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Camping it Up with The Bad Seed
S he is instantly recognizable as a camp icon. With her flouncing gingham dress, blond pigtails, obnoxious bangs, and disingenuously angelic voice, eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark—“the bad seed”—exhibits the thin veneer that can mask criminal insanity. Over the past decade, Mervyn Leroy’s 1956 film The Bad Seed has been endlessly parodied by drag queens, a staple of gay bar jokes, a stock image in the gay press, screened at teenage parties, and plumbed by David Letterman for laughs. But despite the mirth it elicits today, The Bad Seed —as well as the 1954 novel by William March (whose real name was William Edward Campbell) on which it is based—is deadly serious. When March wrote The Bad Seed , he intended to engage the most important question on everyone’s mind in the aftermath of the Holocaust and Hiroshima: what are the causes of evil and how do we eradicate it—or at least keep it in abeyance?
It is probably no coincidence that, as naughty little Rhoda got camped to the max, the word “evil” found a secure place in our political vocabulary. Ronald Reagan popularized its use as a political concept in a 1982 speech condemning the Soviet Union before the British House of Commons. Clearly a reference to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back , which was released a year and a half earlier, Reagan’s rhetoric was pure Hollywood public relations. Among the emergent Christian right, however, the word had serious theological resonance. That was George W. Bush’s intent when, in his 2002 State of the Union address, he charged Iraq, Iran, and North Korea with being an “axis of evil.” With that sop to his fundamentalist base—speechwriter David Frum originally suggested the term “axis of hatred”—Bush set the stage for the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the next four years of carnage. Four months later, in May 2002, John Bolton, before his role as unconfirmed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, gave a speech titled “Beyond the Axis of Evil,” to which he added Libya, Syria, and Cuba to the list. The Bush administration so normalized the idea that Hugo Chavez later turned it against them, referring to Bush as “the devil” who left behind the smell of sulfur when he stepped out of the room.
What’s interesting here is that by politicizing evil, by applying it to entire nations perceived as threats to the United States—the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il, the fundamentalist megalomania of Osama bin Laden, a shadowy network of terrorist cells—Bush inverted the biblical concept of evil as something that makes its home in the individual human heart. Liberals, meanwhile, tend to be averse to the idea altogether, even as they rail against genocide in Darfur, massive networks of child prostitution in Thailand, and, yes, nuclear proliferation and organized terrorism as horrific and ethically appalling. The difference is that liberalism and its pop-culture handmaidens, unwilling to reduce entire cultures to the status of “evil,” offer a broader and more complex range of analytical tools for understanding humanity’s darker turns.
It’s worth taking a closer look at The Bad Seed , a work that offers us a chance to revive a broader debate about the nature of “evil.”
The film version of The Bad Seed —with startling performances by Nancy Kelly as Rhoda’s mother, Christine; Eileen Heckett as the mother of one of her victims; and Patty McCormick as the film’s unnerving anti-heroine—has eclipsed the novel on which it was based. Although out of print, March’s The Bad Seed was an instant bestseller when it was published in April 1954, selling more than one million copies within a year. The New York Times called it “a true artistic achievement” and Pulitzer Prizewinning playwright Maxwell Anderson penned a stage version that opened to rave reviews.
Aside from the film’s cop-out Hollywood ending, which kills
Rhoda off and allows her mother to survive, its plot and narrative
structure is identical to March’s original work. In a near
parody of post-war family life, lovely, educated Christine Penmark
is married to a traveling businessperson (a former army officer)
and their daughter, Rhoda, seems the perfect child. Suddenly their
idyllic life in an unnamed Southern city is shattered by the death
of a boy in Rhoda’s day school. It quickly becomes evident
that Rhoda knows more about the death than she will admit and that
she murdered him. As Christine agonizes over what to do, Rhoda strikes
again. Christine, the hapless heroine, is trapped in a sunny all-American
home with the knowledge that her perfectly behaved, obedient child
is the source of malevolence and horror. This was the birth of suburban
gothic at its finest—and earliest.
After it becomes clear that Rhoda is a sociopathic killer, March goes to great lengths to explain why. Rather methodically, he delineates, through conversations among the novel’s adults, three theories that account for the cause of human “evil.” Monica Breedlove, Christine’s landlady and a strict Freudian, treats every aspect of human behavior as a clash between id and superego. Reginald Tasker, a crime writer, believes human behavior is shaped by a confluence of factors, including developmental issues and mental illness. Richard Bravo, Christine’s war-journalist father (who is deceased in the novel, but a character in the film) believes violence is caused by environment, especially poverty. Christine believes—especially after discovering that she is the daughter of a famous female serial killer—that her daughter’s behavior is genetic, and that mind and environment are of far less consequence than an inborn tendency to violence. The novel and film present these theories with equal weight and to the literate reader of the 1950s, who was well versed in popularized Freud, as well as the cultural critiques of Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, Franz Boas, and Ruth Benedict, The Bad Seed set off a vibrant debate about the genesis of human wickedness.
March seems to come down on the side of genetics, but the way he characterizes the individual presentation of evil informs the other accounts. He is, after all, concerned with how to identify evil before it strikes and describes this trait in Rhoda as “being so cool, so impersonal about things that bother others.” Throughout the novel he makes clear that the trait of the “bad seed” consigns humans to lack warmth, empathy, curiosity. As Christine and her husband reckon with just how bad their little girl is, they take to calling it “the Rhoda reaction.”
Under cover of a frightening gothic tale exposing the horror lurking beneath the facade of post-war suburban tranquility, March also explored the realm of international politics. No reader in the 1950s could entertain a discussion of how human beings can inflict horrific suffering on others without being constantly mindful of the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima.
March’s biography testifies to his near-obsession with evil and why it assumed such world-historical form. As a soldier during World War I he was enmeshed in the horrors of war and suffered several nervous breakdowns, as well as continued bouts of hysteria throughout his life. He was also withdrawn and guarded in relationships—being a deeply closeted homosexual didn’t help—and wary of all human interaction.
In the early 1930s, as an employee of the Waterman Steamship Corporation, March lived in Germany and saw the rise of Nazism firsthand. In his letters home he compared Hitler’s thugs to the KKK and noted the rise of virulent anti-Semitism, book burning, and the formation of the first concentration camps. He even detailed how the German political situation was pitting family members against one another. Certainly, as the author of Company K , a noted pacifist novel published in 1933 that is considered a classic of U.S. war fiction, March understood intimately the dangers posed by Nazism. The genius of The Bad Seed is that March transferred his observations about the Third Reich to a horror story of the idealized American family—replete with the perfect, obedient child who, in both novel and film, bears an uncanny resemblance to the members of Hitler Youth. In The Bad Seed, March emphasizes the parallel by describing Rhoda’s hair in Teutonic fashion as “plaited precisely in two narrow braids which were looped back into two hangsman-nooses.”
While some critics in 1954 saw The Bad Seed as a good psychological thriller, many took it seriously as veiled social criticism. The critic for the New York Herald Tribune noted that, “It is possible to read The Bad Seed as an allegory of our violent times, as a commentary on the bewilderment and helplessness of all men and women of average good will who find themselves face to face with pure evil, which is incomprehensible.” In light of World War II and all it uncovered, how else was The Bad Seed to be interpreted?
So what has happened since 1954? How did William March’s somber, frightening, historically informed meditation on evil become a joke? In part it is due to the fact that, in an era when the longstanding mockery of suburban culture has culminated in American Beauty and “Desperate Housewives,” the film’s seriousness now reads as melodrama. But it is also because the immediacy of the Holocaust and Hiroshima has faded and been replaced by new horrors: the carnage of Vietnam; the murderous regimes in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Chile; the genocide in Rwanda; and the current war in Iraq have become commonplace. Meliorated by passive television coverage and an increasingly knee-jerk nationalism, the U.S. public has become increasingly inured to horrors around the world.
“Evil” has been and still is a bipartisan word. You won’t catch Bush describing Henry Kissinger’s decision to carpet bomb Cambodia as “evil,” likewise the Reagan administration’s appalling support of Pinochet’s large-scale, state-sponsored murders. While there was some outcry over these events, by and large “the Rhoda reaction” was and continues to be the operational mode for too many Americans. Bush’s invocation of “evil” heralded a sea change in our political discourse.
Yet the worst aspect of the “Rhoda reaction” is not the lack of empathy for human suffering—we can all understand how humans deaden themselves to avoid dealing with pain—but rather the lack of curiosity that goes along with it. We, as a nation, have become appallingly incurious.
But there is still the question of why Rhoda and The Bad Seed have become such staples of camp. Writers such as Susan Sontag in her famous “Notes on Camp” argued that camp is a homosexual sensibility that grapples with political realities by making them ironic, in a sense, de-fanging them. Sontag did not subscribe to the idea that camp itself was political; she assigned it an almost completely aesthetic quality. The British artist Philip Core perhaps had a more comprehensive explanation of camp, calling it “the lie that tells the truth.” Indeed, this is the essence of the political and social critique of gay male camp—to expose the absurd formalities, the idiocies, and injustices of mainstream culture. Perhaps, this is how the journey of little Rhoda from serious cultural signifier to camp heroine makes the most sense. It’s possible to say that we’ve all become Rhoda, but it’s also possible to see the embrace of The Bad Seed as a commentary on how dismal and disenfranchised much of the mainstream political culture in the U.S. has become.
So let’s continue to camp up dear little Rhoda—the pain really is almost too hard to bear. Until humans of all nations can discuss, without relying on religious abstractions, the harsh reality of what we are doing and why, we will live in a world that eludes comprehension. But that doesn’t absolve us from continuing to try.
Michael Bronski teaches gender studies and Jewish studies at Dartmouth College. His latest book is Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps (St. Martin’s Press, 2003).
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: email@example.com; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; email@example.com; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; email@example.com; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; email@example.com http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: email@example.com; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://east.usworker.coop/.
WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; firstname.lastname@example.org.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; email@example.com; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; email@example.com; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.