The Age of Consensus

The last of three spanking scenes in the 1950s sitcom The People’s Choice involves the nemesis of a teenage public nuisance, Maxine Bascomb. She’s played by Carla Merey, who was aged 20 but specialized in characters who were a few years younger.

Maxine’s father, a colonel in the US Marine Corps, would much rather have had a son, so he calls her Max and raised her a tomboy. The series’ central couple, Sock and Amanda Miller (Jackie Cooper and Patricia Breslin), find themselves having to look after Max in repayment of an obligation Sock incurred during his own wartime days in the Marines, the nature of which may be inferred from the episode title: ‘Sock’s Lifesaver’ (April 10, 1958). At first, Amanda is all in favor of handling the Max problem in a way that’s more psychological than physical, but exasperation eventually changes her mind:

SOCK: This time she’s going to get a good spanking.
AMANDA: She deserves it.

And so he hands the responsibility over to her, pointing out that he can hardly spank the daughter of a man who saved his life.

Amanda duly rolls up her sleeves and marches off to administer a really epic spanking lasting more than a minute:

There are several points of interest in the scene, over and above its extended duration. The first is what Sock does early on in the spanking:

he opens the front door and tells his wife,

‘Louder smacks, dear! I’ve got the door open so the whole community can hear that justice has triumphed.’

We don’t live in that world any more. Today Sock’s action would likely result in a visit from the police rather than general neighborhood approval.

Just how much has changed may be glimpsed in a passing moment from Schmigadoon!, a 2021 musical comedy series in which a modern New York couple, Josh Skinner and Melissa Gimble (Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong), find themselves in a magical town where not only does time stand still, but the whole pastel world works like a classic musical from the middle of the last century. When they learn that they can’t leave until they find true love, it has the especially regrettable and counterproductive consequence that gives the second episode both its title and its first song: ‘Lovers’ Spat’.

The locals sing about the inevitability of downs as well as ups:

You can’t have love without having
A lovers’ spat.

And they go on to describe the precise mechanics:

First she says something bound to get his gander,
Then he says something mean to get her back,
Then she complains that he don’t understand her,
And then he gives her a smack!

They proceed to demonstrate:

And the dismayed Melissa reacts with the usual slightly irritating modern censoriousness: ‘No! Oh no, that’s not OK!’,

immediately followed by the familiar, patronizing self-correction of ‘Unless it’s consensual.’ But the unfazed Schmigadooners sing on: ‘It’s only a lovers’ spat!’ Whereas for thoroughly modern Melissa, it’s clear that there’s nothing ‘only’ about a smacked bottom:

As she said, ‘That’s not OK, unless it’s consensual.’ Nowadays you don’t open your door to let the world know a very naughty girl is getting what she deserves. You keep the door closed on spanking and maybe, for added security, you hang out one of these:

But it was different once. To develop the point, let’s take an incident in the pre-Hollywood life of the comedienne Thelma Todd.

During her high school days (which were in the early 1920s), she entered an automobile race with a boyfriend, against her parents’ wishes. The pair were zipping around the track when they had to make a pit stop, only to find Ma and Pa Todd waiting for them there. As the story was told a decade later:

The boy was talked to in no uncertain terms. And Thelma – well, she was soundly spanked right there before the crowd of 10,000 spectators.

It doesn’t much matter whether that’s a true story or just a spicy concoction by the publicists for Thelma’s picture Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1934), which climaxed with a racing sequence. What does matter is that this tale of an extremely public spanking could be taken for true and reported as such in the newspapers: it fell comfortably within the spectrum of normal social behavior, which meant that, in principle, you could spank a bad girl in public so long as it was recognized that she deserved it.

Now, it’s unlikely that 10,000 people who were mainly there to watch an auto race can have been in a position to know why Thelma was being spanked or whether justice had triumphed: they had to take it on trust that the punishment was fair. It’s more straightforward when the misdeed affects the community more broadly, giving the audience more of a stake in the reprisal.

For example, one of the widespread irritations associated with a visit to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair was the presence of scantily-clad young women milling among the crowds and trying with importunate persistence to sell overpriced souvenir trinkets.

A contemporary report takes up the theme:

These girls don’t understand what the word ‘no’ means and hang on till even if they can’t sell anything they succeed in getting a dime or so to run away. Not the least entertaining moment was when a middle-aged business man, stung to anger by the pestering of a blonde, turned on her suddenly, flipped her over his knee with a dexterity which showed that he had administered this kind of correction before and gave her a sound spanking. The crowd cheered its pleasure.

In law, spanking a young woman without her consent is assault, and a criminal matter; it is now and it was then. But so is (and was) punching someone on the nose. They were just things that people did, which they might be prosecuted for but more often weren’t. That’s why three or four generations ago there was a widespread acceptance of nonconsensual spanking: instead of the consent that we now regard as paramount, there was a broad consensus that this was not wholly egregious behavior, and that, though it was not technically legal, there were some circumstances in which it could be acceptable.

There were people in the last century who held that ‘spanking is as American as apple pie’, but that is not to say that the spanking consensus was universal: on the contrary, we know that the subject attracted a range of opinions for and against. The ‘for’ may not even have been a majority view, though there’s really no way of knowing. But what is clear is that even a public spanking might be generally accepted if was perceived as being justified, an assessment resting partly on whether the spanker was reckoned to have the right to do it, which usually meant being in a position of authority (for example, a parent or, perhaps, an employer), and partly on whether the spanked girl had deserved it, in which case a spanker might still rely on the righteous indignation of a victim.

It’s not (or rather wasn’t) the straightforward right/wrong binary that results when you bring the law into it (or indeed a prejudice either for or against spanking). We can watch the consensus disintegrate if we jump ahead to a Corsican casino in 1960 and consider the fate of 19-year-old cabaret singer Maya Casabianca.

While performing her set, she repeatedly made unflattering and unprofessional remarks to the audience about what she considered to be the incompetence of Jack Lorenzi’s orchestra. Eventually the exasperated casino manager came onstage and took her first to task, and then across his knee. But the party most aggrieved, Lorenzi himself, intervened to save her, and the public spanking came to a premature end. The report of the incident says that the audience cheered, though it’s unclear whether it was the manager and the spanking or Lorenzi and his gallant rescue that earned their approbation. In any event, whether despite the spanking or because of it, Maya herself remained in their good graces: that night she sang four encores.

Back now to 1958 to see how Amanda Miller is getting on with the punishment of Miss Maxine Bascomb.

For all Sock’s assumption of general local approval, he never thought it would be acceptable to the Colonel: that’s why it’s Amanda doing the spanking, because she is under no obligation to the doting father. So when Bascomb walks through the open front door, Sock pusillanimously changes his tune: ‘Dear, you know I’m opposed to this,’ he tells Amanda, and suggests she might stop now. She ignores him until she looks up and sees the glowering newcomer.

‘Who gave you permission to beat Max?’ he asks. And with that indication of paternal dissent, the fragile basis for consensus falls to pieces. Unable to let Amanda take the blame, Sock sheepishly admits that it was his idea, and the angry Bascomb threatens, ‘I’m going to break you in two.’ Salvation comes from an unexpected direction when Maxine speaks up for the Millers, telling her father they are the first people who have ever made her feel like a girl: ‘Why, they even cared enough about me to spank me.’

Surprising as it may now seem, that sort of thing did sometimes happen in real life. Back to 1954, to meet 19-year-old Anne Wilson, a children’s nurse in Surrey, England.

She firmly resisted the advances of brush salesman Fred Norman, twelve years her senior, but instead of accepting the brush-off with good grace, he confronted her at her place of work, put her across his knee and spanked her. (It’s not recorded whether he used his hand or one of his wares.) The judicial consequences were swift: the next day he was fined £1 for ‘insulting behavior’. (He would probably not have gotten off so lightly if the charge had been assault.) But less than a month later an event happened in their lives which is best told in the newspaper headline about it:

FRED WEDS THE GIRL HE SPANKED

The prosecution and fine tell one story: there wasn’t a strong enough consensus to justify this particular nonconsensual spanking. But the marriage puts a different light on it, which might be summed up with the phrase retroactive consent. She told the reporter: ‘I deserved that spanking.’

Obviously a half-hour sitcom has to compress the process, and in Maxine’s case there are indications that might foreshadow her eventual attitude even while she is being spanked. Doing the ‘spankometry’ reveals an odd phenomenon. As I said earlier, this is a real epic by screen spanking standards: starting in mid-spanking, the scene features 19 onscreen smacks, and a further 25 can be heard to land while the camera is looking elsewhere. But there are also moments when an impassioned ‘Ouch’ can be heard from Maxine without an audible smack beforehand. Maybe that just means some of Amanda’s smacks are ‘silent but deadly’; but there’s an alternative implication when the spanking reaches its premature end and Maxine, unaware of her father’s presence, carries on ‘ouching’ for several seconds after the final smack. It’s almost as if she’s the last one still playing her part when everyone else has stopped.

This makes the spanking more than a one-way imposition of adult will on teenage mind and adult hand on teenage bottom. It’s more of a shared social ritual in which both Amanda and Maxine participate, along with Sock watching and the neighbors out there listening and savoring the triumph of justice.

Everyone has a role in the proceedings, active or passive, so by taking part, Maxine effectively includes herself in the community she once terrorized. Now it’s her father, in stopping the spanking, who is the disruptive one with a lesson to learn. Ultimately the spanked girl‘s retroactive consent, with the admission that she deserved it, is really the broader act of joining the consensus.

So that’s OK, even though it wasn’t consensual.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Patron Hall for drawing my attention to Schmigadoon!  The relevant extract may be seen here.

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