The Old Normal

Once upon a time, and until a time still within living memory, spanking was primarily punitive. Corporal punishment was an ordinary and accepted, albeit uncomfortable and unwelcome, element of young people’s lives, often into adolescence and sometimes beyond. Accordingly, when appropriate, it featured in fiction, particularly in high school plays intended for performance by and for teenagers and centrally concerned with their experiences and world. There were lots and lots and lots of these on offer from the 1930s till the 1960s:

Sweet Sixteen

People are Funny

Damsels in Distress

All on Account of Luella

Sadie of the USA

My Heart’s in High

Little Acorns

Leave it to Grandma

Let Me Talk

Too Many Millions

Now You’re Talking

The Monkey’s Uncle

Merry Christmas, Mr Baxter

That’s twenty plays to be going on with, and if I’d added twenty more it still wouldn’t have been a comprehensive list!

And similar scenarios were also sometimes seen in plays aimed at a broader audience, such as The More the Merrier (1960), in which Dinah Felby discovers there are disadvantages to having two fathers:

A 1968 production in Quesnel, British Columbia: Pattie Reilly as Dinah is across Andrew Smith’s knee being spanked by Bill McIntyre

This was a normal fact of teen life – commonplace, even.

Ho hum!

And girls who had reached the age of majority weren’t too old for a spanking, either: scenes featuring physically mature young women were to be found in stories in all media. A look around this site ought to supply more than adequate evidence to support the point, but… well, any excuse to show some examples!

The Beloved Bachelor (1931)

Etta Kett (1933)

Godiva Was a Lady (1936)

Reckless Lady (1937)

Strange Boarders (1938)

Abbie an’ Slats (1939)

The Revolt of the Black Continent (1940)

Remember You’re a Lady (1942)

Captain Triumph (1943)

Strawberry Roan (1944)

Smilin’ Jack (1945)

Naughty Nanette (1946)

Miki (1949)

I Sacrificed My Reputation (1950)

Far From Innocent (1952)

I Married Joan (1954)

The People’s Choice (1956)

The Story of Martha Wayne (1957)

Captain Easy (1959)

The Steel Claw (1961)

A good number of those illustrate the minefield of potential complication that arises from spanking older young ladies like these, because with physical maturity comes a sexual dimension that wasn’t always ignored: despite what was said to Captain Easy in 1959 there, a good spanking was often portrayed as part of the development of a romantic relationship. But – and here we’re coming to the nub of it – any sexiness there might be was of secondary significance: the fundamental essence of spanking as a social practice, and therefore as an event in a story, was that the recipient had done, or was thought to have done, something wrong for which she was being punished. That was its normality.

The other thing I’m trying to illustrate, obviously, is how ubiquitous it was, across roughly a third of a century, even though during that period there was also no shortage of articulate and intelligent people who honestly disliked the scenario. In contrast, nowadays it’s hard to imagine this kind of scene being produced in a contemporary setting by the film industries of North America or Europe (with the possible exception of the Czech Republic). The last major example in mainstream American cinema was in Donovan’s Reef (1963).

McLintock, with its period setting, followed later the same year, which also saw the British sunset of The Iron Maiden.

And from there on, the ‘traditional’ movie spanking scene went into a gradual but inexorable decline. Of course, I’m talking about what I sometimes grandiosely call the Great Sixties Shift of Taste, though it’s worth adding that it wasn’t a universal phenomenon; in particular, spanking scenes of the kind we’re discussing are alive and well and still being produced and enjoyed in Latin America, as may be attractively illustrated by this example from a Brazilian telenovela of 2016:

(More about this scene here!)

Those of us who live on other continents may regret the change; but it has to be said that it took place because of developments in real-life social attitudes and behavior that most decent people will welcome, even though they comprehensively undermined the foundations of the spanking scenes we enjoy. The latter part of the last century saw corporal punishment abolished and criminalized in progressive countries and states. One of the many excellent reasons for this was a stronger awareness, or willingness to acknowledge, that spanking was also an adult sexual fetish, which carried with it the real risk that some in authority might seek to gratify such desires by improperly using the vulnerable young people in their charge. And the upshot was that spanking was no longer the normal fact of life it had once been.

The new sexual frankness of the 1960s also had another effect on spanking scenes. If the central situation was always in some way punitive, with adult participants there was also often an overtone of friskiness that stayed within social taboos: because spanking wasn’t inherently and fundamentally a sexual act, it could give a scene a sexy edge without the need to portray actual sex. But as Western society became more relaxed about intercourse with the arrival of easily available contraception, spanking became a less useful part of the general repertoire of interactions between the sexes – not just in stories but also, probably, in life.

And that’s why, from the mid-1960s, the immediate future for big-screen spanking lay in the kind of dimwitted movie that might serve as a definition of the temporary decline of the industry. In America, the weird, druggy phantasmagoria of Pamela, Pamela, You Are… (1968), which manages to find room for two rather good spanking scenes,

or the self-referential Starlet (1969), a skinflick about the making of skinflicks, in which would-be movie star Allison Jordan (Shari Mann) asks to be given ‘what she deserves’, but doesn’t expect what she gets:

In Germany, Das Mädchen mit der Heissen Masche (1972), a sex comedy in which Suzanne (Marlène Appelt) bets her friend Andrea Maupach (Sybil Danning) that she won’t be able to get her roué of an ex, Rolf (Michael Cromer), to commit to marriage without actually going to bed first. In the course of events, Suzanne ends up Faux-TK with her white panties on show,

whereas for Andrea it’s OTK in pink panties,

and another of Rolf’s ladies, in white, also suffers the same fate:

In France, Les Tentations de Marianne (1973), in which the innocent title character (Rosa Fumetto) is tempted into a form of prostitution, and encounters a client who objects to her modesty:

And with a foot in two major European countries, Penelope Pulls It Off (1975), an Anglo-German co-production (British principal cast, German locations) about forged art and the financial troubles of the aristocracy, in which the irascible Welsh painter Owen Glendower becomes aggrieved at having his talent exploited by Lady Adrienne Charterley. Inconveniently for her, she is engaged in a spot of nude sunbathing when he confronts her and tells her he’s going to teach her a lesson. ‘You wouldn’t dare,’ she says, but after a chase around the sun lounger, complete with Benny Hill-style music, it’s fair to say that he would dare:

I could go on, but I won’t. These are among the more tasteful and competently made examples that might be offered, sometimes with at least some worthwhile talent on one or other side of the camera. In Penelope Pulls It Off, for example, the two relevant performers are George Murcell, who also had a strong reputation as an actor and director in the legitimate theater, and Linda Marlowe, whose career included, as well as a bare bottom spanking, a stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

They elevate the scene with their professional expertise, but the material they have to work with is a collection of the hoariest of spanking clichés, from ‘I’m here to teach you a lesson, my girl’ through ‘That’s what you’ve needed for a long time.’ It’s as if this is a simulation or parody of a spanking scene, rather than one that has any authentic basis in a story that’s even remotely about people or ideas or things. And that’s the point: in this uniquely unsatisfying genre, the whole film exists not to engage the audience’s interest with its overall narrative, but to facilitate the presentation of sex and nudity and other things appealing to slightly more niche tastes (such as spanking). We may enjoy the spanking for its own sake, if it is done well, but if we expect it to offer us much beyond that immediate gratification, we’re looking at the wrong kind of film.

What we are watching is the traditional spanking scene going down the drain: deprived by social change of its basis in a recognizable and accepted normality, it is headed out of the mainstream and into the underworld of pretext-driven porn. But that wasn’t the only direction of travel; for the social advances that laid waste to one norm also stimulated the emergence of another, which wasn’t altogether inimical to spanking, albeit of a somewhat different kind. And that is a subject we shall begin to consider next time.

3 thoughts on “The Old Normal

  1. Jimc says:

    Really enjoyed this post. The research and commentary are outstanding. I love the Captain Triumph one, but I would swear that it is Aquaman. The movies may have left the spanking, but tv series esp. the westerns still had a lot of spankings in them. Thanks again for all you share with us and your time and effort in producing such amazing series. Have a great day.


    • Harry says:

      Not every blond superhero is Aquaman! It is from Crack Comics #28 (March 1943), drawn by Alfred Andriola (1912-83), who later drew the 1970 spanking scene in the newspaper strip Kerry Drake (see here). You can read a synopsis of the Captain Triumph story (The Magic Sword) here.

      Yes, television (and indeed newspaper strips) lagged behind the movies but the direction of travel was the same and of course it doesn’t invalidate the core argument I’m developing.


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