Last year, a group of young North American ‘dudes’ – their term – got together to produce a series of podcasts in which they discuss and analyze one of the more neglected of comic book genres: the love story. Each program features, early on, an audio dramatization of the story in question, and for the sixth in the series, they turned to ‘The Taming of the Brute’, whose interest to us lies in what happens at the end:
And, yes, you hear it happen on the podcast – at length! The central character of Loretta is voiced by Ontario actress Denise Oliver. Here she is:
You can listen to the show here. I guess you’ll mainly be going there for the spanking scene, but it’s worth sticking around for the commentary that follows, even though the starting-point is an immediate, uncomprehending judgement about the story’s ‘wrongness’.
These are smart guys – the analysis proves that – but they are very, very naive when it comes to engaging with history. ‘The past is a foreign country,’ a great English novelist once wrote; ‘they do things differently there.’ But when you’re dealing with the very recent past, its difference becomes harder to handle. One of the things that seems to astonish and dismay the commentators is the fact that ‘The Taming of the Brute’ was written and published as recently as 1967.
Let’s put a bit of context on this. Love stories aimed at a predominantly female readership have been around since at least the early twentieth century, and through much of that time some of them have included spanking scenes. In the comic books, romance really got started as a distinct genre after the Second World War, and there was a very noticeable spike in the number of spanking scenes in 1949-50: a staggering seventeen are known from those two years, ten of them concentrated in the second half of 1949 alone.
All that in just six months!
The current thinking about women’s history in the post-war period is that women had kept society running, taking over traditionally masculine jobs while the menfolk were away fighting, but the feminist genie had to be put back into the bottle once the soldiers came home. The result in popular culture was a slew of stories in which uppity women get slapped down – sometimes literally!
But while that might go some way to explain the uncommon plenitude of 1949-50, it can’t be the whole story. Physically dominant heroes have been catching some women’s imaginations all the way back to Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and the macho, masterful man is a recurrent romance type which means that many a heroine lives with the latent, and sometimes not so latent, possibility that she might be spanked.
A few even seem sorry that their men aren’t masterful enough:
So it’s not really very surprising that spanking scenes were appearing as recently as 1967. Nor was ‘The Taming of the Brute’ the end of the line: there were at least another seven in US love story comics over the ensuing six years, the latest of which was even featured on the cover!
And from Britain at around the same time, here’s a panel from Romantic Adventure Library:
Now, according to the podcast dudes, this is all ‘way too late for this kind of story’. But we can track the same phenomenon in real human relationships across roughly the same period as these romance comics. Naturally we can only look at a handful of examples, and we’ll begin with a well-known one from 1954. When Marilyn Monroe shot this iconic scene in New York on September 15…
… her husband, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, famously stalked away in disapproval at the public display of his wife’s panties. And at their hotel later that night, Marilyn wound up like this…
… across her husband’s knee, getting a spanking so loud that the people in the adjoining rooms complained to the management!
From the legendary, tragic Marilyn, we move on to the notorious, outrageous Oliver Reed, the quintessential macho actor of the 1960s.
In January 1960, he married Kate Byrne. Here they are together:
And early on they found themselves sharing a flat with his brother’s estranged wife, Muriel.
Ollie tells what happened in his 1979 autobiography, Reed All About Me:
I soon found out that living in a flat with my newly married wife and newly acquired sister-in-law was not conducive to household peace. They argued all day over who had been using whose make-up, knickers or nylons, or even more personal belongings. This led to fights and the air would be thick with flying Lil-lets and Tampax.
I did my best to keep order. I put them across my knee one at a time and spanked them soundly, then locked them in different rooms, but they would escape and the rows would start all over again.
And it wasn’t just celebrity couples who behaved like this. We next pay a visit to the English Midlands in 1974, for a more commonplace domestic row – though admittedly we only know about it because of something that happened afterwards, that resulted in a court case whose sordid details need not concern us here. We’ll call the couple George and Sandra. Their fight came to a climax after 22-year-old Sandra picked up a plate and threw it at George. She missed, and it hit the wall, whereupon, as George told it,
I put her over my knee, lifted her skirt and slapped her three times across her pants. I told her if she behaved like a little girl I would treat her like one. Afterwards she went raving mad. She went upstairs and began throwing things about.
And before anyone rushes into talking about male domination fantasies, let’s hear quite a similar story from the other side…
The woman in question is the Irish singer Clodagh Rodgers, known in her swinging heyday as the possessor of ‘the best legs in pop’.
In 1968, when she was 21, she married her manager, John Morris. Here they are together:
Four years into the marriage, in August 1972, she was interviewed by the British press for a feature about celebrity couples who have marital arguments, and she told this story:
John is strong-willed, but I’m even more strong-willed. I need to be kept under control sometimes. I’m always the one who loses her temper.
During one row we had I had been going on at John about something and he put me across his knee and spanked me. Hard. I ran upstairs in a fury and locked myself in the bathroom, then I picked up a big bottle of perfume and chucked it across the room.
Unfortunately it crashed into a tile and it broke away from the wall, leaving a great hole. I was absolutely stunned. I crept downstairs and told him what I’d done and we were both standing looking at it in awe. I was so upset we had a cuddle.
What’s notable about this is not just that Clodagh volunteered to the interviewer the information that she was spanked by her husband, but that she mentioned it in such a matter-of-fact way: it isn’t the central point of the story (that’s the broken bathroom tile), it’s just something that happened in her marriage. And if the spanking made her furious, there’s no outrage in the telling, and certainly no invocation of domination-and-submission fantasies: it’s just an ordinary part of a spirited young couple’s marriage around 1970. And this isn’t a piece of fiction: this was life.
The first thing likely to be said about this by a lot of would-be progressive young people is ‘That’s so wrong’ – sometimes followed by the rider, from slightly more thoughtful individuals, that it might still be alright as a private matter if only it can be understood as ‘BDSM’ or ‘fetish’. That’s the broad line the podcast dudes take on ‘The Taming of the Brute’. But it’s not a very helpful or humane agenda to set, in part because of the way the emphasis on simple rights and wrongs means those with different reactions are likely to be trapped into attempted justification, resulting in bone-headed claims that these spanking love stories should be considered a valuable ‘lesson for wives to obey their husbands’. That has actually been said, apparently in all seriousness, in the present century – and that shade of unimaginative social conservatism is little more than a hair’s breadth away from the creepy cultism of Christian Domestic Discipline. But I can’t say I’m comfortable, either, with the way the primary cultural response to human behavior now seems to be to classify it in terms of rigid categories, especially when the available categories seem to be limited to ‘right’, ‘wrong’ and ‘kinky’.
So for anyone born after about 1980, here’s a history lesson. Once upon a time, not so long ago, many husbands spanked their wives. Fewer do so now. Likewise, many parents spanked their teenage daughters. Fewer do so now. It wasn’t a universal practice, and it wasn’t universally approved, but it was recognized: it fell within the gamut of human behavior that passes for normal, and didn’t have to be explained away by invoking kink. For the most part, we’re talking about people who weren’t bad or ignorant; they just had different attitudes from those that prevail today. How they lived their lives might not be how we choose to live ours, but if we’re thinking about history, even a recent history that we have nevertheless left behind, isn’t it more important to try and understand the past rather than to judge and rebuke it?