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The normative trajectory of development is frequently made sense of, as so many normative things are, as “natural.” Kids “naturally” hit certain physical, mental, and experiential milestones at certain times.

But, of course, we know from those other normative things that “nature” takes work. People “fail” by having a gender presentation that, oops, it turns out doesn’t “naturally” follow from having a certain sort of body. They don’t “naturally” find that their desires fall into a monogamous heterosexual configuration. Being outside the norm, far from requiring deviance, is the more common condition, showing that compliance with the norm doesn’t just spontaneously arise after all.

As Kathryn Bond Stockton explains in The Queer Child, Or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century, it takes work to regulate growing up so that kids learn things at the “proper” intervals and don’t “grow up too fast” and “lose their innocence.”  This is, moreover, a particular kind of work, because this is understood only ever as “premature” exposure to sexuality or violence. We’re oddly unconcerned with precocious entry into other things associated with adulthood like business ownership. Providing kids with a computer game about lemonade stand ownership is a-ok; the kid with the lawn care business is cute.

Not so the incipient trans child, who is imagined not to be capable of thinking about their gender in the way an adult is.  So youth have access to some “grownup” decisions or activities and not others.

Stockton notes that “gay” or “homosexual” are “categories culturally deemed too adult, since they are sexual, though we do presume every child to be straight” (p. 6). Thus, a (sex-free) storybook about a penguin same-sex relationship is unsuitable for young children, but those endless Disney movies constructing heterosexual marriage as the one and only happily ever after  aren’t too grown up or sexual.

At the same time that we want to keep kids from getting involved in things imagined to be too advanced for them, there is a point at which the narrative flips. Beyond a certain age, one becomes eligible to be told to “grow up already” and move on to adult things.

This is not a major point for Stockton, interested as she is in examining the figure of the child. She does point to the idea of homosexuality as arrested development (p. 22-3)—and the irony that this is paired with thinking of homosexuality as incompatible with childhood doesn’t escape either of us. Stockton also notes that for Freud “perverts are ‘diverts, one could say, who extend themselves or linger” instead of following normative trajectory of sex (p. 25).

But the idea of not growing up fast enough was the part that most interested me, particularly in relation to my work on the ways that fans are represented: they’re not white enough and not straight enough, that is, because they’re not grown up enough—because they haven’t “grown out of” their fandom into the measured appreciation characteristic of normative adulthood.

So given that

a)      growing up normatively requires carefully calibrated work to enforce that normativity, to make sure it’s not too fast or too slow, and

b)      like other queer theorists I tend to want to expose and disrupt the enforcement of norms,

I was particularly drawn to Stockton’s proposal that we consider what alternative, nonlinear, nonnormative trajectories of growth might look like, that we “prick (deflate, or just delay) the vertical, forward-motion metaphor of growing up” through “sideways growth” (p. 11).

Granted, this is probably because I’m in the “everything relates to my dissertation!” stage, but this seems like a pretty important insight for fan studies.

So much of the field has been founded on being normal—with early work insisting that fans weren’t crazy, honest, and later work interpreting increased visibility and encouragement of fans as showing they had succeeded in becoming normal. But what if we started from the premise other than getting access to normativity?  What if we refused the legitimacy of the norm of upward, straight line, normative “growing up”?

I’d like to argue something more like: Kids engage in certain sorts of fandom, and adults can too, and if that’s considered unacceptable it’s the norm that’s the problem, not the fans.

Because, the rush to be “normal and normaller,”  (as Michael Warner termed it in 1999 with respect to same-sex marriage) is, I argued in my own discussion of gay marriage,  something we ought to approach much more critically, because these sorts of moves inevitably only allow access to the norm for the people who already look mostly like it—white (+), male (+), gender-normative (+), middle-class (+), heterosexual (+) fans (-).

Instead of trying to change the definition of being normatively grownup so they’ll let fans in, or prove that we were always properly adult but not recognized as such, I think fan studies ought to embrace and celebrate growing sideways and slantways and curlicue-ways and fractured-ways and queerly.

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  1. […] it’s desire, and its excessive feelings, and it’s femininity, and it’s not inside the confines of normative development  (the author identifies it as a “stage”). And it freaks people […]

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