Media @ McGill

Jaclyn Reid | "Prostitution, Print, and Visual Culture in London, 1850-1910"

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My dissertation project sets out to complicate some of the existing scholarship on nineteenth-century prostitution and contribute to the fields of communication history and visual culture, by illuminating the influential role of commercial print imagery in the construction of the prostitute in Victorian visual culture in London. By comparing and contrasting key institutional texts with mass-produced visual representations of the prostitute, I have discovered that the abundance of prostitution iconography in advertisements and visual commodities circulating in London in the latter half of the century projected an image of the prostitute that contradicted the negative ones continually referenced in institutional discourses and even contemporary theory. Far from depicting the streetwalker as a source of pity and disease, it is my position that emerging forms of mass mediated print culture in London complicated both institutional discourse and contemporary theory by redefining the image of the prostitute as a source of ambiguous visual pleasure.

I argue that the fluidity of the prostitute's categorization in the latter half of the century became fundamental to her visual construction in commercial culture. As a social figure selling sex and pleasure, it is my position that the streetwalker and her visual image became increasingly symbolic in a new commercial culture that profited from desire, consumption and leisure. While institutional discourse struggled with the visual ambiguity of the prostitute, a growing commercial print culture perpetuated the uncertainty of her visual image, blurring the boundaries between female respectability and illicit sexuality. Entertainment advertising used the prostitute's ambiguous sexual iconography to solicit attendance at theatres and music halls; product advertisements adopted her sexualized body as a means of conjuring up desire for products; and nude postcards and pin-ups turned the image of the prostitute into a viable commodity in and of itself. This construction of the visually malleable, yet pleasurable, prostitute served the needs of an industry where selling products and entertainment in London had much to do with selling sex.

While the majority of my study works to establish the extent to which prostitution iconography was incorporated into London's commercial culture, a parallel line of inquiry examines some of the politics, policies and living conditions that contributed to the real life experiences of prostitutes during this time. A consequence of making the sexual woman widely visible, pleasurable, and purchasable, I argue, was the attempt by some to repress her image and create a greater marginalization of the working prostitute as the century progressed. This was evident in both the policing of the commercial image and the criminalization and marginalization of working prostitutes in London throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. The move to push the prostitute and her image back into obscurity, often through law, policy and moral reform movements, was connected to a desire to restore order to Victorian society. My project attempts to explore the history of marginalized women in conjunction with the mediation of their images.



Chapter 1 - Visual Ambiguity: The Dangers of Prostitution in Official Discourse

This chapter introduces the official discourse on prostitution (medical, psychological, criminological, and sociological) circulating in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Many contemporary theorists have noted the way in which the prostitute was constructed in these texts as a fallen woman, a degenerate, a social danger and a victim. The aim of this chapter is to draw attention to the ambiguous visual construction of the prostitute in these texts. As such, I show the ways in which researchers aimed to make the prostitute visible (hence knowable) to their readers, but at the same time struggled with her visual elusiveness. While the unstable visuality of the prostitute appeared to be problematic for researchers, I argue that it was this very quality that gave the image of the prostitute a viable role in commercial culture.

Chapter 2 - London's Commodity Culture, Prostitution, and the World of Advertising

My next chapter illustrates the intricate connection of women and prostitution to commercial culture and emerging visual print forms in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It does this by connecting prostitution to the larger economy and tracing the way in which the prostitute was used in advertising images at the time (including posters, menus, magazine images, fashion plates, etc). This chapter exposes a counter-discourse to the institutional image of the prostitute as social threat and victim by showing that the image of the prostitute was a viable and profitable part of mainstream commercial culture.      

Chapter 3 - Pin-ups and Postcards: Purchasing the Photographic Prostitute

Although the ambiguous image of the prostitute served the needs of advertising in the Victorian era, the third chapter examines the image of the prostitute as a product in and of itself. By focusing on the history of the nude postcard and the actress pin-up near the end of the century, I try to understand the image of the prostitute as purchasable and possessable in the realm of pornographic and sexualized photographic representation. The degree to which these images circulated within London and around the world invites consideration of the promiscuity of the postcard as a media form, a symbol of empire, and the impact such wide-spread circulation had in the construction of the prostitute.

Chapter 4 - Obscuring the Prostitute: The Consequences of Sexual Visuality

Despite the popularity of the commodified image of the prostitute, the fourth chapter of this project focuses on the consequences of visualizing the fallen woman. It outlines the ways in which images of the prostitute were vigilantly repressed through obscenity legislation in the latter half of the nineteenth century and how legal reforms pushed prostitution to the margins of city life. The drive to make the prostitute both visible and undetectable by some authorities, leads me to consider the relevance of the image at the fin-de-siècle and the complexities of visualizing the sexual woman in Victorian consumer culture.