The Dangerous Crowd

Excerpts from a paper I wrote some years ago while studying at HU Berlin

painter (featured image): Olivier Suire Verley

The Dangerous Crowd: The Female Consumer, The Shop Girl, The Modern Girl, The Passante, and the Rise of the New Woman

painter unknown, please write me if you know the painter

At the beginning of the 20th century, women started having more access to the metropolis in terms of leisure and employment. The city of modernity was the home for the new woman, the working girl, and the female shopper, all important literary figures of the modern flâneuse. These women are as well images of how women were perceived in the society of the early 20th century city,  and how they were viewed as  “dangerous crowd” (Parsons, 44).

It is important to acknowledge the perception of the female crowd as a threat, since women were centrally positioned in consumer culture and they started demanding more rights. In the late 19th century the concept of “crowd psychology” emerged which defined the crowd as a unique phenomenon (Parsons, 44). The female crowd was envisioned as a huge mass taking over the streets, and at the same time the women who were part of the crowd (consumers, workers, spinsters) were defined in “sexualized and pathologized language, dethreatened, and made objects of masculine ‘scientific’ investigation” (Parsons, 43).

Women were perceived as increasingly dangerous in the 1890’s, evident in large numbers not only in organized groups of the suffrage or strike crowds but also in generalized groups such as shoppers, working girls, and spinsters. Scientific studies of women centred on the female species as less evolved than the male, and thus less intelligent, less morally reasoning, more emotional, and prone to violence (Parsons, 45).

The image of the urban woman was seen from the perspective of the male gaze, which would objectivize and sexualize the flâneuse figure even in her most trivial activities. For example, Émile Zola’s “Au Bonheur des Dames” (The Ladies’ Paradise) is a pathological representation of the female consumer in the 19th century written from the perspective of Zola’s dominant culture. The novel is set in the rise of the consumer culture in Paris, where spaces such as “Bon Marche” and “Louvre” stores were made accessible and permissible to women. The female consumer is given the sense of an illusory authority, while on the other side enhancing her feeling of consumer desire (Parsons, 46).

Moreover, the environment of the store, its design and facilities, are “all structured to entice and guide the female gaze” (Parsons, 47). The debate of the positive and negative effects of the department store for female emancipation was the focus of various critics. For example, Rachel Bowlby and Anne Friedberg highlight the new access that women gained to public spaces through the emergence of the stores, while also making a direct connection between consumerism and the flâneuse: “the mobilized gaze entered the service of consumption, and space opened for a female flâneuer – a flâneuse – whose gendered gaze became a key element of the consumer” (Friedberg, 420).

However, even though the rise of the consumer culture and the department stores gave access to the modern women in the metropolis, the woman of the public was still sexualized by the male gaze. The crowd of female shoppers was popularized by Zola as a mass of “erotomaniacs” (Parsons, 48), where the act of shopping and consuming was equated with sexual activities in the “sensual atmosphere of the stores” (Parsons, 48).

The shop girl is another representation of the flâneuse as part of an undefinable class in the city. Rachel Bowlby rejects the shop girl as a truthful representation of the female flâneur, while Deborah Parsons disagrees because of her “mobile figure, capably traversing the city” (Parsons, 50). The shop girl belongs also to the category of the working woman that brought women emancipation and gave them access to a bigger variety of public spaces within the modern metropolis. 

Another representation of the modern flâneuse is Henry James’s modern girl. Parsons sees the modern girl as a new female presence, “a modern girl with a modern consciousness” (Parsons, 56). Henry James is also known for placing female characters as viewers and observers in the urban environment. The act of flânerie is important in the construction of the literary characters as the female perspective can be more visible when walking and observing the cities in James’s fiction. An example of the female perspective in James’s work is preface of the novel  “What Maisie knew” (1897) where James claims that the female consciousness is “more suitable” as the “fulcrum of the text” (Parsons, 56): “the sensibility of the female young is indubitably, for early youth, the greater.”

The passante is the metaphor of the woman as an artist and as an active observer of the modern city. Her uniqueness lies in her enigmatic character that, according to Parsons, cannot be denigrated through the objectification of the male gaze. Charles Baudelaire portrays the passante in the poem “A une passante” as a living enigma of the city. The narrator meets the passante in the street and even though she is still objectified by his gaze (“her leg with statues matching”), the sudden meeting in the street is described as a shocking collision with the unknown since the woman returns back his gaze. The experience of mutual communication suddenly returns into anonymity as the passante continues her night stroll:

The deafening street roared on. Full, slim, and grand
In mourning and majestic grief, passed down
A woman, lifting with a stately hand
And swaying the black borders of her gown;

Noble and swift, her leg with statues matching;
I drank, convulsed, out of her pensive eye,
A livid sky where hurricanes were hatching, 

Sweetness that charms, and joy that makes one die.

A lighting-flash — then darkness! Fleeting chance
Whose look was my rebirth — a single glance!
Through endless time shall I not meet with you?

Far off! too late! or never! — I not knowing
Who you may be, nor you where I am going —
You, whom I might have loved, who know it too!

Janet Wolff reads the passante as the figure of a prostitute, because of the time of the encounter, while also arguing that a respectable woman of those times would have not returned the gaze. However, Parsons disagrees with Wolff’s interpretation arguing that “Baudelaire rarely misses the opportunity to damn the prostitute or lesbian (even when also admiring them) and the extreme shock the narrator experiences seems at odds with the common sight of the prostitute” (Parsons, 72). The passante cannot fall into a type such as the female consumer or the shop-girl, as she is an enigmatic urban narrator and urban observer of the modern city. 

For these reasons, the passante is the female parallel to the flâneur, as an observer and observed figure, strolling in the modern city. Her urban figure claims a position of authority that at the same time disturbs and inspires the male gaze. 

The rise of the new woman in the late 19th century and early 20th-century America and Europe is important in the development of the modern and as well as for the postmodern flâneuse. The new woman is a social phenomenon and literary type that shaped public views and understandings of women’s role in society. It represents a generation of women who came of age between 1890 and 1920, who challenged gendered norms, education, and politics through their lifestyle, work, and beliefs. The new woman promoted a new lifestyle, one that would give way for the flâneuse to emerge and have access to public places that were restricted before. In order for a flâneuse to be also a new woman, class played a crucial role. As Parsons writes in  “Streetwalking the Metropolis”, the new woman was the educated working woman, that most of the time was defined also as an oddity since her independence was not a norm in society. As for the new woman in literature, Parsons remarks that “marriage remained the ideal occupation for a woman” (Parsons, 84), and, if rejected, the woman was faced with two options. One of this option would include placing her into the category of “morally fallen women”, and the other option meant to belong to “a crowd of odd women”. Either way, in literature, the new woman had to suffer and to be somehow punished for being different. This negative portrayal of women in literature at the end of 19th century and early 20th century was based on conventional values, which discriminated against independent women. The only positive aspect of this negative portrayal, Parsons writes, is that, at least, women started to be more visible.

In my first analysis of a modern-type flâneuse from Wharton’s novel “The House of Mirth” (1905), Lily Barth is the embodiment of the new woman as a literary type. She is an accurate and faithful representation of New York’s High Society, with access to the social classes and entourage that the author, Edith Wharton, was as well a part of. “The House of Myrth” portrays the wealthy class of New Work and the women that were part of this world. Before writing about Lily Bart’s experience as a flâneuse in the upper class society, I will dedicate the following pages to a small chapter that analyses the different experiences of upper and working class American flâneuses. 

Friedberg, Anne. Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1994. Print. 

Parsons, Deborah. Streetwalking the Metropolis: Women, the City, and Modernity. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print. 

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