Thursday, September 26, 2019
September 26, 2019: AmericanStudy a Banned Book: Heather Has Two Mommies
[Happy Banned Books Week! In high school I had a deeply nerdy sweatshirt that read “Celebrate Freedom: Read a Banned Book”; this week I’ll do so by AmericanStudying books that have been frequently banned, in the past or recently. And yeah, read a Banned Book this week!]
On how cultural representations threaten prejudice, and why their importance goes beyond that effect.
About a year ago in this space, I concluded a series on “American Gay Studies” by examining a trio of ground-breaking late 1990s pop cultural texts that portrayed LGBTQ Americans in significant roles (really as their protagonists in each case). It wasn’t a coincidence that those texts were all from that same late 90s moment, as that was really the first time when mainstream American popular culture began consistently and centrally representing such American identities (a newness evidenced by the controversy and backlash faced by the first of that trio, the sitcom Ellen, and its creator and star). But of course there had long been individual such cultural representations, and thus also social controversies and challenges to those representations from anti-gay voices and forces. Offering a prominent example of both trends, from about a decade before that trio of late 90s texts, is Lesléa Newman’s ground-breaking children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies (1989).
The story of Heather is simple enough (as is generally the case with books for younger children, of course): the title character, whose parents are lesbian couple Jane and Kate, is part of a playgroup where family units are being discussed; at first she is upset that her family differs from those of her peers, but she learns from the group caretaker Molly that all families are special and worth celebrating. Yet that simple premise was met with a firestorm of backlash from anti-gay parents and interest groups, not all of which went as far as the Fayetteville (NC) group that paid for a series of anti-library newspaper ads but most of which sought to have the book banned from both school and public libraries. Those campaigns relied on the usual combination of religious objections (I’m very tempted to put “religious” in quotes there) and more blatantly bigoted ones (the Fayetteville ads compared homosexuality to “prostitution, bestiality, and incest,” natch). But to my mind, what they consistently reveal is the simple and crucial fact that to represent identities in cultural works is precisely to threaten stereotypes and prejudice directed at those identities, since such bigoted narratives and perspectives depend entirely on visions of those identities as unfamiliar, threatening “others,” rather than simply people in our communities and societies.
That aspect of Heather alone would be more than enough to make it an important text, to this day and even more so in its late 1980s moment. But I would argue that there’s another audience for a book like Heather, one that reveals an even more important effect of representation. As I discussed in this post on the first African American Disney princess (Tiana from 2009’s The Princess and the Frog), it’s difficult to overstate the value of children seeing themselves represented in pop culture works. That’s true for all children, but it’s particularly significant when it comes to children whose identities, families, communities are too often marginalized in pop culture and/or society at large. In the late 1980s (and in too many ways still to this day, but certainly then), both LGBTQ children and children who were part of LGBTQ family units certainly comprised an example of such marginalized and under-represented identities. No one children’s book could reverse that trend entirely, of course—but one children’s book could make a difference, and Newman’s ground-breaking and important Heather Has Two Mommies did just that.
Last banned books tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Banned books you’d highlight?