The Unlikely Lads

We recently saw how, in On Moonlight Bay (1951), Gordon MacRae spanks Doris Day under the mistaken impression that she’s a boy.

We don’t often encounter this type of scenario, but it’s actually a much older trope than the conventional M/F romantic spanking scenes we know and love. Those began to appear, it seems, towards the end of the nineteenth century, whereas the pedigree of the ‘gender confusion’ spanking is maybe two centuries longer, going back to at least 1698, the year in which the Restoration comedy Love and a Bottle premiered in London at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

It was the first play by the Irish playwright George Farquhar (1677-1707), and its story concerns the romantic misadventures of the rake Roebuck, who comes to London to escape his various entanglements in Ireland, and attempts to seduce Lucinda, who happens to be his best friend’s girlfriend. Another arrival is a page sent to Roebuck with a letter of introduction from one of the entanglements, the lovelorn Leanthe, but who is actually Leanthe herself: she has disguised herself as a boy so that she can be close to him.

This was a very hoary plot device even in 1698: it goes back to Shakespeare’s time, when female characters were routinely played by boys, so that it made theatrical sense for women to pose as boys – as in Twelfth Night and As You Like It, among others. Later on, in 1660, professional actresses began to appear on the English stage, but plays continued to be written that required them to don masculine attire, at least in part because it gave audiences the opportunity to see their legs; the roles were colloquially known as ‘breeches parts’. And that was the tradition in which Farquhar created Leanthe.

The actress who played the part in 1698 was Maria Alison. And in the first modern revival, at Manchester in 1967, Leanthe was none other than my beloved Elisabeth Sladen, seen here with Keith Washington as a grossly unobservant Roebuck:

Leanthe’s letter asks Roebuck to look after the page she is impersonating, but he does it by getting the ‘boy’ a job in Lucinda’s household. We first encounter her weeping at her situation, hopelessly in love with a man who does not love her. Roebuck has his own idea about why she might be crying: ‘Has your lady beaten you?’ he asks, introducing a theme which is going to develop.

Within the household, the pretty page becomes an object of sexual interest to the maid, Pindress, and the resulting commotion attracts Lucinda’s attention. The wily Pindress tells her what has been happening, but reverses the roles in an attempt to pin the misbehavior on Leanthe. And it very nearly works:

PINDRESS: I could not resist the little strong rogue; he whipped me up in his arms, like a baby, and had not your ladyship come in –

LUCINDA: What, sirrah, would you debauch my maid? you little cock-sparrow, must you be billing too? I have a great mind to make her whip you, sirrah.

To understand what’s happening here, we should remind ourselves of a point of historical semantics. For centuries, the verb to whip did not necessarily refer to hitting someone with a whip. Its looser sense was a synonym for the verb to spank, which itself is first recorded in 1727 and only seems to have achieved primacy over whip in the late nineteenth century. (Whip still survives in this sense in the American dialect form whup.) To illustrate the point, here’s a verse and a picture from a publication of c. 1820.

Jack and Jill

(It’s part of the nursery rhyme Jack and Jill, only with an older Jill than you often encounter in modern illustrations.)

So when Pindress uses the verb whip in a completely different sense – ‘whipped me up in his arms’ – it gives Lucinda an idea about how the page might be punished for this misdemeanor. Pindress becomes uncommonly eager to undertake the task:

PINDRESS: Oh, dear madam, let me do’t. I’ll take him into the room and I will so chastise him.

LUCINDA: But do you think you’ll be able, Pindress? I’ll send one of the men to help you.

PINDRESS: No, no, madam; I could manage him with one hand. See here, madam.

And with that, according to Farquhar’s stage direction, she picks up Leanthe and starts to run offstage with her – though it could just as well be played, and would be funnier, if she put Leanthe across her knee then and there. (I don’t know how they did it in 1967, when Pindress was played by Sara Kestelman, but I can fantasize…)

But that action is Leanthe’s salvation. Lucinda immediately spots that, if Pindress can pick Leanthe up so easily, her story doesn’t make any sense: ‘Is this you that the little strong rogue had almost ravished? He snatched you up in his arms like a baby?’ And so Pindress is disappointed: there will be no ‘whipping’ for Leanthe…

The key element of the scenario is most palatably explained with reference to a 1949 British film that, coincidentally, sometimes played as a second feature to On Moonlight Bay when it was eventually released in the US. The central character of The Romantic Age, retitled Naughty Arlette in America, never poses as a boy and, as embodied by Mai Zetterling, there is never any doubt of her femininity:

And she is appalling. One of the film’s early reviewers, in Indiana, says it all: ‘One feels that Arlette needs a daily hard spanking.’ The film itself, however, makes a lot of effort to tell us not to get our hopes up.

The story takes place at a private girls’ school which hires a middle-aged man, Arnold Dickson (Hugh Williams), to teach English literature. Meeting his class for the first time, he explains that until recently he has been teaching boys, and lays down some ground rules:

‘One thing I should like to make quite clear. I expect you to keep order and discipline in class and not make me have to enforce it. Now, I hope you won’t take advantage of the fact that I can’t use the same disciplinary methods with you as I could with members of the opposite sex.’

Arlette Tessereau does take advantage, big time: as Dickson later sums her up, ‘she’s conceited and spoilt’.

He makes that assessment when discussing his new pupils with his wife, Helen (Margot Grahame): ‘There’s one girl, a French girl. She’s got to be handled rather carefully. If she was a boy, the remedy’d be obvious and simple.’ And Helen replies, with pointed knowingness, ‘A good, sound spanking.’

All of this serves to establish, in the early stages of the film, what can’t be done to Arlette. She then grows progressively more appalling, more conceited and more spoilt, most obviously in trying to seduce Dickson. When Helen tries gently to have it out with her, Arlette takes it upon herself to reassure Helen that she isn’t interested in him, but adds that she could have him if she wanted. Helen in turn takes it upon herself to bring Arlette down a peg or two:

‘My dear child, do you really a believe a man of his ability and perception could possibly be serious about a silly little girl like you? Now, you go back to school. You know, I really should put you across my knee and give you a good spanking.’

It’s said in a patronizing tone that underlines her view of Arlette as a naughty child, not to be taken seriously. But this has the opposite of the desired effect: Arlette swears vengeance, and she duly induces Dickson to run away with her. Ultimately he’s brought to his senses by the intervention of his daughter (an early role for the singer Petula Clark) and Arlette goes home to pack her things before leaving town. This entails a bad-tempered encounter with the family butler, Hedges (Raymond Lovell), who winds up telling her a few home truths:

‘Throughout the many years it has been my privilege to serve Mr Tessereau, whom I consider in many ways my superior, I have always endeavored to tolerate his abominable daughter, but I fear without success. I have avoided putting my thoughts into words, but I think the time has now come when I may permit myself the liberty of saying that you ought to be put across somebody’s knee and spanked – hard. Furthermore, if it did not involve a certain loss of dignity on my part, I would not hesitate to do it myself. Goodnight.’

Initially, the film set itself a fundamental rule: however much she may deserve it, Arlette cannot be spanked, because she’s a girl. The progress of the story then makes Arlette deserve it more and more, while on the other side the film tries to find a way of getting around that obstructive rule. The scene with Helen introduces the possibility that Arlette might be spanked, subject to the right gender participation and to its being construed in a particular way: not M/F, of course, nor even F/F, either, but F/f, an adult woman spanking a child. This doesn’t get very far, perhaps in part because there’s a certain lack of credibility in asking anyone to take 18-year-old Arlette (let alone 24-year-old Mai Zetterling) for a lower-case ‘f’ – a juvenile girl. So what we end up with is Hedges the butler recapitulating the film’s central paradox: Arlette should be spanked, but Arlette isn’t going to be spanked because social convention dictates otherwise – whether the convention in question is the exemption of girls from corporal punishment or, in this case, the preservation of personal dignity.

And so, exit Hedges, closing the door behind him. The exasperated Arlette crosses the screen, but the camera stays on the door, and after a moment it reopens. Re-enter Hedges: ‘Dignity be blowed,’ he says.

And here the film is doing, in effect, the same as Hedges: they have both declared the rules of conduct they follow, rules which mean Arlette is protected from her just deserts no matter how dreadfully she behaves. But then, in one and the same action, Hedges discards his dignity, and the film throws away its original point of principle. And Arlette gets spanked.

One early reviewer, Richard Winnington in the News Chronicle, called it ‘a luscious spanking’, and it certainly breaks all decorum. Arlette is not just spanked, but spanked by a man. And not just a man, but a domestic servant.

Spanked, too, with a hairbrush, establishing that it is, as per Hedges’ prescription, hard.

And spanked in a diaphanous negligee with the seat of her white panties clearly visible through it!

It is, in short, the worst, most humiliating spanking that could possibly be inflicted on a character in a British film of that era. A satisfying conclusion to the story, and a fitting comeuppance for a naughty girl who was first introduced as unavoidably unspankable.

In all of this we’ve been going the long way around – I hope you’ve enjoyed the scenery – to establish a cultural fact. We tend to think of spanking specifically as a punishment for girls, at least when dealing with adolescence and young adulthood. The underlying assumption may be that older boys would be subject to more severe handling, with the whole equation perhaps running along the lines of ‘girls get spanked but boys get caned’ – though I suspect few of us give much thought to the masculine side of the coin, or have much interest in it.

But the truth, as illustrated by The Romantic Age, is rather different. A few more pieces of evidence will help to reinforce the point, starting with a single line of dialog in the 1937 film version of King Solomon’s Mines, which introduces a character undreamt of by Rider Haggard: the plucky Irish girl Kathy O’Brien, played by Anna Lee.

She steals a cart and drives out into the desert in search of her missing father, taking the trouble en route to change into a pair of men’s trousers which she has cut down to fit her shorter build. When Our Heroes catch up with her, one of them, played by John Loder, tells her,

‘If you weren’t a girl, I’d give you the hiding of your life!’

And this in 1937, squarely in the middle of the last century’s 1920s to 1950s spanking scene boom, when almost all the indications from stage and screen were that a girl couldn’t rely on the mere fact of being a girl to keep her bottom safe.

But what about real life? A 1961 edition of the British magazine Today ran an article with the enticing headline, ‘Should Big Girls Be Spanked?’ It’s essentially a piece about the pros and cons of corporal punishment for older girls, with a few entertaining opinions from celebrities (Shani Wallis is for, Susan Hampshire, against), and in the opening sentences the author, the Hungarian journalist Michael Karoly, unerringly puts his finger on a stress-point:

In the life of nearly every young girl there comes a time when a parental hand is raised to administer physical punishment – and then it stops.


Because the mother or father whose hand hovers in the air is thinking, ‘Isn’t she too old for this sort of thing? Will it do any good?’

No one worries unduly when a young child or a pimply lad gets a healthy tanning. But when the beauty and poise of womanhood can be seen peeping through the girlish gawkiness it is a different matter altogether.

So in general, the teenage boys of yesteryear were much more likely to be beaten than teenage girls or young women. That doesn’t mean that girls were never spanked – one look at Jack and Jill will disprove that – but simply that the relative frequency was different from what we often assume, and would no doubt prefer, to have been the case. And that is the central factor in the particular spanking trope we’re looking at.

In ‘breeches parts’, girls temporarily take on masculine identities to give themselves more freedom of movement than they would have as women, and sometimes also to discourage unwanted male attention. What Love and a Bottle capitalizes upon is that it also puts them into a much riskier zone when it comes to corporal punishment – a bit like Act Your Age, in which an adult woman poses as a child and duly gets spanked, only with added gender-bending. It also renders them liable to other kinds of physical interaction with men, which might be illustrated by the way Viola, in Twelfth Night, finds herself having to fight a duel; but there’s a more relevant example in the 1958 adventure film Son of Robin Hood.

As the story begins, Robin Hood is dead and the Merry Men are the wrong side of middle age. Robin’s only child, Deering Hood, is summoned home from Spain to lead them against a would-be tyrant – but it turns out that the son of Hood is actually a girl, played by June Laverick.

Fortunately another new arrival to the same port on the same day is a charismatic young man, played by David Hedison, who will make a much more convincing son of Robin Hood. Deering herself is put into tights and made to pose as his page.

‘Boy, you must be proud to serve such a master,’ says one of the outlaws, giving her a hearty smack on her curvaceous bottom.

She yelps, takes the assaulted portion in her hands, then moves to retaliate.

This succeeds in showing off some visible panty line which we must presume is not entirely anachronistic, given what we later observe when she’s changing into women’s clothes.

‘You’ll get used to our rough ways.’ says the bottom-smacking outlaw and walks off laughing. Later she’s invited to sit down. ‘Would that I could,’ she replies, rubbing her sore spot.

You may object that sitting down shouldn’t really be all that much of a problem after just the one smack, however spectacular. (You might also object that it didn’t land on the side she’s rubbing…) But maybe it’s different for girls, especially if they’re not used to being spanked. Perhaps you have noticed a recurring tendency in these scenes that we can reinforce by bringing in another example from another medium.

The Black Arrow (1888) is an adventure novel by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94), who’s best known for three all-time classics: Treasure Island (1883), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Kidnapped (1886). The Black Arrow most resembles the last of these: a tale of a young hero’s derring-do set against turbulent historical events, in this case the Wars of the Roses, giving Stevenson the chance to write lots of cod pseudo-medieval dialog loosely imitated from Shakespeare. The hero, Richard Shelton, falls into the company of a youth named John Matcham, whom we know from the first is really the runaway ward Joanna Sedley. Richard, however, is so uninterested in girls that he can’t see her for what she is, and they develop a prickly relationship in which the difficulties arise from her periodic failures to meet his expectations of manliness. Eventually a quarrel ends with him deciding to assert his superiority in physical terms:

‘Ye deserve a belting, Master Matcham, for your ill-guidance and unthankfulness to me-ward; and what ye deserve, ye shall have.’

Whereupon he takes off his belt and advances to her-ward. But seeing her ‘large eyes and thin, weary face’, and embarrassed by her declared inability to resist, he decides not to go through with it. As he later explains, ‘I had a pity to you, and knew not why. When I would have belted you, the hand failed me.’ So unlike Arlette Tessereau, what she deserves, she doesn’t have.

And that’s the recurring tendency I mentioned: all of our examples of ‘gender confusion’ spankings so far, dating from three different centuries, either end early or never get started to begin with. It’s almost as if, in these circumstances, the writers are rather like the chastising parents in the Michael Karoly article: they don’t have the heart to go through with it.

But in fact it’s impossible to generalize about why this might be, because the situations, all similar in broad terms, are all different in detail. In Love and a Bottle, Leanthe escapes because at the last moment Lucinda spots that she is the victim of a false accusation, so that the spanking would be unjust. It’s also unjust in On Moonlight Bay – Marjorie was trying to prevent an accident and it was only bad luck that the gun went off when it was in her hand – but William doesn’t know that: what stops the spanking in its tracks is his realization that she’s a girl. Joanna’s escape in The Black Arrow, however, has nothing to do with her gender, as is apparent from this extraordinarily ripe observation from Richard after he learns the truth:

‘Joanna, y’ ’ave saved my life, and I have saved yours; and we have seen blood flow, and been friends and enemies – ay, and I took my belt to thrash you; and all that time I thought ye were a boy.’

It may not be entirely irrelevant at this point to throw in a fourth example, the scene in Floris (1969) where Countess Ada cross-dresses (rather spectacularly, it must be said) and gets spanked by a ruffian:

Floris 16

Only this time the spanking isn’t aborted, nor is it an unforeseen consequence of her apparent gender: it’s only after he discovers she’s female that he spanks her. Girls do get spanked – when they’re known to be girls.

But even that’s not a constant in these scenarios. In the next part of this series, we’ll see the rule broken.

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