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Media History

‘Since all confess the nat’ral Form Divine, What need to Swell before or add behind?’

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We live in a world often dominated by the latest fashions and prevalent images of body modifications. Whether in traditional print media or on social media sites, women in particular are bombarded with images of often unattainable body shapes, whilst simultaneously encouraged to remain natural in appearance. A curvaceous body type can be obtained by plastic surgery, or alternatively, is now easily replicated with fashion companies selling a wide variety of padded products that can change how our bodies look in clothes. Even though these trends and societal expectations may seem aproduct of the modern age, how true is this?  

In reality, this trend has a much longer history. The eighteenth century saw a variety of extreme fashions introduced by women of the elite. This included wearing large hoops under dresses, bum padding, and even stomach padding to give the illusion of pregnancy. 

Celebrities and social media stars are at the forefront of establishing new fashion trends. But just as the modern media and public are intrigued and obsessed by the fashions and bodily choices of celebrities, so too was eighteenth century society.   Back then, the leaders of fashion were known as the beau monde. Fashion gave elite women a form of empowerment largely unavailable to them elsewhere in eighteenth-century society.[1] This was a sphere they could dominate, arguably giving them a form of pleasure unavailable anywhere else. 

By the 1730s, the Rococo style was deeply entrenched in both French and English fashions, with a focus on the feminine being the most crucial quality of dress for women. This translated into using padding on the hips or hoops to create a new body shape. 

The use of padding to create a curvaceous body shape culminated in the 1780s into a rounded silhouette: hip padding alongside the addition of bum pads or rolls to give the illusion of a more rounded physique, as well as increasing appearance of breast sizes by using starched kerchiefs tucked into the front of the dress.[2] This was not a new development in fashion, however the changing shape of the body was reaching new heights of exaggeration and extremes.

In 2021, we may often see satire and humour directed at those in the public eye on social media – for being too revealing, for having exaggerated bodily features, for all manner of fashion choices. The satirical prints of the eighteenth century did not hold back from attacking women’s fashion either.

Luxury and extravagance were often used as the measure for immorality or downfall in society. This meant fashion was consequently seen as a vice in need of correcting. All manner of vices appeared in satirical prints, and women’s fashion choices were also ridiculed.

The vast number of satirical prints created about women’s fashions suggests that enough women were participating in what the satires considered to be excessive and ‘humorous’ for such satirical prints to be rendered relevant. 

Demonstrating interesting parallels between the past and the present, the satirical print Chloe’s Cushion or The Cork Rump bares a striking resemblance to the famous Kim Kardashian image in Paper magazine where Kim ‘breaks the internet’. However, instead of a champagne glass perched on Kim’s ‘rump’, a tiny dog sits in its place on top of Chloe. 

Matthew Darly, Chloe’s Cushion or The Cork Rump, 1777, col. engraving, British Museum J,5.129 (BM Satires 5429), Wikimedia Commons.

Ridiculing the fashion of wearing padding on the bum links to a similarly themed satirical print, The Bum Shop published by S. W. Fores in 1785. Four women are at various stages of the buying process, with some being fitted for the pads, whilst others admire the final look. 

However, all of the women appear to have ugly faces, and look ridiculous to the viewer whilst wearing or holding the padding, indicating the mocking tone of the print. Extreme vanity is showcased in this print, stating it is a ‘fashionable article of female Invention’; suggesting that it is by women’s choice to dress this way. 

The Bum Shop, pub. S. W Fores, 1785, col. etching, British Museum 1932,0226.12 (BM Satires 6874), Wikimedia Commons.

Society, and especially men, disapproved of these extreme fashions. In some cases, they were angered by women trying to alter their bodies in ‘unnatural’ ways with padding that gave them a different shape and appearance – it was considered to be false, and not a true representation of their natural bodies. 

Most concerningly for men, if a woman could change her body shape she could potentially hide an illegitimate pregnancy.[3] A woman’s sexual reputation both before and after marriage was considered a matter of the utmost importance to elite gentlemen, as fears of illegitimate children inheriting their estates were prevalent in the period.[4]

Considering this social issue, it is therefore understandable why fashion, female sexuality and a sense of female independence seamlessly blended together in the male perception, and thereby became a key target of their concern. 

Women controlled what they wore, making fashion unique as an area lacking domination by men; yet these prints indicate this did not stop men, and wider society, from trying to encourage changes.

The Bum-Bailiff Outwitted: or The Convenience of Fashion, pub. S. W. Fores, 1786, col. etching, British Museum 1851,0901.291 (BM Satires 7102), Wikimedia Commons.

The social scientist Mostafa Abedinifard puts forward the theory that ridicule (and therefore satire) can act as a key tool in society to threaten ‘any violations of established gender norms’. [5] This theory can help explain why satirical prints of women’s fashions were made. In Abedinifard’s words: ‘Through a mechanism involving fear of embarrassment, ridicule apparently occupies a universal role in policing and maintaining the gender order’. [6] By nurturing a fear amongst women of being ridiculed by the rest of society, the prints arguably created an environment of self-policing that encouraged women to stay within gender expectations.[7] These expectations guided women towards remaining natural in their appearance and staying within the private sphere, if they did not wish to be ridiculed.

There are many intriguing parallels between eighteenth century society and our own times in terms of how women’s self-expression through fashion is viewed. Using padding to alter the appearance of certain body parts is not a new phenomenon. In a post-lockdown world where we once again reassess how we clothe our bodies, it is interesting to consider the power fashion held in eighteenth century society, and the responses it generated.[8]

Holly Froggatt is an MA Historical Research graduate of the University of Sheffield. Her research seeks to explore the relationship between satirical prints and the ridicule of elite women, and the expectations they faced in eighteenth century Britain. You can find Holly on twitter @Holly_Froggatt 

Cover Image and Title: William Dent, Female Whimsicalities, pub. James Aitken, 1793, col. etching, British Museum 1902,0825.3 (BM Satires 8390), Wikimedia Commons.


[1] Cindy McCreery, The Satirical Gaze: Prints of Women in Late Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford, 2004), p. xii.

[2] Aileen Ribeiro, The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France 1750-1820 (London, 1995), p. 72.

[3] Erin Mackie, Market à la mode: Fashion, Commodity, and Gender in the Tatler and the Spectator (Baltimore, 1997), p. 125.

[4] Roy Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1991), p. 25.

[5] Mostafa Abedinifard, ‘Ridicule, Gender Hegemoney, and the Disciplinary Function of Mainstream Gender Humour’, Social Semiotics 2 (2016), p. 241.

[6] Ibid., pp. 244-45.

[7] Mackie, Market à la mode, pp. 238-241.

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50 Years of the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971)

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On 27 May, it is exactly fifty years since the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (MDA), the UK’s primary legislation for controlling drugs, received Royal Assent.

The Act arranged drugs into a three-tier classification system – A, B and C – with controls based on the perceived relative harm of different substances. Now the legislation is at the centre of a campaign by Transform Drug Policy who are calling for an overhaul of the law which the organisation considers having represented ‘50 years of failure’. 

One of the rationales behind the MDA was to consolidate the existing patchwork of legislation that had developed in the UK since the Pharmacy Act of 1868. This was the first time Parliament recognised a risk to the public from ‘poisoning’ and the 1868 Act distinguished between substances that were ‘toxic’ (poisons) and substances that were both ‘toxic’ and ‘addictive’ (‘dangerous drugs’). 

Some of these so-called ‘drugs of addiction’ were later subject to further controls under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920 (DDA) which introduced prescriptions and criminalised unauthorised possession of opium, morphine, heroin and cocaine. 

Whilst this did represent a continuation of wartime drug control efforts it was also the result of a racist media-led panic around Chinese opium dens, as well as being a response to international moves toward uniformity on drug regulation. 

The DDA was later clarified by the Departmental Committee on Morphine and Heroin Addiction in their 1926 ‘Rolleston Report’. This formed an interpretation of the Act that became known as the ‘British System’, framing ‘drug addiction’ as a medical issue rather than a moral failing. 

By the 1950s, drugs were becoming increasingly connected in public consciousness with youth subculture and – especially in the tabloid press – black communities and the London jazz scene, stoking further moral panic. 

By 1958, the British Medical Journal observed that the regulations around drugs and poisons were already ‘rather complicated’.[1] This picture was complicated yet further by the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs which laid out an international regime of drug control, ratified in the UK in 1964 by another Dangerous Drugs Act

Another committee was also formed under the Chairmanship of Lord Brain, ultimately leading to (yet another) Dangerous Drugs Act in 1967 which held onto the principles of the ‘British System’ but introduced new stipulations, such as requiring doctors to apply for a licence from the Home Office for certain prescriptions. 

During the 1960s, drugs continued to be associated in popular imagination with youth, with most attention by 1967 on the ‘Counterculture’ and ‘the hippies’, and in particular their use of cannabis and LSD. That same year, Mick Jagger’s country retreat in Redlands was raided by the drugs squad in a bust that was symbolic of a broader clash of ideologies.

The arrest and harsh sentencing of Jagger, Keith Richards and their friend Robert Fraser prompted William Rees-Mogg’s famous Times editorial ‘Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?’ on 1 July 1967. This became part of a wider public debate on drug use and on 16 July a ‘Legalise Pot’ rally took place in Hyde park, followed on 24 July by a full-page advert (paid for by Paul McCartney) in the Times calling for cannabis law reform.  

Imaginatively, the Government decided to convene another committee, this time under Baroness Wootton. Its report, published at the end of 1968, argued that whilst it did not think cannabis should be legalised, it should be made distinct in law from other illegal drugs. 

Finally in 1970, Home Secretary James Callaghan introduced a new Bill that was described during its passage through Parliament as an attempt to replace ‘…the present rigid and ramshackle collection of drug Acts by a single comprehensive measure’.[2] But the Bill was as ideological as it was pragmatic, and Callaghan himself had rejected the recommendations of Wootton.

The debates in both the Commons and the Lords indicate that not only did most Members of Parliament who spoke on the subject have little understanding of the complexities of drug use, but also that the theme of the ‘permissive society’ and its supposed excesses was central.

The Bill was approved in May 1971, given Royal Assent the same month and fully implemented after two more years. The Act also established the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), tasked with keeping the drug situation in the UK under review. 

Successive governments have tended to accept the recommendations of the Council but there have been clashes, such as in 2009 when there was a total breakdown of relations when Professor David Nutt, then Chair of the Council, was sacked by Home Secretary Alan Johnson after Nutt had claimed – with substantial evidence – that MDMA and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol. 

For all of this, what has actually been the impact of the MDA? Well, as Simon Jenkins recently pointed out in a blog for the Guardian, 27,000 children and teenagers are now involved in ‘country lines’ drug gangs. Jenkins had previously described the MDA as a law that has done ‘less good and more harm’ than any other law on the statute book.

It is difficult to argue with this. Far from stemming recreational drug use, use of illegal drugs only increased after the MDA and became endemic in cities during the 1980s as heroin became a significant social issue. In 1979, the number of notified heroin users exceeded 1,000 for the first time. 

Over the 1980s and 1990s, drugs like MDMA were also increasingly used to enhance users’ experiences, especially in rave contexts, yet the Government line remained the same. As drug and harm reduction expert Julian Buchanan argued in 2000, ‘two decades of prevention, prohibition and punishment have had little noticeable impact upon the growing use of illegal drugs’.[3]

The MDA also deterred drug users from seeking help for fear of legal repercussions and limited the opportunities of countless young people. Last year, Adam Holland noted in the Harm Reduction Journal that in the UK, drug-related deaths were at the highest level on record and that although enormous time and money has gone into combating the illicit drugs trade, the market has not stopped growing.[4]

Writing thirty years after the MDA, Buchanan had argued that a ‘bold and radical rethink of UK drug policy’ was needed. Such a rethink never materialised. In 2019, the House of Commons Select Committee on Drug Policy concluded that ‘UK drugs policy is failing’. Now after half a century it might be time for real radical change, and the anniversary presents a great opportunity for this conversation to gain momentum. 

Hallam Roffey is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research looks at the idea of ‘acceptability’ in English culture between 1970 and 1990, examining changing attitudes around sexually explicit imagery, violent media, offensive speech and blasphemy. You can find Hallam on Twitter @HallamRoffey


[1] John Glaister and Edgar Rentoul, ‘The Control of the Sale of Poisons and Dangerous Drugs’, British Medical Journal (1958;2), p. 1525.

[2] House of Lords debate (October 1969), Hansard volume 790, cols 189-90.

[3] Julian Buchanan and L. Young, ‘The War on Drugs—A War on Drug Users’, Drugs: Education, Prevention, Policy 7:4 (2000), pp. 409-22.

[4] Adam Holland, ‘An ethical analysis of UK drug policy as an example of a criminal justice approach to drugs: a commentary on the short film Putting UK Drug Policy into Focus’, Harm Reduction Journal 17:97 (2020).

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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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From Popular Culture to Culture War: Free Speech and the British Press

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In recent years, debates about ‘free speech’ have become ever-present in politics and the media, central to what has been called a ‘culture war’. Responding to this situation, a recent volume that assembles a diverse group of commentators, activists and academics – including a chapter from myself – focuses on what it calls The Free Speech Wars.

It examines how speech has and has not been controlled both historically and today, and the ways in which the concept of free speech has been weaponised or deployed as a bad faith argument by those wishing to commit harm. In the introduction, the volume’s editor, Charlotte Lydia Riley, summarises some of the insights the book offers, arguing:

“that free speech is often only available to those who are already powerful; that the people who shout the loudest about their speech being denied are still, at the end of the day, the ones whose voices carry the furthest. Freedom of speech is an essential right and a powerful duty, but it is not the only thing that matters”.

My own chapter explores these themes by examining one particular case study: the British press. This is an important subject as the press has both a vested interest in the debate due to the criticism the industry receives for its own harmful practices, and because the press is a major platform in which arguments about free speech take place and where ideas and rhetorical slogans are crafted and popularised.

The notion of freedom has been central to how the British press has presented itself ever since the emergence of what are recognisable as ‘newspapers’ in the seventeenth century. At that time it was undoubtedly an existential concern, given the efforts of the British state to censor what could be printed.[1] Famous figures such as John Wilkes became symbols of the need to fight for free speech, and the press has long presented itself as the ‘Fourth Estate’, with a supposed duty to hold the powerful to account.

Yet the context has changed immensely in the intervening centuries. From a time when a small number of journalists and publications were truly radical voices speaking to a relatively small number of readers, by the end of the nineteenth century a mass press had emerged.

With readerships reaching into the millions, owned by wealthy figures such as the press barons, and with links to powerful interests in the spheres of politics and business, the press itself – particularly the largest and most influential newspapers – now wielded immense power. Moreover, the majority of the press remained resolutely right-wing politically, which remains the case today.

With such large circulations, newspapers were able to set the agenda and pressurise politicians. This mass press was also a key element in the emergence of a ‘popular culture’, as important as books, films or music. Newspapers played a vital role in crafting notions of ‘common sense’ and a political and cultural language for their readers.

This new state of affairs begged the question – who would hold the press itself to account?

The central character of debates about press freedom changed during the twentieth century, with the 1960s serving as a pivotal moment. Beforehand, debates about free speech and the press tended to focus on notions of morality, respectability and obscenity, and the tone of newspaper’s critiques of authority figures. Afterwards, debates about press freedom tended to centre on the press’s representation of disadvantaged groups, whether this concerned stereotyping and discrimination or issues of privacy and intrusion into the personal sphere.

The longstanding demonisation of migrants and ethnic minorities in the pages of many of the most high-profile British newspapers, especially the tabloids, is one obvious example. Another is the News of the World’s notorious practice of phonehacking, also likely utilised by other newspapers. This targeted not just celebrities, but also regular members of the public who had been thrust into the public eye, such as the parents of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

The press duly wheeled out all of the old arguments about free speech, the freedom of the press and the Fourth Estate. Newspapers presented themselves as the victims, ignoring the ways in which they had used their power and influence to harm others, their unethical – and even illegal – practices, and their frequent disregard for factual accuracy.

Although the phonehacking scandal led to the closure of the News of the World and some brief jailtime for a small number of perpetrators, most of those involved escaped censure and the Sun on Sunday was quickly launched by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK to replace the News of the World. Most damningly, the new industry regulator, IPSO, was again set up as a vehicle of self-regulation like its predecessors – and has been chaired by figures from News UK such as former political editor of the Sun, Trevor Kavanagh.

Murdoch has been central to another factor in ‘free speech’ becoming a central focus of much of the British press. His media organisations straddle both sides of the Atlantic (and far beyond). Much as Fox News has hosted reactionaries utilising notionally liberal values such as freedom and ‘free speech’ to provide cover for their regressive and discriminatory views and activities, so too have Murdoch’s newspapers in the UK – the Sun, The Times, and the Sunday Times.

This is part of a broader press environment where culture-war rhetoric has flourished, with constant alarmist articles about ‘snowflakes’ and PC culture, no-platforming and other supposed attacks against free speech on university campuses, and disingenuous claims that calling out racism, misogyny and homophobia is now the real bigotry and a threat to freedom – all of which are examined in The Free Speech Wars.

The history of the British press across the last century and a half has exemplified a broader societal shift from popular culture to culture war – and although the manner in which notions of free speech have been utilised has changed, they remain potent rhetorical tools. Free speech is a vitally important issue, especially at a time when authoritarianism is rising around the world and journalists in many countries are targeted with violence. The press is also clearly home to a diverse range of voices, including on the issue of free speech.

But the appeals to free speech offered by the press in Britain need to be treated with suspicion given the industry’s long history of hypocrisy over the issue and the various ways it has sought to weaponize the concept to justify its commercial imperatives and unethical behaviour. You can read my full chapter in the book for a more detailed account of how this unfolded.

Aaron Ackerley is a historian of Modern British and imperial history, focusing on politics, the media, and popular culture. He is also the assistant editor of this blog. You can find him on Twitter @AaronAckerley.

The Free Speech Wars is available now from Manchester University Press.


Cover image: A pile of newspapers secured with an iron chain.

[1] K. Williams, Read All About It!: A History of the British Newspaper (London, 2010), chs 1-3.

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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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