I’m coming late to the discussion about the inclusion of Toni Morrison’s novella Bluest Eye on high school reading lists (it is a popular choice for high school and college English classes as well as women’s studies classes, and this popularity predates the relatively new Common Core standards debates). Some activists who became aware of the Toni Morrison book through their opposition to Common Core are arguing that Bluest Eye endorses child molestation because the book contains a character who is a molester speaking in the first person, and Morrison herself has made comments to the effect that she is trying to get readers to see his point of view, comments that are being taken out of context and misconstrued. Incidentally, the book is also extremely graphic, more graphic than many people who are weighing in to defend it seem to be aware of — I suspect many of them didn’t actually read the book.
I don’t think The Bluest Eye is in any way an endorsement of pedophilia. But I also don’t think that it, and other “problem story” books like it, are appropriate for literature classes — nor that they are put on the curriculum for their qualities as literature in the first place. We’ve turned English and literature classes (excuse me, language arts) into social problem encounter sessions — sessions that often devolve into narcissistic competitions between varying claims of victimization.
This isn’t a new development: when I attended high school in the early 1980’s, Ordinary People was the “problem story” we were spoon-fed. I remember embarrassing classroom discussions where the teacher seemed to be screening us for The Warning Signs of Suicide Attempts By Nice Middle-Class Kids, and to this day I also remember the general horror when she tried to make us talk in class about references to masturbation in the story. To make things worse, rather than just being about thinking about Elizabeth McGovern, who played the love interest in the film version, masturbation was presented therapeutically — as the solution to anxiety recommended to the main character by his earthy white-ethnic psychiatrist — so there were layers upon layers of creepy psychologizing and equally creepy racial stereotyping being imposed on us.
I remember thinking at the time that the moral lesson of Ordinary People was the opposite of the moral lesson of Johnny Tremain. I also thought it might be a sneaky exercise in making us appreciate reading Shakespeare. For that, at least, it was effective: I gladly embraced the rigors of Elizabethan verse after wallowing in the claustrophobic wimpiness and snide references to female WASP frigidity unleashed by Robert Redford in his unpleasant movie version of that unpleasant, practically anti-literary novel.
Poor Mary Tyler Moore, too.
The Bluest Eye isn’t appropriate for children. Full stop. And though it is generally recommended only for 11th and 12th graders, I don’t think it’s appropriate for them, either, because any protracted classroom discussion forces students to engage in a sort of competitive demonizing — whites and child molesters being the targets — while simultaneously forcing discussion of extremely graphic sexual assaults, which is not appropriate for any literature classroom — including college classrooms.
Yet, Bluest Eye doesn’t endorse pedophilia. It accurately depicts the ways pedophiles view their crimes — how they seek tacit approval from society while abusing and grooming their victims. It’s a powerful book for that, though the ways I have seen it taught have much more to do with creating tension between students of different races based on the child character’s feelings about whiteness. And the way Morrison conflates “whiteness” with child molestation from the victim’s perception is disturbing.
It might be a good book for a college or graduate-level psychology or criminology course if the purpose of the assignment was learning about the dynamics of sex offenses involving children. It’s also beautifully written, though I think Morrison cribs an awful lot — pretty much everything stylistic — from Faulkner.
The justification given for such readings — the claims that “social problem” books should be taught to “sensitize” and give voice to victims and help them speak out — is largely just self-aggrandizement by educators.
The activists who became aware of The Bluest Eye through their scrutiny of Common Core materials are certainly on the right track. Through fighting Common Core, they are gaining an ever-deepening understanding of what academia has become. The movement is maturing impressively fast, and the deeper they dig, the more evidence they’re uncovering about the ways that Common Core is both a new threat to local control of education — and just the latest iteration of the political and emotional manipulation that took over K – 12 classrooms a long time ago.
But to say that The Bluest Eye is sympathetic to child molesters is not defensible.