Cinematic representations of boyhood sexual abuse, 1967-2006

  • Todd Taylor

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the emergence and continued growth of cinematic representations of adult-child sexual relations. This emergence coincided with changes to both the regulatory environment in which film operated and societal problematics around adult-child sexual relations. How has film treated this new subject matter? A common-sense assumption is that film contributes to dominant ideologies, such as discourses of childhood innocence. James Kincaid, for instance, has theorised that through a convergence between cultural discourses of childhood and sexual innocence, children are paradoxically constructed as erotically appealing and erotically vacant. For him, film contributes to this construction of childhood. This thesis will argue that cinematic representations of adult-child sexual relations provide a more nuanced perspective. Drawing on formalist and genre analysis, I will examine two cycles that have predominated the cinematic representation of adult-child sexual relations. The first cycle, which peaked between 1967 and 1988,has been labeled the coming-of-age narrative in film studies, medico-psychological and feminist literature. This narrative features sexually agentic children. These children are complex characters but so too are the adults they interact with. In this cycle, childhood is not necessarily more or less innocent than adulthood. The second cycle, which peaked between 1985 and 2006,comprises films involving the witnessing of adult-child sexual relations. Both adults and children are witnesses. These witnesses are also complex characters, who, in this cycle, are torn between innocence and complicity. This cycle does not advocate adult-child sexual relations, but, again, childhood is not necessarily more or less innocent than adulthood. I will argue that film cannot be seen as a simple vehicle for dominant ideologies. One explanation for the shift between these two cycles is the rise of the broad social concern over child sexual abuse. Through historically contextualising this shift, however, I will suggest that the relationship between discourses of child sexual abuse and cinematic representations of adult-child sexual relations is complex. Film is a commercial medium that is principally in competition with television as well as emerging media such as videogames and the internet. During the mid-1980s,the television industry within the US underwent profound structural changes, which, in part, contributed to made-for-TV movies depicting child sexual abuse that privileged parenthood. I will suggest that cinema responded by privileging the non-parent. In sum, the original contribution of this thesis is not an argument of how film supports hegemonic discourses of childhood innocence, but how film, as a commercial medium that targets distinct audience groups—in particular youth—within a competitive mediascape, complicates these discourses of childhood innocence. Of course, film is not alone in this regard. Popular music, the music video, videogames and YouTube may provide other sites of nuance. In conclusion, I will suggest that further research should be directed at the latter because it has the potential of contributing to new audiences and cultural discourses of adult-child sexual relations.
    Date of Award2011
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorPaul Magee (Supervisor), Greg Battye (Supervisor) & Jeff Brownrigg (Supervisor)

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