low theory project dedicated to producing translations of vocabularies that different communities were using very differently. I think of blogging as a way of bridging some of the gaps between academics and the ongoing chatter in the media and elsewhere.

TR: OK, so I want to follow up on The Kids Are Alright: there was a lot of discussion at the time about whether a mainstream movie about lesbian parenting was “good” or “bad” for the future of queer families; you argue instead that the movie promotes a quite conservative vision of family that forecloses possibility. Can you expand on this for our audience?

JH: Oboy. That film made me CRAAAAZY! I went to see it with my girlfriend and another couple, a straight couple. I was embarrassed to be watching this film with them, from start to finish, and wanted to say: this is not at all how we live our queerness, don’t confuse the representation with reality!

I was defensive and really really bothered by the whole film. I found that heterosexual people liked the film. It made it seem as if the way that heterosexuals have managed childcare and kinship is really the right way and that queers must try to fit into the same model. In fact, I think many queer parents find hetero-parenting and kinship to be suffocating and unbearable and are trying hard to change those forms through new ways of being in relationship to kids, to other parents and to collectivities. The film was also utterly illogical.  It said, basically: “nuclear families suck. Domestic monogamy breeds the desire for other people. Kids are always in the crossfire between the parents and the disappointing arc of the parents hopes and aspirations.” OK, that all seems right on. And then it also says “stay married, repress your desires, project normativity back onto the kids”!

That was depressing.  The movie then played to sexual stereotypes by attributing an untrammeled and spontaneous desire to the fast-living sperm donor and making the lesbian couple into the epitome of domesticated and tamed desire. When I wrote this up as a blog entry for Bully Bloggers, people certainly responded!

TR: Finally — I just want to toss this in as a provocation — that child knowledge produces possibilities for intervention, as you argue above,  is such an important point. But in The Kids Are Alright it’s the kids who provoke a crisis in the family, demonstrating a kind of ongoing contempt for the female bodied parents that they have and acting on their longing for a “traditional” dad who they are then able to find because of state assistance. If we are serious about queering family, it seems we need to pay even more attention to how various political interests ventriloquize themselves through children. We also need to attend to what an authentic “child voice” would be like.

JH: Absolutely! The thing is – in that film, we are not really dealing with “kids,” we are in the presence of young adults who are most interpellated by normativity and the normative expectations of their peers. They actually, as adolescents, become both vectors for the critique of lesbian nuclearity and carriers of new forms of heteronormativity. That this is expressed in the film separate from any articulate critique of heterosexual structures of intimacy is tragic and a missed opportunity. For me, it confirms my sense that the “child knowledge” I pursue comes from infantile cultural material, the animated films and puppet worlds, the SpongeBob SquarePants philosophies, and the Muppet-like sets of relations to age, love and collectivity.

The third, and final, segment of this interview will address the topic of gay marriage.

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