By Mariko Turk
I’m taking a course this semester called Desperate Domesticity: American Literature & Culture in the 1950s. Given the course’s focus on domestic ideologies and spaces, children have been popping up quite a bit, especially in the suburbs. Sometimes these appearances are particularly wonderful, such as the diaper ad in a 1956 Ladies Home Journal that refers to crawling babies as “little creepers.” Brilliant. Beyond describing children’s physical movements, though, there are ways that ‘50s texts about domesticity (both those critical and those celebratory of it) tinge children and their domestic lives with a bit of creepiness.
As Elaine Tyler May points out in Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, the very structure of the iconic, mass-produced 1950s suburban home was designed to allow for the careful surveillance of children: “Kitchens were near the front entrance, so mothers could keep an eye on their children as they cooked. Living rooms featured picture windows facing the backyard, also to facilitate the supervision of children.” This constant watchfulness surrounding suburban children, built into the very structure of their homes, lends an eerie restrictiveness to stories about their lives. It also seems humorously unnecessary for the young inhabitants of ‘50s suburban sitcom homes like the Beaver in Leave it to Beaver, Ricky Nelson (“the little guy with the twinkle in his eye”) in Ozzie and Harriet, or Kathy “Kitten” Anderson in Father Knows Best. These little guys and girls might lightly zing their parents every once in a while, or utter the occasional, emphatic “ah gee!” but this is about all the adults have to fear from them. For 21st century audiences, however, (especially those unaccustomed to the ’50 sitcom acting style) these kids with their too-wide smiles, wandering about a house designed for watching them, might seem awfully creepy indeed.
But there are also plenty of ‘50s suburban children who capture creepiness in a more customary sense, generating chills and shudders with their blunt morbidity or their stunningly blithe reactions to violence or pain. I have always been a big fan of Shirley Jackson’s seriously creepy little creepers, from the children who pick their heavy stones with the utmost care in “The Lottery” (1948), to Jack and Judy in “The Renegade” (1949), who merrily think up ways to kill the family dog.
Now I see that Jackson’s children are part of a cohort of creeps. The children on the famously tragic family road trip in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” for instance, are absolutely thrilled when their car flips over: [their mother] “had a cut down her face and a broken shoulder. ‘We’ve had an ACCIDENT!’ the children screamed in a frenzy of delight. ‘But nobody’s killed,’ June Star said with disappointment as the grandmother limped out of the car.” Sloan Wilson’s popular 1955 novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit features similarly blood-thirsty suburban children. When their mother catches the chicken pox from them and lies indisposed in her bedroom with the doctor, the “three children came into the room, their scabbed faces wreathed in smiles. ‘Are you going to give her a needle?’ Janey asked.” She asks three more times. And children not only delight in occasions of physical violence and sickness, but can also be counted upon to wreak shrewd emotional damage on the adults surrounding them. This happens briefly in Tennessee Williams’ Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, when Maggie Pollitt’s niece, Dixie, with her “precocious instinct for the cruelest thing,” informs the childless and unsatisfied Maggie that she is angry because she can’t have babies.
Most of these creepy child characters play only small roles in their larger narratives. But reading the ways that children react to the emotional tension, the violence, or the quieter creepiness of 1950s domestic culture could provide valuable throughways into the culture and legacy of ‘50s domesticity.
And speaking of creepiness and mid-century American children, below is a CFP for papers on children in Hitchcock films.
Proposed edited volume of papers on Hitchcock’s Children
Deadline: May 30, 2012
Although children and youth appear in a great number of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, they are rarely the focus of critical attention. This collection seeks to remedy that oversight and aims to add to the rich and varied tradition of Hitchcock scholarship. Many of the children and youth that appear in Hitchcock films are background or minor characters, yet they often hold special importance. From The Young and Innocent (1931), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), The Trouble With Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) to The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964) children and youth perform both innocence and knowingness (and so much more) within Hitchcock’s complex cinematic texts. Though the child often plays a small part in Hitchcock’s films, their significance, both symbolically and philosophically, offers a unique opportunity to illuminate and interrogate the child presence.
Contributor’s are invited to submit critical and/or theoretical examinations of the children/youth characters in the full range of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, from his early silent’s to his later films. For the collection’s focus, children are defined as birth to age 12, while youth are defined as teenagers age 13 to 17.
Please send an abstract (200-500 words), current contact information, and brief biography (or CV) as attachments in Word (or compatible) by May 30, 2012, to Debbie Olson, firstname.lastname@example.org. Completed papers are due August 31st, 2012.
Debbie Olson, ABD
Oklahoma State University
University of Texas at Arlington
Departments of English
Mariko is a PhD student.