We're Here, We're Queer, but We're Just like Heterosexuals: A Cultural Studies Analysis of Lesbian Themed Children's Books

By Esposito, Jennifer | Educational Foundations, Summer-Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

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. …

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