James Kincaid, Peter Pan & Grimm's Tales Essay

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James Kincaid, Peter Pan & Grimm's Tales

"By insisting so loudly on the innocence, purity and asexuality of the child, we have created a subversive echo: experience, corruption, exoticism." This statement from James Kincaid's work on Victorian children's literature would be later expanded and ramified to provide the central thesis for Kincaid's study Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting, a work which inquires into the cultural investment that contemporary mainstream American culture has in the idea of "childhood innocence." I would like to examine Kincaid's thesis a little more closely, then I would like to apply it to three proof-texts: James Barrie's Peter Pan and the stories of Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood as they appear in the versions collected by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm. It is my hope to show that the antagonists in these stories seem defined by Kincaid's "subversive echo" of the cultural construction of "childhood innocence," and indeed seem themselves to be "failed children."

The analysis that Kincaid provides in Erotic Innocence represents an attempt to apply the insights from a long career in Victorian literature to analyzing contemporary cultural artifacts more generally. I mention this at the outset because to some extent Kincaid's insights are derived from close attention to works like Peter Pan or Grimm's Fairy Tales, and thus to apply them back is only to confirm the validity of Kincaid's original observation. What is fascinating is the way that Kincaid can take the somewhat shocking analysis that he derives from writers like Carroll or Barrie and apply them to contemporary mass culture. In terms of how the "subversive echo" of childhood innocence becomes embodies in the antagonists of these narratives, I would like to use Kincaid's own analysis in Erotic Innocence of the Macaulay Culkin film comedy "Home Alone." I must first make it clear that I find at Kincaid's reading of the John Hughes film "Home Alone" absolutely persuasive. Kincaid raises the issue of the way Macaulay Culkin's face is, to a certain degree, eroticized, and even offers a visual comparison of Macaulay Culkin next to Marilyn Monroe: the suggestion is that both faces are eroticized blanks, the male child's face reads as feminized, the adult woman's face reads as child-like, and in both cases a somewhat queasy power dynamic is established whereby innocence becomes defined not only by its spotless purity, but is susceptibility to corruption, which seems suddenly to define that innocence as innately desirable. In other words, Kincaid reads "Home Alone" as a solution to how to make Macaulay Culkin the subject of the audience's erotic fantasy in a way which is safely disguised. It is worth examining Kincaid's reading at some length: he writes of "Home Alone" that

Though we do not receive the full pedophile plot in that film, we are titillated by an oblique sneak-up on the erotic narrative. Here, as in the standard plot, parents are rendered superfluous: self-absorbed and out of the way. The child is alone, in need not of protection but of love. As the fantasy develops and the child is actually attacked, we are allowed to relax in the face of his omnipotence…The boy negates nervous parental (or audience) fears, assuring us, in this odd empowerment, that in a physical sense, he is quite OK alone. Don't call the cops; provide affection…. What is missing from the standard plot is the misfit, the child's lover. No one is there to move in and adore the alone boy. The plot function is merely shadowed by the bogeyman neighbor….carefully kept dim and marginal, and [not] allowed to get close to Kevin. That's the space kept vacant for us, and we have spent about a billion dollars jumping into it. (Kincaid 116-8)

In other words, Kincaid suggests that the construction of childhood "innocence" in "Home Alone" -- a curious concept since Macaulay Culkin proves so dangerous to the two burglars played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. As Kincaid describes the film's antagonists: "The bumbling intruders, both insanely aggressive and harmless in their obsession with the child, act as covers for us, perfect Three Stooges masks: we will never be forced to recognize ourselves in these clowns." (Kincaid 117) In other words, Kincaid sees the antagonists of the plot as being a "subversive echo" of the audience's own experience in viewing the film -- we feel reassured that these two men are not erotically obsessed with the child (their motivations are clearly outlined otherwise), allowing the audience to excuse their own willingness to watch Macaulay Culkin mugging for two hours, yet otherwise the situation -- two criminal adults trying to break into a house in which a child has been abandoned by his parents -- seems Gothic, precisely like the overall genre which Kincaid thinks governs our stories of eroticized children.
But the central fact of Kincaid's reading is the recognition that, in all stories involving childhood innocence, there seems to be a certain level of clear and obvious substitution that takes place, in the same way that the idea of a menacing villain that actually wishes to prey on a child -- such as our cultural bogeyman of the "child molester." Again, Kincaid is persuasive without being cavalier when he notes that clearly some kind of Gothic narrative is being perpetuated by the public imagination when he indicates that our stereotyped image of the child molester -- i.e., a stranger who abducts children for sexual purposes -- is statistically rare: as Kincaid puts it "In 1985, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children said there were between four thousand and twenty thousand stranger kidnappings every year, a figure soon bloated to fifty thousand by the media, although the FBI that year investigated only fifty-three cases. The issue is not that we jacked things up, but that we felt the need to do so." (Kincaid 78). In other words, this indicates a need to define the kind of cultural villain that finds childhood innocence irresistible, the "child molester." Yet this is a sexualized version of the irresistible child, and it is worth noting that in the fairy tales collected by Grimm, the villain follows precisely this mold. As two representative examples, I'd like to look at both the Wolf in the Grimms' version of Little Red Riding Hood ("Little Red Cap") and the Witch in their version of "Hansel and Gretel." In both of these cases, the idea of predation upon children is shorn of eroticism in the same way that "Home Alone" will de-sexualize the motivations of the burglars. The Wolf is slightly more complicated, because he seems to shift functions at each moment in the story. His first appearance makes him seem like a cautionary tale about how strangers can exploit even basic information told to them by a child -- but as the Grimms note in their narration, "Red-Cap did not know what a wicked creature he was, and was not at all afraid of him." ("Little Red Cap"). In other words, the wolf's first appearance equates innocence with basic ignorance. But soon the wolf is teaching the reader (if not Red-Cap herself) the lesson of how a confidence-game proceeds: he has to play upon Red-Cap's instincts for self-gratification in order to gratify himself by pulling of the trick whereby he will eat her:

The wolf thought to himself: 'What a tender young creature! what a nice plump mouthful -- she will be better to eat than the old woman. I must act craftily, so as to catch both.' So he walked for a short time by the side of Little Red-Cap, and then he said: 'See, Little Red-Cap, how pretty the flowers are about here -- why do you not look round? I believe, too, that you do not hear how sweetly the little birds are singing; you walk gravely along as if you were going to school, while everything else out here in the wood is merry.' Little Red-Cap raised her eyes, and when she saw the sunbeams dancing here and there through the trees, and pretty flowers growing everywhere, she thought: 'Suppose I take grandmother a fresh nosegay; that would please her too. It is so early in the day that I shall still get there in good time'… ("Little Red Cap")

The menace here is that the Wolf ventriloquizes the child's own worst nature: in other words, it is the moment of failure on the part of the child to live up to rules and maxims (such as the mother's warning at the opening of the story "do not run off the path") that the Wolf speaks up for. What this moment manages to do is to shift the role of the Wolf from demonstrating in dialogue the methods of a deceitful adult (gathering information to exploit it) to voicing in his dialogue the instinctive desire of the child. In other words, at this moment, the mother's rule defines the wolf, and the wolf voices the necessary alternative to the rule -- and….....

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