Why am I writing about this topic?
I recently completed a PhD in literary studies, and nearing the end of that long research and writing project, I came across what I have come to call “tropes of white womanhood” that were circulated within and between European and North American societies (my focus was mainly on English-speaking Anglo-American texts) during the interwar period, 1914-1945. These tropes, “Surplus Women” and “Trafficked Women,” established particular codes and practices by which society could determine the legitimacy of women. These codes implicitly and explicitly center on race, class, reproduction, and mobility (whether economic or geographic, or both). By invoking stories of economic, population, or criminal distress, these tropes conveyed a message about the role of white womanhood for the stability of (a particular kind of) social order.
And these narrative constructions — these mini stories of identity and behavior — could be used by journalists to sell newspapers, by politicians to push legislation and public rhetoric, by businessmen to influence economic policies, and by others to serve other social purposes. Importantly, these tropes function as a kind of shorthand for culture to police women: what should women do and not do with their bodies? What should women look or not look like? Where should a woman go or not go? At what point does a woman become a victim? At what point does a woman cause harm to social order? When do we need to “rescue” a woman, and when do we need to “punish” her?
And, when these tropes construct these sensational and limited options, something else happens: we might think that “victim”/”criminal” are the only two options available for women to embody, and a woman can only be one of these.
What has become clear to me since finishing that project is that these tropes are still with us. They have evolved (somewhat) along with the politics and economics of the times, but they serve the same purpose throughout different eras: to outline acceptable or legitimate behavior for women in order that national and economic interests are upheld.
My dissertation research isolates some of the cultural uses of fear and shame to activate these tropes for social impact. The trope of “Trafficked Women and Children,” for example, was particularly popular at the beginning of the 20th century in British, US, and Canadian media. The term “trafficked” was a replacement for the earlier term “White Slave Trade,” and it channeled — or stoked — paranoia about citizenship status, immigration, the increasing political and economic presence of (white, middle classs) women in more public and powerful venues (like the voting booth), as well as the visibility of Black men moving from rural southern regions to industrial northern and western regions in the U.S. during the Great Migration. (I recently stumbled upon a publication from 1912 called “Black Traffic in White Girls,” which I believe may very well be the 1912 version of QAnon — but I can share that in a different post).
All of this is to say that my spidey senses (aka cultural criticism chops) can identify the current obsession and sensationalism about “trafficked children” we see distributed across various online and offline channels, including information influenced by the QAnon conspiracy phenomenon, as a long established cultural trope. And this also draws my attention to other cultural forms that traffic in women’s bodies, that dictate social consensus about which bodies are valuable for various social purposes.
This has led me to my current interest in the long history of crime discourse, a combination of cultural and social practice that shapes and distributes stories about the relationships between individual behavior and public consensus.
So my interest in this blog project is general and broad in the sense that I am pursuing the patterns and histories of crime discourse as a function of human culture. But this project is also driven by some more specific questions regarding the interplay of crime narratives and the circulation of values or beliefs about race, gender, and sexuality.
Now you know.