Little Miss Sunshine

America’s obsession with JonBenet Ramsey.


Here you come again,
Lookin’ better than a body has a right to;
And shaking me up so
That all I really know
Is here you come again—and here I go!
—From “Here You Come Again,” sung by Dolly Parton, written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil

It probably shouldn’t surprise us that JonBenet, like Roderick Usher’s sister, won’t stay buried. It’s the return of the repressed all over again, here before us, strutting its stuff and doing its cultural work because we so badly need it. Where else can we find forbidden material served up to us in ways we can both enjoy and disown? We have to deal with a most uncomfortable heritage: an “innocent” child who is also deeply eroticized. That’s an unthinkable idea, but JonBenet is one of those stories that allows us to think it.

It’s not just the JonBenet affair that does this return act for us: We had Michael Jackson in two distinct performances, also separated by a decade, and pedophile Catholic priests in a reprise as well. Even McMartin came as a double-header drama. When things are running a little low in the erotic-child-spectacle area, we simply reach into the well and draw up again what has served us so richly in the past.

JonBenet takes to the runway again because a happy confluence of events gives us the chance to put her there. It’s really all our doing, even if the police helped out. True, we have a confession of sorts from one John Mark Karr, but the criminal case seems to be melting before our eyes as the days pass. CNN lets us know that the confession will keep us busy for some time: “Far from laying to rest the 10-year mystery of who killed JonBenet Ramsey, the stunning admission … only deepened speculation about whether the soft-spoken schoolteacher committed the crime.”

The discourse is alive; the game is afoot. Makes one wonder if we aren’t giving Karr’s background and confession so much prominence because they feed our deep personal needs and not the needs of justice. Just why is it we need to hear, once again, about JonBenet and the beauty pageants, the murder and the bad parents, about the little body unveiled?

We know about Karr, it turns out, largely because he carried on a four-year correspondence with a University of Colorado journalism professor, Michael Tracey, who finally became “concerned” this past May and took the e-mails to authorities, who moved with some speed to make the arrest. Tracey, the producer of three documentaries on the JonBenet case, is motivated, he says, by the desire to show how overblown the coverage is: “I don’t regard JonBenet’s murder as an important story.” He is publicizing it to demonstrate its insignificance and to illustrate what is wrong with American journalism.

Now, there’s a dedicated ironist for you: He spends all this time illustrating what a trivial subject he has! But, of course, Tracey badly misses the point: JonBenet would not get all this attention did we not want to bestow it. It’s not the media forcing on us something we’d rather not have: We’re lining up at the trough to be fed. The story has too much in it for us, even if the murder part of it is, as Tracey suspects, window dressing.

This story allows us to fulminate against trivial problems while ignoring huge problems close to home, meanwhile wallowing in self-righteous porn babble: We are able to use the half-clothed bodies of children as centerfolds while professing shock that anyone would so display them. The story is always the same: Somebody else finds the bodies of children irresistible and we want the chance to rail against these monsters, meanwhile relishing the details of the very bodies we claim indifference to. It is a classic example of scapegoating.

For kids really do not fare very well in our culture: Millions of children are, in fact, abused in unspeakable ways. Five hundred thousand kids every year are classified as “throwaways” (children whose parents or guardians will not let them live at home, as distinguished from “runaways”). As many as 800,000 are beaten horribly. Even more are subject to emotional abuse and neglect. How much attention do they get? Instead, we focus our attention, almost all of it, on stranger-danger: things like abductions, of which there are between 100 and 200 annually. Our carefully controlled outrage is generated for our own purposes, certainly not to protect the children.

And when kids are indeed abused, who is doing it? Mom and Dad and Uncle Ted and Aunt May. As little as 2 percent of child abuse is committed by strangers. Again, why are we exercised over JonBenet?

The case does many things for us, of course. It makes us feel both titillated and virtuous; it makes us feel smart. Most centrally, it makes flattering distinctions between good parents (us) and bad parents (the Ramseys). Even if the Ramseys didn’t kill their daughter, they exposed her to lascivious eyes in beauty contests, which is about as bad. Notice how much press is directed to abusing the Ramseys, to suggesting that (unlike us) their relationship to their child was unhealthy, vicious, exploitative. This whining at beauty contest parents generally is a favorite pastime of ours, as if such pageants were freakish, rather than a version of a central parenting activity: parading kids, sexualizing them, putting them on display.

The current film Little Miss Sunshine is a good example of how much we need to separate healthy families (ours) from diseased ones (those who sexualize kids). That film goes so far in its eagerness to pander to audiences as to imagine domestic bliss as the ability to be repulsed by and unite against sexy kids (beauty queens). Such hypocrisy plays to the uneasiness of audiences who, in real life, would find the lumpy little heroine of the film utterly disgusting, turning from her to feast their eyes on little vamps.

The Ramseys frighten us by being so much like the parents in the film—and like the audience: voyeurs gazing at their own children. Looking at kids is arguably our culture’s central activity, so long as we can successfully objectify the kids, make them strangely doll-like and immune, both fetching and innocent. We want the Ramseys to be like the parents of Polly Klaas, or other tragic figures who occupy the center of such dramas. What could be more horrifying for parents than to lose a child to a stranger? Even when the child is not killed, we are fond of saying that rape is somehow “worse” than murder. Worse for whom? For the parent, of course, whose rights have been violated and whose part in this sick cultural drama has been stolen.

Several of the recent crime-news commentators, struggling to define JonBenet’s charm without wading into treacherous waters, have compared her to Shirley Temple in her essential cuteness. Big mistake. Graham Greene decades ago was chased out of England for daring to analyze the ingredients of that Shirley Temple “cute” appeal. Greene said she was able to elicit excited “gasps” from “her antique audience” by twitching her “well-developed little rump” and generally exercising a “sidelong searching coquetry” “with the mature suggestiveness of a Dietrich.”

Greene specified the lingering fantasy that JonBenet also plays out, one deep and dangerous in our cultural subconscious. We need to face down that fantasy and not pretend we can exorcise it on the likes of John Mark Karr or the supposed ills of American journalism. The fault lies not in such things but in us. JonBenet will not rest until our need for her finds an outlet less necrophilic.