Sunday, 20 October 2019

The harmonising effect of girls: then and now

Friendship is Magic
As a child I used to love My Little Ponies - they were, I think, my favourite toys to play with. And this morning I was secretly excited as my almost three-year old daughter asked to watch "ponies" on TV - something we'd never watched before. So we snuggled down on the sofa and watched our first episode together...

I was immediately struck by the overarching messages - echoes of the exact same messages for girls I read in texts over 200 years old. I know change takes time, but the specific similarity was very surprising.

Harmony Quest
The series we watched was subtitled 'Friendship is Magic' and the lead characters were on a quest to find the ‘Elements of Harmony’. As the programme is clearly directed at girls (all the lead characters are female) the message I was getting was that it is specifically important for girls to value friendship and harmony, and to work hard to make good relationships and create social harmony. The adventures are contained within that core premise.

Happily, my daughter also currently enjoys (but for how long?) what could be called 'boys' programmes, including Paw Patrol and Blaze and the Monster Machines. These programmes have overwhelmingly male characters and focus on heroism, courage, winning and adventure. There are of course friends present, but developing friendships per se is not the focus. And it's fascinating that these specifically gendered messages and language are still in use for boys and girls today.

Rewind to eighteenth century girls' conduct books, and we read the same language. As the steady rise of the cult of domesticity began, revering the domestic role of women, we see a responsibility set out for women in which creating social harmony is vital. This was particularly seen through the encouragement of domestic music for girls, who were expected to play the piano and sing to soothe the worries away from wearied fathers and brothers. Hampshire Record Office holds hundreds of letters between two friends, Anne Sturges-Bourne and Marianne Dyson, one of which states "most of my evening is employed in singing Clarion, which Papa always asks for, & I really am not tired of it" (Ref: 9M55/F6/38) A similar sentiment is expressed by a teenager about 20 years later: "I feel that, situated as I am, an only daughter…, it rests upon one, to make our home bright, cheerful and attractive to the boys, and comfortable to Father" (Quoted in Solie, Music in Other Words, p106). Here we can see how girls employed a double meaning of the word harmonious, by literally singing melodic harmony but also creating domestic harmony. 

Letters to a young lady: 
On a variety of useful and interesting subjects: 
Calculated to improve the heart, to form the manners,
and enlighten the understanding
by the Rev. John Bennett
The conduct book featured above, 'Letters to a Young Lady' by Rev. Bennett was originally published in 1798 and subsequently had multiple editions and is fairly standard for its time in suggesting that girls should play music to "harmonize...mind and spirits". 

While I am very used to reading this kind of message in eighteenth and nineteenth century texts, it's sadly fascinating to see this gendered language of creating harmony rebounding into our living rooms today.