Thursday, October 10, 2013

Won't somebody let this child into the cage?

Cross-posted to the course blog for my junior seminar Modernism and Childhood.

Another one for the "government and cuteness" theme:

Think about this photo again when we read Curious George.

What does the tweeter—journalist Alex Fitzpatrick—seem to think is the rhetorical force of this photo?

It's "sad"; the toddler is sad; the toddler loves animals, as evidenced by her or his indeterminate animal-ears hood, and wants into the zoo; the toddler can't go in because of the government shutdown.

Of course, it's completely plausible to think that a toddler loves animals. You should see my niece looking at a turtle; she could not be more psyched.

But back up. Why would wearing an animal-ear hood translate into evidence of loving animals? After all, the toddler didn't wobble down to Baby Gap and pick it out him- or herself. It was an adult who decided that this child's love of animals should be manifested as an identification with the animal.

The child is trying to get into the zoo. To see animals? Or to be an animal?

The striking iconography of metal bars here makes the child look caged, citing what we know a zoo to be: a place where animals are kept in cages. The cages are carefully designed and controlled environments meant to emulate the animals' natural habitats and keep them happy, but they are cages all the same. The child is dressed as an animal. The child wants in, and the bars are keeping her or him out. The child cannot read the sign, prominent on the right, that explains why. For that matter, the child cannot vote for members of Congress.

The sadness of this image is the same as its cuteness: the child's desire is frustrated by the same adult forces that iconographically stage her helplessness and her kinship with the animals she is trying to see.