Pamela Robertson Wojcik

 

On her book Fantasies of Neglect: Imagining the Urban Child in American Film and Fiction

Cover Interview of October 12, 2016

In a nutshell

Fantasies of Neglect is at once a work of cultural criticism and an account of changing ideas of childhood, parenting, and the urban from the 1930s to the present.  It examines representations of the urban child in a wide range of films and fiction, including films starring Shirley Temple and the Dead End Kids, The Champ and its 1970s’ remake, Mary Poppins, The Cool World, Kramer vs. Kramer, and The Hunger Games; as well as novels like Ann Petrie’s The Street and Joanthan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; and children’s books Harriet the Spy, Eloise and The Planet of Junior Brown.

I focus especially on children’s mobility and autonomy in the city as they are framed by fantasies of neglect.  The fantasy of neglect consists of two conjoined fantasies. There is, on the one hand, the fantasy that the urban child is a figure of neglect and, on the other, the fantasy for the child of being neglected, or let alone. On the one hand, the child appears to be unmoored, unsupervised, and unprotected. On the other hand, the notion of neglect points to the positive thrill and possible risk of the child’s freedom, independence and movement. These conjoined fantasies bring together a host of ideas about the urban, children, space, parenting, neglect, poverty, reform, and more; and they shift over time.

Taking up Miriam Hansen’s invitation to investigate cinema history in order to discover “different futures whose potentialities may be buried in the past” (Cinema and Experience xvii), Fantasies of Neglect examines earlier representations of and discourses around urban children both to chart how our ideas about the urban child have changed and also how we might re-imagine childhood.  From our current context of helicopter parenting and stranger danger, films and fiction of the early twentieth century provide a now-strange, because historically distant, vantage on modernity, urbanism, and childhood. Insofar as kids’ real life mobility contracts, and children disappear from city streets, representations of the urban child serve not only as a nostalgic reminder of the past, but also as a prompt for the future, to rediscover and revive the child in urban space. These representations of the urban child’s social space are not merely reflections of childhood or nostalgic images we return to as adults, but crucially de-familiarize and denaturalize our ideas about childhood and urban encounters.