Civil Liberties

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 child-birth after flitting on the edges of the movement for a woman's right to vote. Lady Sybil—so beautiful, so sweet, so oddly 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 fretting 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's Masterpiece Theatre, you'll love Girl Trouble. 

Here you can learn new vocabulary, including "French letter" (Brit English for "condom"), "wide boy" (in American, a hustler), and "stroppy" (irritable). Here you will 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 women 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 a working-class community in Cleveland, wreaking havoc on 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 toward 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 '00s, 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 OpheliaThe Beauty Myth, The Body ProjectFemale Chauvinist PigsThe Lolita EffectLiving 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 since at least 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 big-eyed, crop-topped Bratz doll looks very different from a ringletted and pinafored 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 in the first place. 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.