Morna Laing (London College of Fashion) Nostalgic Glue: ‘Re-unifying’ the Female Subject through Childlike Femininity
The childlike character of ideal femininities, as defined in discourse, has long been critiqued in feminist literature: from Mary Wollstonecraft to Simone de Beauvoir, and beyond. Their point was that constructing woman as childlike served to cement inequalities between the sexes; women were, in effect, honorary children, and as such were not fully adult, making it easy to justify their differential treatment. It is not surprising, then, that feminists have fought for equal – adult – standing for women alongside men, and have thereby sought to end the infantilisation of women in society. Given this historical background, my question is thus: if the infantilised woman denotes inequality between men and women, why do women continue to be represented as childlike in popular culture today? And why is such imagery so prevalent?
Focusing on fashion photography from 1990 to present day, this paper considers the role that nostalgic longing plays in the (possible) appeal of childlike femininity, and the way it sanctions the woman-child as a legitimate subject position for contemporary women (Foucault, 1989). I focus on the Romantic woman-child – one particular construct of childlike femininity, as found in Vogue and Lula magazines – and question what she might signify today, her potential to ‘re-unify’ the female subject, and the ideological implications of this for the project of feminism. In so doing I draw upon my own textual and discourse analysis of images, alongside the preliminary findings of my reception studies, carried out with female participants. Overall, I seek to question what ‘investment’ (Hollway, 1984) contemporary women might have in this childlike subject position, and whether this version of femininity can be ‘cleansed’ of its traditional, dehumanising, connotations in the contemporary context.
Morna Laing is a third year Ph.D. student, and Associate Lecturer in cultural and historical studies, at London College of Fashion. Her current research – funded by a UAL studentship award – focuses on representations of the woman-child in fashion photography, from 1990 to present day. Methodologically, the research combines various approaches to the visual: drawing on textual and discourse analysis, alongside reception studies and theories of female looking. Ultimately the project seeks to better understand the meaning of childlike femininity in the fashion context, and theorise the possible ‘appeal’ or investment in childlike subject positions for contemporary women.