Fending off feminization : erecting gender/ed boundaries and preserving masculinity in 1930s British fiction

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McFaden, Gwen M.
Onkey, Lauren
Issue Date
Thesis (Ph. D.)
Department of English
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Adverse economic and social conditions during the 1930s prompted fears that Britain and its populace were becoming feminized. Mass unemployment, the collapse of the older forms of masculinist industry, and the sudden expansion of London's consumer culture were three major events that contributed to perceptions of declining masculinity and rampant feminization. Unemployment, it was feared, transformed muscular, self-reliant laborers into emasculate, dependent idlers. The demise of industry (coal mining, ship building, and iron/steel working) turned symbolic garrisons of imperial strength and power into derelict wastelands. London's consumerism in the form of cheap goods and escapist entertainment was thought to pacify and enfeeble the (male) inhabitants. These three pivotal events fueled apprehensions about the breakdown in traditional, patriarchal structures and heightened sensitivities to and furthered the use of masculine/feminine dichotomies within public discourse.The aim of my dissertation is to explore the ways in which complex networks of gender anxieties resonate in 1930s British fiction through the establishment and erosion of rhetorical gender/ed boundaries. Although fears regarding the political landscape, social unrest, and war were instrumental in shaping the literary responses of the decade, those fears were also informed by and articulated through a gender-conscious rhetoric. Emasculation imagery worked in concert with the complementary feminization imagery to capture the popular imagination. Apprehensions about women's potential to disrupt traditional boundaries (sexualized women, i.e. women taking men's jobs) merged with generalized fears of the feminine (constructed Woman, i.e. an undefined fear femaleness), and both were inscribed with the power to disrupt, threaten, and subsume. These "discourses of gender and gendered discourses," to adopt Lyn Pykett's phrase, played an integral part in shaping how the 1930s populace interpreted their rapidly changing world. By promoting gender to the center of my interpretive paradigm, I aim to identify how representations of the private realm interact with and contribute to the public/political narrative thrusts.