We're Here, We're Queer, but We're Just like Heterosexuals: A Cultural Studies Analysis of Lesbian Themed Children's Books
Esposito, Jennifer, Educational Foundations
In the heartwarming children's picture book, Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman, the main character Heather must grapple with the fact that her family may be different from her playmates' because she has two mommies but she does not have a daddy. The story begins rather quaintly with a description of her home "with the big apple tree in the front yard and the tall grass in the backyard." Mama Kate and Mama Jane "were friends for a long long time." After they finally fell in love, they decided they wanted to have a baby. The family seems perfect. "On sunny days they go to the park. On rainy days they stay inside and bake cookies." At Heather's playgroup, she learns that some other children have daddies. "Heather feels sad and begins to cry." The teacher decides to have every child draw a picture of his or her family so that Heather can see that families come in all types of configurations. By the end of the story, we are taught the lesson that "it doesn't matter how many mommies or daddies your family has."
What Newman leaves out, however, is that it does matter how many mommies or daddies you have. It matters so much, in fact, that the illustrator of Newman's book was careful to portray Mama Kate and Mama Jane as nothing more than good friends. It matters so much that even Newman's "picture-perfect" portrayal of a lesbian family did not deter her book from being banned from various schools and libraries. In fact, Heather Has Two Mommies is number eleven on the American Library Association's "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000."
Queer Theory and Normalization
In an attempt to subvert the notion of lesbian as "Other," Newman attempts to normalize lesbianism. This is not a new tactic. Walters (2001), in her analysis of gay culture, argues that in many texts which feature gay characters, gay identity is kept invisible or made legitimate only through assimilation into heterosexuality. Heather Has Two Mommies, like other children's picture books about lesbian mothers and their children, inscribes heteronormativity on the lesbian family. The idea of heteronormativity is utilized in a ways similar to Berlant and Warner (1998):
the institutions, structures of understanding, and practical orientations that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent--that is, organized as a sexuality--but also privileged. Its coherence is always provisional, and its privilege can take several (sometimes contradictory) forms: unmarked, as the basic idiom of the personal and social; or marked as a natural state; or projected as an ideal or moral accomplishment. (p. 548)
Heteronormativity creates heterosexuality as the quintessential ideal of sexuality, as the most natural state of being. This normalization, in turn, marginalizes homosexuality so that it becomes viewed as unnatural and immoral. Berlant and Warner (1998) go on to argue that one way heteronormative forms of intimacy get reinscribed is through love plots. This idea is important because the storylines of lesbian families in children's picture books often represent heteronormative love plots. As Rofes (1998) argues, often "a lesbian couple simply serves to replace a heterosexual couple as the source of knowledge and authority within the family" (p. 18). Such a substitution of a lesbian couple for a heterosexual one means that social issues like homophobia do not have to be addressed. The lesbian family, in this instance, lives and loves just like the heterosexual family. Thus, in the world of children's picture books, the lesbian family becomes insulated from its own marginalization. It is, therefore, important to understand how lesbian families are represented in a heteronormative society.
To examine such representation, five children's picture books that include lesbian mothers and their children are analyzed. While there are also interesting and relevant children's picture books about gay fathers, texts with lesbian parents were selected because of the relative scarcity of these representations. The books are: Is Your Family Like Mine? by Lois Abramchik, Asha's Mums by Rosamund Elwin and Michele Paulse, Molly's Family by Nancy Garden, Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman, and The Daddy Machine by Johnny Valentine. These particular books were chosen because of their availability.
The texts have been examined almost 20 years since they were first published. With this fact in mind, it is important to contextualize the discussion within a historical moment. Debates about the necessity of discussion of sexual orientation in schools during the nineties are noted by New York City's Rainbow Curriculum. In 1992, then school chancellor Joseph Fernandez proposed what became known as the Rainbow Curriculum. More inclusive than ever before on issues of gays and lesbians, the reading list even included one of the books analyzed here--Heather Has Two Mommies. Religious conservatives protested and the fervor made national headlines. Fernandez lost his job and the Rainbow Curriculum was not implemented. Around the country school libraries witnessed religiously conservative parents burn picture books dealing with gay content. This, of course, had ramifications on publishers which, in turn, affected what could get published and, thus, what authors could write. Such a historical context shaped the content of these picture books and it must be acknowledged that these books were, 20 years prior, on the cutting edge of what could be published in the genre.
Four themes emerged from the texts, though these themes should be evaluated within the above historical context. The first theme is the problematizing of not having a daddy. Many of the books pose as a problem the fact that children of lesbian mothers do not have a father. The second theme present is the "de-queering" of lesbianism. The de-queering approach represents lesbian families as just like heterosexual families. In essence, the approach erases difference. The third theme is the implication of children in the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. The "don't ask, don't tell policy" was created by former president Bill Clinton in regards to gay people in the military. Based on this policy, it is illegal for gay military personnel to be asked directly if they are gay. This theme was present in the texts in that many of the lesbian families chose to live quiet closeted lives in the hopes that they would not be confronted directly about their family's configuration. Finally, theme four is the use of lesbianism as a catalyst for heterosexual growth. The "problem" of lesbianism or lesbian families is utilized as a way of "teaching" heterosexuals to be more tolerant.
The critiques are solely from the standpoint of a Latina lesbian mom. As such, this paper neglects the voice of the child. One of its limitations is that an investigation of how children experience and make meaning of the texts discussed has not been included. For, as Buckingham (1993) argues, children are active interpreters of text and their interpretations may be different from ours, as adults. Although it is argued the texts privilege heterosexuality and attempt to "de-queer" lesbianism, it is possible for children to do a resistive reading of any of the texts critiqued here. Due to space limitations, this idea is not explored.
Queer theory is a large academic discipline that has come to mean many things. Warner's (1993) explanation is most useful to this project:
Almost everything that would be called queer theory is about ways in which texts--either literature or mass culture or language--shape sexuality. Usually, the notion is that fantasy and other kinds of representation are inherently uncontrollable, queer by nature. This focus on messy representation allows queer theory, like nonacademic queer activism, to be both assimilationist and anti-seperatist: you can't eliminate …
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Publication information: Article title: We're Here, We're Queer, but We're Just like Heterosexuals: A Cultural Studies Analysis of Lesbian Themed Children's Books. Contributors: Esposito, Jennifer - Author. Journal title: Educational Foundations. Volume: 23. Issue: 3-4 Publication date: Summer-Fall 2009. Page number: 61+. © 2006 Caddo Gap Press. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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