Reviewed: Fantasies of Neglect: Imagining the Urban Child in American Film and Fiction

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Pamela Robertson Wojcik. Fantasies of Neglect: Imagining the Urban Child in American Film and Fiction. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2016. 256 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8135-6447-0.

Reviewed by Barbara Brickman (University of Alabama)
Published on H-Childhood (June, 2017)
Commissioned by Meredith Bak


On the striking, anxiety-inducing yellow cover of its April 2014 issue, The Atlantic offered an unforgettable image of the issue’s titular “Over-Protected Kid,” who was pictured center frame, sporting a black bicycle helmet, kneepads, and a pillow strapped to his chest and looking off to the right where a disembodied adult female (i.e., maternal) hand was clinging to his outstretched one, presumably from her helicopter hovering just outside the frame. Hanna Rosin’s much-discussed feature article in that issue, on an apparent epidemic of child safety panic that had “stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery," marked a high point in the growing debate about so-called helicopter parenting and its deleterious effects, which perhaps culminated in the lauded 2015 publication of Stanford dean Julia Lythcott-Haims’s polemic, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success.[1]

These two figures, the perverse parent and the troubled or troubling modern child, are at the heart of Pamela Wojcik’s far-ranging new work on representations of the urban child in American popular culture, Fantasies of Neglect: Imagining the Urban Child in American Film and Fiction. Beginning and ending with these recent debates about parenting, which are exemplified in a controversial proponent like Lenore Skenazy, who has been called “America’s Worst Mom” for advocating for far less supervised “free-range kids,” Wojcik makes a powerful case for the freedom and mobility of all children, not just urban ones, by suggesting that fictional fantasies of neglect have increasingly served a containment purpose for children (as well as for women) into the twenty-first century, even as numerous popular examples of the urban child that she examines portray lack of supervision by adults as often freeing, enlightening, and empowering for the texts’ young protagonists.

Focusing predominantly on American popular film, but also engaging a wide array of fictional examples—from comic strips and Afrofuturist fantasy to classic children’s literature and Sesame Street—Fantasies of Neglect tracks changing perceptions of the urban child over the twentieth century in the United States, wherein that child has fascinated as a figure of mobility and resourcefulness, yet also simultaneously called forth powerful fantasies of endangerment, vulnerability, and abuse. Whether in the guise of Eloise, Little Orphan Annie, the Dead End Kids, and Shirley Temple or in films ranging from Mary Poppins (1964) and The Champ (1931 and 1979) to The Cool World (1963) and The Hunger Games (2012), what Wojcik terms the “abiding imaginary of the urban child” has put into tension two competing representations of neglect: a dark fantasy that views the victimized child’s lack of supervision and unprotected presence on city streets as a sign of social and/or familial dysfunction, and a contrasting, more positive fantasy where the unaccompanied child embraces the thrills, risks, and freedoms of independent movement and creative way-finding (p. 12).

The book’s strong historical grounding, nevertheless, does locate a significant shift in the purported causes underlying, as well as the balance between, these fantasies of neglect as the American century wore on—with an early twentieth-century understanding of neglect in terms of privation in social conditions surrounding the urban child giving way to a post-Second World War focus on psychological neglect, particularly at the hands of the mother, apparently denying the child a path to happiness and proper adjustment. The structure of the book, accordingly, marks this historical shift by dividing the four main chapters between the more social problem-focused films of the 1930s in chapters 1 and 2 and the postwar concentration on psychological, identity-based arguments, particularly directed against mothers, in chapters 3 and 4. As a means of conclusion, the final chapter brings the book back to where it began, with the debates around hypervigilant parenting and contemporary charges of neglect providing context for a consideration of recent narratives in the first decade of the twenty-first century, such as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011), which imagine a mobile urban child but only in the wake of catastrophe, trauma, and social disorder.

As this overview might indicate, the book employs expansive scholarship both to flesh out the image of the urban child constructed across fictional, sociological, journalistic, and psychological discourses, as well as to historicize and theorize the fantasies of neglect fixed to this child as a means of normalizing him or her. The first two chapters, for example, are informed by historical insights into child labor laws, sociological study of gangs, and panics over the “girl problem” erupting first in the Victorian era, while also analyzing the representations of urban boys and girls, such as Shirley Temple in her “streetwalker” films, in terms of their embodiment of key issues of modernity, including but not limited to urbanization, immigration, industrialization, and, of course, changing gender norms. When the book shifts to the second half of the twentieth century, Wojcik carefully contextualizes the transition historically through changing conceptions of the child, parenting (specifically motherhood), and psychologically informed identity, moving deftly from the findings of the White House Conference on Childhood and Youth to popular psychology’s construction of dreaded “momism” and the influence of Erik Erikson’s concept of “self-actualization.” Indeed, it is at this pivotal point that the book’s theoretical heart comes fully into view with the focus on the fantasy of maternal neglect as the repeated trope upon which so many of these fictions depend for their constructions of the urban child as victimized and in need of protection and supervision. Even as she notes in chapter 4 the otherness or irreconcilable difference attributed to minority children, especially African American children, “left out of the midcentury discourse on the ‘happy personality’” (p. 140) because of their supposed lack of innocence and “broken” family structure, making them, for dominant discourses, “not children” at all (p. 141), Wojcik nevertheless locates the theme of the “rejecting” or neglectful mother in her fictional postwar examples. This centrality of maternal neglect for the book’s main arguments, particularly as these fantasies appear to intensify in response to the increasing demands of Second Wave feminism after mid-century, suggests that further theorizing of the gender politics of the fantasy of neglect might be warranted sooner. 

Beyond the book’s welcome intervention into a film scholarship that has yet to address fully the place of children, youth, and adolescents in cinematic history, it also makes a significant contribution to histories of childhood for its specific focus on the urban child of the twentieth century and on popular media representations. Wojcik documents not just the recent “retreat” from the streets and “islanding” of children’s activities, but she views these trends within a historical lineage going back to Rousseau and the “romantic ideal” of childhood in the rural idyll and then uses this historical perspective to underpin her textual analysis. Yet, perhaps the author’s greatest strength is her facility with and persuasive employment of theoretical frameworks for reevaluating this history of the child, such as through work by Miriam Hansen, Sara Ahmed, and Kathryn Bond Stockton which aids in deconstructing and resituating the very concept of childhood. These insights allow the reader to see fantasies of neglect as paramount in representations of and construction of the child in the twentieth century. The only addition one might envision would be a more exact bounding of the definition of childhood, especially in terms of age. Many of the protagonists in the book’s fictional examples are somewhere between the ages of seven and thirteen, but several, like Katniss Everdeen or some of the Dead End Kids, are older, clearly identifiable as adolescents, which raises categorical questions for the work. Does adolescence—itself one of the creations of modernity—elicit the same fantasies of neglect? How might questions of mobility and supervision change as the “urban child” reaches the teen years? But perhaps, one might argue, these are questions for another book.

Fantasies of Neglect has opened up a compelling and vital discussion about childhood freedoms and adult fantasies and fears that will inform and inspire, I believe, much scholarship to come. The dazzling breadth of its textual readings and the depth of its theoretical insights are sure to encourage many scholars to begin investigating not just the urban child, but representations and uses of childhood in a number of other contexts, along with the myriad of fantasies spurred by this enthralling, troubling figure.


[1]. Hanna Rosin, “Hey, Parents! Leave Those Kids Alone,” The Atlantic 313 (April 2014): 75.