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The Trouble with Girls

Despite all the thigh-gap nonsense, being a girl today isn’t as shitty as it used to be.
June 26, 2014, 2:10pm

Photo via Wikimedia

Being a girl sucks—according to the media at least. There’s the thigh gap, Miley Cyrus, the hounding, the grooming, and the online abuse. Even Germaine Greer claimed recently that in the age of social media, women have it worse than they did in the 1970s.

But are things really that bad? In her new book, Girl Trouble, social historian and professor Carol Dyhouse argues that, although life's always been pretty shitty for girls, it's actually getting better. According to Dyhouse, without looking back at stereotypes and the way things were for women a century ago, it is impossible to understand the scope of the progress achieved by women's liberation movements.

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I caught up with Carol to talk about all the things that have made us the drinking, swearing, loose, career-driven women that we are.

VICE: Hi, Carol. How did you get started with Girl Trouble?
Carol: I’ve had a very long career teaching and researching women’s history, and I wanted to bring it all together. History hasn’t been kind to girls. They’ve been underestimated and misrepresented. It’s hard to find out what was happening to them and how they felt about it. There’s always been masses of people all too ready to speak for girls, but it’s harder to get young women speaking for themselves, especially as you go back in time to the late Victorian period or the early half of the 20th century.

So the problem is that the people who were recording history are mostly male?
Definitely. A good example is the British Medical Journal—you’d think this was quite a reputable source, and yet what they say is quite shocking. They're so quick to stereotype. In an article published in 1946, just after the war, one psychologist wrote; “They [good-time girls] spend a great deal of time on making up their faces and adorning themselves, although they do not trouble to wash and are sluttish about their undergarments. Their favorite reading matter consists of the weekly journals with the love lives of film stars, and they live in a fantasy world of erotic glamor. Frequently, they’re a good deal more intelligent and sophisticated than their parents, whom they outwit and despise.” It’s so negative and sexist. What were they so scared about? What I argue in that chapter is that there’s this category of female that was constructed out of male anxiety.

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I guess through the book you can rewrite a less gender-biased version of history. How did you go about that?
I had to do a lot of reading between the lines. Quite often, when people got into a strop about what they saw as outrageous or troublemaking behavior from a girl, it was because there was some progress in the way that women were living their lives. So when I came across scandals and misdemeanors around girlhood, I would often look into it and find a paradox in that. The more mud was kicked up, the more change was happening.

Do you have a specific example?
Well, the book starts off by talking about "white slavery" in London at the turn of the 20th century, whereby girls were kidnapped at railway stations and dance halls and forced into prostitution. It turned out to be more of a moral panic about fallen women than a real widespread problem, but it brought to light a debate about the sexual and social submission of women at almost exactly the same times as the suffrage movement—just when there was all this panic over whether women should have the vote. You sometimes get moral panics at a time when things are moving forward in a way that some people find very frightening, when history is making some kind of leap and the fabric of society is changing.

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I never liked history at school, so I’ll ask you as an adult: Why's it useful to dredge up the past?
I’m a historian, so I believe that you can understand things that are happening in the present by looking at how we got here. It’s useful to know whether things have got better or worse for girls. If you just read the newspaper now, it is easy to get the impression that things are really bad—that girls are plagued by body unhappiness, eating disorders, internet trolls, and that they’re brain-dead and boob-obsessed. I wouldn't for a minute say everything is rosy today for girls, but by looking back, there’s no doubt in my mind that things have got a lot better over the last century.

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How exactly have things improved for women?
One main thing in the UK is women over 21 getting to vote in 1928 (in 1918 it was only women over 30), which is actually not all that long ago. It’s less than a century. Another thing that has helped improve things is the decline of domestic service, having to wear those horrible outfits and behave in a submissive and self-deprecating manner, having your sex-life and leisure time policed. As soon as girls got the opportunity to do anything else, even if it was horrible factory work, they just got the heck out of there.

Then you’ve got education, and I do believe that it’s the bedrock that opens up opportunities for self-development. It can’t not be important. A particular turning point came after WWII, when all children in Britain got free access to secondary education. And then of course the availability of contraception is particularly important. It’s hard for people to remember just how bad stuff was before you could control your fertility—the terrible anxiety that you could be pregnant after any sexual encounter. Lots of backstreet abortions went on.

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So you’d disagree with Germaine Greer when she says that things are worse for women now than in the 70s?
I think her point was that because women have made strides in progress, they do well in education, and they’ve entered the labor market, that provokes backlash and men get angry. She was talking about how, on the internet, you get hate and loathing, trolling, and abuse. This is definitely disturbing. But there are loads of men who sympathize with feminism and lots of men who object to all this hate on the web, too. I don’t believe men hate women or discriminate against women more than they used to; I can’t think that.

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I think there’s a widespread conception that, on the internet, porn culture significantly contributes to this misogynistic climate.
Oh, yes, you’re probably right. I mean, again, online porn… Maybe we’ve exaggerated the extent to which it’s a woman's problem. Of course it is to some extent, and if young men expect women to behave like the porn stars they watch, then obviously there’s a problem. But I think it’s worth thinking that, actually, internet abuse and obsessive porn watching might be more of a man's problem than a woman’s.

There's definitely something in that. It's the same with internet abuse. If I've ever had a guy write something misogynistic about an article I've written, I just think, This poor guy sat at home writing sexist shit to strangers—what is wrong with our culture that he has nothing better to do?
I think that’s a brilliant response. It brings you onto this question about victimhood, which is often discussed. Is it helpful to see women as victims all the time? Is there a form of feminism which exaggerates women’s victimhood? It’s complicated because there are obviously ways in which women are victims of male violence, they just are—more than men are of women’s violence, from rape to internet abuse. And there is an attempt by some men to victimize women. But feminism is about refusing to be identified as a victim, isn’t it? It’s about actually protesting and saying, "We do not want to be victims; we’re going to fight back!" It’s a complicated area.

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In the media, do you think women are more often portrayed as victims, perpetrators, or both? And has there’s been a change in the way that the media present women over time?
I remember when the Guardian ran a regular column called Naked Ape in the 1970s. It was a kind of precursor to Laura Bates’s Everyday Sexism project. Naked Ape relentlessly exposed sexual bias in everyday language. But things didn’t always move forward… I also remember when Private Eye ran a series labeled Loony Feminist Nonsense in the 1980s, with cartoons of big-bummed women hovering malevolently with knives over the genitals of trussed up, pleading males.

That’s one of the reasons I called the book Girl Trouble—the media always loved and continues to love stories about girls in trouble or causing trouble. Even today, stories of women misbehaving attract a certain kind of media coverage. Women make good copy and whether they’re in trouble or leaping about looking sexy, there’s always a desire to write about them and show images of them in a biased way. I think you have to be very careful about how you read those images now or historically and the book certainly tries to make that point.

Finally, I heard that your publisher was doing a marketing campaign where if you get a tattoo of the design on the cover you get free Zed books for life?
Yeah. I thought, God, how irresponsible!

Would they have to get the whole cover, even with your name on it?
No, you’d have to be completely mad to do that. But I must say, some of my younger colleagues were joking last week and saying, "Come on Carol, just get a little bit tattooed, like the little rose on the back. It would mark the publication of the book!"

Carol Dyhouse is the author of Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women, from Zed Books