Dec 6, 2015

Shock-headed Peter: Castration and Gay Panic in a German Children's Story


When I was in Germany a few years ago, my friend Doc took me to a restaurant called the Struwwelpeter Apfelweinwirtschaft (The Slovenly Peter Apple Wine Tavern).

Its logo was a boy with wild blond hair and long sharp nails like Edward Scissorhands.

Nearby there was a statue of the same boy, along with some other children.

"You've never heard of Struwwelpeter?" Doc asked.  "He's a national hero, like Bart Simpson in America!"









Turns out that all German schoolchildren read Der Struwwelpeter, written and illustrated by Heinrich Hoffmann (1809-1894), about children who misbehave and get their comeuppance -- usually a violent retribution.

A girl who plays with matches burns to death.
Kaspar, who won't eat his soup, wastes away and dies.
Hans, whose "head is always in the clouds," falls into a river.
Robert, who goes outside in a storm, blows away.

Hoffmann was a psychiatrist, though he lived before Freud's discovery of the unconscious, and many of his stories have been analyzed for their psychosexual undertones





The most obvious gay connection is in the story of Konrad, der Daumenlutscher (the Thumb-Sucker).  

Though his mother warns him to not suck his thumb, Konrad persists in the bad habit.  Then he encounters the Tailor with the Scissors (in modern versions, the monstrous Scissor-Man), who cuts both of his thumbs off.  

Oral fixation, symbolic castration, gay anxiety, and a 19th-century Freddie Kruger!

The stories have been translated into several languages.  They were adapted into a 1955 movie (available on youtube), an operetta (1992) and a musical (1998).  

In 2010, Richard Mansfield filmed an explicitly homoerotic shadow-puppet version,  of the Daumenlutscher story, "Suck-a-Thumb." It made the rounds of the gay film festivals.

In an even more explicitly gay sequel, Konrad is sent to a psychiatric hospital for a brutal "cure."

Don't worry, that's a door handle, not what you're thinking.