Tag Archives: books

How “Cheap Amusements” helped change women’s gender identity

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The search for a “good time” is nothing new. Americans (all humans really, but for this post’s purpose we’ll be precise) across the centuries have sought a fun escape from the humdrum of everyday life. Historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, folklorists and sociologists have all looked at what drives us to do what we do.

Again, nothing new here.

But studying people’s pursuit of that fun and, in particular, studying how it changed American culture? That’s something else entirely, and it’s what Kathy Peiss does in Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York, an engaging and enlightening look at the young wage-labor working women during the latter half of the Progressive era. She uses popular culture history, feminist thought and women’s labor history to show the emergence of leisure culture among young white (European immigrant and Anglo-American) working-class women. These women, she argues, were actively involved in reconstructing cultural notions of gender, as well as heterosocial versus homosocial interaction. She also shows that the “reorientation of American culture” began not with the “elite 400,” but with the single working-class women in urban centres.

Working-class women’s leisure choices re/constructed gender identities and helped to mostly destroy the cult of “true womanhood.” Commercial dance halls, for example, often offered far less regulation and more heterosocial behavior than their middle-class counterparts; they also had lower admission and hatcheck prices for unescorted women. This served as inducement to attend dances without an escort or companion. These young working-class women rejected the social patterns of the previous generation. They flouted middle-class expectations of respectable behavior and domesticity. Instead, Peiss argues, they indulged in a world that promoted pleasure and enjoyment.

However, their choices also lead to their commodification and the commodification of women’s sexuality in general. Because many of these women were economically dependent upon “gentlemen friends” for part of the entertainment, an unbalanced scenario of “treating” developed. Treating could be anything from buying a woman a drink to helping out with her rent, depending on the extent of the relationship, and a certain amount of reciprocity was implicit. These young women’s casual contact with male strangers and wild and carefree dancing had shattered Victorian notions of decorum and propriety, but their flashy dress and those relaxed attitudes, combined with treating, blurred the lines between respectability and prostitution. Sensuality and sexuality (especially women’s sexuality) became something that could be bought and purchased legitimately.

Rather than “trickling down,” this new socially proscribed female gender-identity moved outwards to embrace others of the working class at the same time it moved up into the middle class and elite. Peiss posits this heterosociality and relaxed deportment became accepted behavior via commercialized entertainment, which began to spread the idea to the population at large through movies, nickelodeons and tamer versions of the large commercial dance halls. Modes of dress and interactions between the sexes were circulated through commercial entertainment, and previously unacceptable behavior gained acceptability among the middle-class. And all this spread so rapidly and thoroughly that middle-class moral reformers — who may or may not have been genuinely concerned with the working woman’s plight — were forced to dilute their message of cross-class sisterhood to maintain relations with working-class women. This weakened an ideology already being challenged by more liberal thinkers.

Was this all part of a larger cultural transformation? Yes. Peiss’ point, however, is that the reshaping of women’s gender-identity and its prohibitions were due in large part due to the young urban working-class women in the early twentieth century. By exploring the genesis of commercialized entertainment, as well as early twentieth century women’s labor history, this study neatly shows how the two were intertwined and how the middle-class was already changing. While a more in-depth look at the differences in immigrant/second generation and multi-generation American women would be beneficial, the connections Peiss draws between women’s wage-labor, leisure time and commercial amusements cannot be easily dismissed.

Female Monsters and “Bastard Out of Carolina”

The idea of the monstrous female is a pervasive, but relatively recent concept. It’s really only since the days of the conquering, semi-nomadic Indo-European warriors that the female form has been perceived as a monster. The wonder and beauty of reproduction, revered as sacred by many early civilizations, became twisted and seen as deviating from a male norm. From this women became deviant beings capable of hiding things, of being two (or possibly more) people at once, of being recombined. Thus was born the female monster, twisting pre-existing myths into distorted mirror images that have left their mark on our culture well into the twenty-first century.

Bastard Out of Carolina

… is a semi-autobiographical novel set in Greenville, South Carolina. It is narrated by Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright, and examines the expectations of gender and mother-child relationships; it also explores how those roles and relationships evolve and conflict. Class, race, sexuality and gender play out in Bone’s life and in her relationships with others. The obvious primary conflict of the story is between Bone and her mother’s husband, Glen, but the less obvious conflict is between Bone and her mother.

It is also a novel full of monsters. Some are obvious, some are not. Some are male, some female.

Some of the female monsters are archetypes — the monstrous mother, the silent but knowing opposition and the independent woman.

The Monstrous Mother

Anney Boatwright is one the biggest monsters of the novel. She is the mother of two girls and loves them deeply. However, her love for the girls — and especially her oldest, Bone — pales in comparison to the passion she feels for Glen Waddel. This inevitably leads to conflict, in her marriage, with her daughter and within herself.

When Glen beats Bone, Anney rails and screams but never interferes; she even goes as far as to ask Bone “what did you do?” Even when the rest of the Boatwright clan discovers the extent of Bone’s beatings, Anney does very little. She moves out, but then goes back. And after the explosive final encounter between Glen and Bone, she still chooses her lover over her daughter, even after having witnessed him rape the thirteen-year-old. Despite her motherly love, Anney abandons her daughter to leave with her abusive husband, an act many interpret as wholly monstrous. After all, what kind of woman puts her lover above her children? And yet, Anney is not an entirely terrible person; she is, in some ways, as much a victim as her daughter.

The Silent Opposition

Bone represents a completely different type of female monster. The story is told through her eyes, making her silent observer, the one who watches and listens and gathers information in order to draw her own conclusions. While it’s clear she internalizes messages from her family and society, she still manages to keep her own counsel and form her own opinions.

It is likely her knowledgeable silence, as much as anything else, that enrages Glen — he can’t control her mind and he never really knows what she is thinking. This allows her to read Glen, to decide what she thinks of him, regardless of what he does. He fears this ability of hers could be his undoing, which might explain why he seeks to force Bone into the typical female mold. As long as the dangerous ability is loose and uncontrolled, she has the power to destroy Glen … if only within her own mind.

The Independent Woman

Bone’s Aunt Raylene is another woman who does not fit the mold and is partially demonized. Unlike her sisters, Raylene never married or had children, lived in the same house while her brothers and sisters moved around and has always kept her own counsel. In some respects she could be seen as an older version of Bone, but not entirely. She recognizes that she could easily have become Glen had a past relationship continued; Raylene, more than any other character in the novel, actually recognizes a good many things about herself and others.

Her main monstrosity, however, is her independence. She has no need of a man to protect her and she can take care of herself. As readers we respect Raylene, but we also acknowledge that the independent, unattached, child-free woman is a source of confusion to many in our society. Because she does not fit the mold she is Other – and Other easily crosses the line into monstrosity.

The Takeway

Although we can define monster in many ways — disfigured, recombinant and malformed — in the end it all boils down to Other. And as a society, we tend to see Other as monstrous. Despite inclusivity politics and increased understanding, we still find the Other in those who disagree with our politics, religion, lifestyle and sexuality, to name just a few. Too many still fail to see that we are all Other. Everyone on this planet is recombinant, made of many facets and genes; taken that way, we are all monsters.

And if we are all monsters, then perhaps it’s time we reevaluate what a monster really is.

A few thoughts on OKCupid’s “Ethical Slut” test

So. Yesterday morning I took OKCupid’s Ethical Slut test. The test and the results were … interesting. According to the test, I scored 15 sluttiness points and 30 ethics points. This makes me the:

Happy Almost-Slut

“It’s clear that you’re at least a bit sex-positive but you may still have some hang-ups about the whole consensual nonmonogamy thing. Or, maybe you simply prefer to dabble in slutdom. Either way, you just keep treating yourself and others with respect and you can’t go wrong.”

• You scored 15% on Sluttiness, higher than 24% of your peers.
• You scored 30% on Ethics, higher than 97% of your peers.

As I said, this was interesting. My problems with it are thus:

1) I have issues with the word “slut” to begin with. But those are my personal triggers and hangups, not a general slam against the word itself or people who identify using the word.

2) Multiple choice answers are a crap shoot. There were some questions where none of the answers were what I would have done, not even close. It wasn’t even a case of “choose the best answer,” it was more like “choose the only response that would ever be possible in any circumstance.”

Or the questions were so vague it wasn’t funny. I read and reread one question thinking, I don’t have enough information to make a decision. Overthinking? Maybe.

But maybe not.

3) I have not read “The Ethical Slut” so I don’t know how close this test is to what the book argues, but the test seems to equate being sex-positive with being non-monogamous. Ethically non-monogamous, but still. And that I do have a problem with, because it is completely possible to be monogamous or “monogamish” and still be sex-positive. Having a personal preference does not, generally, make a person prejudiced and bigoted or, in this case, sex-negative; how one expresses that preference does.

60 Second Review: Gender and Jim Crow

Most histories are written as “top-down” or “bottom-up.” Glenda Gilmore, however, uses “bottom-up” and “middle-up” in Gender and Jim Crow, a study of middle-class black women in turn-of-the-century North Carolina. In particular, she focuses on Sarah Dudley Pettey, using her to explore the social construction of race and gender as it related to (and was affected by) the politics of white supremacy.

Gilmore’s conclusions, based on her research, are twofold:

1) that the disciplines and subfields into which historians have divided history obscure the way people actually lived, and have actually aided in the burial of black resistance from our collective past, and

2) that if southern history is to be revised to portray a more realistic vision of the past, historians must include and analyze new information about African-Americans and women; understand that race and gender are socially constructed; and reconceptualize notions of what is public and what is private.

The Good

Gilmore’s use of Pettey’s evolving life to argue that both race and gender took on new and different meanings is excellent and very well done. She clearly shows how, for the black middle class, the private was public, that one private decision or action, anything not a carefully considered strategic move, could spell doom for an entire race. The public body politic was inevitably tied to the personal lives of the black middle class, especially after the disfranchisement of black males and the enfranchisement of (white) women.

The Not-So-Bad

(Or, why Gilmore’s chief failing doesn’t make the book a failure)

Gilmore’s one failure is not including true class analysis. However, she does explain how white supremacists — among them Furnifold Simmons, Josephus Daniels and Charles Aycock — used class divisions among whites to promote their disfranchisement rhetoric. The triple whammy of African-American men holding public office (effectively “holding dominion” over white males), rapid industrialization and urbanization, she argues, cemented in their minds the idea that black men rose to prominence only to seek out the white women. This allowed them to portray the black middle class not as progressive, industrious citizens striving for a better life, but as dangerous degenerates who sought to destroy the white race. It also allowed them to politicize working-class whites, destroying any possible biracial class alliance that might have emerged through the Populist Party or among cotton mill workers.

The Takeaway

The “limits of the possible” is the crucial theme of the book. “What is possible?” and “what is not?” are questions she asks throughout the narrative when discussing those who stepped out of the carefully constructed idea of race and/or gender. She also raises the controversial question of how to judge those men and women whose roles were to mitigate circumstances instead of working to correct injustice. In this respect Gilmore is certainly on the “road to Memphis,” following in Jacquelyn Hall’s footsteps in trying to understand the roles southern women and African-Americans played in southern politics in the years before 1960. Most of all, however, she shows that only by studying the “politics of the oppressed” will historians be able to understand the full breadth and scope of southern history.

Whatever Happened to little Adele?

Charlotte Brontë by J.H. Thompson
(Wikimedia Commons)

(or, how Jane Eyre may have gone from being Cinderella to being the Wicked Stepmother)

What happened to little Adele? Did she get her happily ever after? Or did she, like her stepmother before her, become the next generation’s lonely, unwanted “Cinderella”?

At the end of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, all seems well. Jane is reunited with Rochester and they have a son; Diana and Mary Rivers are both married, with families of their own; and St. John Rivers is a devoutly successful missionary in India. However, it is the question of Adele, Rochester’s illegitimate daughter, that remains ambiguous. Despite all the assurances offered the reader in the final chapter, there are lingering doubts. Readers are told Jane needs to devote all her time to Rochester, and thus sent Adele to a “more indulgent” school where her “French defects” were corrected, and that she grew up to be a “docile, good-tempered, and well-principled” young lady.

So Jane was too busy being a wife and mother to her newborn son to continue teaching Adele herself. Understandable. Why, then, did she not simply hire another governess? Why send Adele away? The answer may lie in how Jane sees her past, her journey and, ultimately, herself.

As a child in the home of her Aunt Reed, Jane felt severely out of place and neglected by the only family she knew. She was also a pauper at the mercy of her of her late uncle’s wife. Despite these circumstances, she becomes first a woman capable of earning her own living, then a wealthy heiress and finally the wife of not only the man she loves, but one who is also a member of the landed gentry. Adele could simply be a reminder of a past Jane would rather forget.

Jane may have chosen not to hire another governess because of how she came to be Mrs. Rochester; presumably, the story was still circulating through the regional gossip mill. Another person, especially one who had seen the story unfold, even little Adele, was just too dangerous to keep around. Until she had firmly asserted herself as mistress of Ferndean and Rochester’s wife, Jane did not want in her household any other woman who could become a rival for Rochester’s affection.

There is, however, a darker possibility. The parallels between Jane’s treatment of Adele and Mrs. Reed’s treatment of Jane are eerie. Both Adele and Jane were, for the most part, orphans dependent on relatives for support and neither was responsible for their situation. Adele was very young when she lost her mother, and if Rochester is her father he does not recognize her — but he does bring her to England in an attempt to “put things right.” Similarly, when Jane’s parents died, her uncle took her in as an attempt to mitigate the damage done to her, however indirectly, by her grandparents. Mrs. Reed dealt with Jane by sending her to Lowood Institution; Jane deals with Adele by sending her away. Looked at this way, Adele and Jane’s suffering is not accidental or their fault, but the result of a pattern of neglect within the Rochester and Reed families that was passed on from one generation to the next. Thus Jane’s treatment of Adele is simply and woefully the fulfillment of the Rochester-Reed family legacy.

So, during the course of the novel Jane goes from being the powerless child at the mercy of relatives to being the older relative with power over an orphan, from “Cinderella” to the “wicked stepmother.” Jane may have sent Adele away to school because she had become the very Aunt Reed she feared and disliked as a child.

Searching for Hermione Granger (in art)

Now that all the Harry Potter films have been released, I’ve decided to bring up something that has bothered me since the first film came out. (Well, one of the things that bothers me, at any rate. There are so many to choose from, even for someone who thought the last three books were a ridiculous travesty.)

Emma Watson is a lovely young woman and a good actress. She does a believable job portraying J.K. Rowling’s smart, driven muggleborn witch. The problem is that, despite this, she’s just too pretty to be Hermione Granger. And, with the exception of the first film, her hair is nothing like our favorite bookworm’s.

So where to find Hermione Granger? After giving it some thought, I nixed looking at actresses and started looking at art, specifically nineteenth century to begin with. Eventually I compiled a list of likely candidates. Few are perfect, but most could — with some tweaks — be the bushy-haired bookworm.

La Pia de Tolomei

The first two are by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the 19th century painter, poet and founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The first is La Pia de Tolomei, above, which depicts a young woman sitting in a garden with a sundial and a Bible or catechism book (as opposed to any other book, since there’s a rosary on top of it). The model was Jane Burden Morris, wife of fellow Pre-Raphaelite William Morris; her hair is too red and her eyes green, but otherwise she is very much Hermione – with strong features and “bushy” hair.

Mona Vanna

The second is Monna Vanna. The model was Alexa Wilding; again, the hair color isn’t quite right, but this could otherwise be adult Hermione.

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May

John William Waterhouse’s 1908 Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May could very easily be Hermione. The model’s hair, while pulled back in two section on either side, is clearly of the curly/bushy variety and it’s the right color. She is also not too pretty, but there is something striking about her. Perhaps it’s the roses she’s offering or the admonition of poet Robert Herrick in “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time,” from which the painting’s title is taken.

Most of Waterhouse’s models remain unknown, but given the date of this piece she could be Aline Henderson or possibly Gwendoline Gunn.

A Young Beauty With Flowers In Her Hair

The final image is by Peruvian painter Albert Lynch. A Young Beauty with Flowers in her Hair epitomizes Hermione as she may have looked at the Yule Ball, with bushy hair tamed by Sleekeazy’s Hair Potion.

These are just a few possibilities; I’ll post more later. Meanwhile, have you found Hermione in art?

Images courtesy of Art Renewal Center