World War II and gendered romantic consumption

As several scholars have noted, World War II saw a widespread condemnation of, and moral panic surrounding, young Australian women’s relations with American soldiers.[60] This was in part a backlash against modern young Australian women’s Americanised conceptions of consumerist dating and romantic love.[61] The attitude of conservative media institutions and transnational corporations was highly contradictory in this regard. Despite the fact that The Australian Women’s Weekly carried wartime advertisements emphasising the importance of consuming beauty products – such as the Pond’s ‘Lips’ advertisement declaring: ‘She’s doing a job of national importance, but she doesn’t forget the importance of looking lovely for him’ – Lyn Finch noted that the Weekly ran a campaign implying that the presence of American troops exacerbated ‘consumerist-driven dating practices’, thereby not only subverting ‘normal and correct gender relations’ but also

simultaneously undermining the British character of Australian culture. While the practices and assumptions associated with courtship were conceptualised as productive and patriotic, dating was stigmatised as non-productive and neither patriotic, nationalistic, pro-Empire nor, indeed, moral.[62]

Finch suggested that the ‘competing constructions of courtship or, to be more precise, the difference between courtship and dating, lay at the centre of much of the moral panic about relations between American men and Australian women and girls’.[63]

But it was possibly more than that. I want to propose that, as Marilyn Lake has suggested about contemporary understandings of the sexualisation of femininity in the 1930s and especially during World War II,[64] there was a gender and age disjunction in understandings of romantic love at this time, when some women, through their consumption of magazines and familiarity with commodified images of romantic love, might have been more in tune with American men’s conception of gendered self-display, dating and romantic love than with Australian men’s.[65] I am by no means arguing that love relationships did not develop between Australian women and men at this time, or that ideas of romantic love were reducible to romantic consumption; clearly, they were not, as the Australian War Memorial’s very moving collection of love letters written by Australian soldiers to their wives and girlfriends attests.[66] What I am arguing, however, is that for some women, the initial process of ‘falling in love’ depended not only on sexual attraction and liking, but that these increasingly took place within a context of Americanised romantic consumption.

This can be demonstrated, for example, in gift-giving. In the nineteenth century, the types of gifts acceptable between courting couples were those of personal sentiment and little monetary value: hand-made cards, portraits, locks of hair, flowers, cakes, books of poetry or songbooks compiled by one of the lovers.[67] More expensive presents were acceptable only after the couple were engaged. In the mid-1880s, Australian Etiquette declared that the man could then give his fiancée ‘small presents from time to time, until they are married, but if she has any scruples about accepting them, he can send her flowers, which are at all times acceptable’.[68] Yet even at the turn of the century, gifts could indicate the purchase of a woman as a man’s property, as the following excerpt written by a young man to his fiancée indicates:

I shall be able to get something nice for your birth-day this year. Perhaps the last present it [unclear] be my lot to bestow upon you or perhaps the forerunner of very many more if you become my property. Hope you will say what you would like, anything but jewelry, I will get for you.[69]

The American culture of romantic consumption inverted traditional reticence over expensive gift giving because within the culture of romantic consumption, and especially in a culture where, as was argued above, emotions can be conveyed and managed through consumption, romantic love was increasingly expressed through gift giving. Admittedly, the mere receipt of a gift was no proof of the giver’s devotion, but the understanding of romantic love was transformed to a point where it was difficult, if not impossible, to declare love for someone without giving costly gifts at some stage, or engaging in frequent romantic consumption. American men were already in the habit of romantic consumption by the early twentieth century and, as Finch recognised, during World War II, gifts ‘were integral to dating for American men and usually had no connotations of buying a woman’.[70]

Jill Matthews’ study of young working women’s leisure practices in Sydney during the 1910s and 1920s suggested that ‘modern’ young men were paying for ‘modern’ young women’s cinema-going and dancing within either a heterosocial or romantic context: ‘a woman who let a man pay for her to go to the pictures or to a dance was no longer necessarily a kept woman.’[71] Nevertheless, more traditional Australian men and older Australian women still believed a young woman had been ‘bought’ even if her process of romantic dating led to love and marriage with an American man.[72] One of the most extreme condemnations of romantic consumption during the war came from Reverend James Duhig, Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane, who asserted that: ‘many girls associating with Allied soldiers have shown a spirit of greed and selfishness that does little credit to Australian womanhood.’[73]

Hollywood films as well as ego-expressive advertisements spruiking romantic consumption and the commodification of the modern, sexualised self played an important role in mediating romantic relations between modern Australian women and American soldiers. As Liz Conor has demonstrated, young women in the interwar years were accustomed to fashioning themselves as both creative subjects as well as commodified objects of the public gaze. Managing one’s modern feminine appearance was achieved via film and advertising. ‘Identifying with advertising promised romance; but romance was about being subject to the same intense scrutiny and appraisal as the commodity image, and this required self-surveillance.’[74] This practice of self-commodification – packaging oneself in youthful, modern and sexually attractive ways which privileged visual effects – was also directed towards men.

Lake has argued that, during the war years, young women objectified and commodified the ‘Yank’ (‘they were different, they were anonymous, one stood for all the rest, any one would do’)[75] because they had been trained by Hollywood films to code ‘American men as lovers, as sexual, and as objects to be looked at’.[76] Like these young women, American soldiers also appear to have been in the habit of managing their visual effects in a distinctly modern way.[77] Thus young Australian women again shared with American soldiers the modern practice of commodified self-display that not only located the sexual and aesthetic management of their bodies within a capitalist exchange economy, but that also meshed with consumerist practices of romance: gifts of silk stockings, flowers, a way with words that was inspired or adapted from Hollywood films – ‘She’s just like a baby Betty Grable’, for instance.[78]

There is no doubt that Australian men practised consumerist dating with the women they were courting, going to the movies, dances, and on picnics. Where gift-giving was concerned, however, some letters suggest that it was women who were in a better position to give gifts and send parcels to Australian soldiers, especially to those stationed away from major urban centres.[79] Some Australian soldiers had financial constraints; others simply had no idea of what gifts to shop for, as with the soldier who wrote in all sincerity:

I don’t like accepting any further gifts from you especially when I’m so thankless in this way. I haven’t given you a single thing in return yet. I’ve been to town a few times & window shopped but have not found anything to suit my fancy but I don’t know want to appear thoughtless so you must tell me what you would like as a memento.[80]

While the woman showed a confidence in gift-giving, which was obviously something she was used to, the man was clearly unaccustomed to this way of relating romantically.

Significantly, it was only after American magazines began to be imported to Australia in the postwar years, and the style of Australian advertising directed at men changed to a focus on them as consumers, that love letters from Australian men demonstrate the same notion of commodified romance that Australian women had become familiar with earlier in the century. Letters from Australian men written during the Vietnam War, for instance, are concerned with shopping and gift-giving in a way which would have been most surprising during World War II.[81] These Vietnam soldiers not only bought gifts for women, they were confident and decisive in what they wanted to give.