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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
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; email@example.com; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; email@example.com; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: email@example.com; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.