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"Developing Dominance: How Trauma in Children’s Literature Helps Re-produce the Dominant Culture" - Melissa Burchard (UNC Asheville)

Melissa Burchard
Peabody Hall, Room 115

Abstract for "Developing Dominance: How Trauma in Children’s Literature Helps Re-produce the Dominant Culture"

The prominence of trauma in children’s and young adult literature and popular culture, including in the majority of stories that are chosen as award winners and for use in school curricula, implies that adults, who create the stories, see this trauma as important for some goals of proper socialization of children. This seems to represent a significant investment of the adult dominant culture in the process of exposing children to what appears to be a kind of “developmentally necessary” trauma. I argue that such an investment implies an equally significant perceived need in terms of the end product it is aimed at. Given that the US is arguably a mostly wealthy country with a relatively high standard of living, what is it that is perceived as requiring that children be, so to speak, prepared through traumatic experience to deal with? My suggestion is that it is dominance itself that requires such traumatic preparation – that we must all learn the norms of dominant culture and our “proper places” within the structures of dominance. Those who are “destined” to be most dominant – the heroes, the truly great persons, the “self-made men” – require the most significant levels of trauma in order to develop the “hardness” of will that allows them to dominate others and to make the “hard decisions” that greatness/dominance demands. But of course it is also the case that the “most dominant” among us are also white; so I argue that a sub-text running through these trauma stories is that they are socializing children into proper locations on the basis of race. Since the dominance of whiteness has been constructed and maintained through the perpetration of the mass atrocities of genocide and enslavement of non-white peoples, and then through ongoing oppression, I argue that the dominant culture can be seen as a culture stuck in perpetrator trauma. Thus the current trend of trauma-centric stories and in particular of traumatized hero stories can be read as reflecting the dominant culture’s sense of embattlement in the face of multiple liberatory movements, its sense of struggle against overwhelming odds to maintain the standards of traditional order and hegemony for the “1%” and their supporters. A counter-story, however, might read the dominant culture as a culture of perpetration of violence and mass atrocity that, rather than seeking healing, seeks to induct new members into ongoing perpetration of the violence of dominance, for which they must be prepared through trauma.

Melissa Burchard's areas of focus in teaching and research include theoretical and applied ethics, social and political philosophy, and feminist theory. Specific research projects have recently included inquiry into the ethics of television's programming for children, including representations of diversity in such programming, inquiry into the meaning of violence and the connections between violence and rationality, and the use of the concept of perversion in the construction of identity.

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