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Misogyny, cheap sweets, and daydreams

Some of the most startling expressions of misogyny over the last century have been directed at girls and young women enjoying themselves.

By the 1900s women were reading novels in large quantities. Heavy, three-volume works of fiction were disappearing in favour of single volumes in light bindings: paper covers were beginning to sport colourful, inviting designs. The newer style of volume appealed to wage-earning women who could pop them into their bags to be read on the bus or train, travelling to work. They could also be propped up in bed more easily for night-time reading. Women wanted to read about love, relationships, and romance. Books by Marie Corelli, Charles Garvice, E.M. Hull, and Ethel M. Dell sold extremely well and could also be borrowed from Booklovers’ and Circulating Libraries. The publishing firm of Mills and Boon was established in 1908, although their specialization in romantic novels for women came slightly later, after the First World War. This period also saw the appearance of a number of inexpensive periodicals aimed at working class women, which were dominated by romantic fiction, the most successful of which was Peg’s Paper (1919-1940).

The literary output of romantic story writers was disparaged by critics whose real disgust was directed at their readers. They sneered at the cheap pleasures, the ‘lurid’ and ‘unwholesome’ taste of typists, cooks, and domestic servants: there was particular contempt for what was often labelled ‘the shopgirl’s romance’. ‘Shopgirls’ suggested ‘shopsoiled’. This denigration of popular romance and those who consumed it was riven through with class and gender snobbery and could be vitriolic. At best, readers were accused (by George Orwell, for instance) of living in a fantasy world of cheap sensationalism.

These and similar concerns about women enjoying ‘cheap’ literature contaminated by glamour and eroticism fed into the condemnation of ‘good time girls’ in the 1940s and 1950s. Psychologist Professor Cyril Burt, writing about ‘The Causes of Sex Delinquency in Girls’ in 1926, had insisted that he had seen many young girls become ‘habitual little courtesans simply for the sake of sweets’. Easy pleasure might segue into easy virtue. The language is revealing: too much enjoyment was almost bound to be immoral.

 We might ask what is wrong with daydreams. There is a long history of women being condemned for having them.

A similar tone crept into some critics’ observations of teenage girls’ pleasures in the 1960s. The ‘Teenage Revolution’ saw younger girls exercising increasing clout as consumers through their developing interest in pop music, boy bands, and fan behaviour generally. ‘Beatlemania’ was a phenomenon widely discussed. Some were appalled. In one of the most vicious condemnations of teenage behaviour, journalist Paul Johnson described girl fans as ‘bloated with cheap confectionery and smeared with chain-store make-up’; their ‘sagging mouths and glazed eyes’ revealing a ‘bottomless chasm of vacuity.’

Fan behaviour is no longer new and a number of women academics and journalists have written about their teenage crushes on the Beatles, David Cassidy, and other male heartthrobs of the last century. Common themes are the posters on the bedroom wall, the obsession with the idol’s favourite colours and other preferences, the yearning, the daydreams. Social scientist Barbara Ehrenreich saw Beatlemania as reflecting a new form of self-assertion in young women, an ‘opening salvo in the Sexual Revolution’. Adolescent girls had begun exploring their evolving sexual identities. Sexuality was becoming something to be learned about: no longer a fragile, precious commodity which could only be ‘bartered for by an engagement ring’. Fan behaviour can incorporate friendship and bonding with other women, too, a sharing of daydreams and a trying out of the language of desire. From Billy Fury singing ‘Once Upon a Dream’ in 1962, through David Cassidy‘s album ‘Dreams are Nuthin’ More than Wishes,’ down to the songs of Justin Bieber today, lyrics of songs popular with young women have been saturated with references to day-dreaming about love and romance.

We might ask what is wrong with daydreams. There is a long history of women being condemned for having them. But are daydreams always a form of self-indulgence, of passivity, or escapism? Gloria Steinem once observed that ‘without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning’. Similarly, Slavoj Zizek wrote ‘through fantasy, we learn how to desire’ in his introduction to Jacques Lacan. In the end, the condemnation of women’s pleasures and women’s daydreams as vulgar, cheap, and dangerous probably tells us more about misogyny and a fear of social change than it does about women themselves.

Featured image credit: Daydream, ca. 1905, by Paul Fischer. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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