What comes to your mind when you hear the word “child”? Do you relate “the child” to innocence or happiness? In other words, what image forms in your mind of the typical child?
In Keywords for Children’s Literature, the keyword “image”, according to Raymond Williams (1976), has an early meaning of “a physical figure or likeness”. However, a secondary meaning was developed around sets of ideas or “mental conceptions, including…seeing what does not exist as well as what is not plainly visible” (116). Further, the essay states that in order to create a likeness of “the child”, one must activate a mutable image, and test it to see if it contradicts or coincides with the commonly held beliefs among members of an organization (117). Lauren Berlant, for example, indicts the image of the child (specifically in infant form) as a symbol of vulnerability and innocence in her work The Queen of America Goes to Washington City (1997). In other words, she indicts the infant child as a national political image.
In the 1990s children’s series Teletubbies, the very first thing we see at the start of each episode is the sun rising in the sky, but the sun has a smiling, laughing baby in the center of it. In Teletubbies, the child is represented as a symbol of innocence, as Berlant stated in Keywords. The baby is always happy and smiling, observing everything going on down below. The “Sun Baby” is depicted as completely innocent without a single care in the entire world. The sun baby creates a national image of childhood that activates the idea of the typical child as innocent and happy, with no problems to worry about.
Although this iconic image depicts “the child” as innocent, it fails to depict another characteristic of childhood as mentioned by Berlant: vulnerability (117). The national image of childhood as innocent hides the fact that children can also be vulnerable to anything, for example, sexual violence. In Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, one of the main characters, Pecola, is raped and impregnated by her own father and has no say in the matter because she is simply a child. In the novel, Pecola is facing judgment from others – many say that she is the one to blame because she let it happen. The problem is, she couldn’t control the situation because she is only a child – children have no power over adults. Pecola being raped depicts “the child” as vulnerable to these terrible events and contradicts the national idea of childhood as innocent and care-free.
Teletubbies and The Bluest Eye depict very different images of “the child”: one being completely innocent and constantly happy, and the other being vulnerable to a variety of common problems in the world, resulting in negative consequences. The figure of the child in The Bluest Eye contradicts a national imaginary of the child as seen in the sun baby on Teletubbies.