Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Mamas, Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up
to Be Babies
There are two schools of bad writing about the visual arts. The first, favored by the editors of Artforum, attempts to compete with the work being described. The language is so overwrought that the original work is lost in a self-justifying mist of clever critic. The second, as practiced by Susan Sontag in her introductory essay to The BabiesPolly Borland’s book of photographs of adults who dress as infants or toddlers for emotional or sexual gratificationis to say the obvious with great gravity and conviction. The hope is that the reader will be fooled into thinking that the essayistlike Sherlock Holmessees deep hidden meaning in what passes as dust to the rest of us. Sontag writes:
The title is The Babies. More than one. A group. A fellowship, it appears. More than one such fellowship or band or coterie. A world.
A cunningly sequenced album of pictures inducts us into this world.
It would convey little to have only one photograph. Or two. Or three. To show a world calls for an abundance of photographs, and the photographs have to be arranged. First things first. The last for the last.
The sequence will be a tour of this world. A journey. An
Four paragraphs blown to say that what appears to be a book of photographs is, in fact, a book of photographs. Alas, if Sontag uses a lot of words to say very little, she is only reflecting Borland’s own approach to her subject. Borland’s interest in infantilists started life as a photo spread for Britain’s Independent’s Saturday magazine, which seems a more natural format. It’s hard to say what the ninth picture of a chubby middle-aged man with a pacifier adds over the first, but Borland repeats this and a few other favored themes over and over. Although the reader can guess that infantilism is a fascinating subculture, Borland does little to flesh it out, relying instead on a so-called cunning sequence of photosearlier ones are more ambiguous than later. If the last photos in the book seem to show so much, it is only because the first show almost nothing at all.
The tediousness of Borland’s brand of documentation as applied to a topic such as infantilism has at least one advantage: Those who find such behavior objectionable will quickly grow too bored to give a hoot. Unfortunately, for those who have fewer prejudices about the private behavior of adults, Borland’s approach seems shallow, driven more by preconception than observation.
Why does a grown man choose to be a baby? According to Borland in a short afterword and enforced by critic Mark Holborn in a brief secondary introduction, adult babies are trying to create the secure happy childhood that was originally denied them. This makes sense in a predictable pop-psych sort of way, but it can hardly be the whole truth. Besides the obvious reasonthat there are a lot of people who have had bad childhoods who do not feel the need to relive themanyone contemplating a return to the first two-and-a-half years of life would realize that the notion is absurd. Few of us have more than the faintest memory of that period; if we do, it is often of a moment we are still carrying for its unpleasantness. The desire for a return to babyhood is comparable to being homesick for a place you don’t remember. And accurate memories of early childhood, if they existed, would make the difference between costume play and real childhood that much more acute. Security, the joys and frustrations of learning to control a brand-new body, and delight in an endless world available for unjaded exploration can never be reconstructed.
Another problem with the “return” claim is that for many of the babies in Borland’s book there is a cross-dressing component: men outfitting themselves as little girls. And, although Borland barely deals with this aspect, for many, there is also a sadomasochistic component. The black straps for restraining adult babies on an oversized crib are not shown in use, but the leer on the face of a “mummy”one of the women who serve some infantilists as surrogate parentsbehind the apparatus strongly implies that they are not merely decorative.
Most babies, however, seem to do without parents. Borland shows them in a variety of rituals: changing their own diapers, dressing themselves, bathing themselves, shaving their pubic hair, and performing other menial tasks that seem to combine the drudgery of parenting a toddler with the powerlessness of toddlerhoodand the apparent inability to control colon or bladder or environment. The combination of menial task with menial status, a self-imposed wretchedness, seems at least part of the appeal. This factor would at least explain the miserably unhappy faces staring back at the camera in nearly every shot.
The photographs are not particularly interesting exclusive of content. Snapshots in the worst sense of the word, most of the photos are framed as drearily and unimaginatively as those taken by the most artistically challenged (albeit proud) parent. This is probably intentional; Borland is satirizing the same bath shot, the same playing-on-the-floor shot, the same feeding shot, now appearing in a photo album near you. If so, the approach seems particularly cynicaldesigned to sharpen the contrast between a real baby, with his perfect skin, innocence, and wonder, with the midlife imitation versions who can never measure up in the eyes of the viewerand, possibly, their own. This contrast is only exacerbated by the gaudy pinks and baby blues used to light many of the shots. More often than not, the viewer is invited to look at the babies with pity, for what they are not, rather than with respect, for what they are.
Indeed, Borland’s most visually engaging photographs have only an implied presence of adult babies. The first two shots in the book are spooky, with a film-noir quality. The first shows a pink-and-white nursery door that has the words “Baby Doll” crudely spray-painted on it, and the door’s reflection in a mirror. The second has the shadow of a crib or headboard against a shimmering pink dress, oversized, though not at first obviously so, to fit the adult baby to whom it belongs. But these darkly lit rooms use exactly the same visual vocabulary as a horror movie. They might not have the same implications if they appeared later in the sequence, but by starting with them, Borland is inviting us to imagine we are entering a house of monsters.
All three of the book’s essays Sontag’s, Holborn’s, and the artist’s statementare in part defensively written, against an imagined attack on the book from some dreary bourgeois bookstore customer who finds it accidentally while looking for the latest Ansel Adams repackaging. This imagined criticalienated and frightened by people who are not like himquestions the right of adult babies to live as they do and the publisher’s right to cheerfully share those lives with the world. Holborn writes: “I am an advocate of this book, which some may regret they ever opened. The work will undoubtedly cause discomfort in many; some may even be appalled that the work has been printed for public view…”
This sounds more like a carnival bark than anything else, an invitation to view freaks in the context of a denial that this is what the book is really about. I cannot know the motivations of the adult babies who invited Borland into their lives and allowed themselves to be photographed, but I believe they deserve better. CP