“There is no aphrodisiac like innocence,” wrote the uncanny French philosopher Jean Baudrillard in his autobiography Cool Memories ten years ago. Perhaps he was thinking of all those suggestive Calvin Klein billboards and TV spots of a 15-year-old Brooke Shields bragging that “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins,” to which we were subjected in the early ’80s.1 Despite his mush-mouthed protests to the contrary, it’s obvious that Klein was still banking on the erotic selling power of innocence when he hired photographer Steven (Madonna’s Sex) Meisel to create a ’70s low-budget teensploitation porno-looking ad campaign for his increasingly un-hip designer jeans last year. However, despite the incredibly shrill response to Klein’s “exploitation of the innocence of children” on the part of well-intentioned child welfare advocates and Catholic League mothers across the nation (a response which was — surprise, surprise — incredibly profitable for Klein), nowhere in the resulting media hoopla were the truly important questions ever asked: Namely, what is innocence, who can be said to possess innocence, and what constitutes exploitation?
The great philosopher Epictetus’ maxim that “We become philosophers to discover what is really true and what is merely the accidental result of flawed reasoning, recklessly acquired erroneous judgments, well-intentioned but misguided teachings of parents and teachers, and unexamined acculturation,” demands — now that all of those obnoxious “outserts” in Rolling Stone and Spin are out of our faces — that we ask ourselves whether or not innocence exists, whether or not children can be said to possess such a quality a priori, and whether or not images of sexualized young people are necessarily exploitative. (We could also ask ourselves, “Who the fuck is wearing designer jeans any more?” but who are we to judge the lumpenteens of America?) Let’s start with innocence.
It’s important to distinguish between religious and secular definitions of innocence. If by innocence we mean “freedom from guilt or sin,” which are religious notions, we’re already in hot water: Whereas Catholics believe that you can be absolved from guilt or sin through confession every week, most Protestants believe that only the inexplicable gift of God’s grace — which you can never be sure you’ve received — can absolve you.2 Let’s assume, then, that those who successfully protested Klein’s ad campaign last summer were not concerned that the ads were exploiting their young-looking3 models’ souls. When these protesters invoked children’s innocence, they were most likely referring to what they assumed is a child’s natural lack of worldly experience or sophistication. Kids, in popular opinion, are soft and fluffy: Their rosy cheeks, unfurrowed brows, and big, innocent eyes which seem to drink in the bloom and buzz of the world unfettered by the shackles of jaded, “adult-erated” preconceptions just make us want to take them in our arms, stroke them, cuddle them, kiss them, and… Well, childhood seems to us to be truly the only uncorrupted phase of human existence, a time when each and every one of us was free from dissimulation and artifice, when we were safe from un-soft-and-fluffy grown-up problems like drug abuse, homelessness, disease, violence, and sexual exploitation. Right?
Wrong. Although we yearn to be young and innocent and go to great lengths to return to an exalted state of childhood — by doing everything from toting around “Hello Kitty” lunchboxes (although those belong to someone else’s childhood, people) to building enchanted mansions called “Never-Never Land” stocked with monkeys, roller-coasters, Brooke Shields herself, and little boys running around in their underwear… Whoops, there’s that problem again — the sad fact is that childhood innocence is a cultural construct, and a comparatively recent one, at that. In most “native” societies today children dress, work, eat, drink, and even have sexual relationships just like adults. Ditto for European children in medieval times: Disagree? Can you say Romeo and Juliet? It wasn’t until a hundred-odd years ago that “childhood” became conceptualized as a unique, “innocent” period of life, one which needed its own forms of food, clothes, pastimes, and behavior; however, right up until the Victorian era you could still crack dirty jokes in front of a kid, or be in love with and marry a 13-year-old, and no one would sic the Children’s Defense League on you. Even today, anyone who spends any amount of time on a daily basis with kids knows that although they may be ignorant, unsocialized, and even unrepressed, kids are not innocent in the utopian way we’d like to imagine.
Having said all that, it’s important to point out that I do think that children deserve to be protected from drug abuse, homelessness, disease, violence, and sexual exploitation; I just don’t think they’re uniquely deserving of that protection. We should all be safe from these unhealthy and unpleasant things that even Epictetus would have to agree exist. The fact is, however, that teenagers (let’s clarify here: No one would argue that an ad campaign sexualizing toddlers is not exploitative and wrong) like the ones portrayed in Klein’s ads are far more likely to seek out these sorts of dangerous situations and lifestyles than adults are. When people were tsk-tsking over the “exploitative” Calvin Klein ads featuring a teenaged Marky Mark in anatomically correct tighty-whities a few years ago, I had to laugh: I went to elementary school with Donnie and Mark Wahlberg, and in 1978 those 11-year-old hoodlums were already into sex and drugs and violence at a level unimaginable to anyone in Calvin Klein’s ad department. I’m not saying it’s right for kids to behave in that manner, but I do think it’s time to drop the idea of “childhood innocence” once and for all. Kids are sophisticated, they’re worldly-wise, they’re fully capable of being adults, only we won’t allow them to grow up until they’re — what? Eighteen? Twenty-one? Married? What’s the cut-off point, anyway? See the problem?
Take a look at the other big scandal of last summer: Larry Clark’s much-talked-about movie Kids. Although people accused him, too, of exploiting innocent children for his own sick purposes, Clark knows what he’s talking about: He’s someone who has actually been allowed into the twisted hidden life of young people, and his photos (in books like Tulsa or Teenage Lust) of kids tying each other up, fucking their sisters and brothers, aiming pistols at each other, shooting up, whatever, weren’t staged. That stuff happens everywhere, in good homes and bad, in cities and on farms, every day in this country. Are Clark’s photos exploitation or documentation? Is Kids, which was actually written by 19-year-old Harmony Korine, exploitation? Or is it — as I felt when I saw it, comparing it to my own experiences in the skateboard subculture — a tame version of what’s really going on? I watched the movie in a theater full of ready-to-be-shocked white-bread Minnesotan teens who didn’t seem the slightest bit impressed by the depiction of kids drinking 40s, kids kicking each other’s asses, kids contracting sexually transmitted diseases, kids fucking passed-out girls, or kids committing random acts of violence and vandalism: The only time I heard anyone gasp in disapproval was when the main character kicked his mother’s cat!
What is innocence, who can be said to possess innocence, and what constitutes exploitation? I believe that there is, in fact, a state of being in which one can be said to be uncorrupted by worldly knowledge; there is a period of life in which one can be safe from the harmful influences of the unscrupulous and corrupt. But this state of being and period of life — which we can call “innocence” — is not childhood; rather, it is adulthood! Only the old are innocent, for it is they who have grown past the corruption of perception and values into which we are all born. It is not kids who are exploited by ad campaigns like Calvin Klein’s but adults. Kids know a world far more lascivious and dangerous than anything a poster on the side of a bus can show, but it’s adults who get turned on by ads which pander to their misguided ideal of childhood innocence. So, come on, gang… Let’s get out there and make the world a safe place for our parents to live in!
Author: bunny hop