Children’s Literature: Sexual Identity, Gender, and Childhood

Author: Karín Lesnik-Oberstein (University of Reading, UK)

On the 23rd of May 2015, Ireland became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. This event reversed a large part, if not all, of Ireland’s reputation for a Catholic-led conservatism concerning sexual and gender identities. I argue in this article that we can see a parallel-in-miniature to this momentous shift in something of a reversal of children’s literature’s views in this respect, and I will concentrate on exploring what is at stake in the ways that childhood, sexual, and gender identities are constructed in some recent children’s literature criticism in light of these shifts. My primary consideration: what is the ever-burgeoning interest in the gay, queer, cross-dressing, transsexual, or transgender child precisely about?[1]  I ask this question not assuming that the interest in these identities arises necessarily and simply out of a self-evident, progressive, liberatory impulse; I also do not assume that “identities” are essential, self-organized traits awaiting revelation and liberation. In not departing from such assumptions, I am drawing on the famous argument of Michel Foucault that

[t]here may be another reason that makes it so gratifying for us to define the relationship between sex and power in terms of repression: something that one might call the speaker’s benefit. If sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression. A person who holds forth in such language […] upsets established law; he somehow anticipates the coming freedom. […] [W]e ardently conjure away the present and appeal to the future, whose day will be hastened by the contribution we believe we are making. […] What is at issue, briefly, is the over-all “discursive fact,” the way in which sex is “put into discourse.”[2]

Together with Foucault’s views, I draw on the related and equally well-known arguments of Judith Butler, who elaborates Foucault’s proposals in order to ask,

What other foundational categories of identity—the binary of sex, gender, and the body—can be shown as productions that create the effect of the natural, the original, and the inevitable?

[…] A genealogical critique refuses to search for the origins of gender, the inner truth of female desire, a genuine or authentic sexual identity that repression has kept from view; rather, genealogy investigates the political stakes in designating as an origin and cause those identity categories that are in fact the effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin.[3]

Finally, most specifically in relation to children’s literature and childhood, I consider Jacqueline Rose’s famous arguments in relation to those of Foucault’s and Butler’s on gender and sexuality, specifically when she claims that “what is at stake […] is the adult’s desire for the child, […] a form of investment by the adult in the child, […] a demand which fixes the child and then holds it in place.”[4] What ties together Foucault, Butler, and Rose, and this article, then, is an interest not in what is seen—be it sex, gender, identity, the body, childhood—but in how that seeing takes place, and by whom and why. In these analyses, no matter how insistent are those claims that what is being seen must be “there”—naturally, common-sensically, or scientifically—such claims cannot and does not remove the investments and interests of the producers of the object of vision.[5] As ethnographer David Valentine writes:

Moreover, shorthand like “FTM” or “MTF,” which index both transexuality [sic] and birth gender, can also conflate directionality with identity. […] The assertion of the sexed body at the heart of such formations, and the implication of a definite movement across a stable gender/sex border, erases the specificity of certain identities and the complexity of such transitions. These points highlight a central problem with language and naming: there are simply no neutral terms. In short, I do not want to assert that any of the language, categories, or divisions I use in this book lie outside history or culture. […] My concern is with the power of categories—their power to enable action in the world, to describe ourselves to ourselves and to others, but also their power to restrict possibilities.[6]

Pádraic Whyte writes in his 2015 article on the status of same-sex relationships in Irish children’s literature that despite an increasing number of books about these issues, “a strange double standard still exists in society where there’s a sense that the representation of same-sex relationships in children’s books somehow raises the topic of sexuality, a topic inappropriate for children, something they do not need to know about at this stage in their lives.”[7] If Whyte is suggesting that Irish society in this respect still somewhat trails developments in children’s literature elsewhere, especially in the UK, Europe, and the USA, his description nevertheless remains pertinent to historically, politically, and culturally divergent attitudes towards childhood, sexuality and gender more widely after all—as well as in children’s literature specifically: as Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley argue in their well-known edited volume Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children, “There is currently a dominant narrative about children: children are (and should stay) innocent of sexual desires and intentions. At the same time, however, children are also officially, tacitly, assumed to be heterosexual.”[8]

Yet, as Whyte’s article also indicates, even just since 2004, when Bruhm and Hurley’s Curiouser was published, there have been further shifts in how childhood, sexuality, and gender are configured in relation to one another. If on the one hand childhood is certainly often still seen, or even insisted upon, as a realm of innocence and a- or pre-sexuality, as well as a naturalized heterosexuality, on the other hand it is also increasingly placed in the vanguard of liberation and freedom with respect to sexual and gender identities. Canadian social worker Jake Pyne, for instance, writes about the invention of the term “gender independent kids” “by a group of parents and a social worker in the Toronto District School Board,” as “an attempt to describe several kids who were, well, a bit more fabulous than the others.”[9] Indeed, in some cases, these divergences are two sides of the same coin: a claimed childhood innocence of determined sexuality or gender is in fact equated with a perception of a fluidity and freedom which (pre)figures, predicts, or accompanies a general (adult) liberation from fixity and determinism in these terms. Where for Bruhm and Hurley the “queer child” causes a “panic [nowhere] more explosive [than] the child whose play confirms neither the comfortable stories of child (a)sexuality nor the supposedly blissful promises of adult heteronormativity,”[10] we now increasingly find gay, queer, cross-dressing, or transgendered children (and adults) as objects of fascination and celebration across Western media. Sites of such fascination and celebration include children’s literature and its criticism, as well as in wider social, cultural, medical, and legal attitudes towards childhood, from, for instance,[11] David Walliams’s children’s novel The Boy in the Dress (2008),[12] which was also broadcast in a British BBC One adaptation in 2014,[13] to Louis Theroux’s documentary Transgender Kids (2015),[14] and to the media publicity around the setting-up of the first American children’s summer camp for “Trans Kids” called the “Bay Area Rainbow Day Camp” by the Collins family from Berkeley, California.[15] The Collins’s family project and the situation of their seven-year-old daughter Scarlett (previously son Ezra) were related specifically to the worldwide media publicity around the revelation of the transgender identity of former American athlete and reality-show star Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner in an ABC News television interview with Diane Sawyer on April 24, 2015.[16]

In tracing what is at stake in this shift to an ever-increasing interest, approval, and celebration of cross-dressing, gay, or transgender children in children’s literature (and more widely), I want to start with a discussion of Victoria Flanagan’s Into the Closet: Cross-dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film, both because Flanagan’s is still one of the only book-length considerations of this issue and because she provides an exemplary account of how different aspects of childhood sexual and gender identity are constructed and linked together in many critical perspectives.[17] Flanagan writes:

Perhaps even more curious, then, is that despite its abundance in children’s literature and film, very little critical attention has been paid to the significance of cross-dressing representations in media directed at child or adolescent audiences. Clothing is a potent cultural symbol of gender and sexual difference, and the wearing of the clothes deemed socially appropriate for the opposite sex is generally considered to be a transgressive and provocative act. Aside from being a sign of social rebellion, the appeal of cross-dressing, explains Garber, “is clearly related to its status as a sign of the constructedness of gender categories” (9). Central to the children’s cross-dressing narrative is a preoccupation with the relationship between gender and sex, particularly in the context of how gender is socially inscribed upon the human body. Literature and film for children typically offer a nonsexualized and temporary construction of cross-dressing which focuses on the cross-dresser’s potential to destabilize normative gender categories through the simulation of a differently gendered subjectivity.[18]

For Flanagan,[19] “gender and sexual difference” exist apart from clothing as a “cultural symbol” that is “potent”; symbols can then be more or less “potent,” and clothing potently constitutes “gender and sexual difference” in the realm of the “cultural,” although symbols can also, by implication, operate outside of that “cultural.”[20] Gender and sexual difference are also, therefore, outside of the “cultural” and are also not a “symbol” themselves: they are something prior to the cultural and the symbolic. Furthermore, “gender” and “sex” have a “relationship” but are not the same, and this is reflected too in Flanagan’s claim that “gender is socially inscribed upon the human body,” while “sex” is not “socially inscribed,” nor is it culturally symbolized in the way “sexual difference” is. Here, the “human body” exists independently of, and prior to, that gender which is “socially inscribed upon” it. In this view, a human body free or outside of gender, culture, symbol, or society comes first; subsequently there is a social apparatus that can inscribe gender upon that human body, such that, finally, clothing as the “potent cultural symbol” comes last. In line with this, the cross-dresser’s “potential destabilization” is only a “simulation of a differently gendered subjectivity” (my emphasis), one that can be “a nonsexualized […] construction,” meaning that it could be “sexualized” but is not; in other words, cross-dressing as it is constructed in “literature and film for children” in and of itself is claimed to have no sexuality, but can either be given or not be given the sexuality it does not have in the first place.

These claims in Into the Closet about what constitutes sex, gender, the body, the social, the cultural, the symbol, and the child are of central interest to me, as they direct and determine the further claims about what the “significance” and “appeal of cross-dressing” is, and how this is seen to relate to Garber’s claim of “its status as a sign of the constructedness of gender categories.”[21] If the appeal of cross-dressing has to do with some kind of unsettling of “gender categories” as not “constructed,” then it is all the more interesting and important when contradictory claims of unconstructedness appear alongside the diagnosis of such appeal. Most of all, re-constructions of the unconstructedness of gender also raise the question of what “appeal” is then operating instead, and for whom, if the “sign of the constructedness” cannot be maintained in spite of its claimed attractions.

Flanagan herself has recourse to the arguments of Judith Butler in relation to these issues, but it is notable that both in her understanding of Butler and in her own claims throughout her text, both the body and sex remain consistently before and outside of the cultural, the social, and the symbolic, known for what they are without question; it is strictly “gender” that is taken as being “illusory and performative.”[22] Butler, however, writes of such separations of sex and gender that

if gender is the cultural significance that the sexed body assumes, and if that significance is codetermined through various acts and their cultural perception, then it would appear that from within the terms of culture it is not possible to know sex as distinct from gender. […] Consider that there is a sedimentation of gender norms that produces the peculiar phenomenon of a natural sex, or a real woman, or any number of prevalent and compelling social fictions, and that this is a sedimentation that over time has produced a set of corporeal styles which, in reified form, appear as the natural configuration of bodies into sexes which exist in a binary relation to one another.[23]

This, emphatically, is not the same project as Flanagan’s formulations assume: for Butler there is no known or knowable sex or body outside “the terms of culture.” It is notable, indeed, that when Flanagan quotes Butler as claiming that “[i]f gender is the cultural meanings that the sexed body assumes, then a gender cannot be said to follow from a sex in any one way,” [24] she overlooks the fact that Butler is not stating her own view, but a different feminist view that she goes on to critique in radical terms. These issues matter because the very question of what cross-dressing or gay or transgender identities are seen to be or do is fundamentally constituted by either assuming sex and the body are natural, self-evident, and continuous, or not.

After all, in Into the Closet, even gender, despite its “illusory” status, is also consistently recognized and defined, even as cross-dressing is repeatedly seen to be “subversive” in terms of “questioning the concept of gender in order to make a critical statement about its application to individuals.”[25] Subversion consists, therefore, of raising as a question whether or not the correct “concept of gender” is applied to “individuals”—“individuals” who are in this sense prior to gender but who know which concept of gender would match with their as yet ungendered selves. Individuality is here, paradoxically, trumped by the communality of both its non-genderedness and its ability to have defined gender applied to it in ways it knows to be appropriate. The struggles in this text around what can actually constitute any fluidity, flexibility, or subversion of gender when it is always already known and defined, both in its own terms and in its “relationship” to an equally known and defined sex and body, are reflected throughout the book. Regarding ideas around tranvestism and transsexuality, for instance, Flanagan writes:

Sabrina Ramet uses [the expression “gender reversal”] as an alternative for the terms “transvestism” and “transsexual,” as the contemporary meanings of these medicalized terms fail to accord with historical and anthropological accounts of situations in which biological females and males adopted the clothing and gender identity of the opposite sex. “Gender reversal,” however, is also limiting as terminology. It gives the impression of only two gendered possibilities—as if motion can be made only by going “to” and “from” a masculine or feminine identity. This notion does not recognize/acknowledge that in many cultures cross-gendered persons were perceived as “other” to the conventional categories of man and woman. They were considered to belong to a “third” sex.[26]

Although what is under discussion are supposedly differences which produce a failure of accordance with “the terms “transvestism” and “transsexual,” nevertheless all of these “accounts of situations” can be recognized in this view as being about “biological females and males adopt[ing] the clothing and gender identity of the opposite sex.” The “biological” grounds the sex as that of “females and males” without question, just as gender identity is lined-up with that biological sex without question. As part of her critique of the sex-gender distinction, Butler asks,

what is “sex” anyway? Is it natural, anatomical, chromosomal, or hormonal, and how is a feminist critic to assess the scientific discourses which purport to establish such “facts” for us? […] If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called “sex” is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.[27]

Flanagan’s upholding of the distinction, however, is clear too from the claim that the “females and males adopted the clothing and gender identity of the opposite sex” (my emphasis), with adoption constituting the taking-on of that which remains known as not the self or one’s own. These difficulties continue in the identification of gender with a “masculine or feminine identity,” notwithstanding the qualification that such “cross-gendered persons were perceived [to belong] to a ‘third’ sex.” The only effect of the qualification is that what is already known in fact to be a “cross-gendered person” can be “perceived” differently “in many cultures.” In other words, the very view that makes all these claims situates itself, by implication, as outside of culture in the ways it knows without question what sex, gender, and the biological are. Its knowledge that there are differing cultural perceptions cannot change what it anyway knows to be the case, and therefore “historical and anthropological accounts of situations” can only provide different “perceptions” of that which is, in this view, not a perception, but just inevitable and true (“biologically”).

Into the Closet consistently returns its differences to absolute similarity. The only difference that is maintained is “sexual difference,” but even the difference of this difference is complicated by the claim—diagnosed by Pádraic Whyte as the “strange double standard”—that “the predominant form of gender disguise within these narratives [for children and adolescents] is female-to-male and lacks any direct connection with sexuality.” More than this, “cross-dressing is a relatively neutral term […] (if disassociated from the popular presumption that it is inherently entwined with sexual, rather than just gender, identity).”[28] Not only is sexual identity here apparently not “neutral,” but the “female-to-male” “form of gender disguise” is about “just gender identity” (my emphasis), separating gender and sexuality into absolutely separate identities, with female and male now assigned to a gender without sexuality, constituting both gender and sexual difference as without sexual difference. It is again Judith Butler who predicts rigorously the inevitability of the outcome of such logic:

The presumption of a binary gender system implicitly retains the belief in a mimetic relation of gender to sex whereby gender mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it. When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one.[29]

If we turn next to one of the earliest articles in the areas of transgender and transsexuality, Jody Norton’s “Transchildren and the Discipline of Children’s Literature,”[30] we can trace how the paradoxical claims in Flanagan’s text in fact underpin the discourses of children’s literature around gender and sexual identities from its earliest manifestations. The irony, and in many ways the tragedy, of this situation, as we will continue to see, is that in every case a committed, progressive endeavor to claim childhood as the vanguard of sexual and gender liberation is undermined by the certainty with which sex and gender are known to be different; in these arguments—in direct contradiction to Judith Butler’s analyses—that difference is hailed as the very principle that will liberate gender into a freedom seen to be unavailable to sex.

For Norton, as for Flanagan, children’s literature and its criticism are driven by a double agenda. As Norton describes it, children’s literature is

a field of academic endeavor that is in part complicitous in the discipline (regulation, constraint) both of the corpus of children’s texts and of the ideological body of the child within those texts, and in part committed to the critical interrogation of the multiple political investitures in and around “the child” as cultural construction.[31]

This view of the field constitutes it as permeated by a core paradox altogether: it both disciplines and queries that disciplining even as it carries it out. This is crucially different to Jacqueline Rose’s argument that children’s literature and its criticism, as well as childhood more widely, are about “a demand which fixes the child and then holds it in place.”[32] Key to this difference is the question of what ways and to what extent the “critical interrogation” takes place. This question is, I would argue, also what is involved with respect to gender and sexuality and the child specifically: if the child and its gender and sexuality can be seen to be regulated and constrained, then how exactly can they be simultaneously “critical[ly] interrogat[ed]” as a “cultural construction”? Or, to put it in other words, if “cultural construction” applies to areas that are already assigned to “culture” while other areas are held without question as being part of a non-cultural realm of the natural or biological, then those areas are not interrogated for their “multiple political investitures” precisely because the natural and biological are placed as beyond politics. For Rose, as for Foucault and Butler, on the contrary, nothing is beyond politics.

We can see in Norton’s claims the separation between the natural—sex—and the political—gender—introduced early in her article, as she explains that

My concern in this essay is, first, to analyze the multiple relations between children’s literature and a particular gender minority, transchildren; that is, children whose experience and sense of their gender does not allow them to fit their sexed bodies into seamless accord with a congruent, conventional gender identity.[33]

Norton, like Flanagan, knows what “sexed bodies” are, and they are separate from a “gender identity” with which they do not “accord.” Moreover, gender is something Norton knows the transchildren “experience’ and “have a sense of,” so that transchildren and their gender are also known in these respects. “Gender identity,” finally, is also “conventional,” so that there is an implication that gender identity could be not conventional, qualifying the idea that gender is necessarily about social approval. Norton’s view therefore claims transchildren have an unconventional gender identity already in place together with their sexed bodies; and just as Butler’s analysis predicts, this means that each sexed body has a gender that already “mirrors” it.

In any case, a split between sex, bodies, experience, and gender is nevertheless in place and underpins the directions Norton’s arguments take subsequently, even as Norton repeatedly—again, like Flanagan—takes issue with ideas about gender and sex; what never shifts, however, is the grounding assumption that they are not the same. For instance, Norton discusses the difficulties faced by educational texts on children’s literature, such as Donna E. Norton’s Through the Eyes of a Child: An Introduction to Children’s Literature, when dealing with gender:

But through [Donna Norton’s] conflation of the categories of sex and gender (“gender-typed,” “sex-stereotyped”), and her assumption that there are only two (“both”) sexes/genders, Norton creates a conceptual dead end: it is impossible for her to envision strategies for accessing the gendered complexity—which is the gendered reality—of polymorphous or alternatively gendered children, since she understands all children as either pregender or, in effect, as conventionally sexed/gendered adults.[34]

So, for Jody Norton, the problem with Donna Norton’s claims is actually her “conflation of the categories of sex and gender” (my emphasis); the difficulty is Donna Norton’s inability to allow for “gendered complexity’ or “polymorphous or alternatively gendered children.” This brings us back to Flanagan’s engagements with ideas of a “third sex,” where the problem was also located in the “binary” or “only two sexes/genders” view of gender and sex. The solution to oppression then, for both Flanagan and Jody Norton, is to proliferate sex and gender rather than questioning them as such.

Moreover, for Jody Norton, her knowledge of these proliferations is also “the gendered reality” that critics such as Donna Norton either cannot see or actively reject or oppress. Claims to the knowledge of the “real”—like the knowledge of the natural and biological body, sex, and experience—constitute it again as outside of culture and politics, within the realm of a self-evident, self-constituting, natural. Jody Norton herself explicates the foundational nature of the divide between herself and Rose’s arguments in relation to the “real” when she proposes the following:

Yet, granting Rose the need to scrutinize truth claims, especially in their always political relation to symbolic systems, it seems to me that [...] [t]he test of a successful children’s text would then become, not its adherence, beneath the whimsy and invention, to a founding set of realist or idealist assumptions, but its capacity to reflect its characters’ phenomenological and psycho-social reality with an intensity that could facilitate the engagement of the child reader’s or child auditor’s own perceptions, fantasies, and desires.

A realism of this contingent sort, that recognizes the materiality of the individual and the psychostructural force of desire, colored by experience, is arguably the most effective in delineating the individualities of transchildren. As a kind of textual practice, sublime realism would dedicate itself to the production of as fully knowledgeable and efficacious a representation of the subject, and hir/his world as might be viable within the imaginative and conceptual range of the intended audience.[35]

Rose’s “truth claims” are for Jody Norton aligned with “a founding set of realist or idealist assumptions,” which are to her not the same as “its characters” phenomenological and psycho-social reality.” This kind of “realism”—“sublime realism”—“recognizes the materiality of the individual,” where this is apparently somehow not a “founding set of realist […] assumptions,” and neither are “experience” or “the individualities of transchildren” or “the subject.” In allocating one set of claims— Rose’s— about the real as being in opposition to “the whimsy and invention” of children’s literature, Jody Norton allocates her own claims to the real as being about the “psycho-social reality” and “perceptions, fantasies, and desires” of both “characters” and “the child readers or child auditors,” including the transchild subject and “hir/his world.” Jody Norton claims for herself a knowledge of childhood, including transchildren, which is, by implication, exempted from both Jacqueline Rose’s concerns about the “fixing” of the child and Foucault’s warnings about the “speaker’s benefit.” By placing her views beyond culture and politics, Jody Norton is “ardently conjur[ing] away the present and appeal[ing] to the future, whose day will be hastened by the contribution we believe we are making”; [36] her advocating on behalf of the transchild places her, according to her own claims, beyond power and beyond discourse.

The result of these arguments are ultimately two-fold, and a list of proposals is drawn up with what the proliferation of gender and sex might look like:

The first order of business, then, in the reconstruction of sex and gender in and for children, is to jettison the outdated dimorphic notions of sex and gender, and start talking, teaching, and writing about intersexed people, masculine girls (and not just the domestic tomboy who falls in line at puberty), feminine boys, male-bodied and female-bodied two-spirit children (recall the boygirl character in the Dustin Hoffman film Little Big Man), and so on.[37]

Curiously, however, it is immediately apparent—and remains so throughout the article—that the “dimorphic” may be “outdated,” but “jettisoned” it is absolutely not, since every permutation offered above relies on dimorphism, as indicated by my emphases. Kate Drabinski, in relation to this intransigence, notes how

Eli Clare finds language unable to help him actualize his own sense of himself, which, ultimately, English simply does not have the ability to capture: “In English there are no words. All the language we have created—transgender, transsexual, drag queen, drag king, stone butch, high femme, Nellie, fairy, bulldyke, he-she, FTM, MTF—places us in relationship to masculine or feminine, between the two, combining the two, moving from one to the other. I yearn for an image to describe my gendered self, not the shadow land of neither boy nor girl, a suspension bridge tethered between negatives.”[38]

The second outcome, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Jody Norton’s rejection of “cultural constructedness” tout court:

The first step toward this vision is mundane in the extreme, but it also represents a counter-reformation against the decaying, but still reigning orthodoxy of an unreconstructed poststructuralism: it may be that children like Ludo [in the 1997 film Ma Vie en Rose] are moved—as, indeed, are all children—to pursue the directions of gender that they do partially as the result of genetic and other biological factors.[39]

Significantly, this “vision” also includes a rejection of Judith Butler’s arguments, presumably as being of the “still reigning orthodoxy of an unreconstructed poststructuralism”:

The question is whether it really is senseless to say, not necessarily that a male-to-female transchild is a girl in a boy’s body, but that s/he is not a boy. This, in turn, leads not necessarily to Judith Butler’s point that male and female are constructed categories, but perhaps to a way of understanding the relation between the biochemistry of the body and the formation of embodied consciousness (and consciousness of the body) as a dynamic potentiation.[40]

In the end, then, any “dynami[sm]” is limited in this view by a body and a—separate— consciousness of that body, just as the resistance to the dimorphic cannot achieve anything other than a continuous and entirely consistent repetition of that dimorphism, even in the very self-proclaimed radicalness of its “senseless” claim that “s/he is not a boy.” A related 2008 article by Michelle Anne Abate on “Trans/Forming Girlhood” struggles with exactly the same continuous repetition of femaleness and femininity in opposition to maleness and masculinity while also repeatedly claiming a transcendence of such oppositions and categories. Abate illustrates this transcendence in Sharon Dennis Wyeth’s Tomboy Trouble, for instance, with one episode where “[the main character, Georgia] does not refer to the man cutting her hair as a masculine ‘barber’ or more feminine ‘hairdresser.’ Instead, she simply refers to him by the non-gender specific term ‘the hair cutter.’”[41]

This leaves us with little explanation of why and how both Abate and the narrative itself know that “the hair cutter” is definitely “a man” and “him” and Georgia a “she,” and how and why this is not seen to be a relevant question in relation to the very issues under consideration in her article. I would note here that the deployment of alternate pronouns such as Jody Norton’s “s/he,” or “hir,” “ey,” or “they,” for instance, does not dissolve the difficulty of relationship that Clare describes; this is apparent from Drabinski’s explanation that “[Telyn] Kusalik uses the Spivak gender neutral pronoun ey, removing the th from plural pronouns, so I follow eirs lead here and use ey, em, eir, emself, and eir […]; in this sense, grammar makes its own critique intelligible.”[42]

More recently, Susan Honeyman has also grappled with “Trans(cending) Gender Through Childhood”[43] in a chapter for a volume which explicitly states its intentions of using the “study of children” to “rethink the very foundations underlying” “social, political, national, and ethnic structures,” because, in its view, “studying childhood requires a radically altered approach to the questions of what constitutes knowledge and what animates the work of power and resistance.”[44] Honeyman, in ways we have already encountered with Flanagan, Jody Norton, and Michelle Abate—all of whom Honeyman quotes approvingly[45]—starts out with establishing the differences between gender and sex and the body: first, gender is defined as “cultural construction,” where this time it is not a misreading of Judith Butler that undermines this claim by grounding the body and sex as outside of culture, but a quote from Joan W. Scott, in which Scott argues that gender is a “social category imposed on a sexed body.”[46] Further, Scott’s formulation of an imposition is then transferred into Honeyman’s own claims about the child as “emerg[ing] in scholarship as a cultural construct so that the imposition it represents for young people to whom it is applied can be more keenly discussed.”[47] Just as the “sexed body” is already known in this view to be separate from gender and prior to it, so Honeyman’s “young people” are already known to her as separate from, and prior to, the “cultural construct” which she sees as imposed upon them in order to “idealize” them.[48]  This is consistent with the way in which, in her earlier book, Elusive Children, Honeyman importantly critiques certain assumptions about “real children,” but where nevertheless in the end a certain “real” still underpins her arguments after all—because “real children” and their “voices” are known to exist in her formulations:

Real children rarely enter the academy, […] and even if their voices do, they are eventually mediated by adults in dissemination. [Children’s literature critic Karen] Coats would understandably characterize my approach as limited, but any literary study of childhood is limited to the idea of childhood according to the discursive nature of our specialisation.[49]

Honeyman’s argument that “their voices” are always “eventually mediated” in dissemination makes this point further, for something has to be there in order to be “mediated” in turn. In the same way, the child as “idea” splits an aspect of the child away from a real which underpins, by opposing, the realm of ideas, just as “discourse” is split off from “its subjects” and from “experience.” Honeyman’s arguments constitute discourse or text as a level or layer on top of an underlying subject, experience, or “true” existence, however difficult the knowing of them is argued to be. Even where the knowing of such existence or experience is claimed to be impossible by Honeyman, it is still nevertheless simultaneously claimed to be there, known as unknowable. This very existence is not “neutral” but itself already presupposes and involves further consequences. Honeyman, in this sense, does not disagree with arguments such as those of Karen Coats in terms of the premises of their approach to the child but rather in terms of how difficult (or, as Honeyman’s title puts it, “elusive”) they each judge the access to any knowledge of those “real children” to be. This is therefore a disagreement of degrees of attenuation of the real child rather than a disagreement about definitions of reality and discourse, or the child as real or discourse.

Similarly, throughout Honeyman’s article, despite her critiques of the wider field of childhood studies, the established separations between cultural constructions and what can be known as prior to, or outside of, cultural construction determine her subsequent arguments and positions just as much—and, in the end, in the same ways—as in the work of the other critics we have already considered. Differently, however, to the previous critics discussed, Honeyman’s shifts are complicated by her moving between such shifts as she reads them in other writings and alongside her own claims. Initially, Honeyman sets out to describe how wider childhood studies thinks about childhood, gender, and sexuality, and, as with the other critics we have considered so far, this is about a genderlessness which is nevertheless constantly known as gendered and a childhood that has no sexuality, as sexuality is separated out from gender. Honeyman, for instance, explains that,

For centuries, childhood has been vicariously relished (for those frustrated by adulthood) as an opportunity to put the oppressive gendering of sexual maturity temporarily on hold, resulting in figurations that embody the absence of gender. […] In resurrecting the neuter child from a romantic past, childhood studies, complementing transgender and queer studies, can theorize youth (albeit idealistically) as a position without gender, transcending the pesky essentializing binary of male/femaleness altogether.[50]

For childhood studies, in Honeyman’s view, “the oppressive gendering of sexual maturity” is known to take place, putting in place a childhood which in any case is less gendered, or less oppressively gendered, but also not “sexual[ly] mature.” Gendering and maturing sexually are therefore seen as developmental processes that have already taken place and can only be “put on hold” by childhood used as an “opportunity” by those who are no longer themselves children. Making this use of childhood “result[s] in figurations that embody the absence of gender,” but it is to be noted that Honeyman herself does know that this is not what childhood really is: it is only a use of it by childhood studies, which produces such “figurations.” That all these ideas are not about what Honeyman knows to be the reality is confirmed by her claim that youth can be “theorize[d] (albeit idealistically)”: youth, then, is known after all to be gendered, outside of theory and in the real, that which is in opposition to the ideal.

But even genderlessness, as merely theoretical and idealistic as it is in childhood studies according to Honeyman, is after all consistently gendered, both in the childhood that is before the process of gendering and in the childhood studies that produces the theoretical, idealized, childhood, both in Honeyman’s descriptions of childhood studies and in her own claims: Honeyman can state, for instance, that “the resulting gender neutrality benefits female cross-readers by giving them greater gender flexibility,” where the beneficial gender neutrality and greater flexibility in no way affects the cross-readers’ identification as “female.”[51] Even where Honeyman introduces disagreement between her own views and those of the wider field, this difficulty is not overcome:

Both a denial of sexuality and a potential position of power unfettered by sex roles, presumed asexuality makes genderlessness imaginable. […] The indulgence in an antigender ideal is nothing new in American youth discourse […]. This gender work is an underlying motive of many professionals in child study and of writers about childhood, who try to grasp the ungraspable child in the image of their own genderless ideals.[52]

This would seem to suggest that Honeyman herself does see childhood as both sexual and with gender, albeit that this knowledge (as in Elusive Children) in turn makes “the ungraspable child” graspable as such after all: where the “many professionals in child study and of writers about childhood” are unsuccessful (“try”) in their creation of childhood, Honeyman by implication has seen through this illusion to its final impossibility because of the child she already knows to be separate from, and resistant to, that which is “imposed” upon it.

All these kinds of arguments also hinge, crucially, upon assumptions of an awareness and choice of gender and/or sexuality on the part of the subjects and/or bodies that are assumed as prior to that gender or sexuality. David Valentine works through the implications of these assumptions specifically for transgender when he “consider[s] the politics of ‘choice,’ not in the conventional sense in which this phrase is employed, but rather the politics of identifying something as a ‘choice’ and how this politics both relies on and produces a naturalized ordering of bodies in a social scientific narrative about the nature of agency.”[53] Judith Butler points out in relation to this notion that the “controversy over the meaning of construction appears to founder on the conventional philosophical polarity between free will and determinism. […] Within those terms, “the body” appears as a passive medium on which cultural meanings are inscribed or as the instrument through which an appropriative and interpretive will determines a cultural meaning for itself.”[54] This is also how Into the Closet’s arguments about individuality and gender operate, where gender is seen as separate from a prior self and as recognized by that self and judged by it to be either appropriate or not to itself. This is even the case when elsewhere Flanagan explicitly endorses Judith Butler’s critique of a “subject” as prior to gender: “Butler recognizes that the ability to choose one’s gender would restore a humanist concept of the subject.”[55] Flanagan herself interestingly accounts for this discontinuity in her arguments by explaining that “female cross-dressing narratives revolve around a humanist subject capable of agency, entailing that the construction of gender in these texts accords with this (mis)interpretation of Butler’s work.”[56] However, the very grounds of this exemption inadvertently reestablish the humanist subject because Flanagan affirms that her application of “Butler’s gender paradigm to female cross-dressing narratives is only partial, due to inherent differences in the conceptualization of subjectivity and the disjunction between literature and reality, a fissure which enables cross-dressing to be used in a figurative rather than a literal sense.”[57] What Flanagan is running into here is, in fact, the consequence of her consistent separation between “sex” and “gender,” not a disagreement between Butler’s theories and literature or between literature and reality. It is precisely the reliance of the separation between “sex” and “gender” which keeps in place a “humanist subject” in terms of a mind or consciousness that is separate from a body it can have (or not have) knowledge of and make choices about. This is confirmed by Flanagan’s quoting Jonathan Culler to claim that “a person’s gender, as these children’s books and films demonstrate, is principally based on how that person behaves rather than on who he or she is inside.”[58] Again, this is emphatically not Judith Butler’s position: in her view, there are ultimately no known bodies with “insides” and “outsides” which can either align or not align with each other. For Butler, the fact that such claims are widely made about bodies does not mean that that is “the truth” about bodies, but precisely that these are some of the myriad ways in which bodies are created precisely in and through such claims.

For Flanagan, however, “literature” and “reality” are different and this difference “enables” cross-dressing “to be used” in different “sense(s).” In the case of both literature and reality, then, it is still cross-dressing which is known to be at issue, but one use of it is a “figurative” sense and the other a “literal” sense. This raises the question: what, for Flanagan, are “figurative” and “literal” senses of cross-dressing exactly? This distinction seems to have to do with her view that the “relative ease […] with which cross-dressing heroines negotiate a masculine performance is often improbable, in a realistic social sense, but achievable nonetheless within a symbolic narrative context. […] Children’s literature […] is never a direct transcription of reality.”[59] Literature and the “figurative” are here, therefore, about women unrealistically, easily cross-dressing to look and behave like men, while the “literal” and reality are about this being more intractable. Flanagan concludes that literature “enables [female cross-dressers] to use cross-dressing in a metaphoric or strategic way that comments upon the constructedness of gender in the real world occupied by the readers or viewers, as opposed to directly reflecting or recreating this condition.”[60] This understanding of Butler, then, is confined to seeing “performativity” as about acts and behaviors that are split off from an internal world of feelings and where those behaviors are subject to choices, albeit easily in literature and not so easily in Flanagan’s reality.

As with Into the Closet, no matter the ostensible agreement with theories of the constructedness of gender and sexuality, the choice to act as the underpinning of gender and sexual identity is ultimately also upheld in Susan Honeyman’s arguments when she quotes Shari Thurer in The End of Gender: A Psychological Autopsy when explaining that,

“in fact, today’s young people … can be aggressively androgynous,” citing awareness of the constructedness of gender as a cause: “The categories with which the child identifies are constructed categories, without any essence so, theoretically speaking, transgressing them is both possible and obvious, anyone’s prerogative.” Even if we don’t agree that such awareness is necessarily conscious, surely in a post-Lacanian age we can agree on a subject’s polymorphous qualities before méconnaissance sets in.[61]

The child here is known both to Thurer and, through her, to Honeyman, and it is prior to the “categories with which [it] identifies.” In order for such an identification to take place, the child must by implication both know itself and the other category to which it can match itself. For Thurer and Honeyman, further—and tellingly in terms of what we have seen throughout all the children’s literature critics’ arguments—the “constructed categories” are about a lack: they are “without essence.” It is this lack which, as it were, weakens the categories to the extent that “transgressing them is both possible and obvious.” Knowing of this weakness, the child of “today”—not a constructed category, without lack both to itself and to those who know it as such—can transgress these categories, and it is its choice to do so: “anyone’s prerogative.” If Honeyman is alert to the fact that there is a possible problem in Thurer’s assumption of “conscious awareness” on the part of the child, she is not alert to the fact that her own “subject” is not affected as such by its “polymorphous qualities”: it remains a “subject,” and in fact a child subject, who is known to have such qualities. There remains a subject prior to gender. Finally, too, the child remains, as ever, subject to developmental processes that act upon it in turn—here the “méconnaissance,” which “sets in” and removes the polymorphous qualities from the child. 

I have read, then, throughout this article, how several children’s literature critics can be seen to engage enthusiastically with an advocacy on behalf of the cross-dressing, transgender, and transsexual child, but also how their efforts are directed and determined by specific misunderstandings of Judith Butler’s theoretical arguments about the constructedness of gender and sexual identities—of all identities as identities, in fact. There can be no doubt of the sincerity of the critics’ commitment, or their concern about the oppression, bullying, and constraint of children perceived as somehow different from the norm. It is this very sincerity and concern, however, which in my view make it all the more pressing for there to remain a debate about how gender and sexual (or any) identity are actually understood within arguments. The last thing that can be wished for is that writings which wish to work in the service of liberation and freedom themselves, inadvertently, to fall back into assumptions which themselves establish norms, limits, and exclusions. That this is a challenging, difficult, and ongoing process is necessarily the case: if liberation were such an easy achievement, it would have happened long ago.



[1] For my previous writings specifically about the “gay” and “queer” “child,” see Karín Lesnik-Oberstein and Stephen Thomson, “What is Queer Theory Doing with the Child?” Parallax 8:1 (2002), 35-46; and Karín Lesnik-Oberstein, “Childhood, Queer Theory, and Feminism,” Feminist Theory, 11.3 (December 2010), 309-21. I do not myself assume that “gay,” “queer,” “transgender,” “transsexual,” or “cross-dressing” “children” are necessarily the same or even similar, but I nevertheless address these issues together in my previous writings because, as I will argue in the current article, they are linked together in children’s literature criticism as well as more widely. Where I use a specific term in this article, I follow the particular usage of the text under discussion. The very issue of the terminology itself, however, is also intrinsically part of what I am considering throughout this article.

[2] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (1976; New York: Vintage, 1990), 6-7, 11.

[3] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, NY and London: Routledge, 1990), viii-ix.

[4] Jacqueline Rose, The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (1984; Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), 3-4. See my further writings on the (ongoing) misreading of Rose’s arguments in children’s literature criticism, including Lesnik-Oberstein, Children’s Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994); “Childhood and Textuality: Literature, Culture, History,” in Children in Culture: Approaches to Childhood, ed. Karín Lesnik-Oberstein (London: Macmillan; London and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 1-26; “The Psychopathology of Everyday Children’s Literature Criticism,” Cultural Critique, 45 (Spring 2000), 222-42; “Holiday House: Grist to The Mill on the Floss, or, Childhood as Text,” in The Yearbook of English Studies, “Special Section on ‘Children in Literature,’” ed. Karín Lesnik-Oberstein, 32 (2002), 77-94; “Children’s Literature: New Approaches,” in Children’s Literature: New Approaches, ed. Karín Lesnik-Oberstein (London: Palgrave; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004), 1-25; and “Voice, Agency and the Child,” in Children in Culture, Revisited: Further Approaches to Childhood, ed. Karín Lesnik-Oberstein (London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011), 1-18.

[5] For recent arguments, for instance, on how recent research in neuroscience cannot, in fact, any more “prove” childhood, let alone any other identity’s traits, see Karín Lesnik-Oberstein, “Motherhood, Evolutionary Psychology and Mirror Neurons, or “Grammar is Politics by Other Means,” Feminist Theory 16.2 (2015), 171-187; Lesnik-Olberstein, “The Object of Neuroscience and Literary Studies,” Textual Practice (forthcoming); Neil Cocks and Karín Lesnik-Oberstein, “Back to Where We Came From: Evolutionary Psychology and Children’s Literature and Media” in Reinventing Childhood Nostalgia: Books, Toys and Contemporary Media Culture (London: Taylor and Francis Group, forthcoming 2017); and Lesnik-Oberstein, “Children’s Literature, Cognitivism and Neuroscience, or, Capitalism and/as the Return to the Same” in Transdisciplinary Perspectives on Childhood in Contemporary Britain, ed. Ralf Schneider and Sandra Dinter (London: Routledge, forthcoming 2017).

[6] David Valentine, Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2007), 27-8.

[7] Pádraic Whyte, “Are We There Yet? Same-Sex Relationships and Children’s Literature,” Children’s Books Ireland, January 2015,

[8] Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley, introduction to Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children, ed. Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), ix.

[9] Jake Pyne, “Gender Independent Kids: A Paradigm Shift in Approaches to Gender Non-Conforming Children,” The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 23.1 (April 2014), 1; Pyne further notes that he uses the term “‘fabulous’ as it is used in queer communities, in appreciation of the vibrant side of life, and not to connote any type of superiority among gender independent kids.” See ibid., 5, 1n.

[10] Bruhm and Hurley, “Curiouser,” ix.

[11] Examples demonstrating shifts in historical and cultural views and interests are of course by their very nature debatable, and there are several (much) earlier examples of, especially, cross-dressing, but also gay and transgender identities, in children’s literature; but I am here selecting examples that both claim to be about a spontaneous desire to cross-dress or be gay or transgender on the part of the child, rather than a cross-dressing or sexual or gender identity imposed by others or by the environment, and where those desires are celebrated rather than condemned (although questions may be raised around these aspects in such works, as well).

[12] David Walliams, The Boy in the Dress (London: HarperCollins, 2008). I here wish to thank my Center for International Research in Children’s Literature (CIRCL) M(Res) in Children’s Literature student Michaela Hedges: our discussions about her dissertation on Walliams’ novel and ideas of childhood and cross-dressing helped my thinking on these topics for this article.

[13] David Walliams, Kevin Cecil, and Andy Riley, adapt., The Boy in the Dress, BBC One, broadcast December 26, 2014.

[14] Louis Theroux, Transgender Kids, dir. Tom Barrow, BBC Two, broadcast April 5, 2015.

[15] See, for example, Juliet Linley, “Why One Mom Had to Create America’s First-Ever Summer Day Camp for Trans Kids,” The Blog, Huffington Post, May 18, 2015,

[16] See the same-day interview with the Collins family by journalist Ken Miguel, “Bruce Jenner Story Resonates with Bay Area Transgender Family,” ABC 7 News, April 24, 2015,; for more on the Diane Sawyer interview, see “Bruce Jenner’s Biggest Question: “Are You Gonna Be OK?” ABC 7 News, April 24, 2015,

[17] Victoria Flanagan, Into the Closet: Cross-dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film, Children’s Literature and Culture series, ed. Jack Zipes (New York, NY and London: Routledge, 2007).

[18] Flanagan, Into the Closet, 1; she refers in her comment to Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York, NY: Routledge, 1992), 9.

[19] I wish to stress that in my analysis I am not referring to Victoria Flanagan’s (or any author’s) known intentions, which I do not and cannot know, but only to the formulations in the text as I read them.

[20] For an extensive consideration of claims about “symbols” that I am drawing upon in my analysis here, see Sue Walsh, “Bikini Fur and Fur Bikinis” in The Last Taboo: Women and Body Hair, ed. Karín Lesnik-Oberstein (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 166-81.

[21] In thinking about the implications of such claims around “gender” and “sexuality,” David Valentine also argues that “the primary categories […]—“transgender” and “homosexuality”—are only available in their contemporary meanings as discrete categories because of a central distinction that developed in the United States in the twentieth century between gender and sexuality (or, remember, ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’)”; see Imagining Transgender, 57.

[22] Flanagan, Into the Closet, 9.

[23] Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Theatre Journal 40.4 (Dec. 1988), 524.

[24] Flanagan, Into the Closet, 13, citing Butler, Gender Trouble, 6. As I will continue to argue, this misunderstanding of Butler’s arguments is pervasive throughout children’s literature, but, remarkably, there is even the same misreading of exactly the same quote in Michelle Anne Abate’s article on “Trans/Forming Girlhood: Transgenderism, the Tomboy Formula, and Gender Identity Disorder in Sharon Dennis Wyeth’s Tomboy Trouble,” The Lion and the Unicorn 32.1 (Jan. 2008), 49.

[25] Flanagan, Into the Closet, 14.

[26] Ibid., 4. For a critique of the ways anthropological accounts have been invoked in relation to ideas of a “third gender” see, David Valentine, “The ‘Berdache’ and Third Gender Debates,” in Imagining Transgender, 153-7.

[27] Butler, Gender Trouble, 6-7.

[28] Flanagan, Into the Closet, 5.

[29] Butler, Gender Trouble, 6 (original emphasis).

[30] Jody Norton, “Transchildren and the Discipline of Children’s Literature,” The Lion and the Unicorn 23.3 (1999), 415-436.

[31] Ibid., 415.

[32] Rose, The Case of Peter Pan, 3-4.

[33] Norton, “Transchildren,” 415-16.

[34] Ibid., 419; in her comment, she refers to Donna E. Norton, Through the Eyes of a Child: An Introduction to Children’s Literature, 4th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall), 1995.

[35] Norton, “Transchildren,” 420 (original emphasis).

[36] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 6-7.

[37] Norton, “Transchildren,” 420.

[38] Kate Drabinski, “Incarnate Possibilities: Female to Male Transgender Narratives and the Making of Self,” Journal of Narrative Theory 44.2 (Summer 2014), 320 (Drabinski’s emphasis); she quotes from Eli Clare, Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1999), 152.

[39] Norton, “Transchildren,” 428.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Abate, “Trans/Forming Girlhood, 44.

[42] Drabinski, “Incarnate Possibilities,” 327, 4n.

[43] Susan Honeyman, “Trans(cending) Gender Through Childhood,” in The Children’s Table: Childhood Studies and the Humanities, ed. Anna Mae Duane, (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2013, 167-83.

[44] Anna Mae Duane, “Introduction,” in The Children’s Table, 1.

[45] Honeyman, “Trans(cending) Gender Through Childhood,” 169, 170.

[46] Ibid., 167.

[47] Ibid., 168.

[48] Ibid., 167. For my extensive analyses of how claims to “idealization” always rely on an opposition to a known “real” (the “not idealized”), see especially Lesnik-Oberstein, “Childhood and Textuality”; “The Psychopathology of Everyday Children’s Literature Criticism”; and “Voice, Agency, and the Child.”

[49] Susan Honeyman, Elusive Childhood: Impossible Representations in Modern Fiction (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2005), 14.

[50] Honeyman, “Trans(cending) Gender Through Childhood,” 168-9.

[51] Ibid., 175.

[52] Ibid., 170.

[53] David Valentine, “Sue E. Generous: Toward a Theory of Non-Transexuality,” Feminist Studies 38.1 (Spring 2012), 187. I wish to thank David Valentine for referring me to this article and making it available to me.

[54] Butler, Gender Trouble, 8.

[55] Flanagan, Into the Closet, 14.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid., 14-5.

[58] Ibid., 29.

[59] Ibid., 14-5.

[60] Ibid., 14.

[61] Honeyman, “Trans(cending) Gender Through Childhood,” 174, quoting from Shari Thurer, The End of Gender: A Psychological Autopsy (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005), 6, 126.