Katherine Fusco, associate professor of English from the University of Nevada, Reno, has received the William Riley Parker Prize from the Modern Language Association after publishing Sexing Farina: Our Gang’s Episodes of Racial Childhood in the Publications of the Modern Language Association. The prize honors an outstanding article in literature and consists of a cash award and a certificate.
“To me, it was just such a big deal to be published with the PMLA,” Fusco, in the College of Liberal Arts, said. “I didn’t even know I was in the running for the prize.”
Fusco’s article discusses the character of Farina, a black child, played by American child actor Allen Hoskins, who switches from masculine to feminine attributions in installments of the 1920s film series Our Gang, which was reborn later as The Little Rascals series. Fusco began research for her article in 2012 by watching Our Gang episodes as well as reading relevant magazines, watching period advertisements and studying fan letters. Farina sold the most products, appeared in the most episodes, and even had a song written for him. Fusco discovered that Farina’s indeterminate gender confused many viewers, but they were also intrigued and fascinated.
“For white Americans at the time, it was easy to fantasize about and project onto a black child, especially if that black child looked like he was never going to grow up to be a man,” Fusco said.
Fusco found that when Hoskins aged, and his gender was more defined for the audience, he was cut from the show. Hoskins was only 11 years old before he aged out of the character of Farina because he was no longer “cute.” Since Fusco began researching, white police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man in Ferguson, Missouri. Fusco said that Wilson’s description of his attempt to restrain Brown, described as feeling “like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” motivated her research.
“I’m proud that this article was chosen because it matters a lot to me to be able to say something about how white culture might seem to appreciate black entertainment, but at the same time doesn’t seem to fully accept the human behind the character,” Fusco said. “That to me, and especially when I think about childhood and who gets to count as a child, that’s something that I care a lot about and I’m very invested in now, as well as in my historical time period.”
Fusco is currently working on a book titled Cruel Modernism: Celebrity, Identification and Antipathy in U.S. Cinema, 1920-1940, which argues that marginal cases of celebrity are crucial for understanding both how stardom is constructed and also how certain identity groups are able to make only partial claims on the privileges that come with such spectacular subjectivity.