From White Slavery to Bratz Dolls

Feminism and moral panics.

Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women, by Carol Dyhouse, Zed Books, 272 pages, $24.95.

Poor Lady Sybil, the Downton Abbey daughter who died in childbirth after flitting on the edges of the movement for a woman's right to vote. Lady Sybil—so beautiful, so sweet, so vaguely impassive when it came to feminism. If, instead of flitting, she'd been portrayed as a fully involved suffragette, we might have enjoyed some knock-down-drag-out scenes. Perhaps we could see teenaged Sybil in jail (or gaol, as it's spelled in England), on a hunger strike with force-feeding tubes down her throat. Or maybe we could watch her trembling as she listens to speakers railing against “white slavery”: the widespread kidnapping of virgin girls by men who prostituted the young innocents and infected them fatally with syphilis.

It turns out white slavery never existed, though millions during Sybil's time thought it did. As the English social historian Carol Dyhouse explains in Girl Trouble, the white-slavery scare was propelled by two forces. One was angst about women's social and political gains, which were burgeoning as the 19th century turned into the 20th. The other was the tendency of women's activists themselves to promote moral panics in order to achieve their goals in a conservative, male-dominated milieu.

Girl Trouble begins with the late Victorian era, when doctors and psychologists were worried not just about white slavery, but about how college for girls made their breasts and ovaries shrink, preventing them from being mothers. Moving through decades of similar rhetoric to today, Dyhouse shows that women's progress has always been met with noisy, obsessive, and in hindsight often nutty fretting about girls' behavior and bodies. Dyhouse writes almost exclusively about Great Britain, but variations on the panics she describes have also emanated from the United States. Comparing notes, Americans will find Dyhouse instructive—not to mention entertaining. If you like Alistair Cooke, you'll love Girl Trouble. 

Here you can you learn new vocabulary, including “French letter” (Brit English for “condom”), “wide boy” (in American, a hustler), and “stroppy” (irritable). Here you will you learn that early Girl Scouts in Great Britain at first organized themselves into troops christened Wildcats, Foxes, and Wolverines—until worried scout leaders replaced them with prim, feminine names such as Roses, Cornflowers, and Lilies of the Valley. You'll also read about the British panic, during World War II and just after, over “good time girls,” who were said to be interested in nothing but gaudy makeup, imported perfume, sweets cadged from American soldiers and, as a prestigious British medical journal put it, “sluttish...undergarments.”

Mainland America didn't endure the bombings that Britain did during World War II, nor was it overrun by foreign soldiers. Maybe that's why Americans never fretted about “good time girls.” Nor did we suffer from the “coffee bar” panic. It seems that in postwar England, coffee houses started opening in many cities besides London, and by the 1960s young people were frequenting them to sip caffeine and hear rock 'n' roll. Men and woman mixed freely at these establishments, as did members of different classes, ethnicities, and races. The same happened in America, but only in bohemian zones like Greenwich Village, so no one much cared. But in England, white slavery–style panic ensued again, with baseless rumors about girl coffee-bar customers being kidnapped and delivered to male Pakistanis.

If World War II and the 1960s are so far gone that they seem like a different country, then the Downton Abbey era is a whole other continent. At such remove, it's easy for Dyhouse to crisply assess a moral panic. It gets harder as her timeline moves forward, and sometimes she goes mushy. She misses the mark when discussing a massive 1980s sex-abuse scandal, in which British doctors and social workers over-diagnosed and misdiagnosed rape and molestation in hundreds of children in the working-class community of Cleveland, wreaking havoc on low-income families and leading to a government inquiry.

Dyhouse does not mention the diagnostic mistakes committed in the case, and she blames the media backlash against the social workers and doctors on hostility against feminism. It's true that the women's movement was scapegoated, but if Dyhouse had dug deeper she would have understood that feminism did share some of the blame for what happened. Attempting to redress violence against women, major strands of the U.S. and British movements really did promote gothic delusions about child sexual endangerment and replayed the old white-slavery crusade. It's a shame Dyhouse missed the connection.

Usually, though, she ably applies her lessons of yore to parse the panics of today. Since the 1990s and continuing into the aughts, she notes, a veritable library of books from both sides of the Atlantic have decried the damage supposedly being done to contemporary girls by social change. Reviving Ophelia, The Beauty Myth, The Body Project, Female Chauvinist Pigs, The Lolita Effect, Living Dolls: All warn that a girl-hating culture is gravely wounding young women. It's inflicting them with eating disorders. Pressuring them to obsess over their looks. Creating an unhealthy predilection for vapid girl bands like the Spice Girls and the Pussycat Dolls. Imparting the misconception that bawdiness in women (acting like “ladettes,” as they say in England) equals women's liberation. Perhaps worst of all, according to these books, modern culture injects girls with a premature and perverse sexualization.

Dyhouse smells a moral panic. Girls obsessing over their looks? She cites studies that show they've been obsessing at least since the 1940s. Eating disorders? Research suggests that anorexia and bulimia among young women has actually declined in the past generation. And since the late 1990s, Dyhouse reminds us, females have outnumbered males in college. It remains true that women's salaries and prospects for promotion start to drag behind men's a few years after graduation, so perhaps the media mantra about “girl power” has been exaggerated, Dyhouse writes. But “the evidence suggests it was no empty concept.”

And no one can deny that little girls' T-shirts at 99-cent stores now come emblazoned with words like “sexy,” or that a Bratz doll looks very different from a Madame Alexander. But what does it mean to say that such material “sexualizes” girls? “Sexualization” used this way is a new term, only a generation old. Dyhouse notes that the idea it's based on—that girls in their “natural” state are devoid of sexual desire unless they are “contaminated” by forces invading from outside—sounds suspiciously like old white slavery–era chestnuts about the purity and fragility of young, endangered females.

Yes, girls are bombarded with materials reflecting narrow, hidebound ideas about their sexuality. But when has this not been true? They may see more of it today, since the media have become more unrelenting, but that doesn't mean the basic dynamics have changed. The trick, according to critical researchers, is to stop thinking of young women as coin flips—innocent versus non-innocent—and instead learn how they deal, as complex and sexual human beings, with the cultural junk that comes their way.

Dyhouse also suggests that we examine the motives of those touting the coin-toss idea of girls. She quotes a British newspaper columnist, for example, who wonders whether part of the worry about “trashy” clothes for little girls isn't an upper-class assault on working-class taste. This is not an observation you see much in America, even though we've got plenty of socioeconomic splits. To study our own moral panics, maybe America needs the perspective of a nation with Downton Abbeys. As Girl Trouble demonstrates, British history can help us get a handle on our own. 

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    ...college for girls made their breasts and ovaries shrink, preventing them from being mothers.

    Sandra Fluke wishes is was so. And that's my untopical zinger for the day.

  • ||

    ...that?

  • AlmightyJB||

    So she didn't need birth control after all that fuss?

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    "I know a joke so funny it will make your tits fall off.

    "Oh, I see you've already heard it."

  • jillian77||

    what Charles explained I am blown away that people can profit $5562 in 1 month on the computer. did you look at this page http://www.fox86.com

  • WomSom||

    OK wow, that dude seems to be talking a LOT fo smack!

    www.Net-Privacy.us

  • ||

    Perhaps worst of all, according to these books, modern culture injects girls with a premature and perverse sexualization.

    Oh god I hope so. Can't we just all agree that women like sex, that this is a good thing, and that the sluttier the behavior, the better? That's it; I've decided for everyone. Women, please wear shorts that say "juicy" on the ass. It's fun.

  • ||

    Mother's Day is when you do something nice for your mom, not try to turn all other women into her.

  • ||

    Today is Mother's Day?!? Why didn't your mom tell me when I kicked her out this morning? I would have let her use the shower for once.

  • ||

    You'd better not get her wet unless you want a spontaneous harem. Haven't you seen Gremlins?

  • ||

    YOUR MOM DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY

  • ||

    Uh, she sure does. If it didn't work for you I'd highly recommend having someone look at what's coming out of your pipes.

  • ||

    And in at least one case the answer to that will be "gonorrhea."

  • ||

    Charlie: Since when do you pay to stay in a hospital?

    Doctor: Since always.

    Charlie: Uh, no, I believe that is what taxes are for.

    Mac: Yeah, you don't pay a fireman to put out a fire.

    Charlie: Or a cop to shoot a guy.

    Dennis: How do you not know how this works? You've been in a hospital before.

    Charlie: I—-I guess I must have slipped through the cracks. I do always give a fake name 'cause I like to stay off the grid. You know what I mean?

    Mac: Yeah, they usually just give me a bunch of antibiotics, the sores go away, and I walk out.

  • sgs||

    "Why didn't your mom tell me when I kicked her out this morning? I would have let her use the shower for once."

    You get zinged, and that steaming pile is the best you've got?

    A counter-mom mom joke, I bet you like futurama too.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Juicy Fruit is gonna move ya....

    Remember when they advertised chewing gum with allusions to fellatio?

    Good times.

  • oliversebastian101||

    If you think Cynthia`s story is inconceivable,, 2 weeks ago my cousins step dad basically also earned $5190 workin a fourteen hour week in their apartment and their co-worker's aunt`s neighbour has been doing this for eight months and recieved a check for over $5190 part time from there laptop. follow the information on this link... www.mojo55.com

  • grey||

    I'll agree with you. Women like sex. The world is a different place when you make them very pedestrian realization.

  • jemkem06||

    my neighbor's mom makes $66 an hour on the internet. She has been without work for 5 months but last month her income was $16989 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read more on this site grand4.com
    (Go to site and open "Home" for details)

  • ||

    misdiagnosed rape and molestation in hundreds of children in the working-class community of Cleveland

    Fuck you, Ariel Castro, for ruining a perfectly good "You know who else wreaked havoc in Cleveland?" set-up.

  • ||

    Warty?

  • ||

    LeBron?

  • ||

  • ||

  • ||

    The second Hellmouth?

  • ||

    Those were all good guesses but unfortunately it appears the answer we were looking for was your mom.

  • Zombie Jimbo||

    John Elway?

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    Too soon.

  • Ted S.||

  • ||

    Grover Cleveland, at age 27, met his future wife shortly after she was born. He took an avuncular interest in the child

    Yikes. NTTAWWT and all.

  • cavalier973||

    Do you believe in love at first sight?

  • cavalier973||

  • Robert||

    Whew, for a second there I thought you'd written David Breckman.

  • BlueBook||

    Drew Carey?

  • Generic Stranger||

    STEVE SMITH?

  • ||

    Dyhouse also suggests that we examine the motives of those touting the coin-toss idea of girls.

    Um, I believe it is pronounced "coin slot." Glad we could clear that up.

  • Warrren||

    I don't know why, but reading this article made me want to have biscuits and gravy for lunch.

  • Aloysious||

    This seems oddly appropriate...

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohFjMWK09hY

  • cavalier973||

    My grandmother had GREAT biscuits and grav...wait, was this a double entendre remark?

  • ||

    Susan Collins demands Obama apologize for IRS screw-up, liberal commentators rally round to supporting the IRS.

    Dr. Bob
    You might as well get used to these kinds of stories, because the Republicans are going to be throwing everything including the kitchen sink in the run-up to midterms, in an effort to stall anything getting done, and to screw with Hillary Clinton.

    It's never mattered to these clowns before whether the stories are accurate, and it won't matter now.

    Adam Levitz
    I see absolutely nothing wrong with the IRS giving extra scrutiny to groups who unite under the "Taxed Enough Already" banner.

    Clearly these people have a major problem with taxation, so it's probably a good idea to give them an extra once-over to make sure they're complying with the law.

    These idiots brought the scrutiny on themselves and now they're whining about it - typical conservatives.

    These guys are evil, pure and simple.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Adam Levitz 1950
    I see absolutely nothing wrong with the FBI giving extra scrutiny to groups who unite under the "Civil Rights" banner.

    Clearly these people have a major problem with segregation, so it's probably a good idea to give them an extra once-over to make sure they're complying with the law.

    These idiots brought the scrutiny on themselves and now they're whining about it - uppity nigras.
  • Irish||

    I see absolutely nothing wrong with the IRS giving extra scrutiny to groups who unite under the "Taxed Enough Already" banner.

    Clearly these people have a major problem with taxation, so it's probably a good idea to give them an extra once-over to make sure they're complying with the law.

    These idiots brought the scrutiny on themselves and now they're whining about it - typical conservatives.

    I said it yesterday and I'll say it again. If being opposed to taxation means it's okay for the IRS to look more deeply into the finances of Tea Party groups, even with no evidence that they've cheated on taxes, then does that mean that the DEA should be allowed to search the houses of anyone who attends a pot legalization rally? Who would attend a pro-pot rally if they didn't do drugs? Clearly we should keep an eye on them.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    And the public health authorities should raid the homes of everyone involved in an OWS demonstration, since their disregard of basic hygiene could cause an epidemic.

  • ||

    If being opposed to taxation means it's okay for the IRS to look more deeply into the finances of Tea Party groups, even with no evidence that they've cheated on taxes, then does that mean that the DEA should be allowed to search the houses of anyone who attends a pot legalization rally? Who would attend a pro-pot rally if they didn't do drugs? Clearly we should keep an eye on them.

    I used that argument. Response: False equivalence! The DEA needs a warrant, the IRS can investigate whomever they want!

    So I then asked them if that logic extended to the racial profiling of blacks and Muslims. Response: Another false equivalence. Police power is different from the IRS authority to investigate whomever they want.

    There is no getting through to these people.

  • Irish||

    Then is the IRS allowed to audit Muslim churches repeatedly under the assumption that a Muslim church must be sending money to terrorist organizations? Ask them that. It involves the IRS using its audit powers. There is no false equivalence. I'd love to hear their argument.

  • ||

    You can't "get through" to people who have zero interest in being rational. Let me explain the thinking of these geniuses for you:

    OTHER TEAM = BAD

    They will rationalize anything done to the other TEAM as ok. If you use logic, they will just stick their fingers in their ears.

    Don't bother. Just view them with the contempt they deserve.

  • ||

    Honest-to-Shiva conversation I had at the end of last week:

    SockPuppet: I'll tell you what, I'll care about Benghazi when the GOP comes to term with how evil the lying war criminals Bush and Cheney were!
    Me: You do realize Obama is a war criminal and a liar, right?
    SP: Bush and Cheney are, Obama isn't.
    Me: Obama is by definition a war criminal with his drone strikes against uncharged non-combatants in non-belligerent countries. He's a criminal-criminal in his use of the military in Lybia without notification of, or permission from, Congress. Name any policy area you wish, and I'll find you a lie from him.
    SP: Whatever. I'll make this easy - I hate Bush, and you hate Obama. Let's leave it at that.
    Me: I think they all suck balls equally, actually.
    SP: But you never thought that when a white man was President.
    Me: Of course I did. Most of the people I'm talking about are white.
    SP:

  • ||

    Another fucked up angle to this is that the tax code is so ridiculously complex that I would wager you could probably find something questionable on damn near anyone's return, most likely unintentional. So siccing the IRS on one's political enemies is even more nakedly punitive.

  • Dweebston||

    Ignorance of the law tax code is no excuse.

  • Ted S.||

    Unless, of course, you're Turbo Tax Timmy.

  • Irish||

    Also, ask them about 'chilling effect.' The Supreme Court has ruled that the United States government is not allowed to do anything that might have a chilling effect on the free speech of American citizens. Sending onerous paperwork to specific organizations based on nothing but their political beliefs could result in someone simply deciding it isn't worth it and not setting up their organization.

    If even one person made the decision not to get involved because of the difficulty of IRS paperwork, which is likely since some groups withdrew their applications after the IRS started harassing them, then the IRS would have had a chilling effect on the free speech of American citizens. In that case, according to the Supreme Court, the IRS would actually be guilty of denying Tea Partiers their human rights by stifling their freedom of speech.

  • Dweebston||

    You evidently don't understand that these astroturf organizations are advancing the Koch agenda. There's no first amendment issue here, just sleazy corporatism.

    Real patriots would unquestioningly pay their fair share.

  • Ornithorhynchus||

    Just remind them that if the IRS is allowed to get away with this, then the evil Republicans will use them to harrass all the noble Progressive groups the next time they are in power. Be sure to imply that the Republicans would abuse the power even more, so that they'll feel it's in their best interest to stop the practice now.

    That's how you do with any partisan fanatics in cases like this.

  • Dweebston||

    I think you're giving them too much credit. Farsightedness is a trait of the party currently out of power; those within earnestly believe they'll hold the reins forever. Every electoral win is a watershed moment; voters have embraced the virtues of their philosophy now and forever, and loss has indelibly disgraced their opposition. Their party is ascendant, and things can finally get done.

    At least, this has been the response to my complaints about Obama's stepped-up drone war and executive kill list. I suppose it's an improvement over simply disavowing it as a Bush-era holdover. /derp

  • ||

    "...to screw with Hillary Clinton."

    Better than "to screw with Hillary Clinton."

  • MJGreen||

    It's never mattered to these clowns before whether the stories are accurate, and it won't matter now.

    An IRS official admitted it. But I guess it's the conservatives that don't care whether stories are accurate.

  • grey||

    Yes, misguided is just not accurate. Unprincipled, doesn't really tell the full story. Evil, that's a word that explains them.

  • Irish||

    Or maybe we could watch her trembling as she listens to speakers railing against “white slavery”: the widespread kidnapping of virgin girls by men who prostituted the young innocents and infected them fatally with syphilis.

    Pretty much all of this is still commonly believed, the puritans just call it sex trafficking now. Some 'white slavery' type laws are still on the books, so that if a prostitute crosses state lines to meet a client, that client has technically engaged in sex trafficking.

  • ||

    +1 Mann Act

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Dirty old man: "I think more research needs to be done on young women, and I would be happy to conduct it in the interests of science."

  • ||

    “Sexualization” used this way is a new term, only a generation old. Dyhouse notes that the idea it's based on—that girls in their “natural” state are devoid of sexual desire unless they are “contaminated” by forces invading from outside—sounds suspiciously like old white slavery–era chestnuts about the purity and fragility of young, endangered females.

    Yeah, but do they not understand how most fathers are? Any parents here with daughters want to comment on this?

  • Zombie Jimbo||

    My 12 y.o. daughter likes boys a lot but still thinks the sex bit is icky. We make sure to encourage that by answering any questions in great detail. My wife's STD presentation is a classic in the genre, she'll cheat a little and show nasty derm photos and say they are STD's.

    My claim to fame is telling her that adolescence is when the Boob Fairy comes and leaves breasts for good little girls. Her friends think that one is hilarious.

    If she's gonna want to complain about us to her therapist later in life, we might as well give her a good reason.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Looking at the female population of Asia, I am forced to conclude that the Boob Fairy is racist.

  • cavalier973||

  • hotsy totsy||

    Could it be that "many" American white men prefer the Asian women because they know that "many" American women prefer Black men?

  • cavalier973||

    Racist! You said "black", "white", and "Asian". Why not the more politically correct term "yellow"?

  • hotsy totsy||

    My bad. I do think it's sexier to mix it up a bit. Nobody has to apologize for prefering "yellow", just why hate on the white wimmins?

  • Dweebston||

    Thanks for this. What a gem.

  • ||

    Or Mother Nature:

    [...]
    The traits — thicker hair shafts, more sweat glands, characteristically identified teeth and smaller breasts — are the result of a gene mutation that occurred about 35,000 years ago, the researchers have concluded.
    [...]

    East Asian Physical Traits Linked to 35,000-Year-Old Mutation

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Yes, but does that mutation explain why my wife is bat-shit insane?

  • Ted S.||

    Marrying you would turn any woman bat-shit insane.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Fair enough.

  • hotsy totsy||

    Ass Fairy twice as racist.

  • Whahappan?||

    My daughter's only 8, but I'd like to think I will be somewhat sane in a few years when she starts getting interested in boys. I never understood why men freak out over their daughters. Like most men, I was a raging cauldron of hormones in my teens, but it was relatively innocent, and always well meaning. Even now, in my forties, I leer at women of any age, and have unclean thoughts about them, but it's always predicated on reciprocity. In other words, I imagine they dig me too, and any fantasies involve them enjoying it at least as much as me.

    Unless men see women as objects, and their own desires as evil, I don't understand all the angst with respect to their own daughters.

  • grey||

    Wife and I were angst free, as soon as interest started showing and as that escalated we were able persuade them both onto birth control. We structured the conversations about them being empowered, we re-branded "choice" to mean their choice on when to have sex and when to have a baby, we used words like, "freedom", "your decision", "option to decide when","the right time". We had fiends who derided us as pimping our daughters, their daughters had predictable results for not planning ahead.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    I think we all know that women are entirely too feebleminded and feckless to fend for themselves without a man's stern yet benevolent guiding hand.

  • Ornithorhynchus||

    Has Maggie McNeill read this yet?

  • Virginian||

    The problem is that the word has no definition. Thus it is a meaningless word.

  • swampfaye||

    It's the same logic that says video games turn our kids into killers. I've never wanted to eat ghosts, or shoot at centipedes, or blow up asteroids... mine them for gold maybe, but not blow them up...

  • Gabriel Hanna||

    Some of us think that thongs for little girls are right over the line. I don't think There Oughtta Be a Law, but I do think parents who dress little girls in that way should be shamed by the rest of us, or at the very least asked what the hell they think are doing by parents who have their heads screwed on straight.

  • Cosmo Punch||

  • Robert||

    The war on drugs is just a proxy for the war on sex, which is far wider, deeper, and more damaging than the war on drugs has ever been.

  • widget||

    It seems that in postwar England, coffee houses started opening in many cities besides London, and by the 1960s young people were frequenting them to sip caffeine and hear rock 'n' roll. Men and woman mixed freely at these establishments, as did members of different classes, ethnicities, and races. The same happened in America, but only in bohemian zones like Greenwich Village, so no one much cared.

    California was a bohemian coffee house?

  • BuSab Agent||

    That sounds about right.

  • WilliamGiannone||

    uptil I saw the bank draft saying $8432, I accept that...my... brothers friend was like truly bringing in money parttime on their laptop.. there uncle haz done this less than twenty one months and recently cleard the... www.up444.com

  • waltercollin||

    before I saw the check which had said 4615, I didn't believe that my mother in law had been actualy bringing home money parttime on their computer.. there friends cousin has done this for under 21 months and at present repaid the mortgage on their appartment and purchased a new Lancia Straton. this is where I went, ............www.Mojo55.com

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