Chapter 11. The Americanisation of romantic love in Australia

Hsu-Ming Teo

Table of Contents

The culture of romantic love in the United States
The culture of romantic love in nineteenth-century Australia
The romanticisation of consumption in Australia
World War II and gendered romantic consumption

This chapter explores the transnational influence of consumer capitalism on the culture of romantic love in Australia during the twentieth century, particularly as it has been manifested through advertising. I want to utilise Benedict Anderson’s well-known argument about how print capitalism created the ‘imagined community’ of the nation to argue that if the circulation of texts throughout society can foster feelings of nationalism,[1] they can also create or affect emotional experiences of romantic love.[2]

These ideas and expectations take root across national boundaries precisely because love is often assumed to be self-evidently universal; an unchanging part of the human condition, reaching beyond the boundaries of a specific nation or culture. Particular notions and practices of romantic love have become increasingly transnational because of the global reach of Anglophone culture, fostered by the prevalence of the English language throughout the former British empire and reinforced when hegemonic American popular culture piggybacked on this colonial legacy to find new markets for products and practices of romantic consumption in Anglophone societies.

The widespread use of English makes national boundaries porous because whoever controls the means to disseminate ideas widely – especially ideas about love that are generally considered ‘natural’ and universal rather than socially constructed – can affect other societies’ ideas, expectations, and, hence, emotional experiences of romantic love. Thus the transnational influences on Australian romantic love occur through the global circulation of Anglophone print and visual culture, and the global spread of the American practice of romanticising commodities, inextricably linking experiences of romantic love to consumption.

This chapter begins with a brief sketch of the changing culture of romantic love in the United States of America throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century. It then charts how, through consumer capitalism, a particular conception of romantic love which had its genesis in affluent white middle-class America has become transnational, influencing the way Australian women, in particular, conceived of romance especially in the mid-twentieth century. Of course it may be argued that the culture of romantic love in Australia has always been transnational because non-indigenous Australians began as ‘transplanted Britons’, and this British heritage has had deep and long-lasting influences in mainstream Australian culture.[3]

It should be noted, however, that this inherited culture of romantic love was not necessarily consonant with the national boundaries of the imperial metropole. John Gillis’s work on romantic love in Britain, for example, demonstrates the fragmented nature of romantic rituals and attempts at intimacy throughout the British Isles where different regions and classes were concerned. Gillis argued that although certain ideals of romantic love might have been widely shared in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, its practical outworking differed significantly between classes and generations, with, for instance, homosocial developments in some regional working-class young adult cultures forming a barrier against emotional intimacy and mutual understanding or sympathy between the sexes.[4]

This is a timely reminder to Australian historians belonging to an older imperial historiographical tradition that insists on first knowing British in order to understand Australian history,[5] or to those who would write transnational Australian history, that, as Antoinette Burton has warned, in drawing connections between cultural or other traditions, the reified nation can still creep in through the backdoor:[6] vide discussions (even in this chapter) of ‘British’ or ‘American’ cultural influences in Australia when these are hardly monolithic or cohesive cultures within their own geographical boundaries.[7] Even the homogeneity in ideas of romantic love spread by print capitalism through mass-market publications – magazines, advertisements and genre novels – manifested class and gender differences, and did not necessarily translate into a common lived experience of love. In the same way, the mainstream ‘American’ culture of romantic love could exclude or subsume differences in class, geographical regions, ethnic origins, educational and/or religious background.[8] Nonetheless, there is still a case to be made that a specific commercialised mass-market romantic culture, produced by American corporations and globally disseminated throughout the twentieth century, has become transnational in its reach. I argue in this chapter that Australian popular culture demonstrates transnational influences in its representation of romantic love, increasingly instituting white, educated middle-class Americans as authorities on romantic love by importing or reprinting American advice columns, articles, lectures and advertisements in magazines and self-help books. In the interwar years, Americans jostled alongside traditional British authorities on love and marriage; by the postwar period Americans had won the war of romantic expertise in Australia.

The culture of romantic love in the United States

The United States of America has one of the most well-documented histories of romantic love over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Ellen K. Rothman, Karen Lystra, Steven Seidman, Francesca Cancian, David Shumway and Eva Illouz, among many others, have examined diaries, love letters, medical journals, etiquette and advice manuals, magazines, popular literature and film to chart the changes in American understandings of romantic love.[9] Generally speaking, this body of work identifies two significant and interrelated broad changes in the culture of romantic love that affected emotional experiences of love. Firstly, in the nineteenth century Americans understood romantic love as an intensely private, spiritual experience – exalted to the point where romantic love practically became a new religion in itself.[10] The ultimate aim of romantic love was the complete disclosure of the individual self to the beloved in order to achieve intimacy in marriage.[11] By the early twentieth century, this had changed to a secularised notion of love that conceived it as inseparable from sexuality, pleasure and consumption.[12] Marriage or long-term partnership was no longer the ultimate fulfilment of love; rather, happiness and the experience of ‘romance’ became goals in themselves.

Secondly, the ritualised forms of romantic gender relations changed from nineteenth-century courtship to the twentieth-century practice of dating. Courtship took place in the private sphere and was controlled by the woman, who, in order to assure her security and happiness in marriage, placed obstacles in the relationship to test the love, patience, and faithfulness or loyalty of her suitor. Men occasionally tested women’s affections as well. Therefore pain, endurance and the postponement of pleasure was an expected and accepted part of the experience of romantic love as well as the more pleasurable emotions.[13] The practice of dating turned this upside down. Dating replaced courtship among middle-class white Americans between 1870 and 1920. It was controlled by men who took women ‘out’ and ‘bought’ them a good time. Dating depended on practices of consumption and new technologies of transport and mass-market entertainment – the car, dance halls, movie theatres, restaurants, and the nascent hotel and tourism industries.[14] It taught men and women to commodify each other as well as the experience of ‘romance’, which was increasingly separated from ‘love’.[15]

By the early twentieth century, therefore, romance had acquired an exchange value in dating, one which was reinforced by advertising which romanticised as well as glamorised consumer goods, so much so that romance eventually came to refer to consumption practices – gifts of chocolates, corsages, candlelight dinners, cruises at sunsets, romantic holidays – rather than to the disclosure of feelings, as was the case in the nineteenth century. Where working-class women were concerned, sexual favours were often expected and dispensed in return for dating, but this was not necessarily the case among the middle-classes who took for granted gift-giving and consumption practices on dates.[16] Nevertheless, as the twentieth century wore on, sexual activity became part of dating, not because it was expected or because it had been ‘bought’, but because consumption reinforced the message that dating was about sensual pleasure and the goal of romance was feelings of happiness.[17]

Dating thus inverted the understanding and goals of nineteenth-century romantic love, which was experienced through the rituals of courtship and which viewed marriage as its inevitable goal. Where courtship encouraged patience and a focus on the future and surveillance by others – family members as well as the community – dating was immediate, focused on the present and comparatively free of social surveillance and control. It took place in ‘islands of privacy’ in the public sphere, rather than in the private sphere.[18] It had a secular, consumerist understanding of love rather than a spiritual one. Where expensive gifts had been looked on suspiciously in the nineteenth century, and personal gifts such as a lock of hair, a sketch portrait of the beloved, or hand-made cards were favoured instead, by the early twentieth century, gift-giving had become an expected part of the expression of romantic love. Dating was controlled by men rather than by women. It was focused on consumption rather than production (that is, marriage and the production of family). It was hedonistic in that pleasure was the goal, and pain was increasingly an unacceptable part of the experience of romantic love. And above all, the same limited script of romantic consumption was widely broadcast and reinforced by advertising, films, romance novels and magazines which commodified romance and romanticised commodities – especially what Eva Illouz has called ‘ego expressive’ commodities such as shampoo, perfume, deodorant and cosmetics.[19]

The promotion of consumerism through advertising directly impacts emotional states and our sense of well-being because, as Peter Stearns has observed, people stake ‘a real portion of their personal identities and their quest for meaning – even their emotional satisfaction – on the search for and acquisition of goods’.[20] The aim of advertising and consumer capitalism is to foster an increased sense of yearning, the feeling ‘that one’s life cannot be complete without this or that acquisition’.[21] Stearns argued that the coincidence of mass literacy and new print technology leading to dramatic changes in advertising in the 1890s, transformed the way Americans expressed their emotions. Not only did the look of commercial advertising become more visually arresting or appealing – dull newsprint gave way to ‘screaming headlines, illustrations, and lavish use of color’[22] – but the style of advertising copy changed from a matter-of-fact description of content, durability and price to an appeal to the senses and emotions as products became associated with pleasure and sensuality.[23]

By the turn of the century, Americans had not only been socialised into consumption from a very young age, they had also imbibed the notion that emotions could be expressed and/or managed through consumption. For example, in the 1880s ‘American girls were able to buy caskets and mourning clothes for dolls, to train in the proper expressions of Victorian grief’, while children were increasingly given gifts to ameliorate jealousy upon the birth of a sibling or as emotional substitutes for fathers who were now working longer hours.[24] Inevitably, feelings of love and experiences of romance became inextricably intertwined with the consumption of commodities and services, fostered, as Seidman noted, by giant corporations grabbing local as well as non-local mass markets in the first two decades of the twentieth century.[25] Illouz, too, argued that:

At the turn of the century, cultural entrepreneurs and established industries began promoting commodity-centered definitions of romance to further their own economic interests ... Since then, consumption and romantic emotions have progressively merged, each shrouding the other in a mystical halo. Commodities have now penetrated the romantic bond so deeply that they have become the invisible and unacknowledged spirit reigning over romantic encounters.[26]

Early twentieth century advertising featured romantic couples who are ‘made-up, well dressed, and expensively bejewelled’,[27] engaged in acts of consumption such as dancing, dining at an expensive restaurant, drinking at sophisticated cocktail lounges or bars, going to the theatre or movies, on holiday at ‘romantic’ destinations and so forth. These have become clichéd images of romance, yet, as Illouz’s cross-class interviews in the 1990s demonstrate, they still have resonance and meaning for large sections of American society.[28] American practices of romantic consumption became increasingly widespread in the twentieth century because of the transnational reach of American capitalism – the export of its consumer goods and cultural products, and the adoption or imitation of American advertising and marketing strategies in other countries.