At first glance, this postcard published by the British postcard company Raphael Tuck & Sons in the early 1900s seems to portray the spontaneity of innocent childhood in a rural setting. Or does it? A closer examination suggests perhaps more lurid interpretations. The girl’s virginal apparel contrasts with the dark male silhouette. Her oversized hat and dress exacerbate her appearance of littleness. Even more, her reclining pose and inviting gaze toward the gentleman send messages of sexual availability. Precariously balanced on the bicycle, she is learning to negotiate prematurely the role of womanhood. The eccentric skyline of the artificial background demonstrates how little care was used in the production process. This postcard resides firmly in the world of consumerism, but the photograph is not the only thing that we are encouraged to buy.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, new printing technologies and an affordable postage rate popularized picture postcards. The growing middle class took every opportunity to acquire these mementos: to celebrate a special occasion, send a coded love message, wallpaper a room or show off a trip to an exotic location. During this “Golden Age” which lasted until World War I, erotic postcards became fashionable too, offering titillating staged fantasies at a budget. Studio photographers rarely signed their works in order to evade legal complications. Buyers concealed their collections in hidden albums to avoid indiscretion. In the lighthearted visual culture of the Edwardian era, suggestive images of children like the above abounded. Created for adult gratification, they played with double entendre, hovering on the border of the permissible.
Risqué postcards of the previous century can be considered the precursors of the sexualisation of childhood in today’s media landscape. As Amy Burge recently noted in her NOTCHES piece on sexualisation debates reflected in medieval literature, debates about the sexualisation of childhood go back centuries and have always been gendered. From fine art to advertising, contemporary discourses around the eroticization of childhood crystallize fears about girls’ bodies. But the media often presents this phenomenon as originating from our current consumer culture. For one example, Letting Children be Children, a report commissioned by the U.K. government in 2011, found that nine out of ten parents believe that “these days children are under pressure to grow up too quickly.”
Despite the power of this rhetoric of moral decline, documents such as this Edwardian postcard demonstrate that both the commercial exploitation and the sexualisation of young femininity have much longer histories. The young age of the model and her emphasized vulnerability conflict with her body language and inviting smile. She is both chaste and femme fatale, pure and sinful. This girl-child incarnates a submissive virgin soon to be transformed by a sexual encounter into a promiscuous fallen woman. One century ago, selling innocence and the attraction to its corruption proved to be a lucrative strategy.
Today, girls remain stranded between this fetishisation of their chastity and the commodification of their femininity. On one side, public discourse polices their burgeoning sexuality. Burge accurately highlights how the language of sexualisation invokes “a right-wing moral agenda” to advocate for abstinence and the perpetuation of patriarchal gender roles under the pretext of the protection of innocence. Misogynist practices of public “slut shaming” regularly make headlines, stigmatising girls’ desires and sexual expressions. On the other side of the spectrum, consumer culture crudely reduces girls’ erotic appeal to a disposable commodity. These polarised characterisations leave little room for girls to negotiate their identities, explore their sensualities, and express their individualities. Studying this postcard suggests, however, that the image of young femininity has been deeply bound to ideological and consumer concerns, both of which negate girls’ senses of self. It also invites us to critically rethink the contemporary debate on sexualisation outside of disempowering and exploitative narratives that perpetuate gendered patterns of inequality.
Elodie Silberstein is a PhD candidate in the Film, Media and Communications Program at Monash University (Melbourne, Australia) and an installation artist. Her research investigates transnational representations of girlhood and the geopolitics of beauty. Elodie is a member of the Darebin Women’s Advisory Committee, providing gender policy guidance to the City of Darebin.
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