‘Monstrous Youth’ by Sara Austin
by: Jennifer Duggan , March 30, 2023
by: Jennifer Duggan , March 30, 2023
Sara Austin’s Monstrous Youth discusses how monsters shifted from a threat used to police children’s behaviour to potent symbols of child and adolescent deviance and rebellion and finally to metonymous stand-ins for various forms of difference from the 1950s to the present day. She argues that ‘the monster and the child have such affinity for one another because they are both floating signifiers’ (2), as well as because monsters and children share ‘in-betweeness,’ liminality, and ‘becoming’ status (4).
Her book starts with a focus on the monsters of the 1950s, as this was a time of flux in adult-child relations in the USA and a time at which youth and the monstrous became increasingly entangled in popular culture, with the rise in narratives about and anxiety around juvenile delinquency. Many of the criticisms of teen culture at the time ‘relied on hierarchical views of race, gender, and class’ (8), particularly regarding anti-miscegenation laws. Austin argues that ‘monster texts that seek to regulate child and teen behavior do so by appealing to the reader’s fear, shame, or disgust’ (10), and that these affects ‘are often implicated in power structures of not only classism but also ageism, racism, sexism, and homophobia’ (10). However, she argues, monsters came to be taken up by young people and became a powerful symbol of resistance. Overall, Monstrous Youth considers the ways in which monsters in media for young audiences can signify young readers’ acceptance of or resistance to aetonormative (Nikolajeva 2009) societal rules by unveiling children’s and young adults’ identificatory practices within or outside these norms.
Chapter one of the book examines monsters in multimodal media for young audiences produced in the 1950s through 1970s and audiences’ responses to these monsters. Austin applies Rosmarie Garland Thompon’s concept of enfreakment, a process through which those with social capital ‘colonize and commercialize’ Othered individuals (19), to argue that adolescents begin to embrace the position as enfreaked social monsters in the United States following the 1954 Senate juvenile delinquency hearings (20). She further argues that this new alignment begins to creep into popular cultural texts aimed at young audiences. To demonstrate this, Austin examines depictions of monsters and readers’ reactions to them in EC Comics’ horror comics of the early 1950s and then turns her attention to the teen horror films produced by American International Pictures in the late 1950s through mid-1960s.
Horror comics became an extremely popular genre in the 1950s, reaching nearly one-third of all comics produced in the US by 1952 (22), but these comics largely depicted monsters who were monstrous versions of those Othered by society, not identificatory role models. Focusing on EC Comics’ The Vault of Horror (1950), Tales from the Crypt (1950), and The Haunt of Fear (1950), Austin argues that bodies were often enfreaked by disabilities occurring through violent accidents. She further argues that these enfreaked disabled bodies were then shown both to be the sources of violence as stories’ villains and to be the justifiable targets of societal violence, as all EC stories ‘follow[ed] a predictable path, with a twist ending in which the villain is punished’ (23). Fan responses to these comics suggest that despite moral panics and fear-mongering Senate committees, young readers were not inspired by the monstrous characters, although they were inspired by the comics to create texts of their own, published in fanzines (30). Nonetheless, by engaging with texts that were considered taboo, young readers consciously occupied a liminal space between normalcy and monstrosity (28).
Nonetheless, Austin argues, horror films explicitly began to align young bodies with monstrosity following testimony provided to the Senate Committee on Juvenile Delinquency by Fredric Wertham in 1953 and his subsequent publication of Seduction of the Innocent in 1954. With a particular focus on American International Pictures (AIP), Austin examines how horror films of the late 1950s through early 1960s began to make ‘monsters symbols of adolescent rebellion’ (33). As a key example, theatres showing I Was a Teenage Frankenstein were encouraged to give out promotional Frankenstein masks to potential viewers. These could be worn, transforming future audience members into monsters, and included details of the showing such as its time and location on the back (37). In most promotional materials, the monster, not its possible victims, acts as ‘the empathetic focus’ (38), and this demonstrates the purposeful alignment of young audiences with the monstrous. Teen horror films aligned adolescence with monstrosity so that they could use ‘monsters as symbols of rebellion and critiques of adult power structures’ (39), including the ways in which their physical and behavioural differences are punished and adult denial of teens’ ‘monstrous’ sexual desires. Through a close analysis of I Was a Teenage Werewolf in particular, Austin argues that the depictions of monsters in AIP’s horror films thus amounts to a rebellion, ‘a symbolic push back against hegemonic power structures and cultural representations of fatherhood as the ideal concentration of power and wisdom, . . . as well as individual teachers and parents within teens’ lives’ (41). Austin further argues that the films suggest ‘the entire rhetoric of delinquency is a smokescreen to hide adult failure’ (43).
In addition, Austin argues that there was a shift in depictions of monsters in the popular cultural texts of the 1950s. At first, in comics, monsters were depicted as dangerous and problematic, reflecting normative anxieties, while later, in films, monsters came to represent the adolescents who watched them, seen as lesser than and enfreaked by aetonormative society. Although both horror comics and horror films faced adult resistance, the differences between the monsters depicted in these texts demonstrate that ‘identification with the monstrous shifted cultural power structures in young people’s favor’ (47). While the fad for teen monster movies ended with a bust, as producers were unable to make large profits by the end of the 1960s, monster culture was here to stay.
Chapter two discusses racial anxiety and the monstrous in picture books published in the 1960s and 1970s, focusing on ‘picture books that code Black children as the racial Other without directly representing Black children’ (51). Austin argues that the merged monster-teenager body of the 1950s becomes racialised in the 1960s, with numerous picture books depicting allegorically Black monsters ‘attempt[ing] to enter the white family, but . . . allowed to do so only on the white child’s terms’ (52). She notes that this begins towards the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s, when monsters became less symbolic of teen counterculture and trickled down into ‘family friendly’ entertainment suitable for children (53). Following on from the advertising trends of 1950s horror films, monsters also became consumable at this time, with goods like Count Chocula cereal appearing alongside ‘various Pez dispensers, action figures, masks, finger puppets, vitamins, cereal, and squirt guns in the image of Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman, and the Mummy’ (53). These positioned monsters as appropriate for child consumers and heralded the appearance of monsters in picture books, starting with Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are in 1963.
Austin discusses these picturebooks with reference to scholarship of the time, such as Rudine Sims Bishop’s oeuvre and Nancy Larrick’s famous ‘The All White World of Children’s Books,’ as well as more recent scholarship, which has shown that fewer than 5% of children’s books published before 1965 contained Black characters, and those they did contain were often enslaved people, servants, or background characters (55-6). Several authors tried to push back against this by including ‘interracial friendship, or race liberalism, [which] appealed to white readers because it suggest[ed] that the “blot” of racism was an individual rather than a structural issue’ (57). Austin proposes that monster picturebooks are a part of this race liberal tradition, as they aim to appeal to white readers and seek to use nonhuman monsters didactically as allegorical stand-ins for racialised individuals whom the white protagonist can befriend. They thus seek to teach the assumed white child readers that they can be friends with children of colour.
Austin locates picture book monsters within an abolitionist children’s literary tradition in which racialised individuals are replaced by or aligned with animals, with reference to previous scholarship on children’s texts from the 1930s-1950s, such as Babar (1931), Curious George (1941), and The Cat in the Hat (1957). In these colonial texts, the racial Other—Babar, George, and the Cat in the Hat—is ‘civilized’ through lessons from a white character (60). Monster picturebooks of the 1960s and 1970s followed a specific pattern that promotes a similar lesson: a child-protagonist who is afraid of one or more monsters overcomes this fear and befriends the monster(s), themselves ‘often depicted as childlike’ (54). Austin argues that despite the kinship that develops between the child-protagonist and the monster(s), monsters in these white-authored picturebooks represent racial Otherness through their ‘embodied differences,’ and the books suggest that monsters ‘do not belong in the [white] child’s world’ (54) and are ‘colonial subjects’ (63). The problem with the shift from animals to monsters is, of course, that ‘what might have been anger or protest from a Black child character is now recoded as monstrous threat . . . whose very appearance suggests spectacle [and] . . . violence’ (63). Protagonists in monster picturebooks must overcome ‘faux-horror’—a term Austin borrows from Jessica McCort—to become friends with this racialised Other; Austin argues that monster picturebooks thus suggest racism comes down to an individual’s fear rather than to larger structures and institutions (64).
Austin contrasts the depictions of monsters in 1960s picturebooks with the use of monsters in Sesame Street (1969-), which she points out ‘is one of the earliest instances of pre-pubescent white children being asked to genuinely identify with the monster, rather than simply tolerate it’ (73). This ethos permeates the promotional materials for the show such as the picture book The Monster at the End of This Book (1971), in which the protagonist, Grover, upturns the pattern of the child-protagonist who is afraid of the monster in the book when he realises that he is himself the monster—and not a terribly scary one. Like the 1950s enfreakment of adolescents, then, which encouraged them to identify with the monsters in films, these later texts for children encouraged pre-pubescent audiences and readers to identify with monsters and the agency they could represent.
The focus of chapter three is the 1980s and the rise of depicting preadolescent children who access knowledges or enact behaviours from which adults felt children should be protected as monstrous. Child protectionist ideologies and moral panics fuelled adults’ fears that ‘childhood ignorance and innocence had already been compromised, and parents were simply unaware’ (80). Some toys produced during the period deliberately ‘mock[ed] social fears of the knowing child’ (80), even while more innocent versions of monsters continued to appear across a variety of children’s media.
In this chapter, Austin contends that monster toys deliberately engaged with, satirised, and challenged the child protectionist moral panics of the 1980s, using ‘the abject to lay claim to child agency…[by] invit[ing] child participation and exclud[ing] adults,’ and thus creating ‘an illusion of freedom from adult control’ (80-1). Austin provides a wide range of evidence for this argument, citing child-focused advertisements, analysing toys like Topps’s Garbage Pail Kids trading cards and Mattel’s Mad Scientist Monster Lab playset, and discussing illustrated books for children like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. She also discusses the increase in child monsters in popular culture aimed at adults in the 1970s, such as in the horror film The Exorcist (1973). The ‘possessed child narratives’ of these films make apparent adults’ fears that bad parenting or family crises might produce sexual and aggressive children (81-2).
The author emphasises that ‘child-as-monster films take on a new urgency in the 1980s,’ even though creepy children had appeared in narratives since the Victorian age, with films like The Shining (1980), Poltergeist (1982), and The Lost Boys (1987) depicting deviant children blur the line ‘between fear for children and fear of children’ (83). These children ‘reflect growing social concerns a loss of childhood innocence as a marker of [lost] middle-class status’ as inflation and other societal challenges pushed families out of the middle class and more women into work (83-4). Raced white, middle-class childhood innocence became more closely linked with a lack of sexuality and sexual knowledge, since working-class children were seen as perversely sexually knowing. The abject child in this period is one who loses class status, expresses overt sexuality, or displays ‘incorrect’ gendered traits (91-3). Moral panics relating to childhood, then, were intricately linked to fear over a loss of class, gender, and sexuality, and they thus fuelled increased homophobia, as societies like Save Our Children suggested that gay men were a sexual threat to minors and should be kept out of schools. As such, the 1980s saw an increase in a conservative, heteropatriarchal fetishisation of ‘childhood innocence at the expense of childhood agency’ (85), with moral panic-fuelled campaigns carried out against everything from imagined satanic cults to Dungeons and Dragons and heavy metal music (86-9).
In contrast, media for children depicted children as savvy agents with a culture of their own, ‘market[ing] child autonomy’ and suggesting that children were fully capable of defending themselves against various threats (93). Child characters in films and television regularly duped evil adults, and children’s toys were deliberately marketed as attractive ‘based on how much adults hated them,’ thus encouraging children’s ‘identification with the abject’ (93). These toys were cheap enough that they also created ‘child-controlled shadow economies’ (108)—not only could children afford them on their own, but some toys, like trading cards, encouraged a bartering system. They thus subverted adult control over what toys and texts children had access to.
Chapter four starts with a discussion of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which focused on protecting the middle-class white family as the American ideal. Austin claims that the ‘focus on morality [in the act] includes racist assumptions about Black sexuality, specifically that Black teenage mothers are responsible for much of American poverty’ (112), and monstrosity came to be linked with teenagers who were sexually irresponsible. As such, ‘series novels and television shows in the 1990s act as an alternative form of sex education, focusing on the bodies of white middle-class teens and reinforcing the larger cultural narrative of the decade that Black bodies must be regulated and white bodies educated’ (112). Consequently, monsters came to be associated with teen sexuality, and particularly female sexuality, in the 1990s, which saw a proliferation of texts focusing on ‘body horror’ and depicting ‘adolescent female bodies and desires as dangerous’ (116 & 118). Austin argues that this occurred through teenage vampire fiction in which boys were depicted ‘as the sexual aggressors and girls as the sexual gatekeepers’ (121), and she provides close readings of a variety of teen narrative media to support this argument.
In contrast, Austin notes, children’s and teen narratives produced in the 2000s depicted ‘teen desire, queer sexuality and identity, and alternative family structure’ more positively (113). She discusses the popular series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) as providing a bridge between negative and positive depictions of teen sexuality before discussing how the Twilight series centres a ‘monstrously queer family of choice’ in which ‘adults… accept and support young people’s agency through monstrous parenting practices’ (113). In Twilight and the many paranormal teen romances that followed it, a human and a monster fall in love but must overcome various challenges before they can come together permanently at the end of the series. While Austin acknowledges that Twilight is in many ways deeply problematic in its depiction of women and relationships, she argues that the novels can also be read as queer because of their focus on found families, the sibling-lover relationships of the family’s children, and the inability of the vampires to reproduce sexually with each other. Moreover, Bella is depicted as only able to express herself fully once she becomes a monster-mother, while other female monsters, like Rosalie and Leah, must find alternative ways to enact motherhood (136-7). Later texts more clearly embrace the queerness of vampires, encourage children to positively identify with monsters, and ‘reinforce [a] queer-positive message’ (147). Monstrous children and parents are depicted together, suggesting that child monsters have both a future and rights, and that monster-parents should listen to and respect young people. The rise of the monstrous family reflects a simultaneous societal increase in the acceptance of queer individuals and families, and thus, ‘monster culture outline[s] historical shifts of acceptance and citizenship rights’ (150).
Austin concludes that monsters have long played an important role in children’s and youth culture and act as symbols of resistance to adult-determined structures. In the 2020s, monsters have come to represent children’s ability to enact agency. Monstrosity comes to stand in for difference, and monster narratives push harmony and collaboration across differences. Although some narratives are ‘overly didactic,’ Austin suggests, the ‘use of monsters as symbols of difference and inclusion has become unremarkable, almost expected in children’s media’ (155).
Austin’s review of the roles played by monsters in American children’s and youth media from the 1950s to the present day is incredibly thorough, deeply nuanced, and engaging. I recommend this text not only for scholars of monster studies and/or childhood but also for those who are new beginners in these fields.
Austin, Sara (2022), Monstrous Youth: Transgressing the Boundaries of Childhood in the United States, Ohio: Ohio State University Press.
Nikolajeva, Maria (2009), ‘Theory, Post-Theory, and Aetnormative Theory’, Neohelicon, Vol. 36, pp. 13-24.
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