Youth, Gender and Modernity

A last contextual framing important to the study is the way the period of youth and sexual norms changed during the twentieth century. Especially in the post-war years the educational policy encouraged individuality in girls from early on, both in the family and in school, and the earlier pro?vision of sex education in schools may also have been significant. The social processes that had an impact on the family in the twentieth century had far-reaching effects on what it meant to be a young person: individualisation, increasing affluence, extended education, social and geographical mobility and increased consumption. Modernisation processes gradually led to a demarcation of youth as a separate life phase all over the Western world, and the need for what Erik H. Erikson has coined a psychosocial moratorium (Erikson 1968: 156). Increased reflexivity, choice and reorientation become urgent issues when new generations cannot simply take over their parents’ way of life, but have to find their own way. For many it involved a prolonged period of education and/or increased geographical mobility. The concept of moratorium has been criticised for generalising the life trajectory of middle-class youth. A relatively free and experimental period of life between childhood and adult life was indeed first a privilege of young men from the bourgeoisie, and later to some degree also the young women from the middle classes who got higher education. However, as we have seen earlier, the agrarian family model of north-western European often allowed for a period free of parents’ control between childhood and marriage. To call it a moratorium would stretch the concept too far, both because it was a period of hard work, little pay and being under the authority of the new household, and because the young person after this period of work often returned to his or her local community and largely continued the way of life of his or her parents’ generation. However, with industrialisation and urbanisation, more young people from rural areas and the working class took up work in the cities as industrial workers, apprentices, office workers or maids. This meant both more formally regulated work hours than working in a rural household had done, and gradually also better pay, which gave a historically new possibility for young people to spend money. Freedom, consumption and leisure became closely intertwined, especially for young working-class girls (Thorsen 1993a, b; Drotner 1999): theirs was a strong urge ‘to become modern’ (Soland 2000; Ekerwald 2002). While girls from rural areas found themselves more confined by family obligations and middle-class girls of the cities experienced more control by their parents, including demands in relation to education, working-class girls in the big cities who were often outside the reach of their parents’ control got access to free time and a little money of their own (Thorsen 1993a, b). One of our informants in the oldest generation illustrates this. Borghild, born into a rural working-class family in 1911, remembers having a long row with her parents before she was finally allowed to take up a post as a housemaid for a well-off family in Oslo in 1928. The first thing she did when she was out of the sight of her mother was to cut off her braids and get a perm. She received a relatively good salary and this allowed her to buy make-up and fashionable clothes. A series of retouched portraits show her and a girlfriend in Oslo in the late 1920s with wavy hair, fur collars, pearl necklaces and ‘diva gazes’. Since she was in the lucky situation that she did not have to send money back home to her family, she could also invest in things for her future, for instance, a full dinner set that cost her half a month’s salary. When we interviewed her more than half a century later, the dinner set still sparkled in the vitrine cabinet in her rural home.

To relax, to enjoy yourself, to have fun has constituted the central agenda of the twentieth century’s emerging youth cultures. The rising standards of living made an increasing number of young people reach for more than the thrift and toil of their parents’ lives, and it also opened up new horizons of individual freedom from family demands and moral obligations. This profound change in moral orientation in modern society was closely intertwined with the rise of mass culture and consumption. In the 1920s and 1930s youthful fun became connected to fashion, music, films, smoking, drinking, dating and romance—all of which required money, material goods and special arenas for young people, and made the older generation panic (Frykmann 1988; Modell 1989; Wennhall 1994; Drotner 1999; Soland 2000; Illouz 2007). Photos of Norwegian high-school classes from the first decade of the twentieth century show young women in long dresses and topknots, whereas in school photos only two decades later, all the female students had short hair and fashionable clothes (Krohg 1996). Modern technologies like radio, phonographs, film and magazines led to the breakthrough of an international youth style in the 1920s. The impact was strongest in the cities, even if young women from our sample who grew up in remote rural areas in Norway also followed the new times closely through radio, touring films and fashion journals. In the 1930s and 1940s youth culture became more separated from the adult world. With the arrival of jazz, swing and hot, young people started to pursue their own taste in music and ways of dancing, and young female bodies were now exposed in shorts and two-piece bathing suits. The ‘swingpjatters’ from the early 1940s released a regular moral panic among adults in the Scandinavian countries when they danced to swing, jazz and foxtrot in their shocking outfits (Frykmann 1988; Wennhall 1994). The arrival of the sound film in the early 1930s led to an indulging in film stars and glamour. The romantic melodrama became the grand genre of popular culture of the inter-war period, especially addressing young women. The Danish youth and media researcher Kirsten Drotner (1999) argues that the mixture of moral dilemmas and emotional intensities especially appealed to young women as it could be understood as a symbolic staging of the increasing tension between autonomy and dependency that young women felt culturally and psychologically at this time.

Mediasation, commercialisation and generational protest increased in the youth cultures of the post-war period, represented by the middle generation in our sample. Music and clothes styles for young people were now separated out in marketing and sales (Cook and Kaiser 2004) based on the rapidly increasing levels of consumption. The ‘teenager’ was conceived by the marketing sector in the US in the 1940s and was used for the first time in print in Norway in 1951. ‘Must-have’ fashion items and wonders like one’s own private transistor radio or battery-operated record player became epidemics in this generation of baby boomers in the 1950s and 1960s. Young people now identified as a special age group through the youth cultural sign systems, including the new youth magazines that became available at this time featuring youth fashion, beauty tips, music and film material. Rock and beat music became the cultural hallmark of this generation. An intense cultivation of music bands, film actors and idols takes over for the romantic melodrama of the inter-war years (Bjurstrom 1980). The idea that you can change your own personality through a new style is introduced (Johnson 1993). A girl in our middle generation, born in 1948, moved for two years to another city with her family. She still recalls her dream of how she, on her return, would have changed personality to become an outgoing and popular girl in new smart outfits and how this would change her position among her peers. In the late 1960s and 1970s the generational protest assumed more political forms, including a critical stand towards commercialisation and fashion. Long hair, hippie style and jeans took over from high heels and teased hairdos. None of our informants were directly active in political movements, but those who received higher education remember it as a period where they developed more radical political views and participated in demonstrations.

Around 1990, the youth period of the youngest generation in our sample, fashionable clothes had become brand-label clothing, and the youth style and music had become more differentiated and divided into a plethora of subcultures that signalled not only youth, but also what kind of youth (Bjurstrom 1997; Lynne 2000). Modern cafes had reached Oslo and were frequented by our middle-class informants, whereas our working-class informants preferred to meet at discos. The VCR and CD player had arrived, and this generation spent much time watching films and TV series together (Drotner 1991). Issues of conformity and uniqueness were at stake in new ways. To follow mainstream fashion or fads uncritically or to not be choosy in music was, at least for middle-class youth, a sign of immaturity (Christensen 1994; Jensen 2001). One of our informants, for instance, said the following about binge drinking parties: 'Okay, fine, but you’re over it by the time you get to high school, like [laughs], at least I was ... You’re supposed to have, to show that you’re in control, because that is simply a teenybopper thing. Everybody should be in control and ‘be themselves’, but the ubiquitous commercial youth cultural sign systems seemed to overtake even the most original. Counter cultures like Punk, Goth, Hip Hop and Rave are associated with the 1980s and 1990s (Bjurstrom 1997), but except for the music, few of our informants identified strongly with these youth cultures. We do not find anything like the generational protest and student revolt of the 1970s in this generation, but many young people, especially young women, became engaged in political activism relating to environment protection, anti-racist work, EU-protest and squatting (Christensen 1994). Compared to our two older generations as young people, the political engagement is actually much more pronounced in our youngest generation.

Of special interest in the context of this book are the ways these youth cultures contributed to changing the meaning of gender and sexuality.

The twentieth century saw huge changes in sexual morals and conduct (Segal 1994; Brumberg 1997; Jamieson 1998). The sexual revolution entailed sexual debuts at a younger age for both women and men, starting in the 1950s, and from 1970 women began having sex at a younger age than men (Pedersen 2005). Sex education for young people was gradually introduced in the second half of the century (de Coninck-Smith

  • 2003) and gay and lesbian rights became a political issue (Plummer 1995; Kristiansen 2008). From the 1980s there was a marked increase in the commercial sexualisation of public space and also easier access to pornography through new media (Sorensen 2002; Knudsen and Sorensen 2006). A focus on HIV/AIDS, rape, sexual violence and harassment is characteristic of the period when we did our interviews (Plummer 1995). Young people, especially young women, are often seen as victims of this increasing sexualisation (Brumberg 1997; Wolf 1997). However, seen from a generational perspective, they have also been agents in the formation of more liberal sexual norms. Whereas adult women in various historical periods have challenged gender structures in work, the economy and politics, young women have rather worked ‘through’ gender (Nielsen
  • 2004) . By gradually changing the norms for how gender, the body and sexuality can be represented, by reframing sexuality and morality in public spaces as well as privately, young women across these three generations have simultaneously carved out spaces for female agency in relation to the body and sexuality. Young men have to a lesser degree been seen as either social agents or loci of changing sexual mores. Ken Corbett (2009) claims that the understanding of men’s bodies and desires has not been seen as refigured or reconceptualised like women’s bodies and desire have been, but rather have been hampered by traditional Freudian formulations. Corbett finds that men’s bodies and desire ‘are as disavowed as once women’s bodies were’ before the advent of feminism (2009: 218). Willy Pedersen (2005) also argues that whereas young women’s sexual activities are seen as modern and progressive today, young men’s sexual activities are seen as old-fashioned and reactionary, even when women and men engage in the same kind of sexual activities (for instance, watching pornography or purchasing sex toys). Our interviews will illuminate some of the changes that have also taken place in men’s bodies and desires, but when it comes to contextual framing, the available sources offer the story seen from the perspective of the young women.

The shift in normative ideals that the young girls in these three generations identify can be described as a move from the ‘nice girl’ of the inter-war period to the ‘popular girl’ of the post-war period and to the ‘autonomous girl’ by the end of the century (Nielsen 2004; Nielsen and Rudberg 2007). The Danish-American historian Birgitte Soland has in a study of young Danish women in the 1920s (Soland 2000) observed that the concept of ‘nice girls’ appears exactly at the historical moment in the 1920s when young girls started to go out on their own with their friends, something that made them vulnerable to sexual assaults and bad reputations. Public space in the city was an especially ambiguous territory, a zone of individual freedom without the family bonds that were still intact in the countryside. Soland describes a battle from bastion to bastion with regard to young women’s bodies: short dresses, short hair, sleeveless tops, bathing suits and so on—everything modern was associated with being cheap. One critique of the time was that the girls’ presence in the public space blurred the lines between respectable and non-respectable women. In this normative vacuum, Soland says, it was felt as necessary to construct a dividing line between ‘nice’ and ‘cheap’ girls. By identifying themselves as nice girls, only out to have some fun, the young women could defend their right to be in a public space without losing their reputation. Female friends gained importance both as ‘partners in crime’ and as providing a space to discuss what the limits should be in relation to behaviour and self-presentation. The changing limits for respectable femininity are also seen in the new ideal of the young woman at this time: the lively and energetic girl with an appealing mixture of sweetness and charm replaced the shy and modest Victorian girl (Thorsen 1997; Telste 2002). The line between nice and cheap girls was indeed sharp and dangerous in the inter-war period. In particular, young working-class women were at risk of being coded as the sexual and deviant ‘other’ against which nice femininity was defined (see also Skeggs 1997).

The ‘nice girl’ disappeared during the war. The sight of young girls on their own in public space no longer shocked or provoked; thus, young women had gained more freedom and did not have to legitimise their presence by being nice. The nice girl had by now rather become a boring girl, but the ‘cheap girl’ was still around. This presented the young women in this generation with the difficulty of avoiding the stigma as ‘cheap’, while still having no clear-cut guidelines for what a girl was actually allowed to do. The American sociologist Winnie Breines (1992) writes about the contradiction in the USA in the 1950s and early 1960s between a rising glorification and commercialisation of sex in the public space conveyed by ads, music and movies, and traditional sexual morals with its demand for virginity. Virginity was not so explicitly celebrated as an ideal in the Scandinavian context, but girls could easily be stigmatised as ‘cheap’ if they were together with more than one boy. Breines describes how the new freedom and individuality of the 1950s and 1960s also implied a new form of exposure for young women. They were more present in the public space and they were evaluated by other young people on the basis of their individual qualities. This is probably one reason why looks, social charms and popularity with the boys were so overwhelmingly important for the young women of this generation, paradoxically enough at a time where they had more opportunities for education than ever before. Being popular and being clever in school often stood in irreconcilable opposition to each other in this generation (Breines 1992; Brumberg 1997). Relationships among girls were extended from being the ‘partners in crime’ of the oldest generation to including a more brutal rivalry for boys and popularity, as the free market seldom allows for sentimentality. The disappearance of the ‘nice girls’ in this generation, especially under the influence of the sexual revolution from the late 1960s, the increased knowledge about sexuality and the arrival of the pill,[1] may have encouraged more experimental behaviour in relation to drinking and smoking, as well as more provocative dressing and use of make-up, all causing a heightened level of conflict with parents. But the absence of a clear line between nice girls and cheap girls also meant that sexual morality was on its way to becoming a personal matter and responsibility, not just something to adapt to (Ravesloot et al. 1999). Thus, freedom in the public


space carved out by the inter-war generation under the banner of being nice girls was further elaborated by the post-war generation in a curious blend of increased individualised morality and responsibility on the one hand and a strengthening of the heterosexual script on the other.

If the nice girl had disappeared for the post-war generation, the contour of the ‘cheap’ girl became blurry towards the end of the twentieth century. Young women were now allowed to experience both desire and ambition as gender-syntonic. Double standards for girls and boys are still at work, but the dominant view is now that it is a purely personal matter when and with whom to have sex—as long as one is cautious about using contraception (McRobbie and Garber 1975; Pedersen 2005). It is now rather the fear of not being self-reliant and independent enough that interferes with both friendships and sexual relations. The popular and boy-crazy girl now lingers on the edge of conformity, neither true to herself nor to her female friends. The danger is no longer that of being ‘a fallen women’, but rather of being ‘a fallen subject’ (Nielsen and Rudberg 2007). The ideal of the ‘autonomous’ girl may be finishing off the ‘cheap’ girl, but in turn produces another anti-type: the weak and dependent girl who cannot stand up for herself. Such girls are no longer seen as ‘cheap’, but rather as ‘exposed’, as girls vulnerable to sexual assaults. This discourse has become widespread in social and medical research on youth sexuality, where early sexual experiences have been consistently associated with poor resources and early general behaviour problems, especially among young girls. Thus, the class position of the ‘exposed’ girl is unchanged compared to the ‘cheap’ girl in the two oldest generations (see Pedersen et al. (2003) for a review). In all generations we find a specially designed category for young girls who have too much sex or sex in the wrong way, and this category has almost inextricably been connected to working-class girls.

For the middle-class girls in this generation, the gender-related problem is not so much sexuality as their bodies, which have now become the most ultimate expression of the self. The demands of exercise and health as well as the widespread panic regarding ‘epidemics of fat’ (Bordo 1999:

69) had become a dominating cultural discourse when we interviewed the youngest generation as 18-year-olds. According to the North American historian Joan Brumberg (1997), this represents a historical trend in the last century, where society changed focus from inner qualities to outer looks, which in turn were ever-more commercialised and uniformly presented. The body appears to be a central battlefield between new subjectivities and old gender discourses both outside and inside young women today. This tension was exactly the point of frustration that exploded in the Scandinavian countries in around 2000 in a number of debate books by young feminists of the same age as our youngest generation (for instance, Skugge et al. 1999). The young middle-class women behind these books did not have any problems in making their voices heard, getting good marks and good jobs; the problem was that they were still caught in gender stereotypes, especially when it came to the body project. As body and style have become the central points of modern selfconstruction, the young women seem to be caught in a dilemma: it is deeply offending to girls who see themselves as subjects to be reduced to body and gender. The books by the young feminists circled this topic: their problem was not that they were not pretty enough, but that they still cared about being pretty enough. Shame is connected to having failed as a self-contained individual. This context of shifting youth cultures, and especially the cultural meanings surrounding the young female body, is an important context in which to understand the feelings of gender that these three generations have experienced in connection to their own and other bodies in their youth.

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  • [1] The pill came in 1967 but was not generally in use in Norway until the 1970s. Free abortion wasimplemented in 1978. Thus, the women of our middle generation could not take advantage ofthese new possibilities before they were married and had had children.
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