Editor's Introduction:
Little Girls Lost


Deborah Wyrick

North Carolina State University, Raleigh NC

Copyright © 2002 by Deborah Wyrick, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

  1. Less than two weeks ago, police identified a set of decomposed human remains as those of 9-year-old Jennifer Short. She had been abducted from her home in Virginia after her parents were shot and killed; her body was discarded in a rural area of North Carolina, near the Virginia border. Jennifer Short is the latest in a sad series of little-girl abductions that has preoccupied United States news media this year. Danielle, Samantha, Erica, Cassandra, Elizabeth, Nancy Crystal, Ashley, Miranda, Rilya, Jennifer . . . these are the optimistic, decorative names for girl babies, born into a variety of socio-economic circumstances, who carried parental hopes that they would grow up to be healthy, successful, loving and loved women.

  2. Most of them will not grow up at all. Although there were some happy endings - 1-month-old Nancy Crystal Chavez, abducted by a woman, was found in good health; 7-year-old Erica Pratt, kidnapped for ransom, escaped by gnawing through the duct tape that bound her - the majority of these girls were stolen by strangers and raped, murdered, or both. The question underlying the frenzied news coverage of these cases was simple, compelling, and unanswerable: how can adult men brutalize innocent children? [1] There are many possible reasons (e.g. insanity, sexual sadism, revenge), but none seems to account either for the savagery of the crimes or for the huge differences in methods, geography, age, race, and class [2] that characterize the known or accused perpetrators.

  3. In one sense, the super-saturated coverage is a consequence of the summer news doldrums (summer of 2001 headline-grabbers included a supposed increase in shark attacks and the then-unsolved disappearance of a Congressional intern), and public interest perhaps reflects both the cynicism of tabloidized news media and the insular naivete of U.S. news consumers. It seems as if there were an epidemic of little-girl-snatching; yet according to Ben Ermini, director of the Missing Children's Division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, estimates for the year 2002 indicate "a decrease in the numbers from previous years" (qtd. in Rothschild). In another sense, the national horror at these crimes is not merely a pathetic instance of couch-potato voyeurism. There is a taboo against brutalizing children - a taboo connected to cultural constructions of childhood innocence and national privilege, a taboo so often broken by various forms of domestic child abuse and by popular culture representations of sexualized children [3] that its power to shock has been displaced into "stranger abductions." Through this displaced shock, we tremble at our own shortcomings as adults, as parents, as consumers, as citizens. In so doing, we may also recognize our responsibility to the most vulnerable among us: the little girl thrown by the side of the road in California, or dumped in a river in Missouri, or permanently 'lost' by the Florida welfare system, could be our own child.

  4. Yet what about the little girls lost in other parts of the world? A short internet search (necessary here, because these events are not covered substantially by U.S. media) reveals instance after instance of hideous crimes against girl-children: girls conscripted as soldiers and slave-wives into the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda/Sudan (see Nduru; and Amnesty International, "Solidarity Action"); Saudi Arabian girls prevented from escaping their burning school building because they were not wearing headscarves and there were no male relatives to receive them (see Amnesty International, "Saudi Arabia); the terrifying increase in 'baby rapes' in South Africa, ostensibly due to the belief that having sex with a virgin will 'cure' AIDS (see LoBiado; du Venage; Science in Africa, "The 'virgin myth'"; CNN.com, "South Africa faces child rape crisis") . . . not to mention widespread practices of child prostitution and female infanticide in the Indian subcontinent, East Asia, and elsewhere. Despite differences in religion, customs, and economic conditions, these girls share with their U.S. counterparts the stark fact that they were seen as disposable by people who had or seized power over their lives.

  5. To make this claim is to risk falling into the 'Arrogant Western Feminist' category so forcefully described by Gayatri Spivak, Lata Mani, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and others. Although these critics primarily address practices relating to adult women [4] -- practices such as sati that are complexly, even contradictorily embedded in cultural and chronotopic particulars [5] - their nuanced warnings against essentializing 'woman' as a transnational, ahistorical victim of an equally essentialized 'patriarchy' apply to attempts at discussing the world-wide abuse of girl-children. I wonder, however, if the multiple reasons for such abuse, coupled with its global ubiquity, point to a paradox within contemporary feminist theory's Western/postcolonial and essentialist/constructivist debates: considering girl-children to be [ab]usable, then disposable, bodies is a universal phenomenon underpinned by widely varying local rationales.

  6. The shakiness of the essentialist/constructivist dichotomy has been analyzed before by critics like Diana Fuss, who argues that essentialism depends on the construction of an ontologically stable essence whereas constructivism displaces essence via a pluralizing strategy that nonetheless retains constant and totalizing categories (4). Her analysis, which leads to claims for 'strategic essentialisms,' invests itself in Derridean deconstruction in order to strengthen feminist thought by 'theorizing out' its contradictory assertions. [6] Fuss, however, does not refer directly to Derrida's own deconstruction of the nature/culture debate in ethnology, the 'scandal' of the incest-prohibition noted by Claude Lévi-Strauss: that the incest-prohibition is universal, thus natural, and that in any society, it is a distinct set of rules, thus cultural (253). Derrida's purpose in identifying this radical undecidability is to destabilize structuralist thinking and Western metaphysics as a whole, a purpose much more meta-theoretical than that which I am (tentatively) pursuing here.

  7. Even so, the disposability of girl-children seems to be just this sort of Derridean/Lévi-Straussian scandal, just this sort of Fussian false dichotomy. Abused, raped, and murdered little girls are at once essentialized bodies (i.e., complete with female sex organs and convenient orifices, but too small to defend themselves) and cultural constructs (e.g., in need of a dowry, or less useful than boys as potential agricultural workers, or inferior religiously or legally to males). But far from escaping the structurality of structure through the free-play of the signifier, or through the logic of the supplement, abused little girls throughout the world function as the limit of free-play, the site were bodies and cultural representations of bodies collide and grind to a deadly halt. Along with the very real [7] suffering that they endure, these children mark the hateful logic of the deduction, the logic of the 'less-than' that keeps 'in play' the global phenomenon of little girls lost.

  8. My preceding comments may suggest that the plight of abused children (particularly, of girl-children - the most subaltern of subalterns) is relatively neglected in postcolonial studies. Overall, I believe this to be true, and I hope that the field will turn more attention, on occasion, to this area of concern. But any analysis along these lines must draw upon the ever-growing body of research and commentary directed towards gender representations in general; the strength of such scholarly attention is integral to future development and expansion of gender studies, be they 'Western' or 'Postcolonial,' be they directed toward adults or children, toward straight or gay men or women, or toward those 'in between.'

  9. This issue of Jouvert includes many articles that address gender in innovative and productive ways; they illuminate the specific subject under scrutiny and open avenues for further inquiry. Su-lin Yu's analysis of Julia Kristeva's controversial Of Chinese Women, Fiona Probyn's reading of J. M. Coetzee's white women narrators, Amy Lai's examination of gender representations by contemporary writers from Singapore and Hong Kong, Brian Gibson's exploration of masculinity in Tayeb Salih's A Season of Migration to the North, and Kathleen Gyssels' study of short stories by Haitian/Haitian American women all look at gender in literature and literary theory. Ashley Dawson's research into Desi dance-club culture includes analysis of how gender is negotiated by Indian Diaspora youth; Gina Ulysse's poems and Nabeela Sheikh's prose piece are creative evocations of the gendered Diasporic (Haitian and Pakistani, respectively) subject.

  10. These pieces are complemented by articles addressing other crucial issues in postcolonial studies: Shina Afolayan critiques the language debate rupturing African literature; Brian Finney analyzes (among other things) the theoretical and ideological implications of form in Kazuo Ishiguro's fiction; Mini Chandran investigates censorship and fabulation in Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I thank our authors and book reviewers - Dorota Kolodziejczyk, Anjali Gera Roy, Suocai Su, Susan Muaddi Darraj, Esther Priyadharshini, and Shelly Jarrett Bromberg - for their thoughtful and thought-provoking contributions to this issue of Jouvert, the issue that inaugurates our seventh year of publication. And for reaching that milestone, I also thank the people (including but not restricted to Steve L., Andrea M., Chris P., Sean G., Elaine O., Tina C., Viet T. N., Maria P., Ken R., Julia R. L., Lahouzine O., Dan C., Jim M., Jon T., Helen G., Cyril D., Jerome M., Tom L., Mary Helen T., Georgiana B., Laura W., Genghis K., and other Jouvert friends and editorial board members) who have helped sustain this journal - not least of whom are our readers throughout the world.


[I thank Andrea Gomez {and the other Friday-gangsters who participated in the discussion} for the profound and, more importantly, heartfelt PR questions that stimulated this essay.]

  1. Brutalization of children certainly includes the abuse of young boys; the second most reported-upon 'events' in the United States this summer were accusations against Roman Catholic priests for child (read, almost overwhelmingly, young boy) molestation. Obviously, such an offender-specific type of abuse does not cover (perhaps, in a way, it covers up) the range of crimes against young boys that occur in the United States (and in other countries). Back

  2. It should not be surprising that U.S. reportage of girl-child violent abduction centered on white, middle- or upper-middle class girls. Nonetheless, the news media did cover crimes against poor and non-white children during the summer of 2002 - perhaps because the relatively rare (albeit clustered) privileged-white-little-girl crimes spurred news purveyors and consumers into consideration of larger, perhaps more endemic, issues. Back

  3. I think here of Barbie Doll culture in general, including actual baby Barbies such as JonBenet Ramsey, the 6-year-old Colorado beauty queen whose 1996 murder remains unsolved, and 'concocted' Barbies such as the pop music icon Britney Spears. The 'innocent' cultural sexualization of pre-teen girls, of course, is not confined to the United States. A peculiar and provocative case in point is contemporary female fashion in Japan. According to Rebecca Mead, "[f]or Japanese girls, the main fashion choice is between being kawaii or cute - which means you wear girlish pastel-colored clothes that might have pictures of furry animals on them, and sometimes you actually carry a furry animal with you - and bodikon, or body-conscious - which means you dress like a cross between L'il Kim and a manga character. . . . [M]en find kawaii girls sexy because they're pretty and unthreatening" (109). Mead suggests that the kawaii look is a manifestation of a perceived cultural pedophiliac predisposition: "Many Japanese girls wear their school uniforms even when they're not in school. There is, not coincidentally, a Japanese word, rorikon, a loose transliteration of 'Lolita complex,' referring to the fondness among Japanese men for little girls" (108). Mead also notes that many devotees of the kawaii look are women in their twenties and thirties. Back

  4. "Adult" women is not a universal category. For example, what the West calls (and usually censures as) 'child marriages' often have been perfectly acceptable, even beneficial, arrangements in non-Western cultures. Therefore/however, 'child'-brides who have embraced sati (in the cases that they have done so without discernable compulsion) should be considered as 'adult' women. Yet/and/conversely/nonetheless/therefore/however, the porousness of 'adult' and 'child' categories should not obscure severely circumscribed, or ultimate lack of, female agency, whether produced by indigenous or by (neo-/post-) colonial pressures. Back

  5. In their now-classic essays, Spivak and Mani discuss the cultural complexities, as well as the 'colonial discourse' peculiarities, of sati in fact and in representation, while Mohanty critiques the binary 'givens' of a Zed press series about 'Woman in the Third World.' These powerful arguments form part of the reason why I see as separate from the violent abuse of girl-children such practices as veiling, or clitoridectomy, or even some of today's most publicized controversies about 'punishing' 'Third-World Women': the imminent stoning of Safiya Husaini, the Nigerian woman convicted of adultery, and the 'court-sanctioned' gang-rape of the sister of a boy accused of violating Pakistani tribal law by walking with a young girl without family sanction. Back

  6. Fuss explains the illusory impasses as follows: "For the essentialist, the body occupies a pure, pre-social, pre-discursive space. The body is 'real,' accessible, and transparent; it is always there and directly interpretable through the senses. For the constructionist, the body is never simply there, rather it is composed of a network of effects continually subject to sociopolitical determination. The body is 'always already' culturally mapped; it never exists in a pure or uncoded state. Now the strength of the constructionist position is its rigorous insistence on the production of social categories like 'the body' and its attention to systems of representation. But this strength is not built on the grounds of essentialism's demise, rather it works its power by strategically deferring the encounter with essence, displacing it, in this case, onto the concept of sociality" (4-5). Back

  7. I mean to imply a sort of Lacanian 'real' -- that part of existence unrepresentable through language . . . the paradoxical assertion of negativity . . . the place of psychosis. Back

Works Cited

Amnesty International. "Saudi Arabia: Investigation into tragic death of 14 school girls must be transparent and public." March 2002. http://web.amnesty.org/ai.nsf/THEMES/WOMEN?OpenView&Start=1&Count=30&Expand=1

---. "Solidarity Action for Universal Rights, Uganda: Stop child abductions for slave soldiering." April 1999. http://web.amnesty.org/ai.nsf/Index/AFR590041999?OpenDocuments&of=COUNTRIES%5CSUDAN

CNN. "South Africa facing child rape crisis." Nov. 26, 2001. http://www.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/africa/11/26/africa.rape/

Derrida, Jacques. "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." In The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. Ed. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1972. 247-65.

Fuss, Diana. Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature & Difference. New York: Routledge, 1989.

LoBiado, Anthony C. "Child-rape epidemic in South Africa: Fueled by widespread belief that sex with virgins cures AIDS." WorldNetDaily. December 2001. http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=25806.

Mani, Lata. "Contentious traditions: the debate on sati in colonial India." Cultural Critique 7 (1987): 119-56.

Mead, Rebecca. "Shopping Rebellion: What the kids want." The New Yorker. March 18, 2002. 104 - 11l.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses." Feminist Review 30 (1988): 61-88.

Nduru, Moyiga. "Human Rights - Uganda: Rebels Step Up Child Abductions." One World. February 1998. http://www.oneworld.org/ips2/feb98/uganda.html

Rothschild, Leah G. "The Media Spotlight on Child Abduction." AIM August 6, 2002. http://www.aim.org/publications/briefings/2002/aug08.html

Science in Africa. "The 'virgin myth' and child rape in South Africa." April 2002. http://www.scienceinafrica.co.za/2002/april/rape.htm

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "The Rani of Sirmur: an essay in reading the archives." History and Theory 24.3 (1985): 247-72.

du Venage, Gavin. "Rape of children surges in South Africa: Minors account for about 40% of attack victims." San Francisco Chronicle, February 12, 2002. http://www.aegis.com/news/sc2002/SC020203.html

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