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A Look at Cheap Amusements

An extremely interesting, but ever-contradictory sociological study of sexual relationsis presented in the Kathy Peiss book Cheap Amusements . The reason I say that it is ever-contradictory is that the arguments are presented for both the benefit of cheap amusements for a woman s place in society and for the reinforcement of her place. In one breath, Peiss says that mixed-sex fun could be a source of autonomy and pleasure as well as a cause of [a woman s] continuing oppression.

The following arguments will show that, based on the events and circumstances described in Cheap Amusements , the changes in the ways that leisure time is spent by women has indeed benefited them in both the workplace and at home. This position requires a closer look at specific leisure activities; where and with whom they are spent, and the ultimate effect that these activities had on society and gender roles. More significantly however, is how the establishment of leisure activities for women came about, rather than the simple change in availability of such activities.

First let s look at Peiss s position on the matter of how cheap amusements challenged gender traditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What does Peiss have to say about women s roles at the turn of the century? Peiss argues initially that young women experimented with new cultural forms in terms of sexual expressiveness and social interaction with men, linking heterosocial culture to a sense of modern individuality and personal style. Creating this style was an assertion of self.

Peiss uickly discounts these assertions by saying that without economic independence, such freedoms are hollow. Peiss s essay claims to focus on the role of working women in fostering change from a homosocial to a heterosocial culture, but as we can see from the earlier quote, there is still what seems to be a hint of male dominance in preventing the experience of true leisure. By this we can see that Peiss believes women were challenging gender norms, but doing so under the implied watchful eye of the male-dominated culture.

One very interesting point that Peiss makes is that there is now a market for leisure time. This market included such activities as attending shows at a nickelodeon, riding the trolley, and, especially in Manhattan, spending the day at Coney Island. What is interesting about this point is that we must ask the following: did the market create the desire and opportunity for leisure time or did the desire for leisure time create the market? We must ask this question so that we can later determine if women took initiative in establishing their need for relaxing activities.

If it is the case that women took initiative in this area, we can safely conclude that women benefited tremendously from the changes in gender roles as a result, because they would have subverted the so-called hollow freedoms mentioned earlier. If the opposite is true, then it may appear as though women have benefitted, but it could still be argued that the male culture controlled these changes in the way the leisure market came about. One of the more interesting aspects that Peiss mentions about the change in the demographics of the labor force directly relates to the way leisure time is spent.

Peiss mentions many statistics that show how the working woman was quickly refusing household work and moving to the factory or office position. More specifically, a study of 370 working mothers showed 70 percent of them to be employed in domestic and personal service while the vast majority of their daughters worked in stores, offices, and factories (Cheap Amusements, 39). The significance of this change lies in the resulting change in attitude about leisure time. Now, a clearer distinction between time spent at work and ersonal time could be made.

Prior to this shift in the workplace, domestic workers would catch small breaks to gossip while still caring for their employers children. Now, with set times of arrival and departure to and from the workplace, later parts of the day are spent in clear separation of the work environment. So again, a leisure market seems an inevitable development. Let s now look deeper into the particular activities newly available in this budding leisure market and how women have subverted the current social and gender norms.

For each example of how women have subverted the norms, a contradictory argument of how norms were reinforced will follow. The club scene was a place where leisure activity for women sometimes challenged the social norms of the day. The majority of the clubs were heterosexual, but there were some that gathered only male or only female members. The clubs with only female members sometimes generated harassment from male counterparts who were aware of such meetings.

In one instance, co-workers of female members of The Bachelor Girls Social Club taunted the women, calling them manhaters and accusing them of celebrating Washington s Birthday without even thinking of a man. They countered by explaining that they believe in women s rights and they enjoy their independence and freedom. What does this reaction say about the culture and expectations that the sexes have of each other? Let s look at the situation in which women found themselves and then explore the implications of this reaction.

Women rarely had true leisure time, but when they did, it was spent gossiping or resting on the doorstep with other women of the neighborhood. The men apparently expected to always have an opportunity to share in the leisure time of a woman, no matter the social setting. Contrary to this, woman see this male attitude as a threat to their individuality, as expressed in the way the word freedom is used in their reply to their male co-workers. So by simply arranging for an all female social club, women challenged the notion that their leisure time should not be autonomous, but spent with men.

At the same time, other social clubs of heterosocial emphasis were re-enforcing the working woman s plight. These particular clubs served primarily to make marriage partners of the members. Hideaways in the club locations were used to sneak kisses and experiment sexually. The clubs usually had 25-50 members, of which most became engaged and married within the members of the club. This reinforces the plight of the woman because, at the time, the typical woman thought of marriage as a way to find rest, which as we know, is not the place to find leisure at all.

Married women were expected to care for children, clean, cook, and perform nearly all of the domestic chores, which left little, if any, time for leisure. It seems that these clubs were constructed with a subconscious emphasis on theactivity of pursuit of a marriage partner. When women engage in club activities, they inadvertently heighten the cultural notion of leisure time as time spent serving the men of the club by helping them find a domestic partner to do the chores. At the time, single working women had much more time for cheap amusements than did those who were arried.

Women s increased attendance at commercial dance halls also served to challenge the prevailing cultural norms. At the time, Old World tradition says that dance halls are part of a vast male subculture that fostered prostitution and gambling. The old dance halls employed decoy dancers who would often solicit their male dancing partners for sexual services. The mindset toward dance halls, especially the commercial halls, was that they were unsafe. Women of high repute would often not attend for fear that they may tarnish their public image.

As attendance increased in such halls, fears for safety waned, and Old World views were broken. Peiss makes a short, but extremely important, point in mentioning the way charges were handled at dance halls. Women were charged less for nearly every service. For example, women may only be charged 10 cents for hat service, while men are charged 25 cents. Unescorted women were admitted at a discount, and sometimes free. One might say that this is simply to foster a successful dance hall. But Peiss chooses to take a different viewpoint on the policies of the halls.

She suggests that this practice implicitly recognized the subordinate economic status of women. Surely the treatment of women was similar at other establishments. Because of the increased attendance of women at commercial dance halls, the upward mobility of the average woman is somewhat undermined. Theaters were more heterosocial than dance halls toward the end of the 19th century. Because of the appeal of the one hour show and the relative low cost of such entertainment, the nickelodeon attracted those of many generations, whether they be single or married.

The increase in popularity of such theatrical forms of entertainment among women served to break down the lines between male and female forms of amusement. The movies brought families together. A movie reformer attributed the drop of 530 saloons in Manhattan between 1905 and 1914 to the popularity of the movie theater. The increased attendance implicitly challenged the traditional separate leisure times for men and women. Movie content also challenged social norms of sexuality and sociality, but similarly reinforced old traditions.

Movies showed scenes that some found offensive, while others found fascinating. Peiss recounts on story where a woman, who s face is covered by a shawl, is courted by a man throughout the movie. Later when her face is revealed, it is hideously ugly. This reinforces the necessity of beauty for love. A woman, according to the motion picture industry, must be beautiful to be accepted and loved. This sounds frighteningly similar to today s society. So we can see that in most instances of leisure and pleasure activity, women were not explicitly challenging the social conditions of the day, but implicitly doing so.

I agree with Peiss s statement that women were expressing the aspiration for selfhood and fulfillment but that this did not attempt to transform the web of gender and class relations in which [they] were situated. Women did not attempt to challenge their situation explicitly, nor did they even realize they were challenging their social condition. At the same time, attendance at particular popular dance halls and club events served to reinforce the notions of female submission and some Old Word traditions.

Overall, however, we can see that the changes in society over this period of 1880-1920 benefited women. Look at how family life changed because of the movie theater experience. It brought families together; husbands and wives would attend with their children. Also, we can see that clubs and dances were safe places to meet those of the opposite sex, whereas previously, you may have had a husband chosen for you. It can be said with confidence then that the challenges implicitly mounted by women s search for leisure has indeed benefited their position in the late 19th and early 20th centurysociety.

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