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‘It Ain’t for Children’: ‘Shame-Interest’ in Precious and Bastard Out of Carolina

In 1996, Anjelica Huston made her directorial debut with the film Bastard Out of Carolina based on Dorothy Allison’s novel of the same name. Although TNT produced the film, its network executives ultimately deemed the finished film too “harsh” for television, and they insisted that Huston cut the film’s child molestation and rape scenes. She refused (Warren Berger). The subsequent controversy attracted press attention as the film lingered unaired for weeks, and Huston summed up the irony stating, “American television can handle documentaries on the Holocaust, but apparently not this story of one girl's real life experiences” (Warren Berger). In this essay, I look to what might make it so difficult to portray “one girl’s real life experiences,” by examining two novels about sexual subjectivity within child abuse, Sapphire’s Push (1996) and Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), and their subsequent film adaptations, Lee Daniels’s Precious (2009) and Anjelica Huston’s Bastard Out of Carolina (1996). In particular, I argue that the concept of “shame-interest”— what affect theorist Silvan Tomkins calls shame’s power to engage both our interest and repulsion—evokes an affective shift from shame-interest in the novels to “contempt-disgust” in the films. I investigate how both film directors aimed to reduce the affective power of the novels in adaptation, specifically omitting the crucial component of “shame-interest” regarding the girl’s sexual subjectivity.

Theories of shame currently intertwine numerous disciplines—psychology, philosophy, anthropology, gender studies, and literary theory. In 1995, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank published Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader, which reinvigorated the use of Tompkins’ shame theory in the humanities. In their introduction, Sedgwick and Frank describe how they stumbled upon Tompkins’ 1962 text Affect, Imagery and Consciousness while “looking for some usable ideas on the topic of shame” (4). Tomkins’ work, they write, immediately stood out amidst what they call “a sodden landscape of moralistic or maudlin idées reçues” on shame (4). Rather, in Tomkins’ work, they discovered that his “formulations startle: for their sharpness and daring, their amplitude, and…descriptive levelheadedness” (4-5). Since then, Tomkins’ work has undoubtedly resonated with humanities scholars, such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Elspeth Probyn, Sally R. Munt, and others who have gravitated toward Tomkins’ view of shame as a “social phenomenon” (Kuzniar 500) and as “the most interpersonal of the affects” (500). According to Tomkins, shame holds immanent importance due to its transformative power on the individual and society. He states, “shame is the affect of indignity, of defeat, of transgression, and of alienation …. shame strikes deepest into the heart of man" (Tomkins 351).  According to Tomkins, because shame pierces the depths of the self more than other affects, shame plays a crucial role in the development of one’s identity in relation to society. He argues that shame “generates the torment of self-consciousness” (Tomkins 359). This turning inward can have differing consequences—one can be overcome with shame, but one can also overcome shame. Therefore, shame is not always destructive; it can also be productive, as he says, “Just as physical courage is bravery in the face of fear, so persistence is counteraction despite the feeling of shame, self-contempt, of discouragement and of hopelessness” (Tomkins 457). Fear might inspire bravery, just as shame might beget pride. When one is shamed, one knows blushingly that one could (and perhaps can and will) do better next time.

Shame, according to Tomkins, may be a personal and corporeal affect, but in being read by others, it “elicits an ethical imperative” that connects the subject and one’s witnesses (500). Kuzniar argues that the “legacy of Tomkins” is this notion of “the vicarious experience of shame” (500), or the “crucial, redeeming role played by empathy in shame theory as a way to reverse the negative, isolating effects of humiliation” (501). As Sedgwick, too, highlights, shame, according to Tomkins, can be experienced as a private, damaging and physical sensation, but it also connects us to others in surprisingly productive ways. In doing so, shame links those others/witnesses back to us. Tomkins argues that the “vicarious experience of shame” is “at once a measure of civilization and a condition of civilization” (Tomkins 409). Thus, shame unmakes and makes us both individually and collectively. When we experience shame, either personally or vicariously, it inspires us to reinvent our identities and to reexamine our values and interactions as a society.

For the purposes of this essay, I am most interested in this vicarious aspect of shame along with Tomkins’ notion of shame-interest—a “counterintuitive” but “extraordinary” (Probyn 14) way of understanding how shame evokes the desire to turn away, while sustaining a connection to the object of shame through interest or enjoyment. According to Tomkins, shame maintains an essential, if uncomfortable, relationship to enjoyment or interest, as he suggests, “Like disgust, [shame] operates only after interest or enjoyment has been activated, and inhibits one or the other or both. The innate activator of shame is the incomplete reduction of interest or joy” (Tomkins 353). In other words, shame occurs when interest or enjoyment has been triggered, but has not completely abated. Sedgwick and Allan highlight this aspect of shame, noting, “Without positive affect, there can be no shame: only a scene that offers you enjoyment or engages your interest can make you blush” (Sedgwick Touching Feeling 116). Shame is quite different from contempt-disgust, which results in a complete turning away from the source. Rather, in shame, one is simultaneously drawn in and pushed away.

Both novels Push and Bastard out of Carolina engage explicitly with the notion of shame, and in many ways, they conform to “dominant narratives of incest” (Doane and Hodges 100). Bastard Out of Carolina is “often read as a survivor story,” (Harkins 116), while one critic notes how Push is “meant to be a story of female empowerment and triumph” (Kakutani). Critics express how both writers appear to have been influenced by texts such as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982). And Sapphire even cites Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina as one of her influences (Wilson 36). Both girl protagonists live in poverty—Bone in Bastard grows up a “white trash” “bastard” in South Carolina, while Precious from Push is an illiterate black teen living on public assistance in Harlem—a narrative detail that also conforms to mainstream perceptions about incest at the time.1 Both novels also present a first-person account with the girl protagonists recalling grueling depictions of past physical and sexual abuse—a device that may have been used (consciously or not) to provide authenticity for the girl’s narrative in an era when “recovered memories” of incest routinely provoked skepticism (Elizabeth Wilson 36). And although both Push and Bastard are categorized as fiction, Sapphire and Allison have spoken and written publicly about their own personal experiences of childhood sexual abuse and how their personal experiences inspired their novels. Both novels also emphasize a traditional “recovery” narrative—one in which shame proves nearly destructive, but ultimately “productive” for the victim. Bone frees herself from her abuser, while Precious learns to read and write and establishes an independent life with her son. Of course, neither of these novels present an unambiguously “happy” ending—Precious catches HIV from her father, and Bone’s freedom comes at the cost of the abandonment of her mother, who chooses her husband over her daughter. Still, both novels may be seen as adhering in specific ways to the “incest survivor memoir,” one of the “genres” that Janice Doane and Devon Hodges use to categorize incest narratives in their book Telling Incest: Narratives of Dangerous Remembering from Stein to Sapphire.

Both novels were also both published during what has been called a “boom” (Harkins 115) in incest narratives during the 1990s, possibly fueled by what Philip Jenkins in Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties calls “the abuse epidemic” (257), an era marked by “soaring” (257) statistics of not only physical, but also sexual abuse. Numerous novels and films during the decade focus explicitly on father-daughter incest such as Dolores Claiborne (1995) starring Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh, in which a daughter ultimately recalls her father’s sexual abuse, and A Thousand Acres (1997) starring Michelle Pfeifer and Jessica Lange based on Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about two adult daughters who come to terms with their father’s sexual abuse when they were children. These narratives, like Push and Bastard, emphasize the long-term shameful and traumatic nature of incest on entire families and the need for the victim to convert his or her shame into acceptance and recovery.

But what makes Push and Bastard uniquely “shameful” to read is the pleasure the girls derive from their nonconsensual sexual encounters: Precious is haunted by memories of orgasms during her rapes, and Bone develops masturbatory fantasies that incorporate the sexual violence she has experienced. In this way, both novels resist what Doane and Hodges call “sacrific[ing] a sense of the glorious complexity of human subjectivity and put[ting] in its place a reductive sense of self” (Doane and Hodges 100). What is merely alluded to in the novel and film A Thousand Acres, when one of the sisters declares about her father, “He didn't rape me, Ginny. He seduced me” (190), becomes rendered explicit in these two novels. Indeed, Push and Bastard emphasize what is typically omitted from incest narratives—the uncomfortably potent sexual subjectivity of the girl victim.2 In Push, Precious’s uncontrollable orgasms during her rapes evoke her shame—she says, “it feel good. I feel shamed” (24), while in Bastard Out of Carolina, Bone experiences shame from the way she adapts her rapes into fantasies, as she says, “I was ashamed of myself for the things I thought about when I put my hands between my legs, more ashamed for masturbating to the fantasy of being beaten than for being beaten in the first place. I lived in a world of shame” (112-113). Ultimately, in both novels, the girls develop their sexual agency not outside their abuse, but within it, resisting the dichotomy of a “desiring” versus a “desired/desirable subject” (Rooney110), and thus, provoking readers also to question the simplistic “binary of passive victim/active subject” (Stockton 183).3 As Doane and Hodges argue, both Push and Bastard “disrupt familiar expectations about the recovery novel” through “the child victim’s intense desires and provocative modes of representation” (115). In doing so, these novels both depict how this combination of non-consent and pleasure begets shame for the girl, and how that shame must be reconciled, reworked, or wrested back for her to develop her sense of personal and sexual agency.

Specifically, what makes these novels unique is how they evoke shame-interest binding the girl’s and the reader’s shame together—each text invites sexual shame in the reader precisely at the moments that Precious and Bone are shown to feel sexual shame. As Elizabeth Donaldson states in her essay, “‘Handing Back Shame’: Incest and Sexual Confession in Sapphire’s Push,” Precious’s “sexual pleasure is the foundation for her shame and, potentially, for the reader's shared sense of shame” (Donaldson 55). During the rapes, Precious tries to escape through fantasy: “Then I change stations, change bodies, I be dancing in videos!” (24). However, she is disturbed from her reverie due to the physical sensation of pleasure: “I start to feel good; stop being a video dancer and start coming. I try to go back to video but coming now, rocking under Carl now, my twat jumping juicy” (24). Similarly, in another memory, she recalls, “I wait for him get off me. Lay there stare at wall till wall is a movie …. Then my body take me over again, like shocks after earthquake, shiver me, I come again” (111). The uncontrollable physical sensation of pleasure evokes Precious’s shame—she says, “it feel good. I feel shamed” (24). The combination of her disgust and pleasure distresses and confuses her, as she says, “But then I feel the hot sauce hot cha cha feeling when he be fucking me. I get so confuse. I HATE him. But my pussy be popping. He say that, ‘Big Mama your pussy is popping!’ I HATE myself when I feel good" (58). Every time she thinks of her father in the novel, she cannot help reimagining the rapes. And every time she remembers the rapes, she recalls her own seemingly complicit pleasure, so that just the thought of her father evokes a shameful self-hatred, as she says, “I hate myself when I think Carl Kenwood Jones. Hate wif a capital letter” (112). Brought into the unfiltered mind of Precious who is shamed by her pleasurable response to the rapes, the reader too seems intended to experience a disturbing mixture of eroticism, pleasure, and disgust. As Tomkins might argue, our “interest” and “enjoyment” remain activated, preventing us as readers from completely turning away. Push, in particular, with its fragmented language and frequent misspellings emphasize the girl’s point-of-view, which is enacted through the reader who must read/speak/think her words and her desires. In such a way, Push presents more than just the representation of shame; it generates the experience of it.

Similarly, the masturbatory fantasies that Bone derives from her sexual abuse become the shared shameful secret that she and her readers experience. In the novel, Bone reimagines her beatings and rapes as masochistic sexual fantasies that bring her a confusing mixture of shame, pleasure, and pride. Before she even knows what sex is, Bone masturbates to a fantasy of herself tied to a burning haystack, saying, “I would picture it perfectly while rocking on my hand. The daydream was about struggling to get free while the fire burned hotter and closer. I am not sure if I came when the fire reached me or after I had imagined escaping it” (63). Her fantasies become increasingly connected to her abuse, and she begins masturbating to thoughts of being able to withstand the beatings from Daddy Glen by “making no sound at all, no shameful scream, no begging” (122). Although Bone’s sexual fantasies exacerbate her shame, they also provide the foundation for her remaking her abuse.

In both novels, the girl’s shame might be seen as a productive shame, one that does not overcome them, but that they overcome. Bone, for example, turns her potentially destructive shame into a productive force for building her sexual identity, as she “masters the trauma of sexual abuse by repeating it in fantasy, with the difference of creating authority and agency for herself” (Doane and Hodges 119). Ann Cvetkovich even makes the controversial claim that Bone’s incest ties directly to her burgeoning homosexuality.  Cvetkovich states the novel demonstrates a “productive relation between incest and sexual pleasure” (371) so that “shame and anger … fuel[] Bone’s queer childhood sexuality” (389). Doane and Hodges suggest that the “idea that ‘incest makes you queer’ is a powerful and dangerous one,” (122) although they do insist that Bone’s “queer…. anger” (Doane and Hodges 123) fuels the development of her identity and sexual subjectivity. Bone’s rage and desire are unmistakably detailed throughout the book, at one point manifesting in her obsession for a mountain-climbing hook that could “sink into rock with no trouble at all” (184). She finds the hook with her cousins, but when the others abandon it, Bone secretly picks it up, hiding it under her aunt’s porch. When it’s discovered, her aunt locks it in the basement, which only makes her yearn for it more, saying it “got in my dreams” and “I wanted one of those hooks, wanted it for my own, that cold sharp metal where I could put out my hand and touch it at any time” (187). The hook represents a dangerous and potent power for Bone, as well as a sexual one. At one point when she secretly reclaims it, she says, “I took it back to my room, pried the chain off, and cleaned and polished it. When it was shiny and smooth, I got in bed and put it between my legs, pulling it back and forth. It made me shiver and go hot at the same time” (193). The hook not only gives her the physical force to break into a Woolworth’s to enact revenge against a male shopkeeper, it fuels her masochistic masturbatory fantasies. And although clearly a “dangerous” object, Bone’s possession of the hook represents her laying claim to her power, much in the same way that she reworks the harms to her as an incest victim into her source of sexual agency and power.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that these “shameful” moments of the novels were omitted from their subsequent films. Both adaptations keep the sexual and physical violence, while erasing the girl’s sexual pleasure and desire—although this exclusion is rarely commented on, perhaps because these erasures work to convert the narratives to a more traditional and safe “incest survivor story.” In other words, in both films, we find ourselves without the “interest” aspect of shame-interest—at least in relation to the girl’s sexual subjectivity—which, according to Tomkins would mean that the affect produced could no longer be shame. In fact, Tomkins places “shame-humiliation” in the same chapter as “contempt-disgust.” While shame pulls us inwards to the “torment of self-consciousness,” contempt-disgust focuses us outwards on the object itself, as he says, “In contrast to shame, contempt is a response in which there is least self-consciousness, with the most intense consciousness of the object which is experienced as disgusting” (Tomkins 356), while “shame is an experience of the self by the self” (359), making it “the most reflexive of affects” (359). Shame brings us inward for reflection and revision; disgust-contempt points us outward for criticism.

I do not critique these films simply for their infidelity to their novels. Rather, what I unravel here is a shift in the authors’ and directors’ affective intent, as well as viewers’ and critics’ affective responses from the novels to their film adaptations. John Hodgkins in his book Affect, Adaptation and New Perspectives on Fidelity suggests “a poetics of affective drifting” in adaptation to emphasize the “symbiotic” rather than “adversarial” relationship between literature and film (144). Hodgkins sees “literary and filmic texts as affective economies that communicate with each other, and with audiences through the transmission of affective intensities, and the adaptive process as a dissemination of those intensities from one medium to another where they take root and induce change from within” (2). By rethinking adaptation as “a flow of affective forces between texts, a generative drift of intensities between mediums” (12), he suggests, we might learn how affect operates in individual texts and how it drifts through adaptation, as well as explore “more broadly…the dynamic relationship between literature and cinema” (12). Certainly, considering affect can offer another framework with which to examine adaptations. In the case of Push and Bastard Out of Carolina, affect—in particular shame-interest—is not only removed from the visual adaptations, but also is the reason for the omission.

In numerous interviews, both Daniels and Huston acknowledge how their adaptations required an affective shift. In an interview about Precious, Daniels notes, “I really wanted it to be lighter and not as—oomph—and Geoffrey [Fletcher] brought that into the screenplay eloquently. And I then took his sanitary version and just threw some dirt on it” (Daniels “Precious”). Not only does his statement remind us of the screenplay as “intertext,” but it also suggests the conscious intention of the director and screenwriter to “clean up” an author’s presumably “dirty” text and then the director’s attempt to bring some “dirt” back into it. In his chapter “Converting the Controversial: Regulation as ‘Source Text’ in Adaptation,” Richard Berger notes how “regulatory frameworks (which often begat self-censorship positions on adaptors and filmmakers) can be called ‘source texts’ themselves” (158). In his analysis of several adaptations including Lolita and American Psycho, Berger examines how “adaptors have treated the most transgressive elements of their source texts” (150), noting how often “any ambiguity and ambivalence is ironed out of the adaptation” which “neuters the source material to an extent, almost defusing the controversial content” (156). Certainly, Daniels expresses his dilemma in representing the “truth” of the story without having to show what he deemed would have been X-rated scenes. In other words, he wanted it to be “dirty,” but not “too dirty.” Apparently, what would have been “too dirty” seems to have been, at least in part, the girl’s sexual desire and pleasure.4 In addressing the glaring fact that “our visual media is generally heavily regulated” while “literature is not” (Richard Berger 150), Daniels and Fletcher chose instead to build upon the fantasy scenes of the novel, transforming them into a defining feature of the film. These scenes also make the film more “artful,” which may also work to protect it from being labeled as “pornographic.” Notably, the fantasies work to alleviate the affective weight of the narrative, as Daniels describes, “if she stays in that dark place…. it’s bleak, we’re doomed, so we jump into a place of fantasy as an escape for her and also it gives us time to breathe,” or as Oprah Winfrey simply states, “Without [the fantasies], no one would watch it” (“Oprah and Tyler”). Thus, the film’s fantasy sequences provide access to the vividness of Precious’s imagination—both as glorious spectacle and revolting materiality—but ultimately they work to reduce the affective impact of the “bleak” moments of the film, such as Precious’s rapes.

Daniels retains two scenes of the girl’s recalled rapes by her father, the first of which begins when Precious’s mother knocks her unconscious. We are then drawn into Precious’s subconscious in a series of shots—Carl’s sweat-covered stomach as he removes his belt; the springs of the mattress; eggs and bacon sizzling in a pan; Carl’s hand reaching for Vaseline; and Precious’s cringing (Figure 1). The scene conveys a barrage of disconcerting sounds—the mattress creaking; Carl’s monstrous groans; a baby crying; and in the final shot of the sequence, Carl’s moaning, “Yes… yes… Daddy loves you,” as he rapes her. It then cuts from Precious’s face to a crack in the ceiling, as seen from Precious’s point-of-view. This crack breaks apart, which unleashes a fantasy sequence of Precious’s emerging from the theater as a celebrity on the red carpet to her adoring fans. This fantasy sequence is not broken by any pleasure during her rape (as it is in the novel), but rather by her mother who throws a bucket of water on her face to revive her from her unconscious state. In the novel Push, however, Precious’s numerous attempts to tune out her rapes with fantasy persistently fail because she experiences pleasure—she says, “Then I change stations, change bodies, I be dancing in videos!” (24), but then she is disturbed from her reverie due to the physical sensation of pleasure, “I start to feel good; stop being a video dancer and start coming. I try to go back to video but coming now, rocking under Carl now, my twat jumping juicy” (24). Daniels’ technique to access fantasy within these “dark” moments certainly mirrors Precious’s use of fantasy to attempt to escape her rapes in the novel. However, in the novel, we ultimately receive no such reprieve from these moments, since Precious’s sexual pleasure draws her and her readers back into the moment of rape, forcing both the girl and us as readers to contend with the materiality of her abuse. In the novel, fantasy fails.

“‘It Ain’t for Children’: 
‘Shame-Interest’ in Precious and Bastard Out of Carolina”
Figure 1: A shot of eggs and bacon frying in a pan is part of a montage depicting Precious’s memory of rape in Lee Daniels’s Precious.

The other recounted rape scene in Precious evokes a similar assault on the viewer’s senses, but again omits the girl’s sexual subjectivity. In this scene, Precious remembers her mother’s slurs, calling her a “dumb bitch” as Ms. Rain encourages her to read. We then see an extreme close-up of Carl’s eyes; a pot of meat stew boiling vigorously on the stove; Carl’s sweat-covered face from Precious’s point-of-view as he rapes her; a shot of the TV (with siren sounds); a pouring faucet; and a tattooed arm over which we hear Carl say, “You’re better than your mother.” Certainly this scene also represents the vividness of Precious’s imagination and alludes to how it assaults her senses, while similarly assaulting ours. These scenes, with its mix of images of Carl’s sweaty stomach and face alongside shots of vigorously boiling pork stew or eggs and bacon frying in a pan, in particular allude to what Daniels may have meant when he says, “You smell that book, and I wanted to smell the film” (Daniels “NYFF”). And certainly the victimization of Precious is clear—her mother brutally beats, molests and demeans her, and her father rapes and assaults her. But, in the film, we never hear Carl’s accusations that “You LOVE it!” or any other evidence of Precious’s shameful pleasure so notable in the book. These scenes are presented as dream/memory sequences where boiling stew and sizzling bacon and eggs become conflated with the visceral moments of the rape. In her close-up before she lapses into a celebrity fantasy, Precious squints strangely, which might be read as pain or pleasure, although it would be difficult to read pleasure into that scene (Figure 2). Furthermore, Precious’s voiceover never gives us any clue to her physical sensations so that these scenes come across as simply a repulsive experience disjointed by memory.

“‘It Ain’t for Children’: 
‘Shame-Interest’ in Precious and Bastard Out of Carolina”
Figure 2: A close-up of Precious’s face during her rape in Lee Daniels’s Precious.

Huston’s film similarly erases Bone’s sexual desire and pleasure. On this note, Allison laments, “all of the places in which Bone Boatwright has agency were gone. So it was, in many ways, the victim portrait that I had hoped it wouldn’t be” (Laura Miller 92). Evidently, Allison suggests here that her novel contradicts or resists a standard “victim portrait,” in which the girl has no agency. However, by omitting the moments of Bone’s emotional rage and sexual masochism, Huston positions the narrative to be a more familiar incest narrative. That said, Huston does maintain Bone’s adult-like knowledge in the film so that we recognize the irony when Bone tells her younger sister that the reason they cannot accompany their mother on her honeymoon is because, “It ain’t for children.” The film often depicts Bone as wiser, more mature, and more nurturing than the adults around her. Still, the film removes any indication of Bone’s masturbatory fantasies. In one scene in the film, Bone, alone in the house, runs her fingers along Daddy Glen’s belt. We see her through a mirror, shrouded by the belts with her adult voice-over saying, “I lived in a world of shame. I hid my bruises as if they were evidence of crimes I had committed. I didn’t tell mamma. I couldn’t tell mamma” (Figure 3). However, it is this moment in the book when Bone reveals the “self-centered” fantasies that brought her “shuddering orgasms” (113), as a significant component of her secret shame. In the book, she says, “I was a sick disgusting person. I couldn’t stop my stepfather from beating me, but I was the one who masturbated. I did that, and how could I explain to anyone that I hated being beaten but still masturbated to the story I told myself about it?” (113). In omitting these fantasies, the film omits Bone’s sexual shame-interest and the complex ways Bone reclaims her sexuality within and through her shame.

“‘It Ain’t for Children’: 
‘Shame-Interest’ in Precious and Bastard Out of Carolina”
Figure 3: Bone (Jena Malone) is shown as shamefully imprisoned by Daddy Glen’s belts, but Huston’s adaptation of Bastard Out of Carolina omits how Bone remakes her abuse into pleasurable masochistic sexual fantasies.

Like Daniels, Huston felt challenged by how best to adapt Bastard Out of Carolina, as she states, “The problem was how to treat an appalling situation in a way that would be acceptable but not particularly palatable” (Nichols). Again, here Huston alludes to the necessity to make the film “acceptable” but not “palatable,” perhaps within a context of ratings and censorship. In this case, TNT had produced the film for airing on its network so although its resonance as controversial (i.e. not “palatable”) might have been seen as desirable, being seen as pornographic would have been unacceptable. Ultimately, Huston omits the girl’s sexual subjectivity, while keeping several disturbing scenes of child abuse in which Glen locks Bone in the bathroom and beats her brutally, as well as two scenes of sexual abuse—one where Glen sexually assaults Bone in the driver’s seat of the car while her sister is asleep in the backseat as they wait for their mother to give birth at the hospital, and another at the end of the film where Glen rapes Bone when he finds her alone at her aunt’s house.

By omitting Bone’s sexual desires and fantasies, the film necessarily disavows the sexual aspects of her agency. In the novel, Bone acknowledges that, “When he beat me, I screamed and kicked and cried like the baby I was,” but recalls that “sometimes when I was safe and alone, I would imagine the ones who watched…. In my imagination I was proud and defiant. I’d stare back at him with my teeth set, making no sound at all, no shameful scream, no begging. Those who watched admired me and hated him” (113). Bone re-invents herself as one who is able to withstand the abuse and remain “proud and defiant.” In these fantasies, she enacts what Tomkins describes as locating pride within shame. As readers, we experience Bone’s “shameful” fantasies through her point-of-view, and as a result, the novel challenges us to rethink our ideas about incest. Cvetkovich says that to “call these fantasies masochistic in a simply derogatory sense, or to consider them the ‘perverse’ product of sexual violence, is to underestimate their capacity to provide not only pleasure but power” (Cvetkovich 17). Allison herself declares that even when she “was heckled at readings by anti-porn activists,” she remained undeterred and “refused to be silenced” (Jetter), believing the stakes for reclaiming sexual pleasure amidst abuse as too high and declaring, “The huge issue for any incest survivor is learning to enjoy sex. It is why I do the sexually explicit writing that I do” (Jetter). In an interview with Michael Rowe in 1995, Allison states, “the big thing that got me into lots of trouble was talking about children’s sexual desire. And talking about incest in the way that I was” (60). Allison insists that oversimplifications backfire, as she says, “this culture eroticizes incest in such a way that a lot of simple solutions to it—which, to the antiporn movement, means rigid control of male sexuality (as if the male sexuality was the whole root of the problem)—just don’t work. Saying that in public, talking about how complicated sexuality really is, or how I perceive it to be, is what got me in trouble” (Rowe 60). Allison says that what “totally flipped out” some people were the ways she “acknowledge[s] that this little girl, who is a victim of sexual abuse, also had sexual desire. And that her desire is profoundly masochistic” (Rowe 62). This desire becomes part of what is deemed “unacceptable” in adaptation—not only because an audience might be disturbed by the girl’s desire, but also because they might be aroused by it. As Kathryn Bond Stockton in The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century notes, a raped child emphasizes “the child’s need for protection and her weakness in these moments” and “confirms the child’s innocence” (33), whereas a desiring or even consenting child might suggest an “erotic pleasure” (33) on the girl’s part, which threatens to be erotic (and thus potentially pedophilic) for an audience. With pornography so regularly appropriating youth, and, in particular, girlhood as its object, it is unsurprising that there has come to be a ready association between a sexual girl and the pornographic.5

Huston’s film received simultaneous praise and criticism in regard to its depiction of physical and sexual violence in childhood. TNT ultimately declined to screen the finished film when Huston refused to make the cuts requested by network executives. The film was even sent to network owner Ted Turner who apparently also found the film to be “extraordinarily graphic” and “inhumane” (Warren Berger), deeming it unworthy of being aired. Even when TNT did finally release the rights to other networks, many of them, such as USA and Lifetime, also passed on it, finding the material “just too brutal” (Berger). Ultimately, Huston received an invitation for the film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival, and the film was acquired by Showtime “which as a pay cable channel ha[d] more freedom to broadcast harder-edged programming” (Pener and Davidson). It aired on Showtime in December of 1996 (Rose), ironically bringing the film back to the network that had first acquired the rights to Allison’s novel (Schwarzbaum). The film later went on to receive several Emmy nominations and won the Television Critics Association Awards (IMDB).

Critics’ affective responses to the film largely stem from the impact of the film’s violence, which some reviewers called “pornographic” (Schwarzbaum) or “shocking” (Shales), and others heralded as “poetic and haunting” (Ostrow), “gutsy,” and “artfully crafted” (Ron Miller). Undoubtedly, Huston aims to disturb through prolonged scenes of violence—the car scene of Bone being molested is two and a half minutes, and the scene where Glen threatens and rapes Bone lasts approximately five minutes. Close-ups on the girl’s pained and bloody face in both scenes render them viscerally disturbing (Figure 4). The violence is also notably explicit—in the final scene, Glen lifts Bone up by her head, punches her face, and then grabs her and forces a kiss on her. Even Allison acknowledges how Huston succeeds in making these scenes gut-wrenching, as she says, “the violent scenes, and especially the rape scene, were done so well. So well it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was done exactly how I would have wanted it to be done” (Laura Miller 92). Allison says the film took her off-guard in this regard, as she states, “I hadn’t registered that they were going to do it well enough that it was going to feel to me and smell to me like my childhood—and make me want to go out in the yard and throw up” (Laura Miller 92). Allison’s response seems to register as disgust, although it might better fit as shame-interest—she appreciated the film’s depiction of the violence, while it also resonated as repellent.

“‘It Ain’t for Children’: 
‘Shame-Interest’ in Precious and Bastard Out of Carolina”
Figure 4: A close-up of Bone’s (Jena Malone’s) bloodied and strangled face during her rape in Bastard Out of Carolina.

Precious seemed to evoke even more critical disgust—perhaps because of its wider audience and success (the film screened at Sundance and ultimately was nominated for and won several Oscars) or perhaps because of its incorporation of race. Whether they positively or negatively reviewed Precious, many critics point out how the film “catalogs a wealth of human ugliness” (Morris) and “misery” (Stevens). Reviewers who point directly to the rape scenes often note their form of “grotesque montage” (Lacey). As one reviewer argues, “Daniels is not above cutting from an image of incestuous rape to a shot of greasy pork sizzling on the stove: Her father treats her like meat, get it?” (Stevens) while another argues the film “is shot in the manner of a grueling horror picture, with jittery edits to half-remembered traumas and glistening close-ups on the faces of monsters” (Antosca). Of course, the most scathing indictment comes from a particularly outraged review by Armond White in the New York Press in which he argues that the “curious montage of grease, sweat, bacon and Vaseline” of the rape scene demonstrates how Daniels “is hoisting his freak flag” and “gets off on degradation” (White). In many reviews, this sense of contempt-disgust is evoked. As reviewer Wesley Morris, in The Boston Globe declares, “Food is presented so unpleasantly, so often, that you’ll think twice about your next KFC variety bucket” (Morris). In response, numerous scholars have discussed how Precious, as embodied through obese actress Gabourey Sidibe, becomes the object of audience disgust, demonstrating “cultural intolerance toward fatness” (Jarman 170) and the “‘politics of disgust’ that vilifies Black people as parasitic of a white mainstream” (Stoneman 198).

The contempt-disgust felt by many viewers of the film led to a public “shaming” of its makers and supporters. In his New York Times editorial, Ishmael Reed notes that when Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Bush use the film to “begin some national discussion about the state of black families” it “cast[s] collective shame upon an entire community.” Similarly, Armond White begins his scathing review with the opening line, “Shame on Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey for signing on as air­quote executive producers of Precious,” suggesting that celebrities who propel the film to mainstream success should be “ashamed” of promulgating this familiar and negative portrayal of the black community. In these critiques, the film itself is not seen as inducing a productive shame in the viewer; rather these critics argue that the discourse surrounding the film should evoke a collective and transformative “shame” about how cinema represents black Americans in contemporary society. Certainly, the novel’s focus on the girl’s sexual subjectivity has been eclipsed within this discourse. And as a result, any shame that it might produce has little to do with a girl’s sexual subjectivity within childhood sexual abuse.

Undoubtedly, Daniels and Huston were severely limited in the ways they could acknowledge childhood sexual subjectivity. The terrible irony of the policing of childhood sexuality means that it is more acceptable (if still controversial) to display a child being brutally raped and sexually abused, than to display a child masturbating or a child engaging in any “consensual” or pleasurable sexual activity. In Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting, James Kincaid argues that, “Our culture has enthusiastically sexualized the child while denying just as enthusiastically that it was doing any such thing” (13). He believes that our fascination “with tales of childhood eroticism (molestation, incest, abduction, pornography)” has normalized the “irrepressible allure of children” so that “we no longer question whether adults are drawn to children" (13). Kincaid notes that despite the mass media and public preoccupation with protecting children from sexual predators, we have sexualized them through this discourse, as he suggests, “We see children as, among other things, sweet, innocent, vacant, smooth-skinned, spontaneous, and mischievous. We construct the desirable as, among other things, sweet, innocent, vacant, smooth-skinned, spontaneous, and mischievous” (14). Kincaid emphasizes this cultural interchangeability of the child and the erotic, suggesting, “There's more to how we see the child, and more to how we construct what is sexually desirable—but not much more” (14). Such overlap, he argues, enables us to “learn to see ‘the child’ and ‘the erotic’ as coincident,” and in that regard, “we are in trouble. So are the children" (14). The stakes for undoing this unspoken logic—the child personifies innocence, and innocence is erotic, therefore the child is erotic—is high if we actually want to undo this cultural preoccupation. In fact, we have eroticized both children’s sexual passivity and corruption so often through pornographic representation, that children’s sexuality has become synonymous with pornography.

Once again, Tomkins’ belief that “shame is the incomplete reduction of interest or joy” (Touching Feeling 95) resonates here. Certainly, it seems that both Daniels and Huston aimed specifically to reduce the text’s affective weight through their adaptations, which creates a purposeful shift of affect—Daniels wanted to make his film “lighter,” while Huston aimed to make her film “acceptable” but not “palatable.” What might it mean to make something “lighter” or more “acceptable”? Whether a result of actual legislation or self-censorship on the part of studios, writers, and directors, the creators of the films Precious and Bastard Out of Carolina omit all instances of the girl’s sexual subjectivity and pleasure to protect audiences from experiencing any shame-interest, and thus we spare ourselves the uncomfortable realization that childhood sexuality amidst sexual abuse may be no more simplistic than any other sexuality. Specifically, it is “shame-interest” that might have rendered the film too “heavy” or “unacceptable.” Although it seems permissible (if not always publicly praised) for a novel like Push or Bastard Out of Carolina to evoke a “vicarious experience” of a “one girl’s real life experiences” of sexual shame in child abuse, both directors knew implicitly that such an affective response would be unacceptable in their films. If their finished films did evoke sexual “interest,” then they would likely be labeled pornographic—and a film that elicits a sexual response through a depiction of childhood sexuality would be considered child pornography and thus illegal. Significantly, barely anyone seems to have remarked on the films’ omission of the child’s sexual desire, and the lack of conversation on this point seems to suggest the foregone conclusion of the erasure of children’s sexual desire and pleasure amidst abuse in visual adaptation. Still, this omission means that we fail to access the transformative power of that shame, and thus lose the opportunity to rethink and remake ourselves both individually and collectively. We miss the opportunity to contest the current “view on children” that suggests “sexual vulnerability [as] one of their most prominent characteristics” (Adler 229), and we fail to acknowledge how sexual subjectivity does not develop magically and instantly upon adulthood, but rather in and throughout childhood, however violent that childhood might be.

But what if we could acknowledge childhood sexuality, not only textually, but also visually in ways that would concede “one girl’s real life experiences”? What if, as Michael Warner suggests in The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life, we believed that the “ethical response to the problem of shame” should not be “to pretend that shame doesn’t exist” (2) nor simply be “more shame” (3). At the end of his book, Kincaid poses a question: what if child sexuality were “not terribly special, certainly not a cause for panic?” (287). In that case, the fact that “children are sexualized or eroticized, and that we all, in some measure, respond to it would then seem unremarkable, not at all worth the reckless frenzy of denial and scapegoating with which we now meet those facts” (287). Perhaps even more importantly, it would acknowledge the sexual agency of the child. As Kincaid suggests, perhaps if we were “less terrified and less defensive, we will be more willing to regard children as humans equipped with voices" (293). And perhaps if we felt less threatened by a perceived toxic connection between childhood and sexuality, then we might be able to permit visual representations with children and girls as sexual agents and not merely as sexual victims.


Thank you to Jean Walton for her feedback, guidance, and inspiration in relation to this essay. I would also like to thank Carolyn Betensky, Naomi Mandel, Andrew Scahill, John Hodgkins, and the readers and editors at LFQ who offered instrumental feedback on drafts of this essay.


1  Elizabeth Wilson in her essay “Not in This House: Incest, Denial, and Doubt in the White Middle Class Family” states that, “Incest has long been regarded as a ‘vice of the poor’” (39), and notes how “Early sociological research into the prevalence of incest showed evidence of…classist and racist assumptions” (40). However, she notes, “most current research in this area does not confirm the notion that incest is generally more prevalent in the lower classes and ‘other’ racial or ethnic groups” (40).

2  Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film Lolita is one of the few ambiguous representations of incest from this era, showing both Lolita’s pleasure and the violence of her abuse. Not surprisingly, the film lingered unscreened for two years due to censorship by distributors, despite Lyne’s efforts to edit the film in collaboration with a lawyer to meet the specifications of the Child Pornography Prevention Act that was passed earlier that year (Hatch). In one interview, Lyne mirrors the irony in Huston’s statement about “one girl’s real life experiences” when he argues, “I could make a movie about a 13-year-old girl getting chopped up and eaten and no one in the United States would say anything” (“Labels Aside”)

3  Stockton notes how feminist theorists like Janice Haaken and Donna Haraway “suggest that a retelling of rape must necessarily find a way out of the binary structure sustained by patriarchy and adopted, at least according to Haraway, by some forms of feminism” (184). Stockton quotes Ellen Rooney who suggests that the “stakes” in this “effort” is “the ability to ‘read the scene of sexual violence’ for evidence of a feminine subject defined by more than the sole abilities ‘to consent or refuse to consent,’ to be necessarily and ‘always either already raped or already rapable’” (184). 

4  Daniels, in the same interview, acknowledges too that he was unable to retain the explicit scenes of sexual abuse of Precious’s mother in the film, as well. Instead, he alludes to her abuse in one scene in which Mary, in bed, calls to Precious.

5  The connection between girls and pornography is well documented. For example, in the study, “A Content Analysis of Youth Sexualized Language and Imagery in Adult Film Packaging, 1995–2007,” Robin E. Jensen found that over 20 percent of adult film packages (381) contain “youth sexualized language” or “language that sexually objectifies young people/youth” (371), with girls being sexualized in ninety-four percent of these cases (380).

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