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Reviewed by Harriet

It’s probably a common experience among people who read a lot that sometimes two books will overlap in unexpected ways. This has just happened to me. I recently read Nell Frizzell’s The Panic Years (review here), which describes the quandary faced by young women today who feel forced to choose between a career and motherhood. I’d enjoyed Dyhouse’s Hearththrobs a few years ago (review here}, so when I requested a copy of Love Lives (subtitled ‘From Cinderella to Frozen’) I imagined it was going to be about fictional stories and the way they describe relationships. Although I wasn’t entirely wrong, as this is certainly part of the story, it’s actually about social transformations, being an interesting and thorough exploration of the ways in which women’s views of themselves and their function in the world has changed over the generations since WW2. Fairy stories and novels certainly come into it, but so does academic research and feminist theory of various kinds. So it serves rather well as background to Frizzell’s analysis.

As the subtitle indicates, Dyhouse begins and ends with Disney. The film of Cinderella, which came out in 1950, she says, encapsulates everything about the mood of the era, being ‘all about dreams’. After the war, women were tired of deprivation and austerity. Many had been working the ‘double shift’ of work and child-rearing while their men were away. Not surprising, then, that they dreamed of glamour and above all romance – if not a handsome prince, then at least an attractive, solvent and loving partner. At this period, a happy marriage was the goal for most women, one in which the wife is economically dependent on a strong male provider. Childbirth out of wedlock was seen as a disgrace, and few career opportunities existed for women. Fast forward sixty or more years, and we’ve arrived in a world where, as a recent social historian has written, marriage ‘is no longer the main way in which societies regulate sexuality and parenting or organise the division of labour between men and women’. Are women’s lives better or worse as a result?

In case anyone is tempted to view the enduring marriages of the 1950s nostalgically, Dyhouse points out that it’s important to remember that while there were few divorces, this undoubtedly owed much to the fact that there were few valid reasons for divorce, especially for women, the cost was prohibitive, and women could not easily support themselves alone. There were many unwanted pregnancies leading to illicit abortions, adoptions and shotgun marriages, and ‘living in sin’ was a shameful secret. Then came the 1960s, and with them the so-called sexual revolution. Everything changed, in large part because of the advent of the contraceptive pill. Sex before marriage, no longer risky, became the norm. Free from the threat of unwanted pregnancy, young women often chose to live with a partner outside marriage, or to live alone, pursuing education or a career. But as the sixties segued into the seventies, these seemingly healthy and desirable changes brought with them the vilification of the feminists who supported ‘women’s liberation’. Just as suffragists in the early twentieth century had been caricatured as angry, ugly women, shaking their umbrellas at cowering men, so ‘women’s libbers’ were dismissed as hideous, unfeminine man-haters. However, as Dyhouse shows, among the innumerable divergent manifestations of feminism are many arguments in favour of loving, committed relationships between men and women.

It would be encouraging to be able to say that, through the subsequent decades, things became easier for women. Of course there have been definite improvements in the fields of education, contraception and anti-discrimination, and few if any careers are closed to women today.  But you only have to look at the popular novels, films and other media of recent decades to see that young women remain anxious and confused. In Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996), Bridget agonises over finding the right man. In Sex and the City (1998-2004)  a group of young career women attempt to juggle the demands of work and romance. And as we move closer to the present day, young women, with all the resources available to them on social media, appear to be no nearer to finding solutions to these same problems. Indeed, internet dating clearly brings its own problems. As the feminist writer Oriana Asano wrote in a 2015 article, she found it to be ‘a constant reminder of how suffocatingly confining gender roles are and how immobilizing male entitlement renders me in the dating game’:

I’m constantly in a state of waiting: waiting to be called, waiting to be asked out on a date, waiting to be kissed, waiting for a guy to make a decision for me and hope that he can read my mind and choose the thing I want. 

Dyhouse began with Disney’s Cinderella, and she ends with Disney’s Frozen. The image of the Disney princess, pretty in pink, has proved rather scarily durable even today, and the sale of princess-themed items is one of the biggest breadwinners of the Disney enterprise. But the Disney princess of recent films certainly shows a more encouraging face:

In Frozen (2013), Elsa is far too preoccupied with trying to deal with psychic forces and conflict in her own life to think about princes, while her devoted sister Anna has no hesitation in going for sisterly loyalty and adventure over a less than charming prince who turns out to be a dodgy character anyway.

Dyhouse clearly approves of this development, which celebrates female courage and self-mastery rather than marriage and happy ever after. A Guardian article praised the film as representing ‘the future that so many of us want’. But fast forward another eight years and you get to Frizzell’s dilemma–she wants a fulfilling and successful career, but she also wants a happy, settled relationship and a child. There are clearly no easy answers, but Love Lives provides many avenues to explore and a wealth of references to follow up for anyone interested in the background to this important and often confusing issue.

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Harriet is co-founder and co-editor of Shiny New Books.

Carol Dyhouse, Love Lives: From Cinderella to Frozen (OUP, 2021). 978-0198855460, 288pp., hardback.

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1 comment

  1. Sounds like a fascinating read, Harriet. Although things may have superficially changed for the better, there are still so many expectations attached to gender, and I think women nowdays are confused. Sometimes they’re told to go the traditional route, sometimes not to, and so many of the norms controlled by male expectations…

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