Girls, Boys, Books, Toys: Gender in Children's Literature and Culture
Thomson, Stephen, Yearbook of English Studies
Girls, Boys, Books, Toys: Gender in Children's Literature and Culture. Ed. by Beverly Lyon Clark and Margaret R. Higonnet. Baltimore, MD, and London: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1999. ix +296 pp. 35 [pounds sterling].
`Some [feminist critics] deconstruct binary thinking and give play to the preoedipal semiotic, in the liminal space provided by our culture's construction of childhood. Some question the boundaries and chart the slippages between male and female, rethinking not just femininity but also masculinity.' Thus Beverly Lyon Clark's introduction advertises the `theoretical' orientation of this volume of essays, placing it in the context of recent `theorized' children's literature criticism. Sadly, this volume, in common with the generality of that `theorized' criticism, is unequal to its ambitions. For it quite simply fails to engage with the deconstruction of the category `child' proposed by Jacqueline Rose and Karin Lesnik-Oberstein. Its only `theory' is a historicism that helplessly negates history; or else a cultural critique that negates culture. Some of the contributors to this volume might be surprised to read this, but it is the necessary consequence of their unexamined appeal to `child' as a culturally and historically transcendent category. This `child' just cannot be an object of historical study where that study already presupposes its identity. Consequently, in these essays the figure `child' staggers between two roles whose contradiction is never examined. On the one hand, it is absolutely prey to socialization and change; hence the political urgency of criticizing the texts `we' give it. On the other hand, the child just is the absolutely originary imagination that always subverts the dominant culture. Similarly, texts are divided into those that are ideological impositions, and those that allow the utopian subversiveness of the child to shine through. It follows that `cultural construction' is something in which a text may or may not be implicated. So, for instance, when Susan Willis's essay on dinosaurs as `cultural constructs' mentions a `particularly skewed notion of dinosaurs', it envisages degrees of constructedness. …