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Dee Amy-Chinn. Pages Published online: 19 Aug Additional information Notes 1. I am grateful to Stacey Abbott for this observation. Article Metrics Views. Article metrics information Disclaimer for citing articles. In the sixteenth century, the policy toward prostitution in Protestant Europe changed from regulation to prohibition and the Netherlands were no exception. Whenever a city was taken over by the Calvinists during the course of the Dutch Revolt, one of the first acts of the new city government was to close down the municipal brothels and to suppress prostitution.
In Amsterdam, this happened in All forms of illicit sex became criminal offenses to be dealt with by criminal courts. Prostitution as such was not mentioned; the word dates only from the nineteenth century. The transition from Catholic regulation to Protestant prohibition represented more than a change in prostitution policy. It marked a paradigm shift in the way the relationship between God and man was conceived.
God no longer forgave sins, He punished them. Never absent from Christian teaching, the vengeful God of the Old Testament became an obsession throughout late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe, as the Counter-Reformation took over Catholic countries.
But were the strict morality laws really enforced? As might be expected, theory and practice differed. Unwed couples living together ran little risk of arrest. Adultery, however, was another story: it was viewed very seriously indeed. The prosecution of adultery in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Holland is one of the few examples of justice bearing more heavily on the upper classes.
As the easiest way to find adulterers was to raid brothels or pay brothel-keepers a fee for informing, the prosecution of adultery was closely connected to prostitution. The suppression of prostitution as a trade was a nearly impossible job for the authorities: urbanized, seafaring, and wealthy Holland possessed too many characteristics favoring widespread prostitution. This applied most of all to Amsterdam, which, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was the third largest European city after Paris and London.
In the first half of the seventeenth century, it grew rapidly to , inhabitants, of whom the majority were born outside its walls. It was the place where every year thousands of sailors signed on and even more were paid off. Like London and Paris, Amsterdam acquired an international reputation for prostitution. Beginning in the second half of the seventeenth century, at least a thousand prostitutes resided in the city at any one time, along with hundreds of brothel-keepers.
They mostly operated out of whorehouses hoerhuizen , often containing no more than one or two rooms where a bawd hoerewaardin lived with one, two, or at most three harlots. Disreputable inns also employed waitresses who might be willing to prostitute themselves, and, from the last quarter of the seventeenth century onward, prostitutes could be found in speelhuizen , or music halls, sometimes also called musicos.
Amsterdam was famous for the latter, with their live music and dancing, and their harlots ready to pick up clients. Given the scarcity of separate rooms in these establishments, the prostitutes usually took the men to the whorehouses where they lived with their bawd. Hundreds of travel accounts attest to this. Foreigners often wrote that the municipal government judged prostitution in a harbor city like Amsterdam as being impossible to suppress and that to do so was bad policy, so the city tolerated and even, secretly, regulated the trade.
This was not true. Tolerance and informal regulation gradually became the rule only in the second half of the eighteenth century. In the seventeenth century, the city government would have preferred to chase the strumpets from town, but given a police force comprising the bailiff, his substitutes, and their constables of only thirty men, this was hardly feasible. Even so, prostitution was actively prosecuted: in Amsterdam prostitution and brothel-keeping accounted for more than a fifth of all convicted crimes from to Much prostitution was also located there, in the same neighborhood that is still today the red light district.
Because so many men went to sea, Amsterdam had a large surplus of women. In the poorest neighborhoods, the ratio of adult women to men probably rose as high as three to two. Women dominated these neighborhoods, and not just numerically. Most keepers of lodging houses and secondhand shops were women, but so were half of the thieves, all the receivers, nearly all the brothel-keepers, and many of the keepers of disreputable inns.
The authorities were forced to take female crime seriously — and prostitution also counted as a criminal act. It is true that in some years prostitutes were left alone to a degree, and arrests were made mainly when neighbors complained or fighting or other disturbances of the peace occurred.
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But until the end of the eighteenth century prostitution was actively prosecuted, in many years in the form of round-ups by the police when specific neighborhoods were raided or when streetwalkers in certain areas were picked up. In such years, one hundred to two hundred women were arrested and tried: a substantial number given the size of the police force. During this period the consistory court of the Reformed Church saw fit to send a letter thanking the city government and the bailiff for their policy of greater severity, naturally expressing the hope that this policy would last.
The prosecution of prostitution in Amsterdam in those years is a real boon to historians. The Judicial Records furnish much information both on the prostitution trade itself and on the people involved in it. Especially the Confessieboeken der Gevangenen literally, the Books of the Confessions of the Prisoners , containing the interrogations before the court, constitute a very rich source. They have been preserved in their entirety, which, for early modern cities, is unique. In the hundred years between and , 5, people involved in prostitution appeared in court in 8, separate trials: 4, as prostitutes and as bawds, as well as men who had organized or profited from prostitution.
All were asked to state their name, birthplace, age, professional training, and marital status. It will not come as a surprise that these records present a picture different from the one found in the paintings: hard, ugly facts compared with beautiful and amusing images. Still, to an extent, the images are rooted in reality. As the brothel paintings cluster in the s, I will focus on the period for a closer look at the reality of prostitution.
In these fifty years, 3, women were convicted as prostitutes for the first time. Around 20 percent of these were arrested as streetwalkers. Most were between eighteen and twenty-five years old.
A few were younger, but quite a number were older: on average their age was twenty-three. Only one in five was born in Amsterdam itself, half came from the rest of the Dutch Republic, the rest had immigrated from Germany or Scandinavia. It is striking that the majority were born and bred in cities. When asked about their profession they usually listed sewing, seamstressing, spinning, lace making, or silk twining.
Some mentioned peddling vegetables or turning wheels at diamond factories or other low paid, unskilled jobs. And indeed, no class of educated courtesans existed in the Netherlands. It is true, however, that prostitutes tried to ape the clothing and finery of upper-class women, and Mandeville was not the only contemporary writer to identify such attire as mere outward adornment.
Such comments, however, also reflected the deeply rooted conviction that people should dress according to their rank and station in life. The Confession Books testify that quite a few prostitutes wore such fashionable clothing as satin gowns, even if they were secondhand, fontanges high headdresses with ribbons , locks of artificial hair, and even makeup. Prisoners in the Spin House were on show as a warning about what happened to wayward women. In the paintings, procuresses are key figures fig.
Who was this koppelaarster? Here image and reality differ. First a comment on terms. Koppelaarster was a medieval term that continued to see some usage in legal texts and in literature. In real life, in the seventeenth century, the female organizers of prostitution were called hoerewaardinnen here translated as bawds and the word for procuresses, of whom there were a few, who specialized in mediating was hoerebesteedsters.
On average they were thirty-five years old, but 40 percent were younger than thirty; some of them were of the same age as their whores. Even if a minority of the brothel-keepers can be found in earlier Confessieboeken as prostitutes, more often they embarked on their careers as brothel-keepers via another route and sometimes already in their twenties. The greatest difference between the prostitutes and bawds was their social and financial capital.
While prostitutes were almost all single and if married, with husbands away at sea or otherwise absent, half of the brothel-keepers were married or were living with a man. Often they had family members also involved with brothel-keeping or other forms of crime. But the most important difference was their financial situation: the bawds had money or credit, the whores did not.
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The strongest hold the bawd had over the prostitute was tied to the debts the girl owed her. Debts were first of all contracted for clothes. Clothes were expensive: A woman of the lower classes usually possessed only a few garments, generally of coarse material and drab colors, and would never earn enough money to buy the silks and satins she saw worn by rich women in prosperous Amsterdam. A girl embarking on a career as a prostitute needed pretty clothing, and a bawd could provide her with a fine outfit on credit. Indeed, in reality, the bawd tempted the girl into becoming a prostitute by showing her beautiful clothes and dangling before her a life of leisure, gaiety, and dancing, with plenty to eat and drink.
The Confessieboeken show the bawd usually managing only one or two girls at a time, and the brothel rarely housing more than two. When clients outnumbered girls, whores from a nearby brothel were fetched by a servant. There were several ways by which the bawd made money out of these girls. The usual arrangement accoord in a whorehouse was that in return for their board and lodging, the prostitutes shared with the brothel-keeper half their earnings.
It was usual for the clients to be served drink and food, and the bawds made money on the sale of these consumptions and on the rent charged for use of the beds. She also profited from the clothes sold or sometimes hired out to the whores. It goes without saying that both consumables and clothes were priced high above their actual value.
Then there was payment in kind. Clients were encouraged to eat and drink, but they were joined in the meal by the prostitutes and the brothel-keeper and sometimes even the maid. The organization of prostitution was a predominantly female matter. The answer lies in the functioning of the preindustrial economy: bawds essentially operated as small traders, peddlers in vice. Add to this the traditional custom according to which women supervised the household, including female personnel.
A man who performed such work would taint his honor. As for the third party in the brothel paintings, the clients, judicial records give little numerical information for a group that as a rule escaped arrest. However, from the stories told before the court, it is clear that sailors of the VOC East India Company were among the main clients, which is consistent with contemporary belief.
Not only did paintings construct images of prostitute, bawd, and client but so, too, did popular writings of the time. In the seventeenth century, literally hundreds of prose works, farces, songbooks, pamphlets, and other writings feature sexual misconduct, whoring, prostitutes, and brothels. The literature introduces themes that are not found in the paintings, such as the venereal diseases the pox and the clap that befell both harlots and clients. But even so, in literature, we find all the familiar types: lewd prostitutes, mercenary bawds, and foolish clients.
But in literature, special venom is reserved for prostitutes, by contrast with the paintings, which target procuresses. These notions correspond to the medieval and early modern idea of the female as lusty, mercenary, deceitful, sweet-tongued liars. Both books were published in Amsterdam, frequently reprinted until the end of the eighteenth century, and translated into several languages.
At first glance, the anonymous author appears supportive of women, suggesting, for example, that women should enjoy the same sexual freedom as men and complaining that men devise laws to the detriment of women. Female chastity is a sham; all women are born whores. His guide is the devil himself, and the two of them witness scandalous deeds and deceptions so appalling that even the devil proclaims himself horrified. It admits nothing positive about any of the women depicted.
Even among themselves these women fight, cheat, and swear. In a whorehouse everything is fraud and delusion; behind the attractive facade of a whore lie poison and putrefaction. Another victory for the devil. The theme of venal love was a typically Northern European one and, more specifically, a feature of the art of the Low Countries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The sixteenth century saw a rise in the number of representations of the prodigal son parable from which the episode with the harlots soon came to be singled out.
As Konrad Renger has pointed out, these were closely connected with the spendthrifts, gamblers, drinkers, whore-mongers, and fools who generally abound in the popular literature of the time, and who were, like their visual counterparts, meant to act as a warning rather than providers of mere amusement. These sixteenth-century prodigal sons — and the similar tavern scenes that included prostitutes — have often been understood as the first examples of genre painting figs.
Many of the same features are encountered again in the brothel scenes of the next century, especially in the paintings of Jan Steen fig. Differences abound, however, of which I will point out two. The sixteenth-century bordello scenes are often large in size and include a considerable number of figures, whereas the seventeenth-century whorehouse scenes are small both in scale and number of participants.
This differentiation in size may well reflect reality. Where prostitution was tolerated and regulated, large and open brothels could develop; where prostitution was forbidden and prosecuted, it retreated to small, secret places. A second difference is that fighting women frequent sixteenth-century pictures but never those from the seventeenth century fig.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, during trips to Italy, several young Utrecht artists learned to paint in the new, revolutionary style of Caravaggio, developing styles that gained them considerable fame and influence back in their hometown. Honthorst painted several pictures, which today are known by such titles as The Procuress , Merry Company, and Musical Group figs. The only discordant note in these works is the ever present procuress who, old, ugly, turbaned, and often vicious, is remarkably similar to the procuresses painted earlier by Jan van Hemessen.
She is, in fact, a traditional type, embodying what were seen as the vices and evil influences of old women, a belief which took its most extreme form in the persecution of witches in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
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At the same time, possibly in imitation of Honthorst, another Utrecht painter, Dirck van Baburen, took up this theme. Of course, the sexually titillating possibilities of the bordello theme must have attracted quite a few painters and buyers. As we have seen, Amsterdam was the one Dutch city most notorious for its prostitution, and contemporary writings and travel accounts focus primarily on Amsterdam brothels and whores.
The majority of the bordeeltjes , however, were painted in other cities. The last painter to be mentioned here is Jan Steen, who lived in both Leiden and Haarlem. In his large oeuvre at least forty brothel scenes can be found, among them many showing robberies in a brothel fig. In spite of the lively appearance of his pictures, Steen was a moralizer. Aspects of sixteenth-century moralizing and seventeenth-century writings on prostitution recur more often in his oeuvre than in the works of other seventeenth-century painters.
What can we conclude about the relationship between the image and the reality of Dutch prostitution? Undoubtedly, many elements in the bordeeltjes were true to life: the prominence of the procuresses or rather bawds , the small scale of the brothels, the importance of eating and drinking, and the chances of getting drunk, cheated, and robbed. A few of these paintings may be used as illustrations, but none can be considered historical documents on contemporary prostitution.
Depictions of women owed more to traditional ideas of the lecherous and cheating character of women than to direct observation. Many objects in the paintings were included to point out a moral to the spectators, not because the walls of real brothels were hung with musical instruments or the floors littered with oyster shells. And it is obvious that the painters usually looked first to other paintings and not to any reality to be observed in their own cities.
Generally speaking, while much was depicted that was normal to prostitution, just as many more common aspects of prostitution were eliminated. We see harlots in whorehouses, but never streetwalkers. We see drunkenness, cheating, and robberies, but not fighting, police prosecution, the Spin House, or venereal diseases. We see inns and brothels, but never the famous music halls. We see musicians, but never dancing. We see young harlots, but not older ones.
On the other hand, we see old and ugly procuresses, but never young bawds. For clients we see well-dressed, well-to-do youths, soldiers, even farmers, but never the sailors who formed so much of the clientele. In conclusion, I stress that, however seductive and true to life the brothel scenes may appear, they usually do not, or only partly, tell us of the reality of prostitution in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. Prostitution in Early Modern Amsterdam. Seksuele Voorstellingen in Nederland , ed.
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