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Acting the child: Separating the infantile from the masculine in film and literature, 1835–1985

Shawn R Smolen-Morton, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Acting the Child examines the ways in which adult male characters in film and literature from Europe and America can use the role of the child to their political and emotional advantage. As childhood became an increasingly powerful cultural concept, adult men accessed that power to define themselves and organize social relationships. The thesis proposes “infantilization” as a term to describe how these characters act like children or force other characters into the role of the child. The thesis analyzes key moments in the development of infantilization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The first chapter explores the uses of infantilization, which produce strong effects in Honoré de Balzac's Le Père Goriot and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes. These novels demonstrate the ways in which infantilization creates surrogate families in Parisian society. These roles can define and justify extramarital affairs or same sex relationships, which have no legitimate expression. The second chapter demonstrates how H. G. Wells' criticisms of Victorian culture and politics often revolve around male identity such as the scientist-adventurer. As the concepts of boyhood and girlhood solidified, they could describe individual adults or entire social groups. Infantilization was already part of the political discourse, and my thesis demonstrates how Wells challenged these categories. The third chapter extends the analysis of aggressive, masculine characters by examining D. W. Griffith's The Avenging Conscience (1914) and Broken Blossoms (1919) in conjunction with a selection of American recruitment posters for World War I. The analysis shows that World War I had a profound impact on infantilization. Griffith's satirical representation of the man-child subtly criticizes World War I and echoes Wells's attack on Empire. The last chapter explores the effects of the war on infantilization by analyzing three delayed responses: Bernward Vesper's The Trip, Alfons Heck's A Child of Hitler, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's In a Year of Thirteen Moons. Like Fassbinder, I find German adults acting like children in order to cope with a troubled present.

Subject Area

Comparative literature|British and Irish literature|Romance literature|Germanic literature|Motion pictures

Recommended Citation

Smolen-Morton, Shawn R, "Acting the child: Separating the infantile from the masculine in film and literature, 1835–1985" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3152746.