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History and Popular Culture

Period Dramas: Presenting a History of Menstruation for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

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My periods have shaped much of my life, determining what I am able and unable to do each day. They are personal and political, providing a deep insight into beliefs, feelings, medicine and coping mechanisms of the past.

Growing up, I thought TV period dramas would be based on menstruation, and was devastated to discover that periods did not feature on screen. It astounded me that ‘so much embarrassment, awkwardness and shame surround[ed] a natural bodily function’.[1]

Thus, the seed for my recent Edinburgh Fringe show, Period Dramas, a comedy about the history of menstruation, was planted.

Despite recent progress with Rayka Zehtabchi’s Period. End of SENTENCE and Disney’s Turning Red, societal taboo remains, highlighted in the unwillingness to even say ‘period,’ with 5,000 euphemisms for menstruation.

On average, people have 10.5 periods every year. I use this fact in the show, introducing each period (pardon the pun) with a calculation of how many periods we were heading back in time. For the Victorian part of the show, it came to 1,943 periods. It is menstrual maths!

My seemingly odd route from history degree to drama school, has always made sense to me. It is people who I am fascinated by – how they think, feel and interact with one another – and both history and theatre are a study of humanity.

The relationship between history and drama, however, seems to be a tumultuous one, marked by debates on whether entertainment or historical accuracy should take priority. In a world where Hamilton and Six have stormed the box office, the debate between accuracy and entertainment that has ‘really divided the historical community’. [2]

Terry Deary, of Horrible Histories, sits firmly in the entertainment camp, arguing ‘history is itself a fabrication’.[3] Similarly, Lucy Worsley suggests ‘it’s drama, it’s fiction. It’s not a means of expressing knowledge…but for expressing wisdom, truth about human nature’.[4] Alternatively, historians such as Dr O’Connell argue that ‘dramas do have a responsibility’ to maintain historical accuracy.[5]

I sit with Worsley here, but Period Dramas had precise aims: tell the history of menstruation that all too often gets pushed to the side, bringing menstrual issues into more prominence and critiquing society. Thus, Period Dramas needed to be rooted in the sources and history was the starting point.

Initially lacking form, I was inspired by Bryony Kimmings’ advice that form comes from subject. Approaching historical research before finalizing a structure was almost easier because there was no attached format that I needed to stay true to. I simply started with the research and went from there, examining Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book (1671),[6] along with the Kahun gynaecological papyrus,[7] works from Sara Reid[8] and Patricia Crawford,[9] and The Vagina Museum’s History of Period exhibition.

The challenge came in selecting what to include, a difficulty recognised by historian Carys Brown on discussing Queen Anne at The Theatre Royal Haymarket, who described the need to make ‘definite choices’[10] about thoughts, feelings and characters, but also about what to include and what to leave out.

My choices were based not only on what information stood out, but also easily recognisable periods of history, or those which saw interesting changes in the handling of menstruation.

I then chose cabaret as the format, allowing me to cover more ground quickly with each act focussed on a specific era. This solved my structure question – as Greg Jenner pointed out ‘history doesn’t fall into three-act structures.’[11]

My first hook was the Boy of Bisley: the theory that Elizabeth I died aged ten from bubonic plague, was buried in Bisley and replaced by a boy – explaining why she remained unmarried and childless.[12] This rumour inspired the first realization of Period Dramas – a drag, rap and lip sync act framing how Elizabeth I dealt with menstruation. As the so-called virgin queen, Elizabeth’s fertility was deemed a matter of state and her menstruation was monitored, leaving a useful historical record of Elizabeth’s menstrual cycles.

It seemed apt to use drag, traditionally posing a challenge to heteronormative constructs of gender and sexuality, for an act centring on Elizabeth I. Her rule was characterised by a binary idea of gender, famously stating at Tilbury, ‘I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king’.[13]

Using cabaret removed the boundaries of ‘traditional’ theatre, whilst its ability to subvert helped to critique society and challenge taboo. It also allows increased access with the MC character guiding and opening up a dialogue with audiences.

Accessibility was incredibly important to me, as I did not want to alienate audiences by assuming any prior historical knowledge. Part of my process involved scratch nights and audience feedback forms to ensure the information and facts were presented clearly and in a non-academic fashion. As Worsley says history should not be an ‘insular conversation between academics’ rather a ‘dialogue with wider society’.[14]

I agree. I firmly believe the history of menstruation is key to understanding and critiquing the taboos that exist in society today.

From a historian’s perspective, periods permeate the political and the personal, providing key insights into the politics of the day and personal choices on how to manage them. In the diary entries of Samuel Pepys to the medical records of royalty and the views of Hippocrates and Aristotle – we can learn much from this history.

But more than that, this historical insight and storytelling is key to eradicating the cycle of shame that currently dominates our society, both for those who menstruate and those who do not. According to Plan UK, 64% of 14–21-year-olds have missed school due to period stigma, shame, pain, and poverty. This needs to change. As Greg Jenner pointed out, half of all 108 billion people who have ever lived, menstruated in some capacity. If that does not make this topic seem critical, then I am not sure what will.

Heather Milsted received her History BA from the University of Warwick in 2018 and now works as an actor and writer. She has recently returned from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where she was performing her one-woman show about the history of menstruation, Period Dramas. This is due to tour in 2023. She tweets @HeatherMilsted and @PeriodDramass (Website: https://heathermilsted.wixsite.com/actor)


[1] Jupp, E., 2015. Periods: the menstruation taboo that won’t go away. [online] The Independent. Available at: <https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/we-need-to-talk-about-periods-9638267.html> [Accessed 11 September 2022].

[2] Leatherdale, D., 2016. How acceptable is artistic licence in history entertainment?. [online] BBC News. Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-36596885> [Accessed 12 September 2022].

[3] Ibid.

[4] Tate, B., 2016. Lucy Worsley: ‘It’s a really exciting time to be a historian’. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/2016/12/07/lucy-worsley-really-exciting-time-historian/> [Accessed 19 September 2022].

[5] Leatherdale, 2016. How acceptable is artistic licence in history entertainment?.

[6] Sharp, J., 1671. The Midwives Book, or the whole art of midwifry discovered. Directing childbearing women how to behave themselves in their conception, breeding … and nursing of children, etc. [With plates.]. London.

[7] Quirke, S., 2002. The ‘Kahun Medical Papyrus’ or ‘Gynaecological Papyrus’. UCL: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, [online] Available at: <https://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt/med/birthpapyrus.html> [Accessed 11 September 2022].

[8] Read, S., 2013. Menstruation and the female body in early modern England. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

[9] Crawford, P., 2016. Blood, bodies and families in early modern england. TAYLOR & FRANCIS.

[10] Brown, C., 2016. History on stage: Queen Anne. [online] Doing History in Public. Available at: <https://doinghistoryinpublic.org/2016/01/28/history-on-stage-queen-anne/> [Accessed 17 September 2022].

[11] Jenner, G. and Greig, H., 2016. Poldark and Historical TV Drama. [podcast] History Extra. Available at: <https://play.acast.com/s/historyextra/poldarkandhistoricaltvdrama> [Accessed 16 September 2022].

[12] Hurstfield, J. (1975). Queen and State: the Emergence of an Elizabethan Myth. In: Bromley, J.S., Kossmann, E.H. (eds) Britain and the Netherlands. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-010-1361-1_4

[13] Levin, C., 2013. The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power. University of Pennsylvania Press.

[14] Tate, B., 2016. Lucy Worsley: ‘It’s a really exciting time to be a historian’.

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‘Always protest’? Drag Race, Pathé Newsreels, and Subversion in Mainstream Media

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RuPaul’s Drag Race sells itself, and has been praised, as a subversive television series. RuPaul, eponymous creator of the drag contest gameshow, has stated ‘true drag will never be mainstream. Because true drag has to do with seeing that this world is an illusion’. British judge Graham Norton recently claimed ‘there’s something dangerous about drag still’. Echoing this, a contestant queen from the syndicated British Drag Race enthused that ‘Drag was always a protest, a political statement’. Drag Race, participants and producers alike insist, is inherently subversive because drag necessarily challenges the gender norms of ‘straight’ society.

Drag Race has also become a mass media phenomenon. A niche show in 2009, its 13th series premiered this year to 1.3 million viewers. Interviewed, like any self-respecting A-list celebrity, by the Muppets and toting both a Simpsons cameo and a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, RuPaul is arguably the most famous drag queen in the world. This begs the question, can drag retain a subversive edge in mainstream media?

To consider this, it is instructive to look at one of drag’s first brushes with mass media in Britain. It was during the interwar period that drag first appeared onscreen, chiefly through cinema newsreels. Newsreels – short non-fiction topical films summarising the week’s current events – were included in almost every cinema programme until the 1960s. To leaven the news, they frequently featured variety entertainment; offshoot newsreels such as Pathetone were evencomprised entirely of filmed music hall acts.

A well-established form of music hall repertory from the nineteenth century, drag soon found its way into the newsreel. Bert Errol amazed cinemagoers by changing into high drag before their eyes in 1922. West-End comedian Douglas Byng appeared in rudimentary drag singing innuendo-laden falsetto across the 1930s. A 1937 item covered a police pantomime, with multiple shots of officers putting on makeup and dresses. In 1939, six sailors dressed as fairies sang and pranced before King-Emperor George VI during a naval inspection.

This seems remarkable at a time when populist paper John Bull ran editorials attacking London’s queer men for transvestism, castigating them as the ‘painted boy menace’.[1] From the mid-1920s, men wearing women’s clothes and makeup became tantamount to being queer.[2] In the 1930s, it is estimated 40 percent of Britons went to the cinema once and 25 percent twice or more a week.[3] To make drag palatable for the mainstream, newsreels had to ensure conventional manliness remained unchallenged and any association with queerness was muted.

As such, newsreels usually placed drag in establishment settings. Byng was a fixture of London’s fashionable set, always filmed in high-end venues like the Paradise Club, laughing with elites more so than at them. Likewise, Errol’s wife helped him change into drag, making sure audiences knew he was a red-blooded heterosexual, wig and high heels notwithstanding. The police officers and sailors returned to their uniforms, drag but a brief interlude (the naval fairies lasted but twenty seconds onscreen) from their ‘manly’ public service. Ensconced in marriage, elite society, and ‘masculine’ professions, queens could not truly send up the establishment when they were often performing from the heart of it.

Moreover, newsreels always framed drag as comedy. Ian Green has argued comedy allows latitude for contentious topics. Yet, because comedy resolves in laughter, it curtails earnest critique.[4] David Sutton likewise concludes comedy as a genre is ‘the appropriate site for the inappropriate, the proper place for indecorum’.[5] Comedy is establishment-condoned critique, safely dissipated in laughter. All the above acts, awash with puns and gags, aimed to make cinemagoers laugh, not challenge their gendered assumptions. Far from a challenge to the status quo, then, interwar drag acts could only enter mainstream media as safe entertainment bereft of queer connotations.

This is not to say drag culture could not be subversive. For queer men to wear women’s clothes and attend drag balls was certainly a brave and subversive act in the interwar period, one that provoked the British establishment.[6] The interwar life of Quentin Crisp is representative of the defiant subversion that came from wearing cosmetics.

Yet, as Jacob Bloomfield has shown, drag onstage was not inherently controversial and remained a staple of popular theatre.[7] Similarly, filmed drag acts obviated controversy in order to appeal to the broadest possible audience. In fact, looking at newsreel drag items reveals a legacy of conservatism for drag acts in the mainstream.

The producers of Drag Race would like to make their show the heir to the counterculture of drag balls and gay bars. Yet, in many respects, itis the mainstream heir to newsreel variety acts. Like newsreels, Drag Race is foremost comic entertainment, more inclined to jokes than politics. What little gender discussion there is occurs in the fleeting moments between farcical gameshow skits. The only challenges presented are to the competing queens’ dignities.

Like Pathe’s producers, RuPaul has espoused a profoundly conservative view of ‘true’ drag. Through transphobic comments, he has stressed drag as the exclusive province of gay men. Thus, much as newsreels removed any ‘controversial’ association with queerness, so Drag Race has placed strict limits on what drag represents and who can perform it.  

A look at the history of drag in newsreels reveals that to project drag through mass media is not inherently subversive. Whether in Pathé or on BBC3, being produced as mainstream entertainment severely curtails any potential for real subversion of societal norms such as gender. Former drag performer Paul O’Grady, carping in 2017 about Drag Race, contended that his drag persona Lilly Savage ‘belonged in a pub, especially a gay bar, where you could rant and rave’.  Considering drag’s relationship with popular media, perhaps it is only in niche subcultures that subversion can truly flourish.

Conner Scott is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research seeks to explore the role of British newsreels in everyday life, and how they (re)presented the cinemagoing public to itself on a weekly basis between c.1919-c.1939.


Cover image: Manchester Pride Parade 2019. A group of five drag queens representing BBC’s ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’ on pink stage, Manchester, 24 August 2019. Used courtesy of Goncalo Telo for non-commercial, educational purposes. https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/manchester-uk-august-24-2019-pride-1489347011

[1] Matt Houlbrook, ‘“The man with the powder puff” in Interwar London’, The Historical Journal 50.1 (2007), pp. 147-49.

[2] I use the term queer as it was the most common self-identity of interwar men who had sexual and emotional relationships with other men and avoids the anachronism of gay. See Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (London, 2005), p. xiii.

[3] Annette Kuhn, An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory (London, 2002), p. 2.

[4] Ian Green, ‘Ealing: In the Comedy Frame’ in James Curran and Vincent Porter (eds), British Cinema History (London, 1983), p. 296.

[5] David Sutton, A Chorus of Raspberries: British Film Comedy 1929-1939 (Exeter, 2000), p. 60.

[6] See Matt Houlbrook, ‘Lady Austin’s Camp Boys: Constituting the Queer Subject in 1930s London’, Gender and History 14.1 (2002), pp. 31-61; Houlbrook, Queer London.

[7] See Jacob Bloomfield, ‘Splinters: Cross-Dressing Ex-Servicemen on the Interwar Stage’, Twentieth Century British History 30.1 (2019), pp. 1-28.

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Girls’ Culture and the Girl’s Own Paper during the fin de siècle

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In an increasingly interconnected world, the mass media has impacted how many of us perceive ourselves. Growing up in the 2000s, aspects of my own identity have been shaped by my engagement with popular culture as a young girl. Reading magazines such as Girl Talk and Mizz, I developed a gender-based identity defined by popular representations of what it means to be a girl. 

Featuring fashion advice, celebrity gossip, and real-life stories of readers, girls’ magazines of the 21st century are loaded with gender assumptions that mark them as quite different from boys’ reading material. As a historian interested in gender issues, I am drawn to explore how understandings of gender roles have shaped ‘modern’ society and, in particular, how the media has defined gender-based identities in Britain.

It was in the final decades of the 19th century that girlhood began to be regarded as an important stage in life, one with its own distinct culture, located in between, but separated from both childhood and adulthood.[1] This point of view formed part of a reaction to popular anxieties about ‘modernity’ and its potential to create social and moral disorder, with gender considered a category through which this disorder could manifest itself. The image of the ‘New Woman’, associated with growing independence and new opportunities for women in the 1890s, challenged the accepted ideal that the primary responsibilities of women and girls were in the home. Importance was therefore placed on girlhood, a time during which young women were taught the acceptable boundaries of their gender.

Starting out as a penny weekly in 1880, the Girl’s Own Paper is just one example of the numerous periodicals of the fin de siècle which stressed gender dichotomies to its readers.[2] As the most popular and longest running periodical of its kind, the Girl’s Own is an important historical source for understanding how modern girls’ culture has evolved.

Containing nonfiction articles, stories, and a regular correspondence section, in its pages the Girl’s Own crafted its own vision of acceptable girlhood. Between 1880 and 1900, several articles in the paper expressed the need for girls to follow the traditional obligations of their sex. Readers were encouraged to live by traditional feminine values and were exposed to advertisements for household products, soaps, sewing materials, and other domestic necessities.[3]Stories also explicitly warned girls that to follow in the footsteps of the ‘New Woman’ would inevitably lead to unhappy spinsterhood.[4]

In an ever-growing market of gendered periodicals, however, the Girl’s Own also accepted the need to discuss more progressive ideas on girlhood in order to remain popular with readers. By the turn of the century, an increasing number of informative articles appeared on matters such as higher education and work opportunities. The justification given for such articles was that these were a response to the large number of girls requesting advice on ‘new departures, new training, and new careers’.[5]

Advertisements for leisure pursuits also allowed for a more ‘modern’ vision of girlhood to be represented. Products were marketed as being suitable for ‘lawn tennis, badminton, and croquet wear’, activities associated with modern representations of girlhood which distinguished fin de siècle girls from older generations.[6]

In 1890, however, readers were reminded to ‘enjoy your lawn tennis; but remember the obligations of your sex and your self respect’.[7] This phrasing summarises well the tone used in the Girl’s Own between 1880 and 1900, as traditional ideas on girlhood and femininity were renegotiated alongside the opportunities of modern life. The author cautioning readers to ‘remember [their] obligations’ demonstrated both tolerance for the new opportunities available to girls, such as new leisure pursuits like lawn tennis, and an awareness of the simultaneous opening-up of new educational and professional fields. Nevertheless, it was also stressed that these new opportunities should be enjoyed in moderation. An image of the ideal reader was thus created within the magazine which embodied the Christian, and traditionally feminine values of the magazine’s publisher but which also considered the demands of its readership. 

Many girls engaged in the correspondence of the magazine, and anticipated a reply from their ‘dear, faithful friend’, the editor.[8] This was yet another way in which the magazine acted as a tool with which its consumers formed understandings of their own lives and of the world around them. Experiences and understandings at such a fundamental life stage—girlhood—shaped the readers’ worldview on their way to adulthood. 

In today’s society, the mass media still acts as a vehicle with which individual identities are shaped and connected. More than a hundred years on, possibilities have increased exponentially, not only through the printed word but also because of the endless opportunities which the internet provides. The rise of social media is reflective of an increasingly globalised society, in which individuals can connect on deeper and more meaningful levels than earlier printed periodicals could provide. Yet, these older forms of communication remain important and relevant sources. They can teach us much about how our society has evolved, and how gender ideals which still exist today have been negotiated and understood in the past.

Laura Neilson is a recent graduate of the University of Sheffield, holding an MA in Modern History. She is particularly interested in gender history, and in making history accessible to the public.

Cover image: Masthead illustration for the Girl’s Own Paper in an 1886 edition. Source: Wikimedia Commons


[1] K. Moruzi, Constructing Girlhood through the periodical press, 1850-1918 (Ashgate, 2012), p.9; S. Mitchell, The New Girl: Girls’ Culture in England, 1880-1915 (Columbia University Press, 1995), pp.1-3.

[2] D. Gorham, The Victorian Girl and the Feminine Ideal (Routledge, 2013), p.18.

[3] “Multiple Classified Advertisements”, Girl’s Own Paper, 3rd September 1881, p.3.

[4] “Varieties”, Girl’s Own Paper, 6th October 1894.

[5] Lily Watson, “What is the London County Council doing for Girls?”, Girl’s Own Paper, 27th February 1897, p.4.

[6] “Multiple Display Advertisements”, Girl’s Own Paper, 3rd January 1880, p.4.

[7] S.F.A Caulfield, “Some Types of Girlhood; or, Our Juvenile Spinsters”, Girl’s Own Paper, 4th October 1890, p.5.

[8] “A Dip Into the Editor’s Correspondence”, Girl’s Own Paper, 16th June 1883, p.6.

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‘Fear or Fetish? The Fetishisation of Lesbians in Cold War America

Cover_of_Lesbian_Love_by_Marlene_Longman_-_Illustrator_McCauley_-_Nightstand_NB_1523_1960

In the 1950s, American society saw a huge rise in anxieties regarding gender norms and sexuality. Homosexuals were demonized through the Lavender Scare – a moral panic focused on gay and lesbian US government employees – and ideas of the nuclear family were promoted in the fight against Communism. Yet, throughout this period, there was also an influx of highly erotic lesbian fiction and magazines aimed at heterosexual men with overtly sexualised lesbian themes. This sexualisation remains prevalent today and continues to have detrimental impacts upon the lives of lesbian woman,[1] and yet its origins have received little attention in historical debate.

When constructions of homosexuality have been looked at during this period, historians have tended to focus on the political sphere. David Johnson, for example, focuses much of his attention on how anxieties regarding sexuality permeated political culture and the lives of elites.[2] Therefore, little attention is given to popular culture and perceptions of the ‘ordinary’ American citizen. Focusing primarily on political culture also means that Johnson’s narrative mainly looks at how the Lavender Scare impacted wider cultural perceptions of homosexual men.

Consequently, the sexualisation of lesbians by heterosexual men and how this came to the fore with such force during this period has not received necessary attention.

At the end of the war and throughout the 1950s, American society took a conservative turn, with ideas of gender and ‘family’ becoming all the more important as a way to distinguish America from the Communist East. Women were particularly impacted by this growing interest in conformity. As Elaine Tyler May points out, the full-time housewife became synonymous with ideas of American freedom.[3] Anything that deviated from this ideal was therefore seen as a threat.

At the same time, ideas of homosexuality were changing and ‘the lesbian’ was fashioned as an immediate danger. Lesbianism began to be framed as a sickness, but crucially it was a sickness that could be cured – if only a man could show them a “good time”.

Simultaneously, we see the crisis of masculinity. At numerous occasions during this period, historian and social critic Arthur Schlesinger wrote on the issue, arguing that World War II had ushered in an uneasy sense of vulnerability and a loss of a clear sense of self for many men that continued throughout the 1950s. This sense of a decline in manhood’s mastery over others, combined with ideas that lesbians could be ‘regained’ by patriarchal concepts of heterosexuality, meant that ‘the lesbian’ was constructed as an opportunity for men to prove themselves. The post-war into the Cold War period therefore set up the perfect conditions within which the sexualisation of lesbians could flourish.

This resulted in an influx of pulp fiction and men’s magazines, through which these themes were reflected. Stories of lesbian orgies, threesomes and lesbian nymphomaniacs were extremely popular amongst heterosexual men during this period. Within these novels, lesbians are presented as deviants, yet deviants who are often regained by heterosexual, familial norms after experiencing life changing heterosexual sex.

Cover of The Third Sex by Artemis Smith (1963 Edition).

The message is therefore clear. If men show lesbians a good time by reasserting their masculinity, these women will once against fit within the Cold War ideals of conformity – everyone’s a winner.

Men’s magazines took a similar approach. Stories and images of two women looking for a man were extremely popular. What we can learn from 1950s and 1960s America is that sex sells, but lesbian sex sells better.

This had very real life consequences for lesbians, as men encroached on their space in the search of sexual encounters. Analysis of interviews and testimonies show that this repressive context led to a thriving underground lesbian movement and a vast number of lesbian bars being established. Heterosexual men often took advantage of these lesbian spaces, going there in search of lesbian women to have sex with –further demonstrating how they were constructed as an opportunity in the eyes of men.

Ultimately, the period between 1947 up until the stonewall riots of 1969 provided the ideal conditions within which the sexualisation of lesbians could and indeed did flourish. Sexualisation of lesbians is still widespread within our society today and lesbians continue to face challenges of not only being seen as a sexual fantasy but also having their sexuality presented as merely performative and something that can be “regained” by heterosexual masculinity

In numerous recent insight reports, PornHub revealed that ‘Lesbian’ was the most searched for and most viewed category across numerous American states, with 75 percent of the American audience being male. These statistics demonstrate that lesbianism continues to be framed within the male gaze. Sexualisation is not the same as acceptance and therefore it is important that we continue to address its roots in order to hold both society and ourselves accountable today.

Jamie Jenkins is a PhD student at Radboud University working on the Voices of the People  project. Her research investigates how the media constructed popular expectations of democracy in Great Britain between the end of the Second World War and the 1980s. She tweets @jenkinsleejamie


Cover image: Cover of Lesbian Love by Marlene Longman (1960).

[1] See Ofcom’s ‘Representation and Portrayal on BBC TV 2018’ report regarding the representation of lesbian women on television. https://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv-radio-and-on-demand/information-for-industry/bbc-operating-framework/representation-portrayal-bbc-tv/research-hub/lesbian-women

[2] David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in Federal Government (Chicago, 2004).

[3] Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York, 1988).

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‘Illegitimate’ Cultures: from the Music Hall to the Rave

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At first glance, mid-Victorian entertainment culture and the current ‘illegal’ rave scene of Covid-Britain may appear wildly incomparable. But the early Victorian period, as illustrated by the cultural division between the ‘music hall’ and ‘legitimate theatre’ was pivotal in cementing the division between ‘illegitimate’ and ‘legitimate’ culture. Understanding the historical drivers behind these definitions of culture is crucial to disentangling contemporary ‘public health’ policy from the influence of ‘moral panic.’  Distinguishing between the two can reveal the broader influence of dominant class anxieties about cultures which appear to challenge economic or social ‘norms’, of which early music hall and rave culture are both examples. 

The summer of 2020 witnessed stark contradictions in public health messages and policies.  Whilst an inevitable wave of ‘illegal’ outdoor rave gatherings were condemned and supressed by police forces, simultaneously the public were being encouraged (and subsidised) to ‘eat out’ in restaurants, despite indoor spaces being widely deemed a greater danger for viral transmission. This speaks volumes about the push to maintain the ideology of ‘legitimate culture’, defined by its relationship to free market economics (to which restaurant culture is wedded) as being more important than the scientific realities of public health.  

The first organised and uniformed police force emerged in 1829, playing a key role in shaping ‘legitimate’ modes of culture in the newly expanding towns and cities of the Victorian era.  Arising from a middle-class fear of the expanding working classes, early policing was born out of a desire to impose discipline outside of the confines of the workplace upon sites of ‘unregulated’ leisure time –on the street or in the ale house. In the context of the Chartist movement of the 1830s, which saw mass demonstrations calling for wider enfranchisement, a fear of the ‘unruly crowd’ and its potential to challenge state power remained present throughout the century. 

The larger, more commercially minded ‘Music Hall’ venue emerged out of the smaller ale houses and singing saloons of the late 18th and early 19th century urban milieu. Often tied closely to the brewing industry, music halls were associated with drinking, smoking and less ‘respectable’ behaviour.  Their perceived lack of legitimacy, compared to ‘legitimate’ theatres, where smoking and drinking were forbidden, was solidified by the 1843 Theatres Act. This Act stipulated that only venues holding a Theatre License, appointed by the Lord Chamberlain, could legally perform plays or performances with a ‘strong narrative’. This distinction between the music hall and theatre reflected the increasing tendency from the Victorian era upon centralising state control over censorship. 

The Eat Out To Help Out scheme of the summer of 2020 encouraged and subsidised the public to gather in restaurants, despite indoor spaces being deemed dangerous for viral transmission. Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/8pc6VvR0gJs, Photographer: Nick Fewings

Associated with large gatherings in rural locations, a large part of the anxiety that the rave scene is associated with may stem from its physical dislocation from the regulation and surveillance of the urban space, a legacy that can be traced back to Victorian policing. It has been argued that the government night time economy policies of the 1990s, which sought to replace rave culture with tighter social controls, explicitly took aim at rave culture, driving it into commercial club spaces that could be regulated through licensing, rendering rave more visible and therefore subject to greater monitoring in the public sphere. 

Furthermore, unlike the Victorian music hall and ‘legitimate’ theatre, rave culture possesses neither a stake in broader social nor in economic capital, existing (largely) outside of the regulated entertainment industry. This helps to explain rave culture’s consistent suppression following its height during the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Passed in response to the infamous rave at Castle Morton in 1992, the 1994 ‘Criminal Justice and Public Order Act’ gave sweeping powers to stop unlicensed gatherings of more than a hundred people, with an emphasis on supressing events which played loud music with ‘repetitive beats’ – an extremely unsubtle reference to rave culture. 

A telling quote from a raver involved in the scene of the time mentions the class politics at play in suppressing particular cultures, as well as the relationship between ‘legitimate’ culture and free-market economics: ‘If it had been a big event, [which] had been staged [and] had cost thousands of pounds it would have been all right[..]But because it was poor people, with no money, doing something they haven’t been granted permission for, suddenly it was the crime of the century.’ 

Unlike rave culture, Music Hall would eventually become more accepted through its increasing ‘commercialisation’ during the later 19th century as a national entertainment industry. Conscious attempts were made to prove Music Hall’s legitimacy through self-censorship, curating more ‘respectable’ content, and deploying surveillance to regulate crowd behaviour, as demonstrated by numerous statements on theatre bill posters proclaiming police would be ‘in attendance.’ 

Whether we understand or support the rave scene or not, ‘rave culture is culture.’  It is possible to be both critical of the public health practices of rave events (as indeed even many within the scene have been), as well as considering it a culture in all its complexity (for what is culture without its contradictions and problematic aspects?) 

Taking leisure culture, including rave culture seriously, brings into question the role of the state, and how it has historically influenced and enforced cultural norms, through both legislation and use of police force.  In both the music hall and rave culture, state suspicion and regulation has stemmed from a mistrust of forms of mass leisure that have risen ‘from below’; rave culture’s continued suppression, however, is in part due to its explicit refusal to ‘commercialise’ and become ‘respectable’ in the way that music hall did. In light of a recent investigation into a raver in Bristol being mauled by a police dog, asking serious questions about whose culture is given ‘legitimacy’, and the public health implications for this in the physical realm, has never been more pertinent.  

Izzy Hadlum is currently a History Masters student at the University of Sheffield.  Her research deals with entertainment culture in Mid-Victorian Sheffield, with a focus on the dynamic between respectability and class across Music Hall and Theatre.   

Cover Image: ‘Rave culture is culture’. Source: https://unsplash.com/photos/EHWtxXpiDD0, photographer: Dima Pechurin

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Fascism Fictionalised: Inter-war British Fascism in Popular Culture, 1932 to Present

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Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF)[1] never won an election or parliamentary seat and, from its foundation in 1932 to its proscription in 1940, struggled to break into the political mainstream. Though in the mid-1930s it had around 50,000 members and enjoyed the support of Daily Mail proprietor Lord Rothermere, it remained a vocal but politically isolated organisation. And yet, over the last few years, the stage and the small screen have played host to a series of new depictions of interwar British fascism. What lies behind the renewed interest in this abhorrent political failure? And, moreover, what does the return to British fascism’s past say about the present?

In answering these questions, it’s necessary to first look back over the history of depictions of British fascism on the page, stage and screen. The earliest fictional depictions of British fascism occurred in interwar literature. In the work of a number of liberal and left-leaning novelists, characters based on Mosley and his followers appeared as figures of fun or dire warnings of the shape of things to come. Classic comic depictions include Nancy Mitford’s Wigs on the Green (1935) and P.G. Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters (1938). Alongside these, Naomi Mitchison’s We Have Been Warned (1935), Margaret Storm Jameson’s In the Second Year (1936), and H. G. Wells’ The Holy Terror (1939) took the threat of fascism more seriously. However, these authors were less concerned with Mosleyite fascism as an immediate threat and more concerned with visions of a British fascist dystopia or Wellsian utopia situated in the near future.

The war changed the way fascism was depicted. It was reimagined solely as an exterior threat, perhaps aided domestically by traitorous collaborators, as in the 1942 Ealing Studios’ film Went the Day Well? This depiction of fascism as an invading foreign force continued in post-war alternate history films and novels such as It Happened Here (1964), Guy Walters’ The Leader (2003), and C. J. Sansom’s Dominion (2012). Works in this genre are conservative in their anti-fascism. They dismissed fascism on the basis of its un-Britishness, characterising it largely as a German import (or, rather, imposition).

The more recent depictions of Mosleyite fascism differ from earlier examples in the sense that they regard fascism as an urgent and indigenous threat rather than a foreign import or a subject for dystopian or utopian speculation. In BBC’s 2018 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders and the most recent series of Peaky Blinders (now available via Netflix), fascism appears as a danger on Britain’s streets.

The recent adaptation of The ABC Murders diverges from Christie’s 1936 novel. In this version, we find an older Hercule Poirot, a faded relic of murder mystery parties, haunted by memories of his experiences as a Belgian refugee during the First World War. As he investigates a series of grisly murders, Poirot wanders through a rain-swept and racist Britain, increasingly becoming a hostile environment for foreigners. As if to underline this point, on almost every street corner, Poirot passes posters bearing the BUF’s flash-and-circle insignia.

While actual BUF members never make an appearance in The ABC Murders, Peaky Blinders depicts an alternate history of the movement’s formation. The fifth series begins with the protagonist, Thomas Shelby, newly installed as the Labour MP for Birmingham South – the constituency neighbouring Mosley’s. In an attempt to undermine Mosley (played brilliantly by Sam Claflin), Shelby becomes his right-hand man.

The series’ creators have moved events around a little. They erase Mosley’s pre-fascist New Party entirely, depicting his jump straight from Labour minister to British fascist three years early in late 1929 immediately after the Wall Street Crash. These liberties are easy to forgive as Claflin and the series’ writers capture Mosley’s personality and ideas with chilling accuracy. The series takes place in a turbulent Britain, wracked by gang warfare and economic unrest. Mosley appears here as a populist, complaining about ‘false news’ and promising to put ‘Britain first’. In the series’ finale, with the backing of Winston Churchill and in cooperation with a gang of Jewish bakers, Shelby mounts an assassination attempt on Mosley.[2]

In addition to these, Brigid Larmour’s recently announced touring production of The Merchant of Venice plans to shift the setting of Shakespeare’s most problematic play from Renaissance Venice to the inter-war East End of London. Due to begin touring in September 2020, this version is set to sympathetically reimagine Shylock – long considered an antisemitic stereotype – as a Jewish shopkeeper and war widow. Set in the weeks leading up to the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, the play’s original protagonists are to be recast as wealthy Mosleyites.

These modern depictions are darkly introspective. Their creators manipulate the historical record and over-inflate the popularity of the BUF. But in doing so, they are really inviting audiences to ruminate on the state of present-day, post-Brexit Britain. In looking to examples of political authoritarianism, anti-immigrant xenophobia and racism (especially in the contemporary context of rising antisemitism) from Britain’s past, they are attempting to think through the present.

However, in an eagerness to make historical analogies, we might miss the specifics of the present. In Britain and throughout the world, the radical right in 2020 does not resemble the radical right of the mid-1930s. Fascists were not, as the creators of The ABC Murders imagined, present on every street corner in inter-war Britain. While this is still not the case in terms of their physical presence, radical right ideas and rhetoric are being mainstreamed now as never before. Through their journalistic fellow travellers and social media, the modern radical right have achieved a reach that far surpasses Lord Rothermere’s brief endorsement of Oswald Mosely in the mid-1930s. Recent fictional depictions of British fascism suggest we are reliving the 1930s; in fact, we are living through something altogether different and potentially worse.

Liam Liburd currently works as a Teaching Associate in Modern International History at the University of Sheffield. He completed his PhD entitled “The Eternal Imperialists: Empire, Race and Gender on the British Radical Right, 1918-1968” in February 2020. His broader research interests are in British political and cultural history, and the history and afterlives of the British Empire. You can find him on Twitter @DocLiburd

Cover image: Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford, 1936. https://www.flickr.com/photos/150300783@N07/35638188926 [accessed 4 May 2020].

[1] The BUF was renamed the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists or just ‘British Union’/BU in 1936.

[2] Churchill’s appearance in the fifth series of Peaky Blinders as some kind of parliamentary anti-fascist waging a secret war against Mosley is perhaps the show’s most disappointing misstep. Before his time as the grand anti-appeaser, the real-life Churchill was an aristocratic apologist for Mussolini.   

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