In an earlier post I argued (here) that we are seeing a cultural war over the definition of childhood; namely between a conservative, romanticised vision; a bourgeois, materialist vision and what I call the natural child, the child free to be themselves, free of all adult expectation.
Much of the concern over sexualisation comes from the conservatives who have created an unrealistic ideal of the ‘innocent’ child. This ideal is a rather late invention. A combination of Victorian romanticism revisioned after WW2. It is largely the construction of adults afraid of the adult world: if only we could return to a period of innocence. These conservatives are deeply afraid of childhood sexuality, indeed, as they are afraid of their own adult sexuality. In their world children are in danger from sex. Predators lurk everywhere, children are damaged by an early awareness, but more importantly (and this is the real concern) a sexualised child does not conform to conservative moral standards.
Never mind that child psychologists and sexologists accept that children do have a sexuality. Of course, it is a child’s sexuality, not an adult sexuality. Regrettably many conservatives believe that sexuality must necessarily be adult, so they can’t see, or don’t want to see, children’s sexuality. They consistently impose adult concepts and motivations onto children.
But what is children’s sexuality? It varies according to the child’s developmental level. In general it is playful, curious, ephemeral and spontaneous. It is about discovering the delights of the body. It is running, spinning to make yourself dizzy, tickling, cuddling, using water, wind, grass, leaves, etc, against the skin. The child has not yet learned adult concepts and distinctions so it does not understand boundaries. Certain things feel nice, others don’t. Many girls experience their first orgasm during play; sliding down a pole, being tickled, running, playing with water from a hose. They may only realise this when they have their first conscious orgasm and remember that they have felt the sensation before. Some however, discover it through masturbation.
Of course we must protect children from harm but we must also protect the space to allow them to explore their sexuality. The predator exploits children for his own pleasure, but so too does the moral conservative; only he exploits the child to support his fear and his moral ideology.
Dani Brubaker is a noted photographer of children (blog and website). She came under fire from moral conservatives because she has taken most of the controversial photos of Thylane Blondeau. And when I say moral conservatives, I also mean prissy fashion bloggers – usually Americans coloured by that country’s deep-rooted Puritanism. I’ve been looking through Brubaker’s portfolio and all I can say is that she understands the natural child. All of her photos are a celebration of the natural child. Yes, she is a commercial photographer and yes, she works in advertising. I am not naive. She is successful because she sells products, usually children’s fashion. But given that understanding, she does it by allowing children to be natural children.
But there is another, very important thing about her. Dani has Native American heritage and identifies with Native American values. She does not identify with White, Puritan values. She makes this explicit on her blog when she says:
I grew up by the code of the Native American Indian. The code, which venerates children yet allows them freedom of self-expression.
Elsewhere on the blog she says:
The wild woman is the one who dares, and who creates and who destroys. She is the primitive and inventing soul that makes all the creative acts and arts possible. She creates a forest around us and we begin to deal with life from that fresh and original perspective.
It has been interesting to read much of the ill-informed outrage over some of the photos of Thylane, especially those where she appears topless. I have pointed out that it is primarily Anglophone countries that see a topless girl as sexual, taboo. Frankly, this is their cultural baggage and one they should keep to themselves. You are the neurotics, not Dani, or Thylane. The one that many people choose to show is of Thylane dressed as an Indian. Now we understand the photos (one blogger accused Dani of racism for mimicking Native American culture – thus proving how ignorant much of the debate has been). No doubt Dani has told Thylane about her Native American heritage.
Dani seems close to Thylane and her family; as a friend, not an exploiter. Here are some shots featuring Dani; one with Thylane and her brother; one of her shooting Thylane and a boy model. Why is she topless? Because her family and her culture doesn’t have a neurotic problem with girls running around topless in summer like boys (as they ought to be allowed).
Anyway, lots of shots out there by Dani. All of them stunning. All of them featuring natural kids. Are they sexual? Only in the sense of celebrating children’s natural sensuality and precociousness. But that’s a good thing. Better that than the miserable, controlled, bland vision of the moral conservatives. They would prefer to crush children and mould them into acceptable shapes. They can’t stand the wild beauty of these photos.