Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire by Carol Dyhouse


This is the second new book I’ve bought in 2017 (Take Courage was the first); I have set myself the target of reading at least 10 books from my bookshelves for every new one I buy.  Heartthrobs caught my eye in a display in the Oxford University Press window on a day in which I felt in particular need of a pick-me-up.  The book describes itself as ‘[a] story of female desire and fantasy, told through the cultural history of the heartthrob’ and Dyhouse, a social historian, explores the ways in which ideas about the ideal masculinity changed as women’s social and economic status evolved.  Although she draws on references from the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, the book’s primary focus is the twentieth century, during which increasing literacy, the cinema and greater  financial independence gave women increasing power as consumers  (and thus shapers?) of popular culture. Dyhouse describes her book as ‘a cultural history of desire from a particular perspective: the book will mainly look at men through the eyes of women’ (p. 10).  She examines the male objects of female desire from romantic fiction, films and popular music, and discusses how representations of the ideal male changed (and perhaps didn’t) over course of the twentieth-century.   Dyhouse’s heartthrobs  range from Rudolf Valentino to Christian Grey, via David Cassidy and the Beatles (to name just a few). She writes well, with a lively accessible style, avoiding both academic jargon and women’s magazine exclamatory prose. She describes the way that women’s views of what constituted a desirable man changed according to wider social and cultural trends , from men who were good providers of comfort and even luxury in the era when women were limited in their own earning potential, to chisel-jawed fighter pilots during and after World War II and on to the domestic and implicit emotional security offered by professionals such as doctors.  As teenagers emerged as a distinct group in the second half of the twentieth century, Dyhouse highlights the rise of the teenage idol – good-looking, but not overtly masculine or threatening (although one wonders quite where Elvis Presley fits into this?) such as Cliff Richards, The Beatles and David Cassidy. Dyhouse also discusses more controversial aspects of female desire – rape fantasies, quoting from Sylvia Plath’s diaries, interviews with Mills & Boon authors and some the raunchier romantic novels published in the mid to late twentieth-century.  The book suggests that women’s apparent desire to be coerced (which, interestingly coincided with increasing independence and legal rights for women) was both an expression of women’s desire to feel as though they were so desirable that the sexually attractive male could not resist  them and a way of negotiating social norms and expectations about female sexual passivity.   However, I feel that the book’s title is somewhat misleading – Dyhouse’s subject is NOT the men, but the women and their desires and fantasies; perhaps this explains the subtitle. Dyhouse offers analysis not of the men (who are described, rather than analysed) but of the women and the anxieties their expressions of desire provoked in (invariably male) authorities. Perhaps Dyhouse and her publishers thought that Heartthrobs was too good a title to pass up, or perhaps her focus shifted as she wrote. What was absent from the book (and what I would have liked to have learned more about) was the effect of women’s desires on their choice of partner and their real relationships. Dyhouse describes women’s fantasies about dominant yet passionate men; what would have been interesting would have been some parallel investigation of the sorts of men and relationships that  they actually entered into and why.

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