Categories
Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

Harley Quinn: The Emancipated, Queer Fangirl?

By Elise Sanbach

The newest incarnation of Harley Quinn is presented in the new movie ‘Birds of Prey: And The fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.’ (2020) She is emancipated in that she is finally recognised on the big screen as her own character and free from her abusive relationship with the Joker. However, the emancipation of Harley Quinn has already been celebrated in the comics. She has her own successful best-selling series and a new relationship with Poison Ivy. Harley Quinn has moved from an objectified and abused character in the male gaze to an emancipated, queer fan favourite. This move can be credited to her fans who wrote their own interpretations of Harley Quinn and influenced comic book creators to move their version into the mainstream. However, the extent of this emancipation can be questioned. For example, has Harley fallen to further objectification in queerbaiting and lesbian fetishization in her relationship with Poison Ivy? Moreover, has she been fully liberated from the male gaze? Or is the need for male approval still evident in her comics? This blogpost discusses the extent of Harley Quinn’s emancipation in the comic book world from her origins with the Joker to her recent incarnations and relationship with Poison Ivy. Harley Quinn was introduced as a character in the 1992 animated Batman series as the Joker’s slightly unstable but entirely devoted sidekick. She premiered in the comics in Mad Love (1994) written by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. The Joker did not treat Harley well, often physically or verballing abusing her and even on occasion attempting to kill her. Throughout Mad Love and the comics that followed, Harley still worshipped the Joker despite the abuse. Their relationship was complicated and problematic from the start. Moreover, their relationship relied on heteronormative norms. This means that the only reason we understand them to be a couple is due to the traditional male and female pairing that we are accustomed to seeing.  They are not developed romantically and rarely act in a romantic way toward one another as we would expect a couple to. Heteronormative norms also lead us to dismiss queer relationships that have romantic developments because they are not male and female.

Image accessed from https://www.sideshow.com/geek/match-made-in-hell-the-history-of-harley-quinn-and-the-joker/ 19/05/2020

The above panel from Mad Love highlights the abusive and problematic relationship the Joker and Harley shared. The Joker calls Harley ‘cupcake’ and himself ‘daddy’ as he gently holds her chin. In the next panel however he is holding her threateningly and shouting at her, calling her ‘stupid.’ Harley’s expression is alarmed but not surprised, she accepts his anger and does not fight back.

Furthermore, in the panel below Harley is asked how it felt to be, “so dependent on a man that you’d give up everything for him, gaining nothing in return?” To which Harley replies that it, “felt like a kiss.” She does this because she sees the rose he’s left her on the hospital nightstand. It is important to note that the Joker is the reason she’s in hospital, but she forgives his abuse due to this one romantic gesture of sending the rose. Despite their problematic relationship, the Joker and Harley Quinn were initially a popular couple among some fans. On the other hand, a lot of female fans wanted better for Harley Quinn and they began to support her separately from the Joker. They began to write ‘fanfiction’ about Harley to right the wrongs they believed the comics were guilty of. [1]

Furthermore, in the panel below Harley is asked how it felt to be, “so dependent on a man that you’d give up everything for him, gaining nothing in return?” To which Harley replies that it, “felt like a kiss.” She does this because she sees the rose he’s left her on the hospital nightstand. It is important to note that the Joker is the reason she’s in hospital, but she forgives his abuse due to this one romantic gesture of sending the rose. Despite their problematic relationship, the Joker and Harley Quinn were initially a popular couple among some fans. On the other hand, a lot of female fans wanted better for Harley Quinn and they began to support her separately from the Joker. They began to write ‘fanfiction’ about Harley to right the wrongs they believed the comics were guilty of. [1]

The relationship between comic books and fans has always been unique. By writing fanfiction, fans have the power to shift comic book narratives and influence their favourite characters. However, female fans weren’t always welcomed into the comic book world and therefore their influence has not always been significant. This was exceptionally true of the superhero genre as, “superheroes were, in essence about celebrating masculinity.”[2] Gradually superhero powerhouses such as DC comics started investing more in female characters, creators, and audiences. Now, in 2020, some of the most popular and best-selling superhero characters are female. This has certainly attracted more female fans but the motive for including female characters is debated. Mike Madrid suggests that comics introduce female partners for their male characters for two reasons: sex appeal for male readers and romantic storylines to entice female readers.[3]  Harley, in her origins, certainly encapsulates this description but Madrid’s statement is debatable. Yes, Harley enticed female readers but they also took issue with her portrayal as a sex symbol. Moreover, due to the unique relationship of fans and comics, fangirls were able to engage with the medium and ultimately move her from the male gaze into the female gaze.

Part of this move involved fans “shipping” (imagining/writing two characters together romantically) Harley with another DC character, Poison Ivy. They first meet in the comics in Batman: Harley Quinn, when Harley is found by Ivy under rubble from the Joker’s most recent attempt at killing her. Ivy sympathises with Harley and nurses her back to health.[4] Their relationship was clearly developed in a romantic and caring manner, although through a heteronormative lens they were thought of as just friends. Queer interpretations saw them as more than just friends and fangirls used blogs and fan fiction websites to develop this relationship. Comic creators were seemingly influenced by these interpretations and moved this fan-created relationship into the comics. Just as comic creator’s engaged with feminist theories of the ’70s and ’80s in developing characters like Wonder Woman, now it appears comics are engaging with queer theory and fan culture. Thus, fangirls have moved from adoring consumers to active producers of cultural meanings.[5]  A romantic relationship between Harley and Poison Ivy appeared in several spin-off comics until finally the pair had their first canon kiss in Harley Quinn #25 released in 2017.[6] An image from this comic is shown below.[7]

Picture accessed from https://www.autostraddle.com/drawn-to-comics-harley-quinn-and-poison-ivy-finally-have-their-first-in-canon-kiss-390603/ 12/02/2020.

The significance of this comic and the specific panel are paramount. They represent superhero comic books move from a world dominated by men, masculinity, and heteronormativity to inclusion and celebration of female fans and queer perspectives. However, there are still some issues that arise from this source. For example, both Harley and Ivy are dressed in very tight-fitting costumes. Ivy’s hand is placed on Harley’s bum- a sign of affection with explicit sexual connotations never shown in heteronormative comic couples. Lastly, two male characters border this panel. They are looking at the pair adoringly and approvingly. Harley, although emancipated from the Joker, is still highly sexualised. Moreover, the inclusion of male characters bordering this panel suggests that male approval is still important. Of course, a female character can be both sexualized and emancipated. However, if we consider the motivations for including female characters some questions arise: Has this relationship been included because fangirls are now respected members of the audience? Or are these female characters still performing to appeal to the sexuality of men? It seems that Harley and Ivy could still exist for the male gaze, despite the hard work of fangirls to remove them from that.

On the other hand, this comic was indeed a breakthrough for fans who had been “shipping” this romance and who wanted more queer representations in the mainstream comics. The inclusion of the female and queer audiences is undoubtedly a positive step forward for the superhero comic book world. So perhaps my above analysis is a cynical reading of the comic. However, I argue it is right to be cautious. Comics have been famously under scrutiny of ‘queerbaiting’- when they hint at same-sex relationships but never show them- and engaging with queer theory only to maximize profits. The newest film of Harley Quinn mentioned at the start of this blogpost has been criticised of both. Although this is a step in the right direction more engagement and respect of queer perspectives are needed to fully emancipate Harley from heteronormativity and the male gaze.


[1] Fanfiction is when fans take characters from a certain piece of work and write their own events with them. https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=fanfiction

[2] Hillary L. Chute and Gary Panter. Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere. (First ed. New York, NY: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2017) p.278.

[3] Mike Madrid, The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines. (Ashland, Or. Exterminating Angel Press, 2009) p.57.

[4] Shannon Austin, “Batman’s Female Foes: The Gender War in Gotham City.” The Journal of Popular Culture 48, no. 2 (2015) p.285.

[5] Maguire, Girls, Autobiography, Media. p.107.

[6] Canon meaning in the official story line. https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Canon

[7] Picture accessed from https://www.autostraddle.com/drawn-to-comics-harley-quinn-and-poison-ivy-finally-have-their-first-in-canon-kiss-390603/ 12/02/2020.

Categories
Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

Queer Comics: The Politics of Representation in Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For (1983-2008)

By Sophie Lawson

When Alison Bechdel’s comic strip, ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’ (DTWOF) first appeared in 1983 it was a novel creation. ‘DTWOF’ follows the lives of a friendship group of lesbian women navigating love, friendship and work in an unnamed city in the U.S in the late 1980s. Published in LGBTQ newspapers, and online in its later years, until 2008, it is one of the longest running and one of the most prominent series featuring lesbians in U.S media and print culture.[1] Whilst providing one of the first representations in comic culture of explicit lesbian passion and inter-racial same-sex relationships, Bechdel’s strip also provides a key insight into contemporary political events through a queer and feminist perspective during a period of conservatism under President Reagan in the 1980s.[2]

The production of comic books, generally low-tech and more democratic than mainstream media, has long attracted a traditionally “marginalised” readership, or at least those outside the mainstream norm.[3] Comic books have also long depicted female same-sex attraction and identity, the earliest, and most famous, example being ’Wonder Woman’.[4] Launched in 1941 as part of propaganda for the war effort, she also infamously had traits many linked to lesbianism, coming from an island only inhabited by women and her signature expression being “Suffering Sappho!” – Sappho being a well-known, historic symbol of female same-sex attraction.[5] However, in the wake of second-wave feminism, the Stonewall Rebellion and a growing lesbian liberation movement, lesbian characters started to feature explicitly rather than implicitly in comic book culture.[6] Trina Robbins’ iconic strip ‘Sandy Comes Out’ was featured in the first issue of Wimmen’s Comix in 1972, followed by an array of titles like ‘Come Out Comix’ (1974), ‘Dyke Shorts’ (1978) and ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’(1983).[7] Adrienne Rich’s 1980 essay ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ highlighted the importance of representation of lesbians in texts, namely in academic scholarship, that do not treat lesbian existence as a “marginal” or a less “natural” phenomenon.[8] Similarly, the representation of lesbians in material culture is equally significant in its role in constructing queer identities and histories.  ‘DTWOF’ was not only a product of the lesbian liberation movement of the 1980s but a part of it, grounded in desire for true representation of queer women. As Bechdel herself argues “if people could only see us…how could they help but love us?!”.[9] In Episode 18 of ‘DTWOF’, published in 1987, some of the group are “en route to the march on Washington” when one of the main characters, Mo, overhears a child ask their mother if she was “a boy or a girl?”.[10] Harriet responds to Mo with, “So? You shook up a little kid’s assumptions. It was good for her”, with Clarice adding “…you should try being the first black person one of these corn-fed kids has ever seen”.[11] Reflecting what queer theory and gender theory scholars such as Judith Butler have theorised, Bechdel acknowledges the potential for fluid performances of gender within queer spaces and the need for society to ‘make sense’ of gender in a male/female binary.[12] Moreover, this exemplifies the way in which Bechdel uses humour and the comic genre to challenge stereotypes within the queer community and wider society, such as white-washing of feminist and LGBTQ activism, whilst depicting the everyday challenges queer women have to face, such as being misgendered, challenged or discriminated against in public for their gender, sexuality and race.


A. Bechdel, Dykes to Watch out For Episode 11 ‘On the Road’ (1987): http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/dtwof-archive-episode-18 [accessed 12/02/20]

A. Bechdel, Dykes to Watch out For Episode 18 ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1987): http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/dtwof-archive-episode-11 [accessed 12/02/20].

Whilst having classic attributes of soap-opera like love-triangles and comedy, ‘DTWOF’ is rooted in the representation of lesbians at the forefront of social justice movements for equality, commenting on contemporary political events.[1] Comic book theorists like Darieck Scott and Ramzi Fawaz have highlighted the potential for comics, produced by illustrators like Bechdel, to function as queer and gender histories.[2] In Episode 11 of the first series of ‘DTWOF’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1987), Bechdel addresses the corporatisation and conservatism of Pride, a debate which is still very relevant to date.[3] The group are at a Pride march when Mo challenges the increasingly “conservative” nature of the march, acknowledging the role of the AIDs crisis and Reaganism in detracting from the origins of Pride as an anniversary of the revolutionary Stonewall Riots in 1969, in response to police brutality against LGBTQ people.[4] With only one FDA drug on the market when Reagan left office in 1989, there was outrage in the LGBTQ community with many arguing that he was intentionally preventing drugs from being released.[5] The diversity of marchers in the strip, from AIDs activists to “Lesbian Investment Bankers” provides a unique queer woman’s insight into the divergent agendas, conflicts and struggles within the LGBTQ movement and Pride in this period.[6]

Bechdel’s ‘DTWOF’ highlights contemporary struggles surrounding racial, gender and LGBTQ equality through a contemporary queer woman’s perspective. It challenges stereotypes of lesbianism and womanhood, whilst humorously poking at the state of 1980s America, providing a queer women’s history through comic books.


[1] M.A Abate, K.M Grice, and C.N. Stamp, ‘Introduction: Suffering Sappho!: Lesbian content and queer female characters in comics’, Journal of Lesbian Studies 22/4 (2018) 329-335, 330.

[2] H. Malinowitz, ‘Hot, Throbbing Dykes to Watch Out For’, The Women’s Review of Books 15/2 (1997), 6-7, 6.

[3] D. Scott and R. Fawaz, ‘Introduction: Queer about Comics’, American Literature 90/2 (2018), 197-218, 201.

[4] Abate, et. al, ‘Introduction’, 329.

[5] Ibid, 329-330.

[6] Ibid, 330.

[7] Ibid, 330, Malinowitz, ‘Hot, Throbbing Dykes’, 6.

[8] A. Rich, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980)’, Journal of Women’s History 15/3 (2003), 11-48, 13-14.

[9] J. K Gardiner, ‘Queering Genre: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home’, Contemporary Women’s Writing 5/3 (2001), 188-207, 196.

[10] A. Bechdel, DTWOF ‘On the Road’ (1987): http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/dtwof-archive-episode-18 [accessed 12/02/20]

[11] Ibid.

[12] J. Butler, Gender Trouble (New York, 1990), 6.

[13] Malinowitz, ‘Hot, Throbbing Dykes’, 6.

[14] Scott and Fawaz, ‘Introduction’, 199.

[15] N. Kumar, ‘The Double Edged Sword of Corporate, Commercialised Pride’, Them (June 2019), https://www.them.us/story/corporate-pride [accessed 12/02/20].

[16] Bechdel, DTWOF, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1987): http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/dtwof-archive-episode-11 [accessed 12/02/20].

[17] L. Richert, ‘Reagan, Regulation and the FDA’, Canadian Journal of History 44/3 (2009), 467-487, 469.

[18] Bechdel, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1987): http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/dtwof-archive-episode-11 [accessed 12/02/20].

Categories
Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

Using Arthur Hacker’s Syrinx to Explore Sexual Violence and the Male Gaze

By Milly Coogan

Content warning: Rape and Sexual Violence

Arthur Hacker’s painting of Syrinx – based on the Roman story by Ovid – depicts a woman who has fled from an attempted rape against her. The painting portrays Syrinx as a naked, visibly upset girl, who is attempting to cover her naked body with reeds. But who is she trying to cover herself from? In this blog, the relevance of Syrinx’s attack will be explored along with Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze, in which women in art, are depicted for the heterosexual male’s pleasure. The museum label for the painting says “Syrinx was the daughter of a Greek river god. In order to escape rape by the god Pan she was turned into a reed. The moment of her transformation is shown here. Experiencing the girl’s terror can be uncomfortable: she is desperately trying to hide but her body is exposed for the viewer’s pleasure.”[1]

Arthur Hacker, Syrinx. 1892. Oil on canvas, 193.4 x 61.4 cm. Photo Credit: Manchester Art Gallery.

The nude painting is unique in Western art, as the naked body is hypersexualised in comparison to non-western paintings.[2] Syrinx hangs in a room dedicated to Victorian art. Victorian art is often characterised for its hyper-realisation, biblical or classical themes and passive, female nudes. Like Syrinx, the majority of the paintings hanging in the same room feature female nudes. The prevalence of female nudity in art is centre to this exploration of the male gaze in art because, as Laura Mulvey states, the pleasure of looking in the art world is divided between the active male and the passive female.[3] Hacker’s painting is interesting when exploring this topic, because the male gaze is set upon a visibly young woman who has experienced trauma. Moreover, the trauma is continuous as the painting captures Syrinx attempting to hide from the viewer’s gaze. The position of the woman in the painting shows explicit discomfort. The museum label highlights the paradox between Syrinx’s position; her arms are raised in attempt to cover herself, yet the same position exposes her to the viewer.  According to Nichols, this tension is crucial for feminist analysis of the visual representations of rape and sexual violence.[4] This is even more relevant when observing that in the original story, Syrinx is fully clothed.

Therefore, it must be questioned why Arthur Hacker painted this subject, in a way that exposed Syrinx at her most vulnerable. In the Victorian era, it was commonly agreed that respectable women did not have sexual drives, moreover, female sexuality fell into two categories: the pure and the fallen.[5] Nichols emphasises this by arguing that Hacker’s Syrinx depicted the “vision of the ‘ideal’ ‘victim.’”[6] In Victorian culture, Syrinx was attractive because she escaped. By fleeing from the attacker, Syrinx had maintained her ‘purity.’ Yet despite the ordeal that Syrinx had fled from, she is captured in an eternal state of the receiving end of voyeurism. The viewer gains pleasure by viewing Syrinx’s body. This highlights further Mulvey’s statement that the female is passive. John Berger explains this slightly by arguing that “The protagonist is never painted… it is for him that the figures have assumed their nudity.”[7]  However, by stating that the figures “assumed their nudity” places more agency on the model than the painting grants them; “assumed” suggests that the female model chooses to be in such a position, rather than the male artist demands it for his art, for the male gaze.

Mieke Bal claims that rape cannot be visualised because “rape makes the victim invisible.”[8] This is evident in Hacker’s work even though the attack is not evident in the painting itself and could only be identified by the museum label.  The attack on Syrinx is still relevant as it is the precursor for Syrinx’s vulnerable position, which is depicted for the viewer’s pleasure.  This is supported further by Robin Sheets who claimed that women are featured in art only to be silenced and objectified in order for a man to project his fantasies.[9] In this situation, it can be argued that Hacker’s depiction of Syrinx was not an exploration of Syrinx’s experience or feelings. Rather it is possible that Syrinx’s vulnerability was a fantasy of Hacker’s, or at least, her situation was worth sexualising for the male gaze.

A personal photo taken of Syrinx in Manchester Art Gallery, 6th June 2019.

Thus, it seems that the next question is how do galleries address this problem? In recent years, Manchester Art Gallery came under fire for temporarily removing a painting. John Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs was taken off the walls to stir debate about how art is displayed and interpreted in galleries. The backlash was quite immense; members of the public were invited to leave their opinion on post-it notes, on the space where the painting once hung. Many members of the public and considered the removal and act of censorship, whilst others praised the gallery for removing a painting that depicted visibly young, naked women. The act revealed the division in the art world surrounding nudity and the position of women in art, both on canvas and behind the paintbrush. Arthur Hacker’s Syrinx epitomises both the sexual views and gender roles of the Victorian era, as well as the issue of the male gaze in art. The depiction of a woman fleeing rape in a position of vulnerability for the viewer’s pleasure, highlights a fundamental problem in the art world: if the purpose of art is for pleasure, yet the male gaze removes the woman’s agency (especially a woman fleeing sexual violence), should it hang in a public gallery?


[1] Kate Nichols, ‘Arthur Hacker’s Syrinx (1892): Paint, Classics and the Culture of Rape’, Feminist Theory (2016), 17:1, pp. 107-108. Kate Nichols, ‘Arthur Hacker’s Syrinx (1892): Paint, Classics and the Culture of Rape’, Feminist Theory (2016), 17:1, pp. 107-108.

[2] John Berger, Ways of Seeing, (London: Penguin, 1972) p. 53.

[3] Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1 October 1975), Screen, 16:3, pp. 6–18.

[4] Nichols, ‘Arthur Hacker’s Syrinx’, p. 108.

[5] Lynn Nead, ‘The Magdalen in Modern Times: The Mythology of the Fallen Woman in Pre-Raphaelite Painting’, Oxford Art Journal (1984), 7:1, pp. 26-37.

[6] Nichols, ‘Arthur Hacker’s Syrinx’, p. 17.

[7] Berger, Ways of Seeing, p. 54.

[8] Mieke Bal, Reading ‘Rembrandt’: Beyond the World-Image Opposition, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) in Nichols, ‘Arthur Hacker’s Syrinx’, p. 109.

[9] Robin Sheets, ‘Pornography and Art: The Case of Jenny’, Critical Enquiry (1988), 14:2, pp. 315-334 in Merve Sari, ‘Remembering Jenny: Representation of the Fallen Woman Through Male Gaze in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Jenny’’, Beşeri Bilimler Sayısı (2018), 16:3, p. 365.


Categories
Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

The Debaucherous Duchess: Georgiana Cavendish and the Satirical Gaze

By Claire Hammond @thehistoryreview


Figure 1 ‘The MISCARRIAGE or his GRACE stopping the SUPPLIES’, Thomas Rowlandson, 1788 ©The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

The late-Georgian era was the age of satire, caricature and ridicule.[1] The study of visual satire is a relatively new field and allows historians to approach different themes with fresh eyes. In approaching ‘gendered objects / gendered subjects’, the exploration of visual satire opens up discussions around the depiction and representation of women in print, women’s political agency, and the ‘satirical gaze’.[2] However as with any historical source, analysing visual satire has its challenges. Demonstrating the difficulty of ‘reading’ graphic satire, James Baker outlined potential readings of Isaac Cruickshank’s print of Thomas Paine and concluded (with a thinly veiled glee); ‘To this day I have no idea which reading I prefer, though I suspect Cruikshank and his publisher meant for all three readings to be possible simultaneously.’[3]

Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (b. 1757 – d. 1806) was a woman of famed beauty, kindness and personal charm. Sadly, her life was blighted by addiction and what modern historians would term as mental health problems.[4] A devoted Whig, she entered the vicious world of personal political canvassing in the 1784 Westminster election in support of one Charles Fox. Freed from editorial restrictions in 1774, artists and authors were now more freely able to ridicule public figures, and Georgiana quickly became a prime target.[5] Through looking at one satirical print in particular, Thomas Rowlandson’s ‘The MISCARRIAGE or his GRACE stopping the SUPPLIES’ (Figure 1) we can see how women were satirised by artists to make political and social statements, often depicting them in the virgin / whore binary. When Georgiana ventured from her carriage into the streets of Westminster during the election campaign, she sparked an explosion in prints that sought to make comment on her. The most infamous are those that mock and ridicule, using her image to satirise women and speak to wider concerns about women in ‘men’s affairs’. [6] Her body became the metaphorical battleground of political satire.

‘Ladies who interest themselves so much in the case of elections, are perhaps too ignorant to know that they meddle with what does not concern them…’

The Morning Post, 8 April 1784.[7]

In Rowlandson’s print, Georgiana is shocked and open-mouthed in the arms of a caricatured Charles Fox. Her dress exposes her ankles and she is ‘miscarrying’ money as the bubble next to it reads ‘For Tardy Voters’. The other figure in the print is the 5th Duke of Devonshire, Georgiana’s husband, who is pulling up a pair of breeches. His speech bubble reads, ‘I’d not be drained of my last farthing, therefore my Lady, henceforth I will wear the breeches’. The print alludes to Georgiana’s known gambling problems, suggesting she is frivolous and ruining the Cavendish estate. The Duke, cuckholded, tries to regain dominance and in ‘wear the trousers’. In the background are two framed pictures. The left-hand image shows the Duke whipping a horse back into its stable, with the Cavendish Motto ‘CAVENDO TUTU’ (Safe Through Caution’) underneath. The right-hand image shows Georgiana and Charles fox carrying a monstrous bunch of grapes between them, the motto now inverted. There is a lot of symbolic and contemporary imagery to untangle, but the visual connection between Rowlandson’s caption ‘The MISCARRIAGE’ and the depiction of money flooding out from beneath her dress is a disturbing yet inescapable connection. She is being shown as literally miscarrying money.

Grain
Figure 2 ‘A certain Duchess kissing old swelter-in-grease the Butcher for his Vote’ (1784) © Trustees of the British Museum, London

Georgiana’s political convictions were troubling to her critics. If her support of Fox was due to a personal relationship, it was inappropriate and could indicate that she was having a sexual affair with Fox. Indeed, many of the contemporary prints allude to such an affair, or at least depict her in some form of intimacy with a man (Figure 2).[8] Also in this print we see themes of gender inversion appearing again, the last part of the caption reading ‘The Women Wear Breeches & the Men Petticoats’. This speaks to the deep concerns Georgians had over gender roles and the dangers of gender inversion. In contrast, if it was not a personal connection, it meant that Georgiana was intellectually involved in state politics, a distinctly masculine occupation. It was a Catch-22 situation. In either case, the Duchess was transgressing an appropriate feminine role and becoming ‘a woman of the people’.[9] Fox’s moniker, ‘man of the people’, could not translate onto Georgiana. She could not be a ‘woman of the people’ without being also a prostitute, who pimped herself out for votes.[10]

There seemed to be no middle ground between

the PITTIE WHORE and the FOXITE VIRGIN’[11]

Of particular emphasis in Rowlandson’s print are the allusions to miscarriage, and by extension, pregnancy, birth and motherhood in general. The late-Georgian period was a time of increasing anxiety of the fecundity of the population. As a known gambling addict, Georgiana was the locus for fears around ‘the impotent nobility’; the effects of an urban and luxurious lifestyle on women’s ability to bear and raise children.[12] She was a direct contrast to the often bawdily celebrated stereotypes of the milkmaid and the ploughmen, who were satirised as ‘wholesome, natural and sexually vigorous’.[13] Not only then, is Georgiana portrayed as a political prostitute, but Rowlandson’s print makes to portray her as a failed wife and mother. He employs the physically female trauma of miscarriage, of which Georgiana sadly suffered many, to make a satirical statement on society and politics. There are many ‘readings’ of Rowlandson’s print, and many other depictions of Georgiana to be studied more in-depth.


[1] Bullard, Paddy, ed. The Oxford Handbook of 18th Century British Satire, p. 1.

[2] McCreery, C. The Satirical Gaze: Prints of Women in Late-Eighteenth Century Women (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), p. 2.

[3] James Baker, The Business of Satirical Prints in Late-Georgian England, p. v.

[4] For a biography of Georgiana’s life, see; Foreman, Amanda. Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire (London: Harper Collins, 2008)

[5] Foreman, p. 144.

[6] Foreman, p. 44.

[7] Gleeson, Janet. An Aristocratic Affair. (London: Bantam Press, 2006), p. 105.

[8] McCreery, p. 190.

[9] Rauser, Amelia, The Butcher-Kissing Duchess, of Devonshire: Between Caricature and Allegory in 1784’ Eighteenth-Century Studies 36:1, Contested Exhibitions (2002), p 30.

[10] McCreery, p. 190.

[11] Rauser, p. 39.

[12]Ganev, Robin, ‘Milkmaids, Ploughmen and Sex in 18th Century Britain’ Journal of the History of Sexuality, Volume 16, No 1 (2007), pp. 40 – 67.

[13] Ganev, Milkmaid and ploughmen, p. 42.

Categories
Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

The 1970s pubic wars: who was it for?

By Prue Watson


Photo credit: Peterson, Jim, Playboy 50 Years, The Photographs,
(San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2003), p.31

To modern eyes, this image may not seem controversial, but when Playboy magazine published thisimage of Liv Lindeland showing a wisp of pubic hair in their Miss January centrefold in 1971, it was viewed as radical because pubic hair had rarely been shown before.[1]

Hugh Hefner, owner of Playboy, published the image in retaliation to a picture that Bob Guccione presented of Ada Grootenboer in Penthouse magazine who too was exposing pubic hair. Penthouse was Playboy’s main competition. Guccione had launched Penthouse to take on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy because it was a lucrative market both in wealth and masculine status. ‘We’re going rabbit-hunting,’ claimed Bob Guccione when Penthouse magazine launched in the UK in 1965.[2]

Over the next four years, the battle over which tycoon was most powerful was fought over who would show pubic hair, and how much. It was dubbed the ‘pubic wars’. But in a period of sexual liberation and a fight for women’s liberation more specifically, was the ‘war’ for women or men?

At this time, the women’s liberation movement was concerned with how to represent sex as well as how to have it; they claimed to be ‘sex-positivists’.[3] Pornography, however, was divisive. Some women claimed pornography, and PR stunts like the pubic wars, anti-feminist, while others believed that feminism was about freedom and choice and, as a result, women were free to look at and be in pornography if they chose to.[4] Women were trying to claim their bodies back from patriarchal structures that had constrained them by doing things like growing their bodily hair, and some feminists believed that women should be free to expose pubic hair, even in pornography magazines.[5]

In The Female Eunuch, first published in 1970, Germaine Greer wrote about her disapproval of how women were encouraged to dislike their pubic hair so as to seem ‘sexless or infantile’.[6] And in the Joy of Sex, women were actively encouraged to stop removing pubic hair so that they could enjoy the natural body and its sexuality.[7] In images such as this one, Hefner was, he argued, shattering the sexual repression that had they had experienced before and was helping to free women from their bodies and domesticity.[8] So what was wrong with Lindeland being showcased like this?

Feminists claimed that the women in pornographic magazines more generally were being used as ornamental objects and were a commodity to sell both sexual liberation and their magazines.[9] Guccione himself said that he was ‘objectifying women in every body part save for her tonsils.’[10] For some factions of the feminist movement, such as the Women Against Pornography group which included activists such as Susan Brownmiller, Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan, this was a capitalist venture not actual liberation at all.[11] R.W. Connell’s theory of hegemonic masculinity – the cultural domination of one form of masculinity over other masculinities and women – may be useful here.[12] For the magazine owners’, was a pubic war a way of them maintaining a hegemonic position among men which in turn helped to perpetuate the subordination of women?

Guccione could see that Hefner was creating a new kind of masculinity that served him well: the suave gent who appreciated the finer things in life and someone who could also enjoy the thrills that sexual liberation brought. Both Hefner and Guccione enjoyed parties and a status among the wealthy and famous that helped cement this.[13]

Moreover, Penthouse’s sales grew by 10 times to 2.2 million from when it launched to September 1972 and it is argued that this growth was down to the pubic wars.[14] While this was still significantly lower than Playboy’s circulation, Hefner did not hold back; he could see how lucrative it was. Both magazines were showing more pubic hair and poses became raunchier. However, the war came to a close in 1975 when Playboy launched a cover showing a woman masturbating which caused outrage among its advertisers. With a $40 million ad revenue, Hefner decided to pull the plug and revert back to its ‘refined’ images and covers.[15] The pubic wars had however helped raise the profile of both men and their magazines, which further allowed them to build on and fulfil their hegemonic status and bank accounts. This had little to do with equality between men and women, and little to do with women’s agency.

Hefner was honest about the fact that he was not trying to achieve equality;[16] he openly told readers in his first issue that he enjoyed being with men more in a social and mental capacity. He wanted his girls to be faithful, affectionate, silent and clean.[17] It was an unapologetic double standard.

Yet, Guccione and Hefner claimed the pubic wars was a feminist act. They used women’s pubic hair to argue that they were helping women reclaim their body by re-feminising women’s hair. The hairy feminist was not supposed to be feminine, attractive or fun.[18] In this image of Lindeland, we see an ideal woman for 1971: long, well-kept hair, a thin body, clear skin, traditionally beautiful and bar her pubis, she’s hairless. For Hefner and Guccione, the pubic wars could help to belittle the women in the anti-pornography feminist movement who were trying to reclaim the body and continue to subordinate women in their magazines by objectifying them.

But what about Lindeland – as well as the many other women pictured during the ‘war’ – did she have choice and freedom or was she being oppressed? I’m not sure. I have found little evidence from her perspective about her involvement. While it is not without reason that she went into this with agency, it is telling that there is little about the pubic wars from her point of view, particularly since Hefner claimed this war was a feminist act.

What one may deduce is that both Hefner and Guccione felt as though they were in charge. It is striking that while women were trying to reclaim the body, Lindeland, alongside women in Playboy and Penthouse, were actually given little agency. Guccione said of pubic hair ‘Some girls have a … nice, well-shaped, well-defined pubis. Some girls have straggly hair and long hair. Sometimes I have to take scissors and cut it and shape it myself.’[19] In essence, it could be interpreted that female attractiveness implicitly and explicitly revolved around attracting men for men’s own benefit; pubic hair was just a tool. Women’s agency, and thus equality, didn’t matter to them. The pubic war was, after all, a man’s war.


[1] [1] Playboy: Entertainment For Men, January 1971, pp36-39.

[2] Tom Lamont, ‘Bob Guccione’s journey from birthday card to birthday suit’ The Guardian, <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/oct/24/pornography-penthouse-bob-guccione> [Accessed 10 February 2020] (para 1).

[3] Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs Women and The Rise of Raunch Culture, (London: Simon & Schuster UK, 2005) p.63.

[4] Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, pp.62-63.

[5] Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, pp.64-68.

[6] Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch, (London: Harper Perennial, 2006) p.43.

[7] Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, The Last Taboo, Women and Body Hair, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006) p.19.

[8] Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, p.58.

[9] iBid pp.41-2.

[10] Lamont, ‘Bob Guccione’s journey’ The Guardian, <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/oct/24/pornography-penthouse-bob-guccione> [Accessed 10 February 2020] (para 6).

[11] Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, p.60.

[12] Raewyn Connell, The Social Organisation of Masculinity, (Cambridge: Polity, 2005), pp.72-77.

[13]  Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs, p.61.

[14] Patty Farmer, ‘Stiff Competition’, Playboy, (2019) <https://www.playboy.com/read/stiff-competition> [Accessed 10 February 2020] (para 10).

[15] Farmer, ‘Stiff Competition’ <https://www.playboy.com/read/stiff-competition> [Accessed 10 February 2020] (para 11).

[16] iBid pp.58-9.

[17] Anthony Haden-Guest, ‘Hugh Hefner: Inside ‘Playboy’ and the Race to Show More in America’s Magazines’ Rolling Stone Magazine, (1973), <https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/hugh-hefner-inside-playboy-and-the-race-to-show-more-in-americas-magazines-201936/ [Accessed 10 February 2020].

[18] Lesnik-Oberstein, The Last Taboo,p.3.

[19] Haden-Guest, ‘Inside Playboy’, <https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/hugh-hefner-inside-playboy-and-the-race-to-show-more-in-americas-magazines-201936/ [Accessed 10 February 2020].

Categories
Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

Representations of Agency in Medical Contraceptive Training

By Bethan Holt

International Planned Parenthood Federation – Contraceptive Training Films: Intrauterine Devices (1989)

‘The intrauterine device, commonly called the IUD, is one of the most widely used methods of reversible contraception. It has many advantages…’ (00:33).[1]

Figure 1: Screen capture from Intrauterine Devices (IPPF, 1989).

This 1989 film, produced by North South Productions for International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), was made to inform medical practitioners and providers of contraception about intrauterine devices (IUDs). The twenty-five minute video informs viewers about different types of IUDs, and where, when and how they should be used.

The film is significant because it offers some insight into the approaches to contraception and family planning of professional medicine, and those of IPPF, a mainstream international family planning organisation. In this short review, I will focus on what the film reveals about the attitude of these groups – professional medicine and IPPF –  towards women’s agency in birth control.

In the 1980s, the IUD had a mixed reputation. Although feminists and women’s health activists initially welcomed the IUD (concerns over the safety of the oral hormonal contraceptive pill rose in the late 1960s), by the mid-1970s, significant health problems had arisen as a result of IUD use. One particular kind of IUD, the Dalkon Shield, had caused thousands of women to experience infections, of whom at least fifteen died.[2] Chikako Takeshita, a feminist scholar of science and technology studies, described the IUD in the 1980s as ‘a symbol of health disaster for women.’[3]

Furthermore, some contemporary feminist critics were concerned about the coercive capacity of the IUD. Notably, Andrea Tone’s 1999 article noted the ways population control advocates envisioned the IUD as a device that could be used on poor and uneducated women to prevent them from reproducing.[4] The IUD could also be used by force in contexts where governments sought tight control over reproduction. One of the most stark examples of this was during China’s one-child policy in the 1980s. After giving birth to their first child, every woman was required to be inserted with a tamper-resistant IUD.[5]

These are clear and perhaps even shocking examples of how IUDs could be enforced in ways which denied or undermined women’s agency over their bodies and fertility. The IPPF film offers an example of more subtle ways women were not given full control over their fertility choices.

The film emphasises the importance of women being given information about the IUD alongside information about other contraceptive methods in order for them to make an ‘informed’ and ‘free’ choice (07:22). At the same time, the film clearly constructs a profile for the ideal IUD user. In one depiction of an interaction between a doctor and patient (fig. 2), the age and parental status of the potential IUD user are shown to be important factors when determining whether the woman is an appropriate candidate for the IUD. Likewise, being in a monogamous sexual relationship, most likely indicated by marriage, is considered an important factor for the ideal candidate for IUD use. As such, the ideal candidate for an IUD is constructed as a married woman with children.

Figure 2: Screen capture from Intrauterine Devices (IPPF, 1989)

            The film states that women who have not had children are not suitable candidates for the IUD there is a risk it may cause infertility. This approach to the IUD reveals the assumptions made by medical professionals and birth control providers about risk. For women without children, the risk of infertility outweighs the need to prevent conception. For women with children, the risk of an unplanned pregnancy is more severe than that of infertility. Writing in the same decade this film was produced, Hilary Thomas’ work on the medicalisation and professionalisation of contraception noted that the need to maintain fertility is usually assumed by medical professionals rather than discussed with the patient.[6] The possibility that some women may never want to become pregnant is therefore not considered, restricting childless women’s reproductive choices to those that preserve their fertility.

Thomas’ critique of the ways the medical profession approached birth control highlighted a contradiction. At the same time as asserting the importance of all methods of contraception being clearly explained to the patient in order for them to choose the method (as we see in the film), medical discourses construct ideal types of patients, matching them with appropriate methods.[7] What is considered appropriate is not only based on physiological or medical factors – for instance the film states that a woman with an existing pelvic infection should not have the IUD inserted – but also social and cultural factors.[8] In this case, the claim that childless women are not suitable for using the IUD because of the risk of infertility is based on a socially/culturally constructed expectation that all women must one day have children.

The way the film deals with women’s pain is also telling.  In cases where an IUD user is unhappy with their IUD, the film informs viewers of the ‘fine balance between reassuring her and suggesting she should give the device more time, and removing the IUD’ (22:57). At face value this seems a fairly innocuous statement. However if we consider feminist critiques of Western medical practices, this statement takes on different meanings. Underlying these issues is a fundamental lack of regard given to women’s self-reporting of pain. Considering this, the statement in the film can be understood as subtly urging medical professionals to encourage women to keep their IUDs despite any pain or discomfort they may feel. This brings into question the extent to which patients can consent to having an IUD inserted if the reversible nature of consent is denied, or at least discouraged.

The IPPF film expresses ambivalence towards women’s agency when making reproductive decisions. Analysing it with the question of agency in mind reminds us of the importance of thinking critically about the ways professional medical discourses can affirm gendered social and cultural gender expectations, setting out structures within which people can make reproductive decisions.


[1] Time stamps and images throughout are from: ‘Contraceptive Training Films: Intrauterine Devices’ (1989) <https://ia800109.us.archive.org/29/items/IUD_IPPF/IUD%20IPPF.mp4> [accessed 10 February 2020].

[2] Chikako Takeshita, The Global Biopolitics of the IUD: How Science Constructs Contraceptive Users and Women’s Bodies (Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 2012), p.6.

[3] Takeshita, Global Biopolitics of the IUD, p.6.

[4] Takeshita, Global Biopolitics of the IUD, p.6; Andrea Tone, ‘Violence by Design: Contraceptive Technology and the Invasion of the Female Body’, in Michael Bellesiles ed., Lethal Imagination: Violence and Brutality in American History (New York University Press, 1999).

[5] Takeshita, Global Biopolitics of the IUD, p.70.

[6] Hilary Thomas, ‘The Medical Construction of the Contraceptive Career’, in Hilary Homans (ed.) The Sexual Politics of Reproduction (Gower Publishing Company, 1985), p.54.

[7] Thomas, ‘Medical Construction’, p.62.

[8] Thomas, ‘Medical Construction’, p.63.

Categories
Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

Whose body is it anyway? Medicinal views of the female body

By Ella MacColl

A Nullip Dalkon Shield, a standard Dalkon Shield and a braun Dalkon Shield with copper.
Courtesy of  Museum of Abortion and Contraception

Looking disturbingly (and sadly presciently) like devices of torture, the Dalkon Shield contraceptive came onto the scene in 1971 and fast became the most popular intrauterine device (IUD) on the US market.[1] Hailed as the ‘the IUD that’s changing current thinking about contraceptives’, it was inserted into the patient’s uterus by the physician and, according to adverts, was ‘anatomically engineered’ for optimum fit.[2] Now a woman could ‘throw away her calendars, charts, and dispensers,’ as she would be protected 24 hours a day from pregnancy.[3] However, this success was to be short-lived, as reports soon emerged of miscarriages, infertility, serious infections and even deaths from women fitted with these IUDs.

These were tragic outcomes for women like Meryl Gordon, who believed they were making a health-conscious decision and they stand in stark contrast to the advertisements for the device that hailed it as safe, comfortable and highly effective. Whilst historians like Kathryn Goldberg assert that the creators of this device had not meant to harm women,[4] looking at one advertisement published in medical journals in 1971 allows us to explore how women were objectified and patronised through medical science by reducing them to their biological function.

The company who sold the IUD, A.H. Robins, published an advertisement in medical journals – such as Obstetrics and Gynaecology[5] – in 1972 called ‘A progress report: The IUD that’s changing current thinking about contraceptives’.[6] This 8-page booklet gave physicians an overview of the IUD’s ‘ingenious’ design, quoted clinical tests, explained who it was for and gave practical instructions on insertion. What stands out in this advert is the lack of any patient involvement or choice in whether she wanted this method of contraception. Instead, it addresses the physician alone and how he might choose to treat his patients. The advert opens up by saying the IUD was introduced to the medical profession with more and more doctors (and their patients) being concerned about the side-effects of the pill and continues to assure that compared to other IUDs, the Dalkon Shield ‘is preferred by many physicians’. The woman receiving the IUD is rendered a passive recipient of the device, rather than an independent agent making an active choice about what is right for her body.

One scholar, Chikako Takeshita uncovered this as a recurrent theme in the development of IUDs, whereby women were rendered ‘passive recipients of contraceptive technologies’ rather than agential decision-makers.[7]  Doctors are cast in a paternalistic role throughout this booklet, encouraging them to keep up with modernity and look out for the woman who ‘wants to be liberated from troublesome birth control devices’. Furthermore, an emphasis was placed on its suitability for women who might be too disorganized to use other forms of contraception. Similarly, it is interesting that, instead of engaging in direct eye contact, all the women in the advert are looking away from the reader. Studies of visual design suggest this ‘allows the viewer to scrutinize the represented characters as though they were specimens in a display case’.[8] The clear message to the doctor is that these women are passive objects, in need of help.

Whilst this paternalistic tone is a notable element, what is also interesting is how women are reduced to their biological functions, leaving even less room for agency. The producer of the pamphlet, A.H. Robins explains how the IUD is ‘anatomically engineered for optimum uterine placement, fit, tolerance, and retention’ as it was designed based on a standardised uterus, allowing for easy, comfortable and ‘rational’ insertion. Individual women’s bodies were sidestepped in order to universalize women and relocate ‘individual women’s agency to the reproductive organ’.[9] Stressing its ‘ingenious’ design meant that any complications that arose could potentially be attributed to the individual woman, whose uterus did not conform to this anatomically engineered device, rather than the device itself – in other words, the woman was at fault, not the Dalkon Shield. The advert goes on to point out, ‘The need for removal and/or replacement of the Dalkon Shield is dictated largely by patient tolerance’, locating intolerance at the patient level. This is particularly pertinent, given several testimonies from women who had the IUD inserted said that their physicians failed to acknowledge their discomfort both during insertion and the months that followed.[10] This is also echoed in court proceedings for women taking legal action against A.H. Robins, whereby the company attempted to discredit women’s painful stories by framing them as emotional, subjective and irrational.[11] The pain these women experienced could, therefore, be located as psychological instead of physical – given the ergonomic design of the IUD – making it easier to dismiss.

The pathologising of women and their bodies has a long and complicated history; feminist historians have detailed, at length, interactions between women and the medical field which have left women reduced to their composite parts.[12] Likewise, the language, discourses and images used in this advert work to dismiss women’s subjectivity in a medical setting. It shows a disorganised woman, in need of help, with a doctor who can liberate her with modern technology. The stories told through this advertisement add much to the unfortunate history of the Dalkon Shield and those who suffered as a result.


[1] Rainy Horowitz, ‘The Dalkon Shield’, Embryo Project Encyclopedia, http://embryo.asu.edu/handle/10776/13043 [accessed 10 February 2020].

[2]  ‘Regulation of Medical Devices (Intrauterine Contraceptive Devices): Hearing before a Subcommittee…93-1 May 30, 31; June 1, 12, and 13, 1973’ United States. Congress. House. Government., https://bit.ly/2Y3UZdJ, [Accessed 5 June 2020], pp.85-92.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kathryn Goldberg, ‘Designing the popularity of the Dalkon Shield’, (unpublished thesis, Case Western Reserve University, 2012), https://etd.ohiolink.edu/!etd.send_file?accession=case1333737047&disposition=inline, [Accessed 10 February 2020].

[5] ‘Regulation of Medical Devices (Intrauterine Contraceptive Devices)’, p.398; Interestingly, on p.402 of this hearing report, David Bickbart (who, at the time, worked for the National Advertising Division) states that the advert may have been printed multiple times. How many were printed and where exactly remains largely unknown to both Bickbart and wider academic audiences.

[6] ‘Regulation of Medical Devices (Intrauterine Contraceptive Devices)’, p.85.

[7] Chikako Takeshita, The global biopolitics of the IUD, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011) p.18.

[8] Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen, Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2006),  p.43.

[9] Takeshita, p.53.

[10] Lisa Baker, ‘Control and the Dalkon Shield’, Violence Against Women, 7:11 (2001), pp.1303-1317; Goldberg.

[11] Baker, p.1313.

[12] See Gena Corea, The Hidden Malpractice: How American Medicine Mistreats Women (New York: William Morrow, 1985).

Categories
Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

Masculinities and gender relations in a car advertisement of the 1960s

By Athanasios Koufopanos

Porsche 911 Magazine Advert, UK, 1964. Courtesy of The Advertising Archives.

Contemplating about cars in his short essay on the Citroën DS in the 1950s, French philosopher Roland Barthes writes:

 

‘[The car is] devoured as an image, if not through its use, by a whole people that sees in it a perfectly magical object.’[1]

 

Barthes’ reference to the ‘image’ and the ‘use’ of an object is a starting point to understand the depiction of a product in advertising representations. For example, in the image above, a German Porsche advertisement in a British motoring magazine of the 1960s, we can see the car itself, with its image ‘altered’ to indicate its use. More specifically, the right half is covered in dirt, as a result of a car race, with the victorious German driver standing in the side. The left half of the car is neat and clean, with a man and a woman ready to enter.

This is an example when the presence of individuals in the picture emphasises and determines the use of the object more effectively than its image does. Furthermore, the figures in the picture imply a gendered understanding of the use of the car. This text will show how in the 1960s Britain a car was perceived in advertisement not only as a symbol associated with masculinity but also as an indicator of gender relations among the heterosexual couple.

Mobility in Britain can be considered a gendered issue, dating back to the mid- 1930s in which only 12% of license holders were women. This can be accredited to the fact that women required their husband’s permission to drive the family car.[2] Women’s experiences as drivers in the Home Front during World War II and the expansion of automobility in Britain after the war enabled a respective increase in the number of women licence holders and drivers. Women entering the relevant market is reflected in car advertisements of the 1960s, which, compared to the previous decade, are more female inclusive, though still confined by traditional sexist stereotypes. More specifically, by projecting the ‘modern domestic comfort’ of the 1960s car, advertisers incorporated women in the consumers’ spectrum, based on the assumption that they would appreciate a luxurious interior in the same way men appreciated elegance, power and speed.[3] In early post-war Western Europe, cars being a basic commodity came to incarnate individual freedom and the middle-class affluence of the period.[4] Kristin Ross connects the freedom to defy space limitations through driving with the model of l’homme disponible, the available man, in 1950s and 1960s France.[5] Alongside moving through space, car ownership gave the affluent middle-class family the opportunity to expand or transfer its domestic space and consequently the gender relations, traditionally of female subjugation, deployed in this space.[6]

Freedom from space limitations could also be freedom from safety concerns. The danger of car racing is a connotation of the racer in the right section of our advertisement piece. The danger of driving in general can be associated with an adventurous model of manliness. James Dean’s death in his Porsche in 1955 was inextricably waived in his legacy, a legacy celebrating freedom and masculinity.[7] Of course, the car racer in the image seems to have survived the danger intact. His maleness reflects a statistical reality concerning race drivers, since very few women were occupied in the sport. Therefore, as Helena Tolvhed shows in her relevant article, a Swedish woman winning the Argentina Grand Prix in 1962 was discussed in the press of the time in explicitly sexualised terms, as a feminine exceptionality.[8] We could say that the male racer can be identified with the hegemonic model of masculinity elaborated by R.W. Connell, a normative concept summarising the masculine ideals that are legitimised in a given socio-cultural milieu to dominate other versions of masculinity and perpetuate patriarchal subjugation of women.[9]

If the car racer represents adventurous masculinity, the suited man on the left section resembles to the more grounded model of the bread-winner. In Connell’s concept, that could be understood as the ‘complicit’ version, a type of masculinity that does not adhere to the hegemonic model but neither poses a threat to it, as it reproduces social conformity.[10] This man’s clothing and the fact that he carries a briefcase imply that he is about to drive to work at that moment. He holds the key, a tool of control over the car, ready to open the door for a woman looking at him with profound admiration. If we assume that they are a couple, we get a clear depiction of female dependence, even more emphasised in the scenario that he is about to drive her somewhere before going to his job. In real life, however, things could be the other way around as well. In the 1960s Britain it was already the case for many unemployed wives to drive their husband at work and then use the car for everyday shopping. Moreover, the female presence in the advertisement as a co-driver may underestimate the existence of women drivers in urban areas but still points to women as consumers, since it was common for purchasing luxurious cars like these to require the combined capital of a married couple.[11] Therefore, middle-class working women could contribute in buying a car, irrespectively if they would drive it or not.

According to Ben Griffin, driving had been a traditional masculine activity that was reshaped by the increasing presence of women behind the wheel.[12] This development was on its way during the 1960s. Given that, it is of interest to note that images like the one in reference reproduced the norm of the car being an object that expressed versions of masculinity, in this case the one of a racing driver and of a providing husband. Even more, the car as an extended domestic space enables us to trace patterns of gender relations within the heterosexual couple. Therefore, since the male was still identified as the main car buyer, sketches like that kept depicting him generously driving the dependable female, and not vice-versa.

[1] Roland Barthes, Mythologies (Paris, Editions de Seuil: 1957), p. 150 (my own translation).

[2] Sean O’Connell, ‘Gender and the Car in Inter-war Britain’, in Moira Donald and Linda Hurcombe (eds), Gender and Material Culture in Historical Perspective (London, Macmillan Press Ltd: 2000), p. 177.

[3] Simon Gunn, ‘People and the car: the expansion of automobility in urban Britain, c.1955-70’, Social History 38:2 (2013), pp. 230-231.

[4] Gunn, ‘People and the car’, pp. 221, 226; Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of the French Culture (Cambridge MA, The MIT Press: 1995), pp. 19-22.

[5] Ross, Fast Cars, p. 22.

[6] Gunn, ‘People and the car’, p. 231.

[7] Ross, Fast Cars, p. 46.

[8] Helena Tolvhed, ‘Ewy Rosqvist, rally queen: gender, identity and car racing at the beginning of the 1960s’, Sport in Society 20:8, pp. 1050-52, 1055-56.

[9] Raewyn Connell, Masculinities (Cambridge, Polity, 2005), pp. 77-78.

[10] Ibid., pp. 79-80.

[11] Gunn, ‘People and the car’, pp. 230, 234-235.

[12] Ben Griffin, ‘Hegemonic Masculinity as a Historical Problem’, Gender & History 30:2 (July 2018), p. 389.

Categories
Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

The Commodification of Female Body Image in Post-War American Advertising Culture

By Sophy Leys Johnston

John Berger, in his renowned text Ways of Seeing, writes of the manipulative power of advertising in its promotion of self-criticism. ‘The publicity image steals her love of herself as she is’, Berger argues, ‘and offers it back to her for the price of the product’.[1] Emphasis here is placed on the feminine subject, vulnerable to manipulation by a male dominated, capitalist industry and placed in opposition to the objectifying ideal of femininity that the advert presents. In the context of post-war America, following masculine fear over the transgressive duties (such as factory or land labour) carried out by women during the war, pressure was mounted in order to encourage women to return to the domestic sphere and fulfil traditional housewifely duties. Ultimately, a woman’s appearance and body image was in many ways their only means of gaining what little agency was available to her given their inferior social, economic and cultural status in every other respect. This suggests that the control and manipulation of female body image is linked inextricably to the oppression of women. The profitable nature of this advertised body ideal that proved tirelessly persuasive in its encouragement of women to diet, thus came hand-in-hand with an oppressive means of emotional and behavioural control, beneficial only to the elite masculine authorities at the top of the advertising chain.[2]

The source below (see fig. 1) proves a prime example of the adverts targeted towards middle-class women in post-war America. Published in 1950 within the Hollywood magazine Photoplay, the advert harnesses celebrity endorsement and the glamour associated with the image of a Hollywood actress to motivate the reader to purchase the ‘vitamin candy’, Ayds. Promoting a quick and, supposedly, effective method of weight-loss by means of appetite suppressant, the advert perpetuates an ideal feminine body image by equating beauty to thinness. It is worth observing too that this ideal of a slim body remains deliberately vague and unfixed so as to create a perpetually unattainable goal and thus enable the permanent necessity of the product advertised.

Figure 1: Advertisement for ‘AYDS’ from June issue of Photoplay, 1950, source: Ad-Flip Archive, http://www.adflip.com/addetails.php?adID=2882&showLargeJpg=yes [accessed 22 January 2020]

The sole image featured within the advert is of actress Ann Sheridan, presenting her as objectively representative of the glamour, luxury and success associated with Hollywood socialite culture. The advert in this way objectifies the actress, performing her role in society as an object of male desire and simultaneously links the success of her career to her bodily appearance. In positioning this aspirational image of female beauty, the advert presents a critique of the women reading it to encourage commercial investment, and so ‘steal[ing] her love of herself.’[3] Burger corroborates this by arguing that ‘ads instructed women to examine themselves critically…in an effort to save their highest-valued commodity- their looks’.[4] As such, the very process of advertising instils the commodification of the female body and societal standards of beauty.

The underlying implications of the advert’s message, however, reflect a wider cultural and social manipulation towards its female audience that remains prominent in contemporary advertising culture today. The projection of a conformative bodily ideal for profit, for instance, exemplified by the promotional phrase ‘you lose weight with the first box ($2.89)’, proves that it is far from simply a fashionable trend or a genuine reflection of beauty, but rather the construction of a capitalist, male dominated institution. Moreover, the masculine control of female bodies reveals a problematic form of behavioural and emotional oppression that was prevalent within post-war American society. Manipulative rhetoric permeating the advert’s text places great emphasis on ‘lovel[iness]’ as a behavioural standard of femininity, achieved by means of weight-loss. Once more, ‘behaviour that is essential for economic reasons is transformed into a social virtue.’[5] Vandermeade further posits that, corresponding with women’s return to the domestic sphere during the post-war years, ‘maintaining beauty became part and parcel of being a good wife’.[6] Thus, rather than benefiting their female audience, the “false needs” of advertising culture, such as Ayds’ promotion of weight-loss, serve male desires for a contained housewife, subordinate and subservious to their husbands. As Wolf concludes, the very “myth” of a homogenous beauty standard is, in reality, dictating and ‘prescribing behaviour and not appearance.’[7] Attempts to control female bodies through slimming products such as Ayds, is in fact ‘summoned out of political fear on the part of male-dominated institutions threatened by women’s freedom’ and the progressive, liminal roles they performed during the war that began to deconstruct binarised notions of gender and the socially constructed “myth” of gender roles.[8]           

The advert does, however, present a number of limitations as a historical source. Through the preservation of an image of the ideal American woman, the source does not offer a realistic reflection of female experience within the post-war period. Thus, the question remains: how can historians retrieve the voices that were considered un-ideal or non-conformative and therefore neglected by history? Burger offers a potential solution by proposing a shift away from ‘examining the ideal image’ of the 1950s housewife, towards ‘that of the actual lived experience’.[9] The source nevertheless remains valuable, for whilst it does not portray anything of the reality for women living in this era, it can be used to expose the overwhelming mass of pressure and manipulation faced by these women. It is perhaps worth applying similar analyses and rigorous questioning to the adverts of today’s culture in which the female body continues to be controlled and manipulated. Like the women of post-war America, the experiences of 21st Century women remains far more diverse than the highly stylised, projected ideals of glossy magazine advertisements would have us believe.


[1] John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 2nd edn (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2008)  p.128

[2] Myra Macdonald, Representing Women: Myths of Femininity in the Popular Media (London & New York: Edward Arnold, 1995), p.201

[3] Berger, p.128

[4] Tarin Burger, ‘As Advertised: Depicting the Postwar American Woman from Bride, to Wife, to Mother’, (Masters thesis: Florida State University, 2012), p.4

[5] Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women (London: Vintage, 2015), p.13

[6] Samantha Vandermeade, ‘Fort Lipstick and the Making of June Cleaver: Gender Roles in American Propaganda and Advertising, 1941-1961’, (Masters thesis: North Carolina State University, 2015), p.24

[7] Wolf, p.7

[8] Wolf, p.10

[9] Burger, p.34

Categories
Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

Queen Bee: Koko Taylor’s Challenge to Blues and Rock & Roll’s Gendered Lyrical Lineage

By Lisette Gallaher

Can a musical genre be gendered? According to the history of rock & roll, yes. Rock music has often been considered notoriously masculine, as an industry and an expression. However, the masculinity of rock was not produced in a vacuum, but rather developed over time as rock & roll grew from its blues, country and jazz roots. So many rock artists of the sixties and seventies were influenced by the blues music of the forties and fifties, and recognising these roots helps develop a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the genre of rock & roll music. As musical styles and lyrical messages were passed down from generation to generation of musicians, certain cultural norms and ideals began to reveal themselves, particularly in regard to gender roles. An example of this gendered lyrical lineage is present in the often-covered tune “I’m a King Bee.”

Album Cover for The Early Swamp-Blues Classics, Excello Records, 1994

The song “I’m a King Bee” was originally recorded by blues musician Slim Harpo in 1957.[1] Slim’s version has been covered by many artists since its release, including, but not limited to, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Doors, Pink Floyd, and Muddy Waters. With so many cover versions spanning decades after its original release, it is apparent that the song is significant to many blues and rock & roll artists. This recurring fascination may, in part, stem from the song’s blues roots, but it may also come from the performance of a certain type of masculinity espoused by its lyrics. In nearly every rendition of the song, the lyrics have remained the same as Slim’s:

Well, I'm a king bee, buzzin' around yo' hive 
Well, I'm a king bee, buzzin' around yo' hive 
Well, I can make honey, baby 
Let me come inside 
 
I'm young and able to buzz all night long 
I'm young and able to buzz all night long 
Well, when you hear me buzzin', baby 
Some stingin' is going on 
 
Well, buzz awhile 
'Sting-a-been' 
 
Well, I'm a king bee, want you to be my queen 
Well, I'm a king bee,want you to be my queen 
Together we can make honey 
The world ever, never, seen 
 
Well, I'm a king bee, can buzz all night long 
Well, I'm a king bee, can buzz all night long 
Well, I can buzz better, baby 
When yo' man is gone.2

These lyrics are rather explicitly sexual, describing a man’s desire to “come inside” a woman so he can “make honey.” Combined with the track’s slow and sensuous music, “I’m a King Bee” becomes a song where the narrator is attempting to entice a woman to have sex with him. In terms of gender, the lyrics represent a certain type of masculinity that emphasises a man’s sexual domination and prowess with no reference to the woman’s consent or pleasure. In this way, “I’m a King Bee” becomes a song that operates within a system known as “hegemonic masculinity.” As defined by R. W. Connell, hegemonic masculinity references the continuation of an idealised type of man that places men before women in society, creating a gendered dynamic of domination and suppression where men are the dominators.[3] More simply, hegemonic masculinity emphasises the dominant position of men by representing masculine characteristics through cultural references, such as actors, musicians, and athletes and the masculine ideals they portray in their work. In this way, the lyrics of “I’m a King Bee,” unchanged in any rendition by male artists, operates within hegemonic masculinity to preserve men’s in society by depicting the masculine characteristic of sexual desire, power, and domination.

What happens, then, when “I’m a King Bee” is sung by a woman?




Promotional photo of Koko Taylor by Steve Kagan for Alligator Records

Known as the “Queen of Blues,” Koko Taylor produced her own version of the song in 1985, titled “Queen Bee.” For the first time in the song’s history, the lyrics were altered in Taylor’s rendition to be sung from a female perspective. Taylor’s switching “king” to “queen” indicates an understanding of the original song’s gendered lyrics and a deliberate attempt to alter that gendered narrative:

Well, I'm a queen bee, buzzin' 'round your hive
Well, I'm a queen bee, buzzin' 'round your hive
When you hear me buzzin'
Please, let me come inside

I'm young and able to buzz all night long
I'm young and able to buzz all night long
When you hear me buzzin'
Some stinging's going on

Well, I'm a queen bee, won't you be my friend?
Well, I'm a queen bee, won't you be my friend?
Together we can make honey
Like the world never seen

Well, I'm a queen bee, buzz all night long
Well, I'm a queen bee, buzz all night long
Well, I could buzz at you, baby, when your gal is gone [4]

The reasoning behind her alteration of the lyrics, however, remains unclear. By performing the masculine lyrics from a female point of view, was Taylor attempting to challenge the masculine notes of sexual conquest? Or was she just simply creating her own version of a famous, often covered tune to secure her place as a woman in the male-dominated music industry?[5] Unfortunately, there seems to be no available account of Taylor’s intentions with “Queen Bee” from the artist herself. Similarly, biographies on Taylor lack any reference to her version of the song. What is often noted, however, is how Taylor’s successful career in the blues industry challenged the male dominance of the genre.[6] Further, Taylor’s success is often attributed to her raw, deep and raspy voice.[7] Her voice is far from what might be considered a “feminine” singing voice, characterised by higher-pitches and smoother vocals.

Though Koko Taylor is considered a trailblazer for women in the blues industry, her success in her field largely comes from her “masculine” vocals. In other words, it could be said that her male-sounding voice gave her the opportunity to rise in the male-dominated industry. In looking only at Taylor’s version of “I’m a King Bee” (as the case may be different in her original songs), it can be argued that, even though she alters the lyrics to be sung from a female perspective, she is still perpetuating the masculine characteristics of the song through her gritty voice and dominating words. This is not to say, however, that her rendition of the song serves the same purpose in hegemonic masculinity as other versions by male artists. Because she deliberately alters the lyrics to be sung from a female perspective while maintaining all other “masculine” qualities of the original tune, Taylor’s version still challenges gender roles by suggesting that women, too, can be sexually dominating.

If Taylor’s “Queen Bee” is regarded on its own, it can be heard as a more “masculine” song because the lyrics are describing sexual domination, the singer’s voice is gritty, and the music is seductive. However, when the Taylor’s version of the song is contextualised and placed alongside the other renditions done by male artists, as is done here, it becomes apparent that her version of the song stands as a challenge to hegemonic masculinity because it reverses the song’s gender roles that were accepted and replicated by the covering artists before her. In doing so, Taylor disrupts the lineage of gendered lyrics passed down through generations of blues and rock artists and provides a different perspective on the gendered nature of sexual domination in songs. Therefore, Taylor’s “Queen Bee” is an important and significant song in the history of blues and rock & roll music for its contribution to the understanding of gender roles in both genres and the appreciation for how such gender roles are passed down through generations of artists.


[1] For further reading on the history of Slim’s song, check out Rick Moore’s article in American Songwriter:

https://americansongwriter.com/slim-harpo-im-a-king-bee/rick-moore/

[2] Slim Harpo, “I’m a King Bee,” Got Love if you Want It, Excello Records (1957).

[3] R. W. Connell, Masculinities (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005), pp. 77.

[4] Koko Taylor, “Queen Bee,” Queen of the Blues, Alligator Records (1985).

[5] A question that is beyond the scope of this blog post that also deserves consideration is how Taylor’s position as a black woman might have affected her approach to this song, since it was originally written by a black man but was most frequently covered by white male artists. In other words, how might have her placement as a black singer also impacted her performance of this song?

[6] Steve Huey, “Koko Taylor: Artist Biography,” All Music, https://www.allmusic.com/artist/koko-taylor-mn0000376739/biography [accessed 11 Feb 2020]; “Koko Taylor,” Alligator Records, https://www.alligator.com/artists/Koko-Taylor/index.cfm [accessed 11 Feb 2020].

[7] George Fish, “Koko Taylor, ‘Queen of Blues,’ Dies at 80,” Solidarity, 7 June 2009, https://solidarity-us.org/p2225/ [accessed 11 Feb 2020].