Here is one way to look at the shifting fortunes of women over the last two centuries: via the men many of them have sighed over.
In Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire, Carol Dyhouse traces the objects of heterosexual female fantasy who’ve risen and fallen and risen again over the years. Focusing most intently on the United Kingdom but covering the United States, as well, Dyhouse roams from The Sheik to Fifty Shades of Grey, from the dreamy doctors of the 1950s to Justin Bieber, from Mr. Darcy to Mr. Darcy. In a particularly fun touch, she ties together Barbara Cartland, the campy, confectionary doyenne of chaste midcentury British romance, with Liberace, as a means of looking at the rigidity of cultural norms in the 1950s. It’s a whirlwind tour that takes you through the big-picture changes to women’s lives via the dreamboats of their eras.
I set up an interview with Dyhouse, who looked me up and immediately found my article about The Flame and the Flower, the 1972 book that brought explicit sex to romance novels. And so we talked about heartthrobs, Barbara Cartland, where you went to find out about sex when, and—of course—Fabio. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: Why heartthrobs? What about the topic interested you?
Carol Dyhouse: There were a couple of starting points. One is the John Berger dictum, which has been so influential in feminist studies and feminist history—men look at women, and women look at themselves through the eyes of men. The notion that women are the objects of the male gaze. I wanted to turn that round. It seemed to me almost too obvious that when women get together and men aren’t present, one of the things they do is talk about men quite often. So I thought well, how could we historicize that? How could we look for changes in the way that women have thought and probably fantasized about men? That was one starting point.
The other starting point was a kind of challenge—how would we write about the history of women and desire? Now, I do know that I’m looking at hetereosexual desire and the topic could have been broadened out more to include homosexual desire. But you’ve got to limit yourself somewhere. And actually, in looking at heterosexual desire, you’re kind of forced to look at homosexual desire to some extent, because women so often fantasize about gay men.
You talk about this desire to historicize the way we think about this topic. And your book, it looks mostly at the 20th century. To what extent has there been continuity in the idea of a heartthrob?
Good question. I do look at the 19th century, as well, although probably not so much. But it did seem to me that, if you took the transition from the early 19th century to the present day, that you might get a change in the way women thought of men as heartthrobs, fantasized about them. Because in the earlier period, they’re so needful of finding protection in men, a provider who’s going to look after them. If you think of Jane Austen’s novels, the women have to find somebody rich who’s going to provide for them. The romance writer Barbara Cartland rather wonderfully referred to this as “marrying park gates.” The moment at which Lizzie Bennet falls for Mr. Darcy, in the novel, is when she sees how big his house is, when she looks through the gates of Pemberley.
I think that’s significant. I mean, what’s so very attractive about a man in the early 19th century is his wealth and the extent to which he can protect you and provide for you. And I was rather hoping to find a transition when we came more up to date, that as women got more autonomous economically and there were more opportunities for women to be independent, they might actually be allowed to see men as fellow human beings and relate to them on more of a companionate level and find them attractive in themselves as human beings rather than needing a meal ticket.
But your question was actually, are there changes in how women have thought about heartthrobs?
Are there changes, but also is there a certain continuity?
Both. There are definitely changes. One of the things I had look at was the whole business of pop fandom—you know, the passion for Elvis and the singers of the ’50s and the ’60s up to the present day and girls interested in One Direction or Justin Bieber. It’s hard to think of that happening in Victorian times, isn’t it? It’s actually inconceivable. You can’t think of the straight-laced Victorian miss, or even the less straight-laced Victorian miss, for that matter, having a passion for boy bands. They just wouldn’t have had the freedom. It wouldn’t have entered their imaginative world in the same way. And when you think about young women from the 1950s, 1960s on—the growth of bedroom culture, with young girls getting together in bedrooms and playing records and fantasizing about pop stars and putting posters up and kissing them at night and things like that—you just can’t imagine that happening in Victorian times. The context for young female independence just didn’t exist in the same way. Young middle class girls weren’t allowed to go on buses on their own in the late 19th century.
So women’s independence does shape the notion of what the heartthrob can be, and the heartthrob becomes commercialized and an object of pleasure for younger and younger girls as the 20th century goes on.
Which is sort of interesting when you think about it, right, because it’s gotten younger as the age of marriage has shifted later.
It has, hasn’t it? Do you think those two things are related?
It certainly seems like maybe it is—you have that longer transitional period where you have more time to think about, like, Donny Osmond, as opposed to thinking practically about how you’re going to provide for yourself.
Yeah, that’s actually quite an interesting thing to play around with. The age of marriage reached its lowest in Britain and probably America after the Second World War. It was very common for girls to get married in their teens in the 1960s. People got a bit panicky. Social commentators thought, oh god, girls are getting engaged at school and it’s going younger and younger. But actually, it’s not what happened. When better kinds of birth control came in at the beginning of the 1970s, everything went the other way round and the age of marriage got postponed. It became later and later instead. It’s a really dramatic shift, and I think very clearly related to the availability of contraception. And I think underlies what you quite interestingly call the cultural chaos of the ’70s.
That definitely was the thing that struck me as I was doing background reading for that piece on the ’70s and the first generation of “bodice rippers.” I was born in the ’80s and you think about the wild and free ’60s, but it was striking to me to read about the ’70s and how disorienting it seems to have felt suddenly.
Well, I’m a lot older than you, Kelly. I’m just trying to think whether I was kind of disoriented in the ’70s. I think suddenly things that had been a terrible struggle got much easier. Although, as you say, people think of the 1960s as the sexual revolution and all that, it was still really quite hard. You couldn’t get hold of the pill very easily. I mean, you could if you were in a very progressive university town or something, towards the end of the ’60s, but it wasn’t easy still. And a lot of the attitudes of the 1950s about being a “good girl” and all of that persisted through the ’60s. And I think the ’70s, things did start to get easier, and as well as the easier availability of contraception, in England you get equal opportunities legislation and things like that. Suddenly it looked like feminism was making progress in the early ’70s. She says, sadly. Well, it did make some progress. Things did get easier for a while, they really did.
And then the ’80s happened.
And then ’80s happened! Yes. But even if you think about the ’80s, it wasn’t like completely going back to the ’50s, was it? I always think, when you try and imagine what direction history is going in, it always seems to take two steps forward and one step back.
How, historically, have straight men responded to these phenomena? It’s not positively and welcomingly in many of the cases, right?
I think you mean that women’s expressions of desire haven’t always been welcomed among men. Absolutely right on. No, they haven’t. You can trace that right back, with the huge unease that Rudolph Valentino caused amongst men, who were often very, very insulting towards him. The famous remark that he was a pink powder puff, you know. (In retaliation he offered to punch the person for that.) But Valentino was hugely disapproved of by many men for all sorts of things—the color of his skin, he was a dancer, he was possibly a gigolo, he was a lounge lizard. He was a lady’s man. Actually, that phrase lady’s man sums up what you’re saying—the idea that if women are too keen on a certain kind of heartthrob, he’s denounced as a lady’s man. Which is said with sort of a sneer, isn’t it? It’s not a man’s man. A man’s man is manly. A lady’s man is, ehhhh, maybe not.
That’s one of the things I find really interesting—your book is a chronicle of men that women have made objects of desire, but also one of the criticisms frequently leveled at them, many times observers think they’re too feminine. Like Valentino. And of course, Liberace really sends them around the bend.
Yeah, I had to really struggle to understand Liberace. But there are times, aren’t there, where the kind of square-jawed man that you might think of as more of a man’s man does become popular amongst women, too.
So I suppose I just wanted to chart this through and see if I could get some sense into it. I mean, maybe in wartime, you know, when more aggressive forms of manliness are maybe a bit more in vogue, then there’s more confluence between the ideals of masculinity preferred by both men and women. But it’s difficult. It’s really difficult to chart a simple line of progress through. Some people might argue that I’ve not succeeded in doing it, but I did have a go!
Do you feel you did see some patterns? Or did you feel like women play with different types of guys consistently?
At different stages of their life, maybe? Or something like that? I think I did find some patterns. For instance, this business about there being different ideals of manliness for women at different stages in their life cycle is very well established, with the growth of teenage consumers and so on and boy bands, as I talked about earlier. That is a historical change which you can chart. I think that the connection between preferred kinds of masculinity and ability to be a breadwinner or a provider, that does change too. It’s not quite so important in the late 20th, early 21st century.
I think that it would be hard—I do hope I’m not being rash here—to put the lid back on expressions of female desire. You can see an explicitness emerging, again, sometimes two steps forward and one step back, but you can trace that from the bombshells of the 1920s—for instance, Marie Stopes in Britain, if you can bear the the intense sort of passionate, poetic, pulsating prose, there’s a lot of kind of quite radical stuff about female desire in Marie Stopes. She actually actually says things like, you know, if women don’t enjoy sex it’s because men come too quickly. It’s really kind of shocking. And that’s why she was so vilified by men. Because you know it made women’s sexual pleasure a bit dependent on male expertise. That was a very radical thing to suggest. Because, as you know, there was a long tradition in Victorian times of thinking that nice women, well brought up women, weren’t that interested in sex. In one of her books, she talks about some aristocratic bloke who wrote to her and said, what you’ve done is terrible, you’ve turned English women into vampire, sucking out the lifeblood of the male!
But then you can go through the romance, the pulsating novels that you pick up on, as precursors to Kathleen Woodiwiss and The Flame and the Flower and Rosemary Rogers and Sweet Savage Love, but you know, the precursors that you pick up on—Ethel Dell and E.M. Hull’s The Sheik at the beginning of the 20th century. Those start to try and say something about female desire. So there is a growing explicitness about female desire. Even though often people kept those books in their underwear drawer, didn’t they, and there was a bit of unease around them. Then you point out that the novels themselves start being more explicit with Woodiwiss and Rogers in the ’70s. But there were other books, weren’t there? There was the Boston Women’s Health Collective, Our Bodies Ourselves, then there were Shia Hite’s stuff and there was Nancy Friday’s stuff on women’s sexual fantasies. And in the 70s, adding to your notion of the cultural chaos, you do get whole loads of texts exploring women’s desire.
Was it Erica Jong who said that when she wanted to know what women’s sexual pleasure was like, she had to read D.H. Lawrence, for goodness sake? But younger women—like yourself I imagine—if they wanted to know what sexual pleasure might be about before they actually kind of fleshed it out in their own experience, they had many more texts to draw upon. Many more. And that would be so today, too. I think. I hope. I mean, you wouldn’t read Lawrence anymore, would you, to find out what an orgasm was? But I can tell you that women of my generation read Lawrence to find out what an orgasm was. And it was a very bad guide.
When I was doing the research for that piece, I remember reading a New York magazine piece about the big boom of bodice busters. Somebody was saying, you know, it’s too bad women aren’t turning to one of our serious writers, like Updike. Why would I go to John Updike?
Exactly, yes. I really need to go back to some of those books. I mean there is, of course, Erica Jong, who really was was quite shocking to the generation about how women could feel randy and so on. Then there was also a book called Kinflicks by Lisa Alta, that was quite good. I remember it had a dreadful cover which had a sort of cheerleader on the front of it, but I think that dealt with adolescent female sexuality. Oh, and Forever, by Judy Blume. Which was about teenage desire, as well. So young women did have lots more to read. It was a mystery for my generation. There wasn’t anything around that talked about young women’s sexuality or sexual hunger. The notion that women could feel a sort of sexual disturbance as they were growing up was just not there in the literature. So you might well have thought you were odd.
To slightly change course, going back to the criticism, there’s often a class dimension to it. You talk about this interwar magazine, Peg’s Paper, and then the earliest Mills and Boons, and even later with somebody like romance novelist Violet Winspear, there’s this idea that these are books for “shop girls.” How does class play out here?
Well, that’s kind of interesting, because as you probably know, very few people have written about these things. Usually if things like Peg’s Paper in Britain are written about and taken seriously at all, it’s often by literary critics who put them down as rubbish literature. In England, the literary critic Q.D Leavis refers to them as typists’ daydreams. It’s a kind of double putdown, a putdown in terms of gender and class. Or servant girls’ sensationalism. And that makes me uneasy because—well, obviously, because I’m a feminist, but I think that they’ve not been looked at to do credit to them, because they’re really interesting, these papers. If you start thinking about them at a fantasy level, it’s really really interesting what they’re telling you. They’re not just rubbish. If you take fantasy seriously, they are about wanting more than the class position but being aware that this is a very dangerous want. It takes me back to the feminist stuff about sexuality in the 1970s, which emphasizes that sex is an area of pleasure and possibility for women but also an area of danger. And that’s what you pick up if you read things like Peg’s Paper. You get very much this notion that you might be able to marry up, that your only chance of improving your social position is to marry up. But that is shot through with anxiety that some toff is going to get you pregnant and leave you out in the cold.
And I think that needs looking up much more. Because at an imaginative level it makes sense. It’s not just crude sensationalism. And just dismissing this stuff as crap literature—which is what’s happened in Britain, nobody bothers to look at this stuff, I must say I do find it fascinating. Then if you go through to the Mills and Boon stories of the ’60s and ’70s, for instance, there was a piece of research done by Mills and Boon which looked at the social class of readers of category romance novels, as they would later be called. But it was sort of assumed that they’d be read by sad, lonely women. Possibly working class women. And actually it wasn’t the case. There were women of all social classes reading these things, but often being very guilty about their reading and not being very open about it.
And of course the most famous Barbara Cartland reader of all time is Princess Diana, right?
Oh, yeah, well I’ve got the photograph of her reading Barbara Cartland novels. Although Barbara Cartland did comment that hers were the only novels that young Princess Diana read, and they didn’t do her an awful lot of good.
Speaking of Barbara Cartland: could you explain for readers who aren’t familiar with her who she is and what her position in pop culture is and what she has to do with Liberace?
Barbara Cartland was kind of a doyenne of British romance novelists, but very much of an earlier period—the pre Flame and the Flower-type era, as you’re well aware. She didn’t want sex or explicitness in her novels. She wanted women to stay pure and virginal. She produced a huuuuge number of novels, I think something like 700, and her persona was very flamboyant. She dressed in pink and blue and covered herself with feathers and so on and thick, thick makeup. She looked like a big meringue, really.
The reason why I dealt with her in a chapter with Liberace—I really struggled with that chapter, because it seemed to me that both of them said something about the 1950s and the way gender was so rigidly categorized in the 1950s. The ’50s were an era where people were pushed into cultural straightjackets. You had to be a man or a woman. It wasn’t a continuum. They were separate compartments, maleness and femaleness. And I thought that in both cases, they camped it up. Liberace camped up his persona as a sort of dandified prince charming type person with flowery jackets and embossed fabrics and glitter and charm. And Barbara Cartland also camped things up in this pastiche of meringue-y type femininity, with the thick, thick makeup and the thick, thick mascara and the rest of it.
And I thought, well, they’re both using camp to try and contain the contradictions within their personas, at some level. You know, there’s Barbara Cartland—a tough old boot, really, who’d survived all sorts of things and had huge self-discipline in producing these 700 books and the rest of it, you know—and yet she’s squishing herself into this kind of feminine caricature almost. And Liberace was doing the same thing, squishing himself into a kind of character. A caricatured figure. Because it was the only way of containing the contradiction. That’s why I dealt with them together, because I thought they said something about the culture’s gendered straightjackets of the 1950s.
But the thing about Liberace was, he was of course gay, but he denied this in court. And he won. Some gay commentators have seen that as a bit of a let down, you know. As a shame. But we have to remember two things. First of all, homosexuality was illegal in Britain in the ’50s. But secondly, the way it was culturally defined made it impossible for him because he was being given two choices. He was either a man or he wasn’t a man. Because in the minds of people like the English Daily Mirror columnist “Cassandra” and some other males in Britain at the time, if you were gay, you weren’t a man. Well, this was nonsense to Liberace because he most certainly was a man. So if he was presented with an unacceptable choice, what else could he do but lie?
How important is sex to what makes a heartthrob?
Well, I think the easy way to answer that is the sexual explicitness of the ’70s onwards makes it easier to think about heartthrobs in a more sexy way. One of the arguments that people make about why Liberace was so popular amongst women—and that’s why I’ve called him a heartthrob—was because they didn’t find him sexually threatening. You could argue that one of the reasons why women often have fantasied about gay men—although they don’t know they’re gay in some of the earlier periods, with, say, Montgomery Clift or Richard Chamberlain. But maybe women intuited enough to not find those kinds of men sexually threatening. But I don’t think you need to think of them as not sexual.
Maybe—oh, God, I’m going out on a limb now—but maybe there are ways of being sexy which are not so threatening to women. When I was looking, the heartthrobs amongst younger men in the late 20th century, quite often women say that they fantasize about some pop stars and not other pop stars because they were less sexually threatening. Like David Cassidy, they almost seemed girly. So you could have an extension of your girl group friends, rather than something more aggressive and challenging. Maybe it’s a way of women building up confidence in their own sexuality, if they can imagine men’s sexuality as less threatening.
But you know from Fifty Shades and from Woodiwiss there’s an awful lot of sex in that. It’s quite helpful actually because it’s quite explicit, Woodiwiss, isn’t it. It actually gives you good hints for sexual experiences.
There are definitely books you go to when you’re curious in the beginning, where it’s more helpful than looking at a boyband for the details.
When you’re sort of imaginatively putting your toe in the water. You maybe want a gentle introduction, don’t you?
I guess it’s like window shopping.
But you know, even with Fifty Shades—what is it about the wretched Christian Grey that women get off on? Is it all the kind of sexual weird stuff and the red room of pain or is it because he’s mega rich with a private helicopter and a butler and all these houses and he buys her laptops? There’s an awful lot of sheer material porn in Fifty Shades.
I do wonder sometimes—I think about this a lot with Fabio, because I cannot imagine in 9 million years putting Fabio on my personal list of top-ten hottest guys ever. But obviously he’s a cultural icon. And I wonder how much of this is like, you see a guy and say that guy in some broad sense qualifies as a heartthrob, and then it becomes fun to participate.
He’s part of the dressing up books of fantasy, isn’t he? I mean there he is with his ruffled shirt, with his—oh, come on Kelly, I was just thinking of one of your lines—men in leather vests with gold armbands. It’s the dressing up, the accessories that key into the fantasy rather than his body. But then perhaps that’s always the case with women? Women don’t just look at endless pictures of naked men. They like them dressed up a bit, don’t they? His book covers take him on the journey of female fantasy figures, from loving Viking through to pirate strongman to ruffled cavalier.
Space men! He’s done all of it.
I haven’t seen the space man one.
Yeah, it wasn’t his number one line, but he did one or two where he was a space man. He ventured out occasionally.
Oh, what a versatile man.