I started three weeks ago a new MA subject on children in Anglophone cinema, under the umbrella label Gender Studies. This is a continuation of a subject I taught three years ago, which resulted in the publication of the e-book by the students Gender in 21st Century Animated Children’s Cinema (check please my post on the task of editing this book). We are preparing another e-book, which will be the twelfth volume I edit with students’ work, based like the rest of developing the presentations we do in class into essays, following my own sample presentation and essay.

            Whereas in the previous subject the focus fell on animated films addressed specifically to children, this time I am focusing on the presence of children in 21st century live-action films of all types, with no distinction between children’s and adults’ films. I started with a list of 58, now reduced to 45 (I have 11 students, each in charge of 4 films, plus 1 auditor in charge of 1). I myself have presented Nowhere Special and might add, as I usually do, a few more essays to the e-book, to reach if possible the round number of 50. Here are our films:

2000 Billy Eliot, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0249462  

2001 A.I. Artificial Intelligence, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0212720

2001 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0241527    

2001 Hearts in Atlantis, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0252501   

2001 I Am Sam, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0277027

2002 Whale Rider https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0298228

2003 Peter Pan, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0316396

2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0367594  

2006 Akeelah and the Bee, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0437800

2006 Little Miss Sunshine, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0449059

2006 The Pursuit of Happyness, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0454921

2007 Bridge to Therabitia, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0398808

2008 Definitely, Maybe, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0832266  

2008 The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0914798

2009 My Sister’s Keeper, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1078588

2009 Orphan, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1148204

2009 The Road, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0898367  

2009 Where the Wild Things Are, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0386117  

2010 Diary of a Wimpy Kid, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1196141

2010 Kick-Ass, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1250777

2010 Let Me In, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1228987

2011 Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0477302

2011 Hugo, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0970179

2012 Beasts of the Southern Wild, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2125435

2012 Moonrise Kingdom, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1748122

2014 The Babadook, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2321549

2015 Beasts of No Nation, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1365050

2015 Room, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3170832

2016 A Monster Calls, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3416532

2016 The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4698684  

2016 The Jungle Book, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3040964

2017 Gifted, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4481414   

2017 Logan, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3315342  

2017 The Book of Henry, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4572792

2017 The Florida Project, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5649144  

2017 Wonder, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2543472  

2018 Bird Box, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2737304

2019 JoJo Rabbit, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2584384

2019 Good Boys, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6977338

2019 Brightburn, htps://www.imdb.com/title/tt7752126  

2020 Minari, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt10633456

2021 Belfast, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt12789558  

2021 Nowhere special, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt11286640  

2021 C’mon, C’mon, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt10986222

2022 Aftersun, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt19770238

2022 The Wonder, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9288822

I found no takers for the following: Off the Map (2003), Millions (2004), Tideland (2005), Ender’s Game (2012), Safe (2012), Boyhood (2014), Maggie (2015), BFG (2016), The Girl with All the Gifts (2016), Midnight Special (2016). This is fine, I think, though I might end up writing about some of them. It seems a pity to exclude Boyhood, but in the end it possibly makes sense, since I have also excluded Moonlight on the grounds that I want to work on characters up to the age of 12 and in these two films the boys protagonists grow up to be teens, a completely different age category. We have also finally dropped the astonishingly beautiful The Quiet Girl (2022) because it is mostly spoken in Gaelic. I teach English Studies and this logically limits my choices, leaving outside the subject many other wonderful films with children, like the last one I have seen, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Monster (2023), a singular, delicate masterpiece.

            Why children? Mainly because I feel that discussions of children tend to group them into a homogeneous class without much discussion of gender, while I’m interested in exploring with my students the dynamics of gender representation in the characterization of the children represented in film. What we are beginning to notice, after two weeks of presentations in which we have discussed eight films so far, is that the gender issues affect not just the representation of the children but also of the adults surrounding them. This is obvious, you might say, but it needs to be said: the films addressing children are quite light in the treatment of the child’s gender, whereas the films addressed to adults take the child as an excuse to explore the adult characters.

            Another matter that is transparent is that, in comparison to the cinema made outside the Anglosphere, the films made in the English-speaking territories are far more prudish in their approach to gender and sexuality. You don’t get films about trans children (like Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren’s 20000 Especies de Abejas, 2023), nor about gay children (Moonlight is absolutely exceptional, I think). In commercial US films it is, besides, practically impossible to find LGTBIQ+ issues, even though the portrait of heterosexual, normative characters is far from being always positive (I mean by this the adults). I am in many ways worried that our exploration will not discover much that is daring and new in how children are presented on the screen, at least in English-language films.

            Children have now in their hand smartphones to make films with and many devoted teachers willing to initiate them in the path of filmmaking. Social media like TikTok have prompted children to make their own tiny little films, and to learn thus the basics of editing even when they don’t even know the word. Children, likewise, draw and paint, and write poetry though more rarely fiction or essays. We are, however, still very far from considering their productions artistically worthy, with the exception of a handful of children who grew up to be geniuses. In cinema the concept of a child director or script writer is totally out of the question, even though child actors are abundant. Since, logically, children do not have sufficient critical training and, anyway, nobody bothers to ask for their opinion, their representations are extremely biased by the adults’ own impression of childhood. At the same time, as we know, cinema has been shaping childhood since its very beginning, not just since Disney’s Mickey Mouse hit the screens, in ways we barely understand.

            Apart from children’s inability to resist or criticize their own (mis)representation, another matter that worries me is the extension of the category ‘child’ to what used to be called ‘minor’. The age categories may vary notably (just consider how differently they are used in the restrictions for children to access certain films of videogames), but for me there is a world of difference between the child properly speaking and the adolescent, or teenager, marked mostly by sexuality. The age at which children become aware of sexuality may also vary, but whereas teens do engage in sexuality as part of a natural exploration of their bodies, children under 13 who engage in sexuality are most often being abused. I don’t want to sound absurdly prim, but for me childhood runs from birth to the age of 12, when most boys and girls start awakening to natural (not imposed) sexuality. This may be an arbitrary barrier but I don’t want to mix children with teens. As for the current fashion to refer to teen minors as children, I find it ridiculous. Teenagers are young adults, as the literature addressed to them demonstrates, and it’s harmful and patronizing to refer to them as children.

            This week I have been reading with my students the chapter “Mad Genius” in Sarah Polley’s memoirs Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory (2023) in which she discusses her traumatic memories of the set of Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). The daughter of a casting director, Polley became a child actor aged 4 and was already quite famous thanks to a couple of roles on Canadian TV when she was hired, aged 8, to star in Gilliam’s film. What she narrates is horrific. Polley was forced to participate again and again in totally unsafe scenes, running a very real physical danger when a horse panicked triggering an explosion over which the special effects crew lost control (as it turns out, Gilliam himself recklessly pulled the trigger). Polley recalls her efforts as an adult, when she heard about Gilliam’s project to make yet another film with a young girl, to communicate to him how terrifying her experience had been, to no avail. This started a conversation in class about how unprotected children employed as actors are, with a student suggesting that perhaps they should not be employed at all in films. This could only lead, naturally, to an extremely impoverished cinema. Hopefully, Polley’s terrible experience was exceptional and most children appearing in film are safe, but we discussed that some scenes should be avoided. For instance, children who may not have kissed anyone in the lips in real life should never be asked to first experience a kiss of that kind before a camera.

            As you can see, there will be plenty to discuss along the coming weeks. The bibliography I’m reading is packed with many ideas and plenty of information to discuss, and I see, to begin with, that we are generally awfully ignorant about how children are used and represented in the film industry. The beginnings, especially, are beginning to be lost in the fog of time. Icons such as Shirley Temple mean very little today, and it might be quite a lesson to see any of her films now.

I’ll keep you posted about our work.