Recently, a very small number of the desperate group of people interned in a refugee camp in Calais have crossed a narrow sea to reach this island. It’s been well-reported that conditions at the Calais camp are appalling, which will only worsen as the camp gets more crowded and the season turns to winter. But the unaccompanied minors who have landed in Britain have not exactly received a warm welcome after potentially weeks or months living out in the cold – they have been subject to a media onslaught where paparazzi take intrusive photographs and the tabloids spend hours scrutinizing their faces for clues of their ages.
Yesterday Guardian columnist Marina Hyde posted a perceptive piece challenging the hypocrisy of newspapers like the Daily Mail, who insist that it is an absolute travesty if anyone over the age of 18 manages to escape the Calais hell hole for life in Britain, and circles the hopeful little moustaches of late-teenage boys in hopes it will prove they are not minors, but also publish gushing articles celebrating the beauty of teenage daughters of celebrities and coyly suggest they look “older” than their years. Old enough to be legally acceptable to fancy, I suspect.
Putting aside the issue that few people seem to have raised, which is that eighteen might be a useful legal threshold to recognise the end of minority but that in social terms very few of us would nowadays assume that a teenager’s eighteenth birthday magically marks a transition into full, responsible adulthood, I found myself thinking about these “beautiful daughters” and the resonances they have with my own work – on families several centuries ago.
I gritted my teeth and loaded up the Daily Mail‘s website – which is horrendously designed, before we get to any content issues – and trawled through several pages of articles. I limited my search to the past week, and I found four stories on teenage girls who are the daughters of celebrities. All of these stories to one extent or another celebrated the girls’ appearance.
The first story is about fifteen-year-old Thylane Blondeau. She is working as a model, so perhaps it might seem acceptable to describe her as an “extraordinary beauty”. However, the article also mentions “it was her 2011 beauty editorial for Vogue Paris that drew international attention to the young the star, as many deemed the make-up heavy shoot to be too provocative for the 10-year-old”. Of course the Mail included a screenshot of said editorial (I have not, for obvious reasons). The second article pictured here is about seventeen-year-old Lily Rose Depp; the language is not particularly sexual, though it does talk about her “natural beauty” and radiance. The third story is about Sofia Richie, who is eighteen, and the piece is mainly full of blurry photos of her with Tobey Maguire. However, the photo used to illustrate her with Justin Bieber and which describes her as a “stunning teen” was taken when she was seventeen. Finally, “pretty blonde” Anais Gallagher is pictured in a crop top and jeans – which seems to be the extent of that story’s narrative.
So, here we have four girls all under the age of eighteen, all famous to one degree or another because of their fathers (and in the case Marina Hyde talks about, her mother). They are girls who are considered beautiful not only because of how they look but because of their birth – much like medieval heroines.
Does this seem like a bit of a stretch? In my book on medieval fatherhood and on this blog, I’ve written quite extensively on fathers and daughters. Many medieval narratives are filled with the shadow of the incestuous father – who either actually goes ahead and makes incestuous advances, or whose behaviour is classified by psychiatrist Judith Herman as the “seductive father“, who skirts the boundaries of incestuous activity.
In the medieval romance Emare, the emperor Artyus is married to a beautiful queen whom he loves. She dies after their daughter Emare is born, and the baby is brought up away from the court. When she grows up (in medieval narrative terms, this is likely to suggest she’s in her mid-to-late teens in the text), she is reunited with her father:
The mayden that was of sembelant swete,
Byfore her owene fadur sete,
The fayrest wommon on lyfe;
That all hys hert and all hys thowghth
Her to love was yn browght:
He byhelde her ofte sythe.
So he was anamored hys thowghtur tyll,
Wyth her he thowghth to worche hys wyll,
And wedde her to hys wyfe.
(The maiden that was of sweet appearance, the fairest woman alive, sat before her own father. All his heart and all his thoughts were brought to love of her; he looked at her often. So he was enamoured of his daughter until he thought to work his will with her and marry her.)
When Emare unsurprisingly rejects her father’s advances, he has her put to sea in a little boat, clearly expecting her to die adrift on the ocean.
Instead after days at sea, driven half-mad with hunger and thirst, Emare is washed ashore in a country she does not know.
She was on the see so harde bestadde,
For hungur and thurste almost madde.
Woo worth wederus yll!
She was dryven into a lond
That hyghth Galys, y unthurstond,
That was a fayr countré.
She is rescued by the king’s steward, who thinks it’s a great pity to see a young woman so sore beset. He takes her back to the castle, gives her food and drink, and when she’s recovered finds her gainful employment as a seamstress. Eventually she marries the king of that country, and after a time is reunited with her father, who regrets his actions and so is rewarded by having his daughter – and by this time, grandson – restored to him. Emare apparently greets her father joyfully. Perhaps she had internalised the medieval cultural norm that – while decrying incest as a grave sin – blamed beautiful girls and women for the violence that happened to them:
Heo is bitacned bi theo thet unwrith the put – the put is hire feire neb, hire hwite swire… Best is the beastlich mon thet ne thenchet naut on God, ne ne noteth naut his wit as mon ach to donne, ach secheth for to fallen in this put thet ich spec of, yef he hit open fint… [H]a is witi of his death biforen ure Laverd ant schal for his saule ondsweren an Domes-dei…
Robert Hasenfratz, ed., Ancrene Wisse (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), Part 2, ll. 101-12.
(She is symbolised by the one who uncovers the pit – the pit is her fair face, her white neck… The beast is the beastly man that does not think of God, nor uses his wits as man ought to do, but falls into this pit that I spoke of, if he finds it open… [S]he is guilty of his death before our Lord and shall answer for his soul on Doomsday)
Before we get complacent about our own modern reactions to abuse of girls and women by their fathers, we should remember that this ‘hapless collusiveness’, as it might be called, has not disappeared with the Middle Ages; well into the twentieth century, a common view expressed by therapists was that girls have contributed to or even initiated incest:
These children undoubtedly do not deserve completely the cloak of innocence … [There was] at least some cooperation of the child in the activity, and in some cases the child assumed an active role in initiating the relationship… Finally, a most striking feature was that these children were distinguished as unusually charming and attractive …
Lauretta Bender and Abram Blau, ‘The Reaction of Children to Sexual Relations with Adults,’ American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 7 (1937).
This may seem a long way away from refugee boys coming from Calais to England, or celebrity girls getting papped while trying to go about their daily teenage girl business of having coffee with friends or going to a party. But consider this: Emare is beautiful because she was young and fair and because her father was an emperor- birth status really does make people beautiful in medieval narratives, much as any teen daughter of a celebrity is “stunning” today. She is abused and nobody protects her. She becomes a refugee, though she receives a kinder reception from the state than refugees can expect today. She is a success story because she gets a job, marries, has a baby – but of course none of those things would have been possible if she had not been given help with no questions asked beside what her name was. Even then she lies; she tells the people of Galys she is Egare, and that lie is seen only as prudent in the story, because if you’re escaping from horror, you do what you need to do to survive. I have the sad certainty that the Mail and its ilk would very happily write a sentimental story about a beautiful teenage refugee girl, celebrating her exceptional story of courage and survival, while at the same time continuing to vilify the less photo-friendly victims of war, poverty and despair who are her neighbours. Though in neither case are you really human; you’re like Emare, forced to give your own story a happy ending by letting your abuser “clypte and kyssed her sote”. Be grateful, little refugee girl; things could be so much worse.
Interesting and thought-provoking. It is always sobering to think that history has seen this all before, in one guise or another.
The media jumped all over the Olympic swimmer who helped push her boat of refugees to shore. It really does feel as as though they only want to focus on the people who have a story (or a pretty and youthful face). I wonder though if this is entirely their fault. From a data perspective, they’ve figured out the formula of what will sell. This places much of the blame on Us The Consumer Of Stories. It’s easier for The Consumer to read about the plight of a pretty young teenager girl or an empty-eyed staring dust- and blood-cover boy child rather than actually empathize with large masses of people, I think.
We haven’t changed at all since stories began to be recorded. 😦
But that being said, if ANYONE had the power to effect change in this area, it is the media. (The Consumer also has great power, but it is increasingly difficult to harness that power as it is nearly comatose.) They’ve stolen our attention, and they know how to manipulate it. If they wanted to shift the focus of The Consumer en masse, they would be the ones to do it. That they are not using their power for good shows, in my opinion, the fatal flaw of the capitalist structure: there are humans who are bad and will always be bad and will do things out of greed.
A very interesting piece, but I can’t let the final sentence go. Emma Jane Kirby’s report on PM on Radio 4 the other day gave harrowing details about treatment of young girl refugees who had travelled across the Mediterranean to Lampedusa. This tweet was the best link I could find to it, but it doesn’t give the position in the program: https://twitter.com/carolinehallhr/status/789382548107382784
With apologies for being the bearer of utterly grim news.