From Front Porch to Back Seat. - UFR LCE - Département d'études

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					    “From Front Porch to Back Seat. Courtship in Twentieth Century
                               America.”
                          By Beth L.Bailey




Summary :
      In his work, the author’s aim is to underline some of the themes that were relative to
  the changes in courtship in America and the way it was understood by people in the
  twentieth century.
  The author also announces in the introd uction that she is willing to “play out the internal
  logic of the systems of courtship [she] defines” in order to answer the basic question of
  “what it means to be a man, to be a woman, to be a man and a woman together.”
      Our reading and summary concerns four chapters of the study:
  The Introduction, Calling Cards and Money, The economy of Dating, and
  The Worth of a Date.

      The Introduction aims at defining four main concepts the author uses troughout her
  study, which are Courtship and Convention/ Youth and Middle Class.
  The author specifies that she focuses on the “wooing” whether it ends up in a marriage
  proposal or not. This gives a larger analysis to her study. She focuses on the intentions and
  different actions used by men and women to woo each other in several ways, defining the
  word “convention” as public codes of behavior that provide context for concrete acts and
  individual experience. She also defines conventions as “frame of reference”. Yet, not to be
  misunderstood, she mentions that as conventions are not universal, her work is devoted to
  study the national systems of convention that governed American courtship from about
  1900 through the mid 1960’s. She then uses the development of cultural media to serve
  her point : common experience for most Americans : The American middle class.
      To serve the definition of the word “youth”, it is explained that in the late nineteenth
  century, youth was seen as a period which demanded protection. Therefore young people
  developped a “youth culture” of their own: music clothes and danse for example defined
  the new youth culture. She then tries to define the notion of “middle class” by using
  primary sources: polls asking students to which social class they belonged: no matter low
  incomes or unskilled jobs their parents had, they all considered themselves as middle
  class.
  She admits that she sets a great number of people aside (the ones that did not belong to the
  middle class: either the very rich or very poor, lesbians and homosexual men...) but she
  underlines the fact that her study provides a context and a “landscape” of the middle class
  culture so it shows how difficult the struggle of these outcast people was. Her very last
  remark answers why the word love barely appears in her work: she explains that
  convention was not a matter of love but desires : sexual desires, security desires, social
  desires. She acknowledges that love and convention are somehow linked but her work is
  to study public conventions.
Calling Cards and Money
        In this chapter the link between the new form of courtship rising is shown : dating and
    money. She explains that dating moved courtship into the public sp here : people went to
    restaurants or movie theatres, they had a new form of freedom (no more family
    supervisions) but this new freedom had a price : men’s money became the basis of the
    dating courtship. This pattern changed the balance of power between men and women in
    courtship: indeed, before dating people “called” each other and women had the upper
    hand as they were the one deciding to “receive callers” or not. The author finds different
    reasons to explain this “shift” in courtship : she explains that so me girls did not have “any
    place to receive boys” so that they had to see them elsewhere. (Cheap dancehalls for
    example). She also states that some women started to enter public jobs, and therefore
    public sphere. Yet this practice was not well seen (unmarried women’s reputations to go
    out with unmarried men were at stake) until the practice became a universal custom in
    America. The invention of the automobile explained the rise of dating: cars had given
    young people mobility and privacy. People living in the suburbs could date.
        As we said, dating also changed the balance of power between men and women in
   courtship. Woman had up till now a large portion of power during the time of “calling”
   because courtship occured in women’s home, in “women’s sphere” whereas dating,
   happening in the outside world was now controlled by men. There was confusion in the
   balance of power during the twenty years (about 1900 to 1925) calling and dating
   coexisted: the issue of money. Dating was seen and associated to prostitution: frequenting
   a woman in exchange of money.
   It also brought the issue of “affording women”. Men complained that dating was too
   expensive but they did not understand that money was synonymous with power so that
   men paid for eveything and women were depend ent.

The economy of Dating :

        This chapter deals with a turn of practices in courtship conventions: from competition
to “go steady”.
Some people feared that dating would prevent young people to get married. But as the author
explains: dating was not about marriage, or love, it was about competition. Girls and boys
were able to show their “popularity” trough this “competitive game’ in public.
 In 1937, Willard Waller called this system “ the campus rating complex”. There was clear
dating and rating standards of popularity ( boys had to have a fancy car, right clothing,
money;while women had to have a reputation of “ being popular”.) The author illustrates
Waller’s statement with a great number of exerpts of popular magazine articles: for instance
in 1936, women at the university of michigan rated men according to their “dating value” :
 A: smooth, B: ok, C: pass in crowd, D: semigoon and E :spook. As an article published in
1940 stated: Dates are the hallmark of personality and popularity. There was a kind of cycle
that helped becoming popular : one competed to become popular and then being popular
allowed him or her to stay in the competition.
The author applies this theory on what she calls : “the dance floor “: girls who were not taken
over by another partner (“cutting in”) while dancing were “getting stuck.” This was seen as an
expression of social failure. However, this drastic practise disappeared during the years of
WWII : people of eighteen were not aware of this former convention : they now danced wit h
their date only. Cutting in was possible because of the overabundance of men so that dances
were made possible. But the WWII as well as the Great Depression “had cut deeply into the
stock of men”- men to date, and men to marry as well. Yet the return of American troops did
not solve the problem of scarcity because there was a high rate of infant mortality and because
men had a righer rate of fatal accident and disease.Besides, American women had now to
compete with stranger rivals: American soldiers ofte n fell in love with Europeans and many
veterans on their return found American girls “spoiled, self-centered,that they knew nothing
of the realities of life.” War divided men and women’s desires/expectations: veterans were not
interested in “dating the most popular girl on the dance floor” anymore. They found that
french women for instance were more of the old style : they were interested in the rather
fundemental business of getting married, having children and making the best homes their
means will allow.”
However, it seemed that marriages were still taking place in America :the author provides
statistics explaining that in 1946, the American marriage rate (16.4 per 1000 population) was
the highest in the history of the twentieth century. Several explanations are to be found: as we
saw, returning soldiers wanted something to hold on to, something balanced and steady.
Besides the Great Depression had prevented people to get married before. The author also
provides statistics conerning the average age at marriage: it went from 22 for women in 1890
to 20.4 in 1950. The media had great responsability for it : it created a new trend and
maintained it so that getting married at eighteen was “the new ideal.” Women seeked for a
husband in college so that they were getting both education and a husband. Early marriage
also permitted young people to have sexual intercourse without having to face the code of
sexual morality. Early marriage was accompanied with early dating (so that people could get
married early) and parents played a great part in the process, they supported the new courtship
patterns so that they had more control over their children. Young people saw it as a sort of
“play-marriage”. Going steady completely went over dating and rating by the 1950’s eve n if
some people remained in disfavour of the new practice. Yet the going steady new practice
raised two main issues : first, premarital sex. Parents feared for example that it was rather
difficult for a girl to say no to a “steady” than to a rapid succession of “dates. The second
issue dealt with security: going steady helped teenagers to feel more secure and relieved: girls
would no longer have to worry about their popularity and boys whould not have to spend
money to impress fifty girls a week anymore.
Adults remembering their own youth critized that there was no longer any competition, that
girls were taken for granted. The fact that these twelve- year-old steadies became the sexual
revolutionaries of the 1960’s shows how much people needed human values ( security,human
closeness) within courtship.

The Worth of Date :

In this chapter, the author focuses on the fact that America’s culture of consumption and
courtship are very much linked: people see themselves as commodities. Besides, money
became central in the relation of a couple who went out together and spent money: to go out
meant to consume : having dinner, having a Coke, seeing a movie ect... therefore the date had
to be public.The date appeared as en end in itself, a sort of triumph and conversely, not to
have a date was a failure. As we saw it earlier, the first generation of male daters complained
that dating was too expensive. What was now expensive was the “special dates.” The high
school prom for instance : boys and girls had to spend a lot of money to provide carfare for
boys, high heeled naked slippers for girls for example. Proms provided a good forum for
competition : ( “who wore an orchid and who wore only a simple gardenia” )ect..
Flowers in this respect are to be seen as great examples of the competiton through
consumption. They represented public symbols on “big dates.” Women saw their own value
in the way their dates would spent money for them. As if men evaluated women on the size of
their breasts while women evaluated men on the thickness of their wallets.
Women were seen as commodities, if they were good- looking, one had to be seen in public
places-college places with her, whereas if they were not very good- looking, they were taken
to movies and hidden,basically. Esquire described women as part of the good life, that men
had to spend money “on them” just as the way they spend money on wine or clothes. Besides,
Esquire always showed pinups women on the cover and they represented objects for men’s
pleasure. Women were also associated to cars: a man showed publicly his his taste and means
by driving/escorting a woman. At that time, appearance was the key to popularity: actresses
and models represented new ideals and American women had now not only to compete with
other women but with the “ideal” woman of magazines and movies. The author also answers
why men dated women with big breasts: they showed that “they could afford the expense,
could command such abundance”. Women then had to cheat: they imitated the ideal of having
bigger breasts, wearing “falsies-rubber cones”. Women who were naturally disadvantaged
could then still compete by consuming. Men were also commodities in this respect: women
were looking for a husband so that they could consume : a husband would buy his wife a
refrigerator or a washing machine.. Consumption became crucial in courtship. Weddings
became a great business. Marriage then was the entering of young people into adult’s
(economic) world ;they became adult consumers within the consumming society. The last
sentence of this chapter : “ In their courtship, youth defined themselves through acts of
consumption and in terms of consumption. Thus they celebrated their lives and their loves”
shows how much consumption was the new principle in courtship.

Comment on the article :
        I enjoyed reading this text; I find it interesting to investigate a topic which is to all
appearance quite “frivolous” and irrelevant. As he goes through the reader realizes how much
courtship is linked to culture and social conventions and I think a s a young person of the 21th
century, one has to study the very root of our current courtship system.
As a young person of the 21th century, I was also amused imagining that my own
grandchildren will perhaps study the way our generation deals with this issue.
        The author always relies on primary sources: articles, public polls and testimonies to
support her statement which helps making it clearer (and not refutable) for the reader.
 On the whole I liked the way the author never sticks to the facts; she always goes beyond
simple facts to search for an explanation. I would recommand people to read it, not only
because it provides answers to current historical questions such as “ How did women became
so indepedent ? How did they become such great competitors for men?” but also because it
reminds the modern readers that things were once different, people, men and women, had to
fight to change conventions. We are also reminded that some stereotypes such as materialistic
women, that are still conveyed today can be explained when you look back in time.
The only thing, according to me, “lacking” in this article is perhaps the author’s point of view
on the various problems. She never truly critizes or gives good or bad judgement
retrospectively. This article is also interesting in the way it is related to various topics : The
Great Depression, WWII ect.. so that a student in American Civilization can relate and
understand the consequences.

				
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posted:4/10/2011
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