Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

‘There is no advantage in being a homosexual in a heterosexual world’ – Examining the Gendering of Lesbian Experience through ITV’s ‘Lesbians’ (1965)

Iona Tytler

Content warning: discussion of homophobic attitudes

The first British documentary to focus on lesbian existence as its subject matter was broadcast in January 1965 as part of ITV’s current affairs programme ‘This Week.’ This was a follow up instalment to their programme from the previous year, ‘Homosexuals.’ (Gardiner 2003, p.99) Over twenty-six minutes, reporter Bryan Magee interviewed six participants and questioned them on their sexuality, alongside a doctor who had lesbian patients, and Esme Langley of the Minorities Research Group, which produced the lesbian magazine Arena Three.   

Image of Bryan Magee in Lesbians (1965)
© ITV Archive Hub, Courtesy of the BFI and BFI Player

The influence of documentaries on contemporary public attitudes is important, being recognised by Arena Three at the time as key to informing and shaping public attitudes on sexuality, as well as reaching a wider group of lesbians at a time of community fragmentation.  (Jennings, 2007, p.149) A particular focus for historians of queer sexuality has been how the documentary depicts the oppression lesbians faced for both their gender and sexuality. (Buckle, 2018, p.21) However, the documentary also highlights the ways in which the lesbian experience itself is gendered, and their lack of control over their representation as the documentary’s ‘gendered subjects.’ Magee constantly defines the participants through their experiences and lack of experiences with men, and throughout they are ‘othered’ and separated out from womanhood due to their sexuality.

Homosexuality in 1960s Britain was considered a societal issue, rather than an identity to be asserted. Historian Sebastian Buckle argues the topic was only mentioned in ‘whispered suspicions and innuendos’ and that many queer couples lived closeted existences. Campaigns for gay rights based on ‘identity politics,’ an individual’s self-definition through their sexuality, were not seen for another decade. (2018, p.9)  Lesbian existence is regarded within the documentary as a societal issue but also as an afterthought, defined as an offshoot of male homosexuality. Magee describes it as the other ‘half of the problem’ to this, emphasising that it exists among women ‘just as among men,’ but was not criminalised. (0:31, 1:14)  

The documentary does not create a space for the participants to control the narrative which is being created of their sexuality. This can be seen through the lack of ‘agency’ given to these women, meaning the absence of power that they had to articulate themselves and their sexuality on their own terms.  On a positive note, the opening of the documentary does focus on the testimony of one of the participants, who discusses that that there was ‘not a typical human being or a typical lesbian.’ (0:08)  This is encouraging, as it ties into dispelling the viewer’s preconceived ideas of heteronormativity, an invisible but prevalent societal idea which marginalises queer existence. (Warner, 1991, p.3) This  contrasts with later documentaries such as ITV’s ‘Gay Life: Lesbians’ (1980) episode, which opens the discussion by asking the public what ‘lesbian’ meant to them.

Therefore, the opening of Magee’s documentary put the agency in the hands of those experiencing the identity. However, this was short-lived, as the questions asked were heavily catered to the straight audience, being based around male reactions to female homosexuality and male expectations of female availability. By asking participants if they have ‘any sexual feelings for men’ and ‘what felt wrong about making love to a man,’  the documentary is continuing to proffer lesbianism as simply a reaction to men. (6:34, 19:50) This relates to Monique Wittig’s (1992, p.20, p.13) theory of womanhood, which argues that women are societally defined through their ‘specific social relation to a man,’ and lesbianism’s rejection of heterosexuality feeds into a wider rejection of womanhood itself, as being a woman means being the possession of a man. Wittig (1992, p.25) also asserts that the societal norm of heterosexuality is so pervasive that lesbians can only be ‘heard if they speak in their [heterosexual] terms.’ As the documentary presents the lesbian experience as revolving around men,  it is portraying their identity as based on their rejection of men and how this relates to their own womanhood, rather than their embracing of women.  

Image of the first participant in Lesbians (1965)
© ITV Archive Hub, Courtesy of the BFI and BFI Player

The language used in the phrasing of the questions also led to the othering of lesbians. Magee’s language is polarising, and divorces lesbianism from the idea of heterosexual normalcy. Notably he asks, ‘normal people often say that they find the idea of physical sex between two women disgusting- what do you say to that?’ and ‘do you feel unnatural? Do you feel any shame or guilt?’ (7:10, 5:49) By using this language, he is placing lesbians as possessors of unnatural desire. Adrienne Rich (1980, p.649, p.652) in her theory of compulsory heterosexuality argued that by rejecting the ‘compulsory way of life,’ lesbians are viewed as ‘deviant,’ or ‘pathological,’ with their sexuality as a ‘lifestyle.’ The association of lesbianism with deviant behaviour is continued, as Magee asserts that there are lesbians living in Britain whose ‘true relationship [is] unsuspected by others,’ with this wording implying that lesbianism should evoke suspicion and fear. (7:41) The ‘pathological’ element of lesbianism is seen in the documentary’s inclusion of a doctor with lesbian patients, who argued that female homosexuality is related to ‘damage done in infancy,’ with the capacity to be reversed depending on its severity. (15:05)  At this time, medical professionals were viewed as a main source of information on lesbianism, and consequently lesbians were left ‘confused or alienated,’ and seeking treatment. (Jennings, 2008, p.893) By outlining the deviancy in straying from sexual norms, the documentary places connotations of lawlessness and guilt onto lesbianism despite its legality and highlights it as a condition which can be reversed, as opposed to an identity.

Overall, the documentary is the first of its kind, and should be watched due to the way it draws attention to the unique experiences of lesbians in 1960s Britain. The lesbian experience was clearly gendered, with their sexuality meaning they were being defined through their relationships with men and divorced from womanhood itself. It highlights the clear societal attitudes towards lesbianism in this period as abnormal, and how attempts to understand the women themselves were centred around their rejection of societal norms and heterosexuality itself, placating the imagined straight viewer, rather than giving lesbians a platform to vocalise their own experience.  Could it be argued that these relations to heterosexuality were simply used as reference points for the straight viewer  to comprehend female homosexuality? Although this remains a possibility, the documentary is still indicative of the ‘othering’ of lesbians and outlines the heteronormative feel which can be applied to society more broadly.

Video References

 ‘Gay Life: Lesbians,’ (1981) British Film Institute.  (accessed 01/02/2021)

Timestamps come from ‘Lesbians,’ (1965) British Film Institute. (accessed 01/02/2021)


Buckle, Sebastian. Homosexuality on the Small Screen: Television and Gay Identity in Britain. (London: Bloomsbury, 2018)

Gardiner, Jill. From the Closet to the Screen: Women at the Gateways Club. (London: Pandora List, 2003)

Jennings, Rebecca. ‘The Most Uninhibited Party They’d Ever Been To, The Postwar Encounter between Psychiatry and the British Lesbian, 1945–1971’ Journal of British Studies. 47(4) (2008) pp.883-904

Jennings, Rebecca. Tomboys and Bachelor Girls: A Lesbian History of Post-War Britain, 1945-71. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007)

Rich, Adrienne. ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,’ Signs. 5(4) (1980) pp. 631-660

 Warner, Michael. ‘Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet.’ Social Text, No. 29 (1991), pp. 3-17 (accessed 01/02/2021)

Wittig, Monique. The Straight Mind and Other Essays. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992)

Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

Edwardian Women’s Struggle: The Arrogant Male Gaze under Pygmalion

By Xinuo Liang

Due to the fact that Edwardian women lacked any right to full citizenship, there was a desire to change this legal disadvantage – by striving for the freedom of suffrage, marriage, property and occupations (Graham, 2012, pp.167-193). However, most Edwardian women were imprisoned under the male gaze and involuntarily became the ideal wife who did everything that the ideal husband wished (Graham, 2012, pp.167-193). George Bernard Shaw sympathised with women’s suffering, and stated that “Woman, if she dares face the fact that she is being so treated, must either loathe herself or she must rebel” (Shaw, 1932, pp.36-37); and Pygmalion is one of his most famous feminist plays which expresses his claim. 

While Pygmalion is famous as Shaw’s play, most people know itfrom the 1964 film adaptation My Fair Lady. But My Fair Lady as the adaption of Pygmalion seriously violated Shaw’s original intention of this play, which had been created for the feminist revolution. Hollywood distorted Eliza’s character from independence to dependence. Because in Shaw’s design, a new woman should not be limited by marriage (Holroyd, 1979, pp.17-32).

The relationship between Eliza and Professor Higgins can only be described as “enemies”. From the moment they met, Eliza was constantly under Professor Higgins’s male gaze; however, she attempted to break free from Higgins’ bondage and become a truly independent woman (Pygmalion Overview) by saying: “Then I shall not see you again, professor, goodbye” (Shaw, 2013, p.75).  Eliza’s leaving was not impulsive or caused by her anger; instead, it was the inevitable result of Eliza’s rising independent consciousness. The ending of Eliza’s leaving was inspired by A Doll’s House, in which the heroine Nora chooses to break away from the image of the ideal wife and away from marriage and the responsibilities imposed upon her female identity. Shaw criticized the marriage system as being unfair to women (Shaw, 1931d, p.32), and argued that women’s independence must be away from the bondage of marriage.

On the road to independence, Eliza must first give up everything that Professor Higgins gave her – the fancy clothes, the fine jewellery and the cosy home. Leaving is the inevitable end for a new woman who was educated. For Professor Higgins, Eliza is merely the fruit of his linguistic education, a mindless object, an exhibit of his superior education that he shows off to the socialites and an exhibition of the professor’s superior educational “skills”. There is no doubt that Higgins’ teaching is successful. He helped a lower-class girl become a skilful and educated woman; on the other hand, Higgins wanted to train Eliza to be an elegant ‘duchess’, which means he trained Eliza in the image of the ideal woman. During his training, Eliza becomes gradually aware that she is a human who has the same intelligence as Higgins. As a result, his education was a failure to himself because it created an independent new woman who does not need to rely on anybody, which does not fit with his expectations.

Pygmalion is a legendary figure from Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphoses who falls in love with his exquisite sculptures. Shaw used Pygmalion’s original story as a model and attempted to discuss the tensive relationship between ‘sculptor’ and ‘sculpture’ of Professor Higgins and Eliza. Eliza undoubtedly occupies a significant place in Higgins’ heart. However, his feelings for Eliza are not a sort of love, but a complex of his linguistic career. Under his gaze, Eliza was never equal to him. From the moment they first met, Professor Higgins was extremely rude and impolite towards Eliza, and even surprised when discussing Eliza with Colonel Pickering by saying “Nonsense! He cannot provide for her. He shall not provide for her. She does not belong to him. I paid him five pounds for her. Doolittle, either you’re an honest man or rogue” (Shaw, 2013, p.62). Higgins completely and financially dominates Eliza, and she has no choice but to obey and rely on Higgins if she wants to continue her privileged middle-class life.

Figure 1: ‘Pygmalion’ 1913 performing copy, UK, 1913-15. Courtesy of The Society of Authors.

Higgins was living in the middle-class with an ideology of separate spheres (Harrison, 1978, p.59). His thoughts about gender had already been disciplined like other men in the Edwardian period, with contempt for women – arrogantly disparaging their potential for independent living, believing that women are naturally of a lower social status than men and that naturally powerful men should rule them. However, when Eliza mastered the educational skills of linguistics, she had acquired a skill that would allow her to live as an independent woman in defiance of patriarchal domination. As a dramatic figure of the independent woman of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, Eliza breaks through the separate spheres and attends the public affairs that were previously reserved for men. Eliza is a mirror that reflects the Edwardian woman’s desire to be recognized by the public. In this aspect, Edwardian feminists promoted political equality through various movements, such as the movements of “Suffragettes”, “Cat and Mouse Act” and “Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act”.

Figure 2: The Smoking room of a ladies’ club, UK, 1910s. Phil May, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Shaw gives Eliza the courage to resist the patriarchal system, but he also recognizes that men of the time had a neglectful attitude towards the “independent woman” (Holroyd, 1979, pp.17-32). The “independent woman”, like the “male”, was a woman in terms of “biological sex” who had been socially alienated into the male “social sex” (Morgenroth and Ryan, 2018, pp.1-9). Edwardian men obstructed women’s fight for their rights and freedom because they thought women were not deserving of economic and intellectual equality with men (Graham, 2012, pp.167-193).

In Pygmalion, Shaw uses the case of a Cinderella story to satirize that under the arrogant male gaze, when a woman’s identity awakens, they can draw the same nourishment from daily life. The nature of culture under patriarchy is occluded by Shaw, and economics still determines an individual’s social position. The social class difference pushed Edwardian women to break through the regulation of gender norms. However, it is difficult for individuals to understand reality authentically: most of those who are dominated are often left to accept the ideological shroud, to take reality for granted and to unconsciously accept the values of their dominators, leading to a distorted understanding of their state of being (Hartsock, 1987, pp.187-206). In the process of women achieving epistemological equality, political and economic inequalities change from hidden to exposed (Gilligan, 1982, p.126). Darwinists in Edwardian society mistakenly believed that social order and social hierarchies are naturally fixed (Richards, 2017. p.53). The cultural roots of masculine power alienated gender relations.

The difficulty and the lack of widespread acceptance of women’s political rights are because behind it lies the opposition between the dominant and dominated classes of the patriarchal order of society (Oppenheim, 1994. p.90). These classification criteria are cultural, biological, and artificial, constructed by groups following their particular power relations (Books, 2021. pp.323-346). Likewise, culture is an artificial system of constructs. The independence Eliza aspires to is a rebellion against the male gaze of the “perfect female paradigm”.

Pygmalion is an insight into the confusion of women’s struggle for an independent identity in Edwardian England. As Eliza leaves Professor Higgins – who protects her but restricts her – in order to reinvent herself, she becomes an icon of women’s struggle for independence at the time. Like Eliza, independent women leave their families, and although life becomes more of a struggle, they at least gain freedom.


Shaw, Bernard and L. W. Conolly. pygmalion. London: Bloomsbury, 2013

Graham, Philip. “Bernard Shaw’s Neglected Role in English Feminism 1880-1914.” Journal of Gender Studies 23, no. 2 (2014): 167-183

Shaw, G.B. 1932. The womanly woman. Major critical essays. London: Constable, 32–41

Rubinstein, D., 1986. Before the suffragettes: women’s emancipation in the 1890s. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press

Michael Holroyd, George Bernard Shaw: Women and the Body Politic, 1979

Shaw, B. 1931d. The Philanderer. The complete plays of Bernard Shaw. London: Constable, 28–61

Shaw, B. 1932. The womanly woman. Major critical essays. London: Constable, 32–41

Harrison, B. 1978. Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain (1st ed.). Routledge

Morgenroth, T and Ryan, M. “Gender Trouble in Social Psychology: How can Butler’s Work Inform Experimental Social Psychologists’ Conceptualization of Gender?” Frontiers in Psychology 9, (2018): 1320-1320

Hartsock, Nancy. “Rethinking Modernism: Minority Vs. Majority Theories.” Cultural Critique no. 7 (1987): 187-206

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. London;Cambridge, Mass;: Harvard University Press, 1982

Richards, Evelleen. Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017

Oppenheim, Janet. Victorian and Edwardian Women: The Halves of Modern English Social History. Vol. 66. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Researchers from Oxford Brookes University Report on Findings in Zoology [Darwin’s Closet: The Queer Sides of the Descent of Man (1871)] NewsRX LLC, 2021.

Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

‘How could it’ve happened to me?’: The People at No. 19 and the Sexual Double Standard

By Fay Marsden

‘The People at No. 19’ (1949) is a melodramatic film created by the Ministry of Health and the Central Council of Health Education, which aimed to educate the public about available treatments for syphilis (VD). It tells the story of a young married couple – Joan and Ken – who have recently discovered that Joan is pregnant. Joan returns from the doctor looking despondent, finally admitting that she has syphilis. It soon transpires that Joan had engaged in casual sex whilst Ken was away at war. In the ensuing argument, the public learns that syphilis is easily treatable with frequent trips to the doctor and that Joan will still have a healthy baby. The film ends by hinting at the couple’s reconciliation. The film was part of a series of measures undertaken by the Ministry of Health following a peak of VD infections in 1946 (Hall 2001, 132). The goal was to inform the public about treatment and to dispel the myth that only sex workers spread syphilis (Hall 1999, 215-216). However, viewing the film through a lens of the sexual double standard shows that it nevertheless represents female sexuality as dangerous and polluting, and equates the spread of syphilis with sex workers and ‘good-time girls’.

Still captured from ‘The People at No. 19’ (1949), (15:23)

In his seminal article on the subject, Keith Thomas describes the sexual double standard as the longstanding perception of ‘unchastity’ or casual sex being ‘a matter of the utmost gravity’ for women, whilst being at most a ‘mild and pardonable offense’ for men (Thomas 1959, 195). It explains why women who engage in casual sex are labelled as ‘whores’ and receive a damaged reputation, while men who engage in the same behaviour receive little to no backlash (Panteá, Braun & Rowney 2017, 545). When thinking specifically about the history of VD, this double standard is visible when examining perceptions about the disease, as well as responses to it. Female sexuality – particularly that of sex workers – has long been blamed for spreading disease, with men presented as victims. For example, the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s allowed police to detain suspected prostitutes and subject them to forced medical examinations and imprisonment until clear of syphilis (Davis 2011, 512). These degrading acts policed unacceptable female sexuality and pathologized women’s bodies, while their male customers received no similar punishment.

The deep-seated connection between female sexuality and VD continued well into the twentieth century, particularly during the Second World War, when the rising number of venereal infections compounded fears about national health, hygiene and manpower (Davis 2011, 512). By this time, not only were professional prostitutes associated with VD, but also the ‘good-time girl’ or ‘amateur prostitute’ – women who enjoyed casual sex for no commercial gain (Davis 2011, 512). Meanwhile, an onslaught of wartime propaganda warned men against ‘easy’ women, presenting men once more as victims of female sexuality. It is against this backdrop of heightened fear of female sexuality and rising venereal infections that ‘The People at No. 19’ was created.

‘The easy girlfriend’, poster, England, 1943-1944. Credit:
Science Museum, LondonAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The intention of ‘The People at No. 19’ to educate the public and minimise the stigma surrounding syphilis is undermined by the film’s format. B. Crowther describes such films as melodramatic ‘moral tales’ – where vital information is mixed with moral instruction (Crowther 2009, 126). Arguably, educating the public about syphilis with a tense and sometimes violent film (both Joan and Ken brandish a breadknife at various moments) ensures that it continues to be perceived as a grave and corrupting disease, further increasing its stigma. Additionally, presenting this story as a ‘moral tale’ also ensures that sufferers are seen as either ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’ – and in this case, the film continues to perpetuate the sexual double standard by laying the blame for the spread of syphilis firmly at the door of women.

The subtle winks and nods to the audience about Joan and her friend Doris would easily be interpreted by an audience which already associates syphilis with ‘amateur prostitutes’ as confirmation of this stereotype. As the film unfolds and Ken realises that Joan had an affair, he also realises that it must have occurred whilst Joan was friends with Doris, a woman with a poor sexual reputation. He even hints that Doris is now a sex worker, slyly stating that he had recently seen her “Walking… Just walking up and down as far as I could see” (9:21). This is of course a coded hint that Doris is now soliciting men for sex, walking the streets to find customers.

Doris is not alone in being associated with sex work, as Joan’s own behaviour is also reminiscent of stereotypes of unacceptable female sexuality. Joan finally admits that whilst drinking with Doris, she had met a group of men and had sex with one of them. As she forlornly asks, “How could it’ve happened to me?” (12:00), she is berated by Ken who asks, “What do you think you are, eh? Somebody too high class to meet up with a common germ? But not too high class to pick up with any Tom, Dick or Harry?!” (12:06). The implication of this comment is clear: while technically anybody can ‘meet up with a common germ’, women engaging in ‘lower class’ promiscuity are particularly to blame for the spread of VD. While it is implied that Ken also had an affair (11:00), it is Joan’s sexuality and friendship with a prostitute that gives her the reputation of the dangerous ‘good-time girl’ so warned against during the wartime propaganda campaign.

Ultimately, ‘The People at No. 19’ perpetuates the sexual double standard by presenting female sexuality as responsible for the spread of syphilis. With subtle references to Doris’ sex work and Joan’s drunken promiscuity (so typical of the infamous ‘good-time girl’), the film continues the historical tradition of representing male sexuality as healthy yet susceptible to being corrupted by unacceptably sexual women, swarming with disease and death.


‘The People at No. 19’ (1949). The Ministry of Health and Central Council of Health Education. <> [accessed 9.02.2021]

Crowther, B. ‘The Growth of British Sex Education Films: Negotiating What We Shouldn’t Know.’ Medical Humanities 35 (2009): 126-127.

Davis, Gayle. ‘Health and Sexuality.’ In The Oxford Handbook of the History of Medicine, edited by Mark Jackson, 503-523. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Farvid, Panteá; Braun, Virginia; Rowney, Casey. ‘“No girl wants to be called a slut!”: Women, Heterosexual Casual Sex and the Sexual Double Standard.’ Journal of Gender Studies 26 (2017): 544-560.

Hall, Lesley A. ‘Venereal Diseases and Society in Britain, From the Contagious Diseases Acts to the National Health Service.’ In Sex, Sin and Suffering: Venereal Disease and European Society Since 1870, edited by Roger Davidson and Lesley A. Hall, 120-136. London; New York: Routledge, 2001.

Hall, Lesley A. ‘War always brings it on’: War, STDs, The Military, and the Civilian Population in Britain, 1850-1950.’ In Medicine and Modern Warfare, edited by Roger Cooter, Mark Harrison and Steve Sturdy, 205-223. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999.

Jolin, Annette. ‘On the Backs of Working Prostitutes: Feminist Theory and Prostitution Policy.’ Crime & Delinquency 40 (1994): 69-83.

Thomas, Keith. ‘The Double Standard.’ Journal of the History of Ideas 20 (1959): 195-216.

Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

The flapper in advertisements – a symbol of women’s liberation or immorality?

By Barbara Gabeler

The New Woman or the flapper is an iconic figure of the interwar period. She defied traditional gender norms not only through her fashion – mainly her bobbed hair and boyish dress – but also through her behaviour; smoking and drinking in public, attending dance halls until the early hours, and generally participating in activities that were deemed the prerogative of men. Consequently, as much as she was admired, she was also vilified for her immoral behaviour. Advertisements for cars and cosmetics from the 1920s and 1930s – two booming industries – that feature flappers seem merely sexist at first glance. However, placing them within wider debates around the flapper in the interwar period reveals that advertisers actively played into these discourses. Indeed, they are telling of the tension that existed between the flapper as a symbol of modernity and women’s liberation on the one hand, and of immorality and deviance on the other. Advertisers tried to accommodate both views, recognising and normalising the flapper’s agency while also preserving traditional views of women and remaining silent about more controversial topics such as her career and income.

The interwar period was internationally marked by anxieties about the perceived subversion of traditional gender roles. The First World War played a significant part in this, having emasculated shellshocked and disabled men and increased the visibility of women in the workforce (Houlbrook, 2007, p. 161; DeGroot, 1996, p. 306). The emergence of a new consumer culture further exacerbated these anxieties as increasing consumer power and new leisure activities such as dancehalls were believed to have a corrupting influence on young people, prompting scientific studies into this (Tinkler, 2003, p. 214). Although flappers likely only existed in small numbers, they were blown out of proportion in popular culture and became particularly contested due to their ‘radical’ and overtly sexual behaviour and fashion, thereby posing a threat to traditional family life. Advertisers, however, having learned from wartime propaganda that emotions are a highly efficient tool to mobilise the masses, saw potential in the flapper as a lifestyle that could be sold to the public (Pumphrey, 1987, p. 185). Not buying into this lifestyle, the ads indicated, would make consumers unhappy and generally old-fashioned (Pumphrey, 1987, p. 185). The car and cosmetics industries were particularly well-suited to this type of advertising as two booming and gendered businesses that represented modernity.

The first advertisement from an American magazine from the 1920s shows an acceptable, toned down version of the party girl flapper – still recognisable by her short hair, hat, and dress – driving a new Chevrolet. The text ‘easy to drive’ suggestively plays into the idea of women as bad drivers and the need for a car that would be easy to control. In fact, the word ‘easy’ seems to be highlighted above all in this advertisement – it is not about its safety, or the way it looks. Instead, when a woman is at the steering wheel, the emphasis is on easy.

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Figure 1: Chevrolet magazine advertisement, USA, 1920s. Courtesy of The Advertising Archives.

Despite the overt sexism that women are bad drivers, by depicting the flapper in a car, the advertisement is an important acknowledgement that women had a legitimate place in the public world of leisure and shopping with the emergence of a new consumer culture. In fact, by 1928, 97 percent of all advertising was aimed at women, and they were also responsible for buying 67 percent of all consumer goods (Pumphrey, 1987, pp. 184 – 5). In that sense, the normalisation of women as active participants in public life, which this ad contributes to, undoubtedly gave young women more freedom and power.

Nevertheless, historian Martin Pumphrey (1987, p. 186) points out that there are very important silences in the narratives of such advertisements. Indeed, the flapper depicted is not as provocative as the original party girl, indicating a need to pacify conservative forces, but also revealing the conventional views about gender the advertisers held themselves. More importantly, although the car is advertised as affordable, such an expense was unquestionably the prerogative of the middle and upper classes. Considering that flappers were young, single women, it inevitably evokes the question of how she was able to afford such a car. Not without reason, historians have increasingly called the idealised narrative of modernity and the new education and job opportunities for women into question. Selina Todd (2005, p. 806), for instance, points out that while more young women took up work, their wages were of growing importance to the family income in the face of high numbers of male unemployment during the economic depression. Furthermore, Pumphrey underlines that the work performed was low-skilled and that most middle- and upper-class women stopped working once married (Pumphrey, 1987, p. 183). The flapper lifestyle was therefore only attainable for a few.

The second advertisement is for Maybelline from an American magazine from the 1930s. It depicts a flapper putting on the new Maybelline ‘eyelash beautifier’. She looks away quite playfully, and the text underneath suggestively highlights that this makeup makes your eyes sparkle when opened, but gives them an ‘inviting depth’ when partially closed. Altogether, the advert sells the product by underlining that it makes women charming and ‘irresistible’ whatever their mood is.

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Figure 2: Maybelline advertisement, USA, 1930s. Courtesy of The Advertising Archives.

With the rise of cinema and the consequent idealised forms of femininity depicted in films, Kathy Peiss (2001, p. 12) poses that makeup became a key product that allowed young women ‘to buy into rapidly changing norms of self’. Although clearly visible makeup had been contested due to its deep-rooted association with prostitution, this era saw an important shift away from using a limited amount of makeup in a way that made it look like you were a natural beauty to showing off the use of various products. New portable cosmetics allowed women to touch up their makeup in public spaces to maintain their appearance (Houlbrook, 2007, p. 159). Unsurprisingly, then, this advertisement emphasises that it is necessary for women to be ‘irresistible’ and ‘alluring’ at all times.

On the one hand, this is not too controversial considering it was important for young, single women to be able to attract a potential husband. Yet, on the other, the ad is overtly sexual considering the ambiguous text as well as her mischievous look, and it leaves the spectators to be seduced open to our own interpretation. Arguably, the advertisement actively plays into the sexual promiscuity of the flapper. In fact, historian Liz Conor (2002, p. 43) poses that the flapper lifestyle liberated women as it allowed young women to see themselves as a sexual beings as well as to present themselves as desirable objects to be pursued. Therefore, the flapper put heterosexual relations on public display, constantly seeking the attention of multiple men (Conor, 2002, p. 55). This contrasts starkly with the more traditional courtship between one man and woman in the private sphere.

The flapper was undoubtedly a product of consumerism and advertising as her lifestyle was presented as a product to be bought. Advertisements with flappers are telling of the tension that existed between the flapper as a symbol of modernity and women’s liberation on the one hand, and of immorality and deviance on the other. While advertisers did portray the flapper as the former, they did so to a limited extent. The often toned-down versions of the flapper in advertisements are revealing of advertisers’ own conventional views about gender as well as the need to pacify more conservative forces. This is further underlined by the ads themselves, which were sexist and maintained important silences in the flapper’s narrative. Nevertheless, for those able to afford her lifestyle, the flapper offered unprecedented freedom.


Conor, L. (2002). The Flapper in the Heterosexual Scene. Journal of Australian Studies. 26(72), pp. 41 – 57.

DeGroot, G. (1996). Blighty: British Society in the era of the Great War. London: Longman.

Houlbrook, M. (2007). The Man with the Powder Puff’ in Interwar London. The Historical Journal. 50(1), pp. 145 – 171.

Peiss, K. (2001). ‘On beauty … and the history of business’. In: P. Scranton, ed. Beauty business: commerce, gender and culture in modern America. London: Routledge. pp. 7 – 23.

Pumphrey, M. (1987). The Flapper, the Housewife and the Making of Modernity. Cultural Studies. 1(2), pp. 179 – 194.

Tinkler, P. (2003). Cause for Concern: Young Women and Leisure, 1930–50. Women’s History Review. 12(2), pp. 233 – 262.

Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects Uncategorized

Mary Hamilton: A Woman Wronged

By Kirsten Blackham

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

‘Word is to the kitchen gone

And word is to the hall

And word is up to madam the queen

And that is the worst of all

That Mary Hamilton’s born a babe

To the highest Stuart of all’

(Baez, 1960)

Mary Hamilton is possibly one of the most well-known and prolific folk ballads of all time. This ballad has been interpreted and sung for more than 400 years and survives to this day. In an era when reproductive rights, consent, and social judgment are at the forefront of governmental change and legislation, this ballad holds unprecedented significance. It is evidence that these issues have been a point of social distress and discussion for hundreds of years.

The ballad itself is the result of ‘group authorship’ – stories that have been told and amended over a large period of time (Tolman, 1927). Ballads and other folk music spread in a similar manner to gossip, and this seems to be particularly relevant to Mary Hamilton (Coffin, 1957). Though altered over time, the song’s emotional core remains; a woman is coerced by a man, often the king, and as a result becomes pregnant. She kills her baby, and hides the evidence of its birth, but not before being discovered by the Queen. As a result she is put to death.

There are two possible real-life sources for Mary Hamilton (Long, 1973). The first source originates from the 16th century, occurring in the court of Mary Stuart, and is mentioned in John Knox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland. In Knox’s account, a maid became pregnant and disposed of the baby with the aid of her purported lover, the Apothecary. Both were hanged in Edinburgh for their crimes (Knox, 2017). The second source comes from 18th century Russia. This is where the last name Hamilton comes in. Mary Hamilton was a Lady in Waiting to the Empress Catherine (Long, 1973). Her story is strikingly similar to Mary Stuart’s unnamed maid, with the notable exception that Mary Hamilton alone was put to death. She bore the legal weight of the infanticide, and her partner was not held responsible. All surviving versions of this ballad contain elements from both women’s stories.

Mary, Queen of Scots by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

This begs the question: why does this ballad survive? What is so important about the tale of Mary Hamilton that it has survived for so long? The answer may be found in the content of each version.

There are at least 28 different recorded variations of the ballad, most of which were preserved by James Francis Child in his collection English and Scottish Ballads. However, ballads are meant to be continually sung and reinterpreted by each reciter, and therefore the actual number of ballad variations is unknown. That does not mean, however, that each version is inconsistent with one another. There are a few key points of the ballad that appear in almost every variation. These lines which are the most consistent with the ballad over time can tell us how people felt and continue to feel about her fate.

The first and most common, the naming of the four Mary’s, firmly placing the court of Mary Stuart:

‘Yestreen four Maries made Queen Mary’s bed,

This nicht there’ll be but three,

A Mary Beaton, a Mary Seaton,

A Mary Carmichael, and me.’

(Child Ballad: 173k.8)

This line is essential to the ballad and it appears in almost every single version. Though it is certain that none of the famous four Mary’s who served Mary Queen of Scots were killed for terminating a pregnancy or infanticide, this line is essential to both period and location placement and is an added embellishment that enforces the sense of betrayal later in the tale when Mary Hamilton is put to death.

The next line outlines Mary’s sense of worth as she approaches her death through a choice of clothing.

‘I winna put on my robes o black,

Nor yet my robes o brown;

But I’ll put on my robes o white,

To shine through Edinbro town.’

(Child Ballad: 173A.7)

Mary, instead of choosing brown clothes to indicate a desire to blend in as she rides to her judgment, or black a symbol of mourning, chooses to wear white, a color that represented purity, and may have been quite expensive. This may indicate that the interpreter felt that Mary was, if not innocent, then at least not afraid of her judgment, and wanted to stick out from the queen’s retinue as they rode through the city.

The next line is intriguing, particularly as it relates to the public sentiment towards Mary, and it echoes how the audience should feel about her while listening to the ballad:

When she cam down the Cannogate,

The Cannogate sae free,

Many a ladie lookd oer her window,

Weeping for this ladie.

(Child Ballad: 173A.11)

This line is arguably one of the most important to the ballad when looking at gender, and in particular, women of the past. Though abortion and infanticide were both punishable by death at this time, and throughout most of the lifetime of the ballad, women mourned for Mary. Mary responds to them in the ballad by saying they should not weep for her because she took responsibility for the action of killing her baby (Child, 2010) However, that did not prevent them from weeping for her, nor does it prevent the audience from sympathizing with her. The interpreter further emphasizes the need to sympathize with Mary with the next line:

‘Oh little did my mother think,

The day she cradled me,

What lands I was to travel through,

What death I was to dee.’

(Child Ballad 173A.15)

Invoking the image of her mother cradling her as a child reminds the audience that Mary too was someone’s child, and that her parents could not have known what misfortunes would befall her in the future.

The final line focuses on Mary’s betrayal:

‘Last night I washd the queen’s feet,

And gently laid her down;

And a’ the thanks I’ve gotten the nicht

To be hangd in Edinbro town!’

(Child Ballad: 173A.17)

Mary feels wronged and claims that the only reward she received for her service to the queen was death. It also implies the interpreters felt that Mary had no control over what happened to her. Whether her pregnancy was the result of coercion and rape or of a whirlwind romance from a man at court, she should not have been put to death by the queen.  

Video accessed from on 18/02/2021

There could be many reasons for the long life of this ballad. It could have survived because it was a piece of salacious court gossip, or used as a cautionary tale. However, the most probable reason for its survival, considering the tone set by these lines, is that the story of Mary Hamilton is relatable.  Mary Hamilton would not have had access to birth control, and even if she had chosen to keep the baby, she would most likely have lost her position and been banished from court, a fate that may have sentenced her to death in itself. It is unlikely that she would have received support from her partner, and she almost certainly would have been forever labeled for having a child out of wedlock. To this day, people still face the pressure of these circumstances. The legalization of abortion is not even across the board in all or even most countries, and even where it is legal, there is a distinct social stigma attached to it. This ballad represents a social issue, even a trauma that we feel to this day


Baez, Joan, Mary Hamilton (Vanguard, 1960)

Brickdale, Eleanor Fortesque, “The Queen’s Marie” (Hodder and Stoughton, 1919) <’s_Golden_book_of_famous_women_(1919)_-_The_Queen’s_Marie.jpg>

Child, Francis James, English and Scottish Ballads Volume 2 (, 2012)

Coffin, Tristram P., “‘Mary Hamilton’ and the Anglo-American Ballad as an Art Form,” The Journal of American Folklore , 70.277 (1957), 208–14

Eyre-Todd, George, Scottish Ballad Poetry (Volume 3) (General Books, 2012)

John1948SevenB, “Joan Baez – Mary Hamilton (BBC Television Theatre, London – June 5, 1965)” (Youtube, 2015) <>

Knox, John, History of the Reformation in Scotland; Volume 2 (Andesite Press, 2017)

Long, Eleanor R., “Ballad Singers, Ballad Makers, and Ballad Etiology,” Western Folklore, 32.4 (1973), 225

Preston, Cathy Lynn, “The Way Stylized Language Means: Pattern Matching in the Child Ballads,” Computers and the Humanities, 23.4–5 (1989), 323–32

Tolman, Albert H., “Mary Hamilton; The Group Authorship of Ballads,” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 42.2 (1927), 422–32 Uknown, Mary, Queen of Scots, 1560-1592 <>

Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

Sexuality and the Ideal Woman in Cecil B. DeMille’s Why Change Your Wife? (1920)

by Jessica Coslett

The flapper is perhaps the most iconic image to emerge from the ‘Roaring Twenties’ in the United States. The flapper was young and modern, often rebelling against the social restrictions of decades past by dressing in short skirts, dancing, smoking and partying (Fischer, 2009: 5). In film and fiction she was often criticised for superficiality and hedonism and yet nonetheless portrayed as an object of fascination and a symbol of modernity (Ross, 2009: 74).

Cecil B. DeMille’s comedic films of the late 1910s and early 1920s provide early examples of the New Woman film heroine as a fashionable, frivolous consumer (Higashi, 2002: 300). DeMille’s Why Change Your Wife (1920) is particularly notable in its portrayal of the sexuality of its two female leads, Beth and Sally. The early twentieth century saw a rapid change in gender roles with the rise of mixed-sex leisure pursuits and companionate marriage based on mutual fulfilment (Higashi, 2002: 229). However, while flapper films depicted women independent from the social restrictions of the recent past, they often did so through the depiction of marriage (Landay, 2002: 225). Sally’s and Beth’s character development throughout the film demonstrates the tenuous position of the flapper in discourse, as it is clear that the wifely Beth becomes modern in the ‘right’ way, while Sally is modern in the ‘wrong’ way.

Why Change Your Wife? follows a married couple, Robert and Beth, who are in a rut. A young and fashionable shopgirl called Sally seduces Robert, leading Beth and Robert to divorce. After the divorce, Robert marries Sally, who turns out not to be the ideal wife either. Meanwhile, Beth decides to start dressing more fashionably. Beth and Robert (with his new wife Sally) run into each other at a hotel and both realise they are still in love with the other. In the climax of the film, Robert slips on a banana peel and falls into a brief coma, and Beth and Sally brawl over where to put his unconscious body. Robert wakes up, chooses Beth, and the two remarry. 

The frivolous and seductive Sally in Why Change Your Wife? is a stereotypical flapper from the start, with the ‘complex balance of sexuality and innocence’ that marks the icon (Ross, 2009: 74). She first appears onscreen as a shopgirl modelling lingerie that Robert wishes to buy for Beth. Sally removes the underskirt to make the lingerie more revealing, puts on perfume and poses for him seductively. Later on, Sally is the instigator in their relationship, hinting at Robert to invite her to a show and convincing him to come inside for a drink, which eventually leads to a passionate kiss. At the same time, however, the film is critical of Beth’s prudishness, as shown through her overly modest clothing and her frequent scolding of Robert for his choice in music, his at-home bar and his allowing the dog onto the furniture. Robert decides to buy the lingerie for Beth because he wishes to cheer her up and, it is implied, because he wants her to be more sexually available (Why Change Your Wife?, 1920, 8:24).

Sexual fulfillment as an essential component of a companionate marriage was widely discussed in the years after the war, with a rise in popularity of marriage manuals with sexual advice for married couples, such as Marie Stopes’ Married Love, circulating in the United States and Europe (Robb, 2006: 100). While this may have afforded women more freedom to express their sexual desires within marriage, some historians have pointed out that the new discourse contributed to women being sexually objectified by their husbands, with what would have previously been described as ‘purity’ now being considered ‘frigidity’ (Robb, 2006: 100). Beth’s lack of overt sexual appeal is depicted as a problem in the film, and is contrasted with Sally’s own self presentation. When Beth reluctantly tries on the lingerie that Robert bought her she adds her own underskirt to make the dress less revealing. Later in the scene, still upset by the lingerie, she rejects Robert’s sexual advances which frustrates him (Why Change Your Wife?, 1920, 21:28).

It is clear that the responsibility of maintaining a companionate and sexually fulfilling marriage is largely on Beth, despite Robert’s infidelity being the direct cause of the divorce. Heartbroken, Beth goes dress shopping with her aunt and overhears two women discussing the divorce. These women express sympathy but attribute the divorce to Beth’s uptight manner and old-fashioned clothing (Why Change Your Wife?, 1920, 42:54).This prompts Beth to undergo the style transformation that eventually leads Robert to fall back in love with her. Robert, on the other hand, changes very little by the end of the film. His character’s transformation is primarily his realisation that Beth has transformed and that Sally is not the ideal wife.

woman in a glamorous dress surrounded by shop workers looks at herself in a hand mirror
Gloria Swanson as Beth, updating her style (Why Change Your Wife?, 1920, 45:15).

“Gloria Swanson, ‘Why Change Your Wife?’, 1920” by thefoxling is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the climax of the film the two women fight over where to move Robert, who is lying comatose in Beth’s house. Beth’s concern in the fight is doing what’s best for Robert, while Sally’s motivation stems from spite for Beth and possessiveness of Robert, as she wishes to move Robert’s body despite the risk of injuring him further. During the fight Beth gains the upper hand by threatening to throw acid in Sally’s face so that ‘no man will ever look at you again’, indirectly connecting Sally’s selfishness with her vanity, despite Beth now participating in the same materialistic fashion culture (Why Change Your Wife?, 1920, 1.21.49). 

By the time Beth and Robert remarry at the end of the film, Beth has changed significantly. However, despite outward appearance, the extent to which Beth has modernised is questionable. In the final scene of Beth’s and Robert’s newfound marital bliss, Beth, now in a more revealing dress, dotes on Robert at the expense of her own wants. Why Change Your Wife? uses the visual trappings of modernity to portray a ‘modern woman’ who still conforms to traditional gender roles. It reinforces a traditional ideal by contrasting Sally with the more mature and sensible Beth. Beth’s character therefore seems less like a portrayal of the modern woman and more like a portrayal of a man’s ideal modern wife.


Fischer, Lucy, ‘Introduction’ in American Cinema of the 1920s: Themes and Variations’ ed. by Lucy Fischer, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2009).

Higashi, Sumiko, ‘The New Woman and Consumer Culture: Cecil DeMille’s Sex Comedies’, in A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema, ed. by Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).

Landay, Lori, ‘The Flapper Film: Comedy, Dance, and Jazz Age Kinaesthetics’, in A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema, ed. by Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).

Robb, George, ‘Marriage and Reproduction’, in Palgrave Advances in the Modern History of Sexuality, ed. by Harry Cocks and Matt Houlbrook, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

Ross, Sara, ‘Movies and the Perilous Future’, in American Cinema of the 1920s: Themes and Variations’ ed. by Lucy Fischer, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2009).

Why Change Your Wife?, dir. by Cecil B. DeMille (Famous Players-Lasky, 1920), online film recording, YouTube, <> [accessed 15 February 2021].

Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

Goldfinger and the Straight Gaze

by Holly McDavid

“I just have to remind myself that the conversation is happening and that I’m a part of something that will be very, very revolutionary.” This quote from Lashana Lynch’s interview with Harper Bazaar, has been seen as confirmation that she will play the first female black lesbian 007 agent in the 25th James Bond film, No Time To Die (dir. Cary Joji-Fukunage, 2021). Though the sexuality of her character, Nomi, has yet to be confirmed due to the film’s delayed release, it encourages us to look back at earlier examples of lesbian representation in the Bond franchise.

To select an example of lesbian representation in the Bond canon, Ian Fleming’s novel, Goldfinger (1959), and its film adaption, (dir. Guy Hamilton, 1964) is apt. The plot features Sean Connery as James Bond, Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore and Tania Mallet as Tilly Masterson. Pussy and Tilly are both lesbian characters. However how their storylines develop proves problematic for the type of representation it offers. The fate of these two characters in both novel and film ultimately panders to the ‘straight gaze’ and contributes to the subtle but firm stigmatisation of lesbians. Vicki Eaklor identifies ‘the straight gaze’ as the way in which the public is perceived and described as exclusively straight (Eaklor, 1994, 325). This theoretical ‘straight’ public influenced how Pussy and Tilly were created and presented. The straight gaze is rife, in both film and novel, and demonstrates how inclusion does not always equate to positive representation in popular culture.

In 1959, shortly after Goldfinger’s publication, Ian Fleming replied to a letter, stating that ‘Pussy only needed the right man to come along and perform the laying on of hands in order to cure her psycho-pathological malady’. Pussy Galore in both film and book is consistently defined in relation to the men around her. Her sexuality is both created and cured by men: she explains her homosexuality to Bond as the result of being raped by an uncle, and it is Bond, paradigm of masculinity, who can cure this malady with some ‘TLC’(Fleming, 1959, 371). Though the film retains Pussy’s homosexuality, it is done through vague hints in her lines to Bond such as: ‘You can turn off the charm – I’m immune’ and her later protests against Bond’s advances ‘Skipper I’m not interested’. It is palatable to straight audiences for Pussy to express these sentiments, at a time when homosexuality was still seen as a threat to societal norms, because in her 15 minutes of screen time, Bond succeeds in his seduction and therefore converts her on screen.

The plot of Goldfinger itself further demonises homosexuality by aligning ‘lesbian’ Pussy with Auric Goldfinger, the gold-obsessed villain determined to blow up Fort Knox, and aligns ‘straight’ Pussy with Bond, the hero who represents the ‘good’ side. Pussy’s survival is due to this crucial conversion; she is rewarded for her conformity to the expected gender norms. Through her new-found heterosexuality and shift in allegiance, Pussy is no longer viewed as a threat to society either as a lesbian or an accomplice of Goldfinger. Examining Fleming’s letter, we see that any possibility for a bisexual Pussy Galore is unrealistic – with Fleming’s preference to use heterosexuality versus homosexuality as a trope to represent good versus evil.

Illustration: James Bond and Pussy Galore in the film Goldfinger.

Sean Connery and Honor Blackman as James Bond and Pussy Galore. Goldfinger. Dir. Guy Hamilton. Eon Productions. 1964.

In contrast, Tilly is never cured of her ‘psycho-pathological malady’. Tilly seeks revenge for the death of her sister Jill – one of Bond’s conquests – who is killed by Goldfinger. In the novel she has a larger role, and is held captive with Bond and demonstrates her preference for Pussy’s company to that of Bond. Bond detects the snub and ‘came to the conclusion that Tilly Masterton was one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed up’ and goes on to insult sex equality and ‘pansies’(Fleming, 313).

Tilly’s death, and the difference between how it is portrayed in the novel versus the film, demonstrate Fleming’s punishment of lesbianism, and the film’s straightwashing of Tilly. In the novel, Tilly and Bond are running from Oddjob and Tilly breaks from Bond and says: ‘Stop! I want to stay close to Pussy. I’ll be safe with her’(Fleming, 337). Ultimately Tilly is unable to escape and is killed. Afterwards, Bond states: ‘“Poor little bitch. She didn’t think much of men.” He looked defensively at Leiter. “Felix, I could have got her away if she’d only followed me”’(Fleming, 341). Bond’s reminder to the reader of Tilly’s sexuality and the responsibility Bond places on himself, serve to show the reader that Tilly has subverted Bond’s ability to accomplish his expected masculine duty: to both protect and attract her. Tilly is punished for this subversion by death. It is implied that if she had been converted to heterosexuality like Pussy, and stayed with Bond – she would have survived.

Although in the film, she dies in the same manner (running from Oddjob), she is running on Bond’s orders to hide in the bushes. A small change, but one that represents the straightwashing of Tilly’s character. In cutting down her role, the film eliminates the attachment Tilly develops for Pussy (they never meet) and replaces it with attachment to Bond. Though they never kiss, there are more subtle enjoyments from Tilly in his company and she obeys his command. Although she still dies, her death is not because of her sexuality, because her true sexuality has been completely edited out of the film. This ensures Bond’s sexual prowess stays firmly intact, he has not been rejected, – could he have slept with Tilly if only she’d lived? – and to focus the film’s gaze on Pussy, the preferred lesbian, in that she isn’t one for long. 

Illustration: James Bond and Tilly Masterson in the film Goldfinger.
Sean Connery and Tania Mallet as James Bond and Tilly Masterson. Goldfinger. Dir. Guy Hamilton. Eon Productions. 1964.

Ultimately, lesbians are not new to the Bond franchise. But Tilly and Pussy’s characters suffer from the straight gaze – by the end of the film one is dead and the other converted. I doubt I am alone in hoping that No Time To Die delivers more for representation than its predecessors and sets the tone for the future relationship between Bond and homosexuality.


Burgess, Susan, ‘Gender and Sexuality Politics in the James Bond Film Series: Cultural Origins of Gay Inclusion in the U.S Military’, Polity, Vol. 47, No. 2, (2015), 225-248.

Eaklor, Vicki L., “Seeing” Lesbians in Film and History’, Historical Reflections, Vol. 20, No. 2, (1994), 321-333.

Fleming, Ian, Goldfinger, (London: Penguin, 2012).

Ladenson, Elisabeth, ‘Lovely Lesbians; or, Pussy Galore’, GLQ: A journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Vol. 7, No. 3, (2001), 417-423.

Goldfinger. Dir. Guy Hamilton. Eon Productions. 1964. Film.

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 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 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.

[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.

[7] Picture accessed from 12/02/2020.

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): [accessed 12/02/20]

A. Bechdel, Dykes to Watch out For Episode 18 ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1987): [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): [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), [accessed 12/02/20].

[16] Bechdel, DTWOF, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1987): [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): [accessed 12/02/20].

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.