Contemporary Media Culture

In this essay I will be looking at the ways in which Sally Mann’s photographs of her children depict a knowing childhood that is different to more traditional representations of children. I will specifically be looking at her photographs Jessie at 5, 1987 and The new mothers, 1989 from her series Immediate family. The original idea of children being innocent, which is still widely bought into today, was developed in the Victorian era, known as the ‘romantic child’.A variety of factors contributed to this, such as the high child mortality rate at the time and the belief that childhood innocence was considered an attribute of the child’s body.(Higonnet, 1998).

In the 1800’s, people believed that you went straight from childhood to adulthood around the age of 12-there was no such thing as adolescence. There weren’t many options for the working class-you would go and work in a factory, the mines or as a chimney sweep, if you were lucky enough to survive that long. As Ray Merritt tells us in his book Full of grace, ‘underprivileged children throughout the world, including those in Queen Victoria’s enlightened industrialized empire, were often starved, exploited and compromised.’ (Merritt, R. 2006) This helped shape children as a symbol of innocence because people believed that they were too young to have sinned. In these times, you supposedly only had sex to breed and children were too young to engage in this, leaving them pure. Children were seen as the ideal object of adoration, which helped parents deal with the likely deaths of their children, holding in their hearts the belief that they would be going to heaven. It is reported that in the 19th century around 25% of infants died before reaching their fifth birthday (Roser, M. 2013). This is why in many of the early depictions of children, they are deceased but possibly shown to be sleeping. It was extremely common for parents to have photographs taken of their dead children in this way, to remember them as the innocent, unadulterated beings that they were made out to be. As Anne Higonnet tells us in her book Pictures of innocence, ‘the dead child’s body is one that never did and never will know desire…’(P.30), which reinforces her earlier statement that ‘childhood innocence was considered an attribute of the child’s body, both because the child’s body was supposed to be naturally innocent of adult sexuality, and because the child’s mind was supposed to begin blank.’ (P.8) This suggests that children are unaware of the adult goings on in the world, otherwise known as the ‘unknowing child’. This ‘blank state’ of children was also seen as desirable due to the fact ‘adult hopes, wishes and expectations can be projected [onto them]’ (Lafo, R.R. 2008). In other words, adults can mould their children into what they want them to be, demonstrating a power imbalance between adult and child.

These representations of children began in paintings and drawings in the eighteenth century. One of these being Girl with kittens by Emile Munier, made in 1850-60. In this painting we can see a young girl, surrounded by leaves with two kittens-one is asleep on her lap and the other is nuzzling into her. This suggests that the girl is gentle and a source of comfort for the kittens. The fact that kittens have been used instead of fully-grown cats is significant as it further emphasises how tender the little girl must be- she could cause no harm. It is also likening her to the kittens; she is one of them and at one with nature. The fact that it is implied she is more like a kitten than a person strips her of her consciousness, further supporting the belief that she is not capable of sin. Children with pets is one of the five categories of paintings of children suggested by Anne Higonnet in Pictures of innocence. She tells us that ‘usually the pets are small and cuddly…cueing the viewers interpretation of the child.’ (P. 34) The other categories suggested are children dressed up in special costumes, naked children as angels and cupids, babies and children prefiguring adult gender roles. However, depicting a child in the way that Munier has, can be seen as problematic. As mentioned previously, the child is being painted as the ideal object of adoration-innocence is being seen as desirable. This has arguably created long lasting effects on the image of women to this day-women are expected to look like pre-pubescent girls and in turn, children are often sexualised because this is what has been deemed as ‘desirable’. It is believed by many that ‘we live in a contemporary media culture whose images sexualize children, and put children at real and unacceptable risk.’ (Higonnet, A. 1998)

Cherry Ripe by Sir John Everett Millais is an early example of this. Painted in 1879, so around 100 years later than Girl with kittens, we can still see how Munier has influenced Millais. A very similar composition has been used-again we have a young girl central to the painting, surrounded by foliage with her hands in her lap. However, instead of kittens, we have cherries sat next to her. These cherries insinuate that young girls are sweet like cherries. The way that her hands are clasped in her lap suggest that the girl is resisting temptation to eat the cherries-this could be a signal to the supposedly good behaviour of children that people at the time wanted to encapsulate. The positioning of the girl in this painting is further back than Girl with kittens, making her look even more dainty in her oversized hat. However, the coy gaze of the girl arguably challenges this, as it almost suggests that the look of innocence is all an act. In an analysis by the Tate, it is suggested that

‘the borderline between innocence and awareness is very fine in this work, and most likely relates to Millais’s interest in probing the extent to which little girls consciously affect an attitude when in the company of an adult male.’ (Rosenfeld, J; Smith, A. 2007)

The proposed idea that girls purposely change their attitude around men in conjunction with the facial expression of the girl is problematic because it plays into the stereotype of women ‘playing it coy’. The oxford English dictionary definition of coy is ‘(especially with reference to a woman) making a pretence of shyness or modesty which is intended to be alluring.’ Imposing this stereotype on a child implies that the girl in Cherry ripe is there to allure men, which takes us to its second reading.

In 1880, Cherry ripe was published in ‘the graphic’, which then went on to sell 500,000 copies. It subsequently was picked up by pears soap, making this little girls portrait one of the best known in every household. Some argue that its success was down to ‘Millais’s intuitive understanding of the appeal of the fancy picture genre’ (Rosenfeld, J; Smith, A. 2007) However, some argue that its success was down to its ‘pronounced pedophilic appeal’ (Reis, P. 1992) Unlike the painting Penelope Boothby by Joshua Reynolds which cherry ripe was based off of, we are able to see the full length of the girls body. Her ankles dangle from beneath her dress, which is pulled up in such a way that we can see her thigh. This then leads our eyes up to her hips, which are overly developed for her age, sexualising her in the way that a grown woman might be sexualised. Another indication is the positioning of her hands, which is accentuated by the dark gloves worn. They have been painted in this fashion to replicate female genitalia. The title of the painting is also a reference to being a virgin. As Pamela Reis says in her entry for Victorian studies ‘Millais’s title announces, none too subtly, that the little girl, like the cherries, is ripe and ready to be plucked’ (Reis, p. 1992) Although this is wrong in itself and only a certain handful of people knew how to read the painting in this way, the fact that this is one of the most mass produced images of a little girl amplifies the problem because to a certain degree, this sexualisation becomes normal. Another problem with treating children as innocent, unknowing beings is that they are not taught things from an early age that could protect them if the need to do so did arise; by trying to protect their innocence, we are essentially putting them in danger.

These interpretations were soon mimicked by photography with its invention in 1826 by Nicephore Niepce. Photographers used the child as a symbol to move them away from the label of being just a mechanical process, into a fine art, because imagery of children was ‘perceived as timeless and linguistically neutral’ (Merritt, R. 2006)