Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: News Review
Paint them ugly
Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly’s latest book is Blubberland: The Dangers Of Happiness, published by New South.
As the young surrender their childhoods and adults retreat to puerility, Elizabeth Farrelly wonders whether the two trends are related.
“Why so many ugly babies?” This is what every child dragged through the august corridors of Florence’s Uffizi wants to know. Not an explanation of Botticelli’s allegory, not how Cranach captured Eve’s extraordinary, distant-yet-intimate gaze. Why the ugly babies?
From a thousand great painters via as many beautiful madonnas, virtually every Christ-baby has the toad looks of some monstrous usurper, a gross, square-faced homunculus of a thing; the kind of infant that makes waiting-room mothers scrabble in their handbags for something nice to say.
The reason for the ugly babies is not that Botticelli, del Sarto and the gang couldn’t draw. Nor that there was some weird genetic deformity just around the Renaissance. Nor even that they had a different idea of infant beauty, appealingly post-modern as that thought may be.
No, the reason for the ugly babies was fear. To paint Christ childlike was to make him childish, a heresy, punishable by torture, death or – worse – excommunication. So they painted the Christ child ugly, a small curmudgeonly man.
This, it might be argued, is what we are doing to our children. Painting them ugly, not like children but like mini grown-ups. And for the same reason. Fear.
How can this be happening? And how does it relate to the apparently opposite but widely noted trend of adults becoming more childish? Could the two be related in some mysterious way?
Scene 1: The teenager sits on her bed, takes a chocolate from the box and with studied deliberation eats it. Thrilled by the intensity of pleasure she takes another and another; then, with sudden vehemence, scoffs the lot.
Minutes later, brimming with self-disgust, she pads to her en suite bathroom, shoves two fingers down her throat and throws up. She does this repeatedly, trying to estimate the precise volume of chocolate consumed, trying to eliminate it all, for she knows it was alone in her stomach.
She hates this. Hates having to wait up until 2am to do this. Hates the effect on her teeth, her relationships and the way her toilet is the cleanest in the neighbourhood. Hates her red, puffy face and the way her bottom drawer permanently reeks of sick-bags. Hates especially knowing that the chocolate she just wasted was made from cocoa picked by slave children younger than her, thinner than her, who would give anything just to eat one, let alone keep it down.
Scene 2: The mother walks up the steps to her front door, legs aching, arms heavy with her briefcase, laptop and stuff for dinner.
Three sweet-faced children, aged between three and seven, straggle happily after her, bickering mildly, dragging the family beagle on a lead. The woman fumbles for the key, opens the door. She hesitates only a minute, but by then all three children, and the dog, have rushed in ahead of her. She reflects for a moment that her own mother would have insisted adults first, then children. She shrugs, too tired to pursue it, and heads wearily for the kitchen.
Scene 3: When I was seven or eight, back in the days when kids roamed the neighbourhood after school, I saw a man exposing himself in the churchyard. Poor man, I thought, he must have needed a pee. And I turned away so as not to embarrass him.
This is not an essay about eating disorders, or manners, or sexual abuse, intriguing and disturbing though these things are. It’s an essay about what such abuse and disorders represent; an imbalance in the power relationship between children and adults, resulting in a chronic inflammation around the joint between the childhood idyll and the task of being adult.
All societies, sociologists agree, recognise a clear distinction between childhood and adulthood. Many ritualise this pubertal transition (the bar mitzvah, the initiation, the “coming out”). But some, like ours, have invented a whole new phase – adolescence – specifically to prolong childhood, often for educational reasons, and to insist that post-pubertal humans are still children.
Witness, for instance, the Miley Cyrus fuss. She’s 15, not six. In Shakespeare’s time she might have been married, or Queen. Yet we talk as though she’s a child being prematurely, unnaturally “sexualised” with all the righteous indignation that implies.
This insistence brings with it a whole new category of difficulties and dilemmas, nowhere more poignantly manifest that in the ruckus that will surely be known hereafter as the Bill Henson affair – as lightly and scornfully perhaps as we recall the Oz obscenity trial of 1971, the 1960 Lady Chatterley trial or the Whistler trial of 1878.
The Henson affair was resolved by not being resolved. The pictures were returned, no charges laid but viewable by appointment only. For Henson, for his gallerist Ros Oxley and for any artist or gallerist tempted to show any child, ever, the message was Beware! Beware the moral majority, the expectation of niceness in art, the imposition of ‘standards’ – not of artistry, or craftsmanship, or skill, but of decency. Decency, in art.
Never mind that decency, in all its small-mindedness, is the very anathema of art. Or that art and pornography are virtually opposite cultural forms. Consider for a minute the questions left by the Bill Henson affair about the nature of childhood, of children and of our relationship, as adults, to them.
The Oz trial and the Bill Henson affair are Australia’s main contributions to obscenity scandal. And although Oz was prosecuted in Britain, there is common ground. Both involved obscenity charges levelled at a successful Australian art form. Both turned on public perceptions of adolescent sexuality. Both manifested a profound cultural clash based largely on misunderstanding. And both left the accused feeling damaged and the accusers looking kind of dumb.
The Oz trial focused on the May 1970 issue of Richard Neville’s Oz magazine, the so-called ‘Schoolkids Issue’, decorated with cavorting nakedness. At its heart was a misunderstanding, that the issue was aimed at schoolchildren when, in fact, it was produced by them. A voluntary team of 15- to 18-year-old guest editors included the now esteemed music writer Charles Shaar Murray and the Blueprint founder, now director of the London Design Museum, Deyan Sudjic.
Said writer Jonathan Green: “When Neville naively, injudiciously, combined ‘children’ with the usual irritants of drugs and sex and rock, [the Establishment] saw their chance.”
We can laugh, now, because we recognise that the sex-and-drugs revolution so feared by the then-Establishment was a toothless tiger. It happened, but it changed so little. And yet these same baby-boomers led the anti-Henson charge, driven now by their own fears about teen sexuality.
The reaction to Henson, and its trail, have been intense and emotional, based on the visceral urge to protect innocence. But it’s surprising how easily “I wouldn’t want my daughter doing that” slides into “it should be banned”.
Never mind that supermarkets sell lipsticks and high heels to six-year-olds. Or that girls routinely from birth are saturation-clad in pink – the colour of female sexual engorgement. Or that child pornography is freely available at the click of a mouse, or that pedophilia is rampant in our churches, schools and homes, as well as cyberspace. Never mind that Henson’s images are as much elegiac as erotic, mourning the loss of childhood and the move into sexualised adolescence.
We all want to protect our children. This is right and proper. It is also understandable that parents want to save children from reliving their own excesses, sexual and otherwise. But how much of our construction of childhood as a fragile walled garden is just that – a construct?
What are our motives, exactly? Have we built the garden walls so high they cannot be scaled, or are they just in the wrong place? Are we failing, perhaps, to build in our children the necessary climbing muscle? Or are they being stampeded by our own rush over the wall in the other direction?
The shift into modern childhood is partly a shift in world view, from the classical Pauline presumption of original sin, needing to be disciplined out of a child from an early age, to a romantic presumption of innocence, as summarised by Wordsworth: “trailing clouds of glory do we come from God who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy … “
Modern parents, freed from traditional anxieties over diphtheria and polio, started to worry instead about the terrible damage their parenting style could do. The wrong food, education, child care, exercise, family structure or discipline habits could leave your child scarred and misshapen for life. And if each child lands on Earth pretty much perfect, that’d make it your fault.
But children are not perfect. Ten-year-olds can murder and torture with terrifying sangfroid, as Jon Venables and Robert Thompson did to two-year old James Bulger, and pre-teen violence is increasing. Morality is not only learned but must be actively taught. And yet we, unsure perhaps of our own moral framework, are reluctant to take this responsibility, hoping – foolishly – that schools will do it in our stead.
The historian Peter Stearns notes three factors that mark modern childhood: divorce, the substitution of negotiation for discipline and the enthronement of child as consumer. Combined, they produce the child-as-godling syndrome, or what Joseph Epstein calls the kindergarchy. From prenatal anxiety to the 25-year-old cuckoo in the nest, the verb “to parent” has become a life-dominating neurosis.
But the kindergarchy runs in direct parallel with the opposite phenomenon: increasingly babyish adults. Commentators cite our overeating, our overwanting, and our spoilt-brat political habits – punishing politicians who refuse to indulge us with cheaper petrol, for instance – much as children punish their parents for refusing to supply ice-cream. The US writer Mark Steyn has described America as “a culture of arrested development … of perpetual childhood”.
This, of course, is just where the big-business-nanny-state consortium wants us. To keep children quiet, any playschool teacher knows, you feed them, then prop them in front of the telly. Consumption keeps the economic peristalsis moving while placating the body politic. This is the system we fight to protect; the system for which we invade Afghanistan and Iraq.
But it is a retreat; a retreat from the task of adulthood – the struggle to do not what is enticing or pleasurable but what is right – back into our children’s playpens, or at least into that specially constructed holding pattern we call adolescence.
Hardly surprising, perhaps, that once there, we emit contrary and confusing signals; hyper-parenting, worshipping and yet negotiating. Deciding 18-year-old boys are old enough to die for their country but fifteen-year-old girls are too young even to recognise the power that having curves and pouts suddenly gives them. Turning the family from a hierarchy into a mini-democracy where children, teens and adults have equal status and discipline is no longer imposed but negotiated.
What we do not see, however, is that this perpetual childhood of ours is stolen from our children. Childhood – that particular, magic vision that allows kids to walk under tables, and fly under the radar – relies on being powerless as much as being small; relies on some external, benevolent source of power. We don’t see this, because we see all empowerment as good.
So we abrogate. We refuse to exercise proper power over our children, or to recognise that children segue into adulthood by emulating us. We decline to set for them the boundaries or develop in them the skills by which they might securely navigate this process. We build a society obsessed with celebrity, sex and consumption, where advertising ice-cream on the sides of buses evokes oral sex, and then we affect abhorrence at the way our teenagers practise celebrity, sex and consumption.
The costs are high. In indulging our reluctance to play the grown-up, we sacrifice our children on the altar of our own cowardice, shoving them over the top to face an adulthood from which we ourselves shrink.
Beautiful they may be. We paint them ugly.