Amatonormativity and Children’s Stories

You are probably familiar with the classic storybook world: the cosy home with its 1950s technology, the suburban safety, the two-storeyed dream house and the neighbours who know each other, the neighbourhood school, the big yellow school bus… The white, heteronormative, amatonormative households.

Wait, what…?

WHAT IS AMATONORMATIVITY?

Amatonormativity is the assumption that the traditional view of  romantic relationships: a monogamous relationship where the parties are married, live together, and have children in a nuclear household, is the highest form of satisfaction one can achieve in life, and that all people strive for this type of relationship. This way of thinking can be harmful to polyamorous people who may not have or desire a single partner, and to a-spec people, who might not want a relationship like that, or may have a strong, meaningful relationship that is not romantic in nature.

LGBTA WIKI

WHO CAME UP WITH THIS WORD?

Elizabeth Brake calls this undeserved elevation and centrality of romantic love amatonormativity, from the Latin word for love, amare. She coined the term in her book Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law to describe the assumption that “a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans.”

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen

IS THIS JUST A MADE-UP INTERNET THING?

Before the word ‘amatonormativity’ existed, people were enjoying a wide variety of adult relationships, and without the wider community assuming covert LGB attraction. Before the word ‘amatonormativity’ we had Boston marriages, for instance:

Boston marriages were not glorified roommates but true partnerships that provided structure and companionship.

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen

WHY IS AMATONORMATIVITY A PROBLEM?

The expectation that people will fall in love, marry and live together happily for the rest of their lives, fulfilling each other’s romantic, sexual and emotional needs forever, isn’t actually reality for most adults, let alone for a-spec people. This expectation affects everyone who ‘fails’ to achieve the dominant ideal of life-long commitment, in very real economic and psychological ways:

Baggini advocates for allowing siblings or just very close friends to “have the same rights as those in civil partnerships.” … “It doesn’t matter if it’s different-sex only or same-sex marriage, so long as we restrict marriage to romantic and sexual partners we will ensure amatonormativity.” … amatonormativity makes Boston marriages uncommon and contributes to the problem of care in old age. When the nuclear family is the ideal, it is commonly assumed that members of the family (the children, the spouse) will act as unpaid caregivers later in life, leading to questions like, “Who will take care of you when you’re old?” … Amatonormativity and the assumption of free familial care have made it easier to ignore the necessity of changing welfare and labor laws to make eldercare more financially accessible and also to compensate the caregivers more fairly.

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen

THE INCREASING AMATONORMATIVITY OF CONTEMPORARY CHILDREN’S BOOKS

My concern on this blog is predominantly with ideology in fiction, with a focus on stories made with children as implied audience.

Today, many stories are coming at children via screen, even when those stories started off as picture books and novels.

When screenwriting teams bulk up children’s picture books to make a feature-length film, screenwriters commonly introduce or expand upon an implied or previously non-existent romance in a children’s story, turning it into a fully-fledged subplot.

(I’m not fully on board with the entire concept of ‘subplot‘, as successful subplots. So-called ‘sub’-plots are fully-fledged para-stories in their own right.)

AMATONORMATIVITY CLARIFIED VIA FILM ADAPTATIONS OF OLDER CHILDREN’S STORIES

BEEZUS AND RAMONA

I grew up reading Beverly Cleary’s middle grade novels. I shouldn’t have been surprised to see that when Beezus and Ramona was adapted for film in 2010, in time for my own child to enjoy Beverly Cleary yet another generation later, that the romantic drama of the girls’ Aunt Bea took up a significant proportion of air time.

Aunt Bea is played by Ginnifer Goodwin, with her romantic opponent played by Josh Duhamel, who we might expect to take leading roles in rom-coms for adult audiences. Clearly, Beezus and Romana (the film) is a rom-com as much as it is about the relationship between two sisters and interpersonal problems in the home and at school.

SEUSSICAL THE MOVIE

The widow of Dr Seuss had some say over how the movie adaptations of some of his work were carried out.

In spite of the relative scarcity of gross-out humor, the Grinch movie and ”Seussical” are full of things that would seem, in Seuss, curiously out of place. For one thing, Seuss’s meticulous page design and linear storytelling have given way to a lot of visual and narrative clutter. In order to fill an hour and a half of screen time or an evening of theater, the sparse, fablelike stories had to be stuffed full of character and incident, and the simple plots warped into conventional psychodramas. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the authors of ”Seussical,” wove together stories and characters from about 20 different books, and extrapolated, from the Horton books and the less well-known story of Gertrude McFuzz, a full-blown romance. According to Ahrens, she and Flaherty came up with this idea in collaboration with Eric Idle, the former Monty Python member who is credited as one of the show’s creators. ”Where’s the sex?” she recalls him saying.

A.O. Scott, Sense and Nonsense, NYT Magazine
HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS

The same article describes the romantic subplot of another Dr Seuss picture book about the Grinch. Note that many adult bookbuyers, like me, believe that sexuality brought down into books for young readers is problematic. The following will summarise some of this particular complaint:

Like Horton in ”Seussical,” the Grinch also has a love interest — as well as a young soul mate, the adorable Cindy Lou Who. It is Cindy Lou who first sees the monster’s essential goodness, and Cindy Lou who, while the grown-ups frantically shop, wonders what has happened to the true spirit of the holiday.

Cindy Lou, in other words, is like no child you’ve ever met. Instead, she’s a grown-up’s fantasy, the preternaturally wise, morally pure agent of a troubled adult’s salvation. Seuss associated childhood with the creative imagination and the awakening moral sense, for which the movie, in keeping with the tenor of the times, substitutes trauma and sainthood. Dr. Seuss’s children are not wise, and their purpose is never to rescue adults, but rather to discover the world and themselves. What Seuss’s children are, by nature, is intelligent. And if they are good, it’s not because they’re innocent, but because they are human. The moral is simple. Dr. Seuss, the most prodigious fantasist of his time, was a realist after all. A person’s a person, no matter how small.

A.O. Scott, Sense and Nonsense, NYT Magazine

The character of Cindy Lou Who of the screen adaptation is problematically sexualised, and continues to be as the actor grows into her 20s. Cindy Lou Who is also an example of the Female Maturity Formula, in which girls are depicted as preternaturally mature, without enjoying character arcs of their own.

There are issues with objectification in children’s stories, but my wish to avoid amatonormativity is not a wish to expunge the presence of adults and their romantic problems from stories made for children. Sexual people are sexual from childhood. Children are constantly observing sexual relationships around them without seeing the act of sex, nor even imagining it. Most children develop an intense curiosity about how adults live their adult lives, and stories for children can cater to that.

Little-Girl-Observing-Lovers-on-a-Train-Saturday-Evening-Post-cover-study-1944-Norman-Rockwell
Little Girl Observing Lovers on a Train, Saturday Evening Post (1944) Norman Rockwell

My issue is this: There currently exists a very narrow range of adult relationships depicted in stories for children. My beef is with covert ideology behind the symbolic annihilation of all other ways of living life as an adult. The message is currently this: Heterosexual and romantic relationships are the correct kinds of relationships to have, kids.

If we’re going to glamorise heterosexual relationships between good-looking adults in movie subplots, we’d better be showing a wider range of ways in which to enjoy life as an adult.

We do see other kinds of adult relationships in children’s stories. These are never glamorised, and most often depicted as problematic and villainous. I do love Kate diCamillo’s Mercy Watson series of early readers, but the sisters next door are typical of non-romantic adult relationships depicted in children’s stories. The two old ladies next door are the in-group opponents across the Mercy Watson series. The spinster sisters fit the thin-fat duo archetype, and their personalities match their BMI. Eugenia is scrawny, mean and unempathetic. We want to see her punished a little. Meanwhile, the younger sister, “Baby”, is under her thumb, slightly stupid though basically nice.

Can we find examples of Boston marriages and other queer relationships in older stories? Well, yes and no. Even when they exist in classic literature, modern audiences code them as different kinds of queer, commonly by erasing the possibility of non-sexual and non-romantic alliances altogether. A standout case study of that is with Diana’s aunt in Anne of Green Gables, now coded as unambiguously lesbian in Anne With an E.

For more on that see The Split Attraction Model In Stories.

Children’s book world is starting to have a conversation about heteronormativity and whiteness as default in stories for children. But I’m yet to hear about problematic amatonormativity of children’s stories. We remain living in conservative times. Amatonormativity is yet to be considered a problem at all.

Header illustration: Richard Sargent (American, 1911-1978). Young Love

FURTHER READING

They’re Single. They’re Straight. They’re Friends. And They’re Having a Baby.
You want a child. You don’t want to do it alone. What do you do? For an increasing number of women, the answer is raising a kid with their BFF. (Marie Claire)

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