Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire, by Carol Dyhouse

Book of the week: The perennial female fantasy of man embodies a host of contradictory types, says Laura Frost

February 2, 2017
Screaming female Beatles fans
Source: Alamy

In 2010, a team of scientists identified a pheromone in male house mice that attracts females of the species to individual mates. The researchers named the rodent aphrodisiac Darcin, after Jane Austen’s handsome and aloof hottie in Pride and Prejudice. Are women as chemically predictable as mice? If the hysteria around Colin Firth’s “Regency wet T-shirt moment” as Mr Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation of the novel was any indication, yes, they are.

In Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire, Carol Dyhouse sets out to study what modern women “have found irresistibly attractive in men”. Her laboratory is pop culture, and the literature, cinema and music that have given us our most iconographic dreamboats. Dyhouse has made formative contributions in women’s and gender history, education and the social history of modern Britain with books including Girls Growing Up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England, No Distinction of Sex? Women in British Universities 1870-1939, Students: A Gendered History and Feminism and the Family in England, 1880-1939. If Virginia Woolf had found Dyhouse’s work as she perused the British Library catalogue, A Room of One’s Own might never have been necessary. Dyhouse’s more recent books, Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women, and Glamour: Women, History, Feminism, are more broad in their appeal, beckoning to non-specialist scholars and general readers alike. Whether writing about the moral panic of white slavery, the rise and fall of fur coats or the sirens of classic Hollywood cinema, Dyhouse is insightful, jargon-free and witty. In short, she’s just the woman with whom you’d like to discuss your latest crush over a cocktail.

Heartthrobs begins with John Berger’s much-cited premise that “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Dyhouse’s goal is to “turn things round” and “look at men through the eyes of women”. Noting that “new templates of desirable masculinity have appeared at times of social, political, and technological change”, she pinpoints key moments in the genealogy of women’s lust, from “the stiff-upper-lipped imperial adventurers of the 1890s and 1900s” to “the lost boys and soulful poets of the First World War”, to the 1920s and 1930s, when things got really exciting. Newly emancipated and wage-earning women made their preferences known by consuming magazines such as Peg’s Paper, so-called “shop-girl romances”, and films that featured “a long procession of male romantic prototypes: sheiks, sultans, and foreign princes, captains of industry, film stars, aristocrats, and airmen”, not to mention Tarzan, with his leopard loincloth.

Reading these male types across her sources, Dyhouse homes in on the cultural contradictions presented by each. She asks, for example, “why, at this point in history [the 1920s], women turned to romance reading on such a large scale”. Puzzling over the immense popularity of E. M. Hull’s novel The Sheik, and the subsequent film by the same title starring Rudolph Valentino as a sexy kidnapper who “forces” the heroine “into sexual compliance to discover the meaning of passion”, Dyhouse concludes that it “was the perfect escape fantasy” offering “a multifaceted vision of desirable masculinity, both masterful and tender”. Indeed, despite the vicissitudes in heartthrobs across the decades, Dyhouse maintains that the perennial female fantasy type is a man who embodies ambiguity and seemingly opposing characteristics: an aloof, “arrogant and scornful Byronic” type who ultimately proves to be vulnerable in matters of the heart. That’s right: Mr Darcy.

Romantic heroes became a bit more pedestrian in the post-war period, as men returned to the workforce and women “both longed for, and were frustrated by domesticity”. Romance narratives offered hunky doctors as heroes, but younger women found “new models of desirable masculinity: the rock star, the rebel, and the revolutionary”. Think Elvis, Che Guevara, and Marlon Brando in The Wild One. “Performers who set out to rock the system and singers with a slick, bad-boy image could stir up gratifying reserves of female passion when they begged for love.” It was also the beginning of female “fandom”, and teenage girls’ “dionysiac frenzies” in the presence of their idols. If Beatlemania (above right) was a “huge outpouring of teenage female libido”, as Barbara Ehrenreich has described it, fan culture elevated young women “as consumers of men and goods”, according to Dyhouse.

Fast-forward to the 1970s and second-wave feminism, which brought “more varied and interesting” heroines who were “less prissy and more interested in sex”; however, Dyhouse argues, “the shape of the imaginary heroes who crushed these heroines to their manly chests…changed much more slowly”. Vehicles of a new girl culture, such as the magazine Jackie, encouraged young women to plaster their bedroom walls with pictures of not-too-threatening rock stars of the order of David Essex and The Partridge Family’s David Cassidy. The lyrics of the latter’s I Think I Love You pretty much sum up their anodyne appeal: “But what am I so afraid of? Believe me, you really don’t have to worry. I only want to make you happy. And if you say ‘Hey, go away’ I will.” This combination of erotic charisma and vulnerability flowered again with the New Romantics in the 1980s (cue the Adam Ant videos) and continued into the 21st century with the fetching vampires of Twilight.

While the rich territories of 20th-century women’s romance, cinema and girl/fan cultures have been explored in detail by Nicola Beauman, Janice Radway, Laura Marcus, Carol Thurston, Carolyn Steedman, Billie Melman, Mary Cadogan, Angela McRobbie, Miriam Hanson and many others, Dyhouse’s strength is bringing this extant work together in a sweeping and accessible history. She approaches her topics with enthusiasm and levity. She describes one character as “something of a spiv”, and gaspingly reports that David Bowie wears “breathtakingly tight trousers” in the film Labyrinth. Heartthrobs delivers whimsical facts such as “Sir Dirk Bogarde’s success as a romantic lead was such that he claimed it necessary to sew up his fly buttons at premieres.” Who knew?

One truly inspired section of Heartthrobs is a comparison of two icons of romance: Barbara Cartland and Liberace. Both “busied themselves in highly gendered representations that were oddly devoid of sexuality”, Dyhouse observes. Cartland’s anachronistically virginal heroines and Liberace’s camp persona flag a conundrum of mass culture masculinity. Dyhouse acknowledges that “many of the most successful ‘romantic leads’ in the past – Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, Dirk Bogarde, Richard Chamberlain, for instance – have been gay. Their performances nevertheless conjured visions of maleness which had women weak at the knees: how do we make sense of this?” Many of Dyhouse’s seemingly heterosexual case studies pulse with gay, lesbian and bisexual energies: for example, in the friendship of the young London clerical workers of the 1900s who ponder a man-sharing scheme (sort of a ride-sharing programme crossed with Tinder) at the same time as one of the girls gushes about her attraction to a married female friend; in the very public accusation that dancer Maud Allan was promoting a “cult of the clitoris”; in the androgynous appeal of boy bands such as One Direction; and so on. “Masculinity”, Dyhouse points out, is “both a fiction and a joint project.” And really, is Burt Reynolds’ hirsute 1972 Cosmopolitan centrefold any less queer than Liberace?

The editors of the delightful website Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, cited by Dyhouse, offer a tantalising coda to Heartthrobs. They note that male heroes in romance fiction published after the 1980s are markedly less brutal, less “shouty and grabby and punishy” than the ones in earlier narratives. Not only is there room for the likes of Vicki Lewis Thompson’s nerd heroes, as well as interspecies and paranormal love objects, but also, the Smart Bitches predict a surge in LGBTQ themes in romance culture. Perhaps we’re ready at last to see the queer straitjacket of masculinity for what it is.

Laura Frost is formerly associate professor of literary studies at Yale University and at The New School for Liberal Arts, New York City, and author of The Problem With Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents (2013) and Sex Drives: Fantasies of Fascism in Literary Modernism (2001).

Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire
By Carol Dyhouse
Oxford University Press, 288pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780198765837
Published 9 February 2017

Carol Dyhouse
David Myers

The author

Carol Dyhouse, emeritus professor of history at the University of Sussex, “grew up in the Midlands in a home where there weren’t many books. I remember a small shelf of mainly 1940s and 1950s book club editions, printed on very thin paper. These included tales of male heroism such as Paul Brickhill’s book on Douglas Bader, Reach for the Sky, and Joseph Bigger’s Man Against Microbe, which inspired me with the story of Louis Pasteur.

“There was a certain amount of gender confusion in my reading these books. I aspired to a kind of heroism that seemed tricky if applied to women. The book club editions also included Anya Seton’s Dragonwyck, which really went to my head. I was hugely drawn to the wealthy aristocratic anti-hero in this story, Nicholas van Ryn, a thrillingly handsome but evil, twisted type who lived in a Gothic mansion. I learned very early on that you could be seduced by something troubling.

“This lesson was reinforced by my reading of one of the most puzzling books I was given as a child: a beautifully illustrated edition of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market. I spent hours trying to work out what this poem was about. A small girl assaulted by goblins who rip her clothes, beat her up and squeeze fruit in her mouth. And girls so treated were shown as longing and pining for this fruit…what the heck was going on here? The poem entranced, fascinated and appalled me.

“Incidentally, I never got to see the film version of Dragonwyck, where Nicholas van Rijn was played by Vincent Price.

Dyhouse recalls that as a child, she “always had my nose in a book, and was bookish to the point of my mother thinking it pathological. She probably had a point, in that I was prone to ignore most of what was going on around me in favour of concentrating on the printed page. I couldn’t get enough books. We used a travelling library that came round to our village once a fortnight and you were allowed two volumes. The problem was that I usually finished these in a day or so.”

As an undergraduate, she says, “I think I could have done with more confidence. I assumed that most people would be cleverer than me. And I was a bit distracted by a burgeoning interest in boys and sex. I think teachers at school had instilled some kind of notion that scholarly women should be above such things, and I wasn’t.”

Dyhouse’s 1995 book No Distinction of Sex looked at the experiences of women in UK universities from 1870 to 1939. She took her first degree at the University of Reading at the end of the 1960s, when “things were changing fast. Female undergraduates were increasingly treated simply as students rather than as a separate and rather problematic category. In most universities before the Second World War, female students had been carefully shielded from men, and vice versa. Even in the 1960s there were vestiges of separate disciplinary arrangements for men and women. Halls of residence were single sex. Some universities still had sex-segregated student unions. And career advisory services were divided into men’s and women’s sections. Women graduates had far fewer options (I remember being offered teaching or the Metal Box Company).

“The biggest changes came at the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s. In my 2006 book Students: A Gendered History, I argued that the availability of the contraceptive pill had a massive impact. The fear that female students would get pregnant during their studies, which had haunted parents and university authorities as well as women themselves, receded. The Latey Committee on the Age of Majority (1967) recommended that the age of majority should be brought down from 21 to 18, which meant that students could be classified as adults. University authorities breathed a sigh of relief that they were no longer in loco parentis and could give up fretting over gate rules and trying to act as moral guardians, policing student sex lives.

“Other important changes came through equal opportunities legislation and the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975. And, of course, one of the drivers behind these was second wave feminism, which was also encouraging women to look at gender bias in the university curriculum.”

Dyhouse, like many female historians, has written about subjects that were long seen as less worthy of scholarly attention precisely because they were “women’s” matters (fur coats rather than diplomatic history, glamour and heartthrobs rather than military battles). Does any of that disciplinary disdain remain?  

“There has definitely been progress towards seeing gender as a factor in history, although this hasn’t always shaped the curriculum as much as it should. One of the problems facing history departments is that it can be costly to offer too many options and to teach in small groups. This means that bits of women’s history are sometimes shoehorned into mainstream courses, and even this can be a struggle unless there are enough feminist historians pushing for it. The kind of subjects that have interested me most in recent years (glamour, girlhood, women and desire) fit most easily into cultural/social history, and I think they call for an imaginative, interdisciplinary approach.

Asked to name an early career scholar whose work she finds particularly inspiring, Dyhouse replies: “I find all my younger female colleagues in the history department at Sussex inspiring. They have more courage than I had when I was younger, and I know that this inspires students.”

As a teenager, who were her own heartthrobs? “Rudolf Nureyev. The actor David Warner. And I had a bit of a thing about Ray Davies from The Kinks.”

What gives her hope?

“Light. Fern fronds uncurling in the spring. Unexpected kindness from people.

“But if we’re talking about history, I take heart from the delight with which feminists in the 1970s and 1980s ‘rediscovered’ the work of earlier women historians such as Alice Clark or Eileen Power. This gives me hope that if women’s history suffers setbacks, institutionally, future generations will also enjoy a process of rediscovering works from the past.”

Karen Shook


Print headline: What woman could resist?

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs