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Cheap Amusements Essay

Women Overcoming Tradition “Among working women, leisure came to be seen as a separate sphere of life to be consciously protected” (40). Kathy Peiss’s book, Cheap Amusements, was about women’s roles at the turn of the century in New York. Her main idea was that working women at the turn of the century were trying to create more leisure time and autonomy despite the stereotypes that came with some of this newfound independence. The “Old World” role of women was changing because of economic pressures from industrialization.

Commercialization of amusement helped create more opportunities for women’s leisure. Some of the key themes in her book are autonomy, oppression and dependence, and sexuality. Women’s individuality became to be widely expressed with dancing. Peiss states, “From an anthropological perspective, dance is a form of structured, expressive movement that articulates and conveys cultural information to its participants, helping them to make sense of their world” (89). Peiss is showing that women could express their feelings, sexuality, and individuality with their dance moves.

Peiss said, “More than other dances, the tough dance allowed young women to use their bodies to express sexual desire and individual pleasure in movement that would have been unacceptable in any other public arena” (102). Peiss talks about how these different dances, “pivoting”, “spieling”, and “tough dancing” allowed for women to express themselves in a sexual way. These dances allowed for twirling, spinning, and close body contact, which showed their sexuality. The commercialization of leisure and “cheap amusements” led to businessmen including alcohol in these activities. Quenching the thirst of dancers became a profitable business…” (95). Many dance halls were located around or over saloons. Peiss states, “With the hall owner’s profits pegged to alcohol consumption, dancing and drinking went hand in hand, as typical dance programs suggest” (95). Peiss talks about how the dance halls would take 20-minute breaks for the dancers to drink and smoke. Coney Island also found a profitable business linked to alcohol consumption. Peiss said, “… The commercial picnic grove encouraged beer drinking and dancing, two favorite working-class activities” (119).

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Peiss shows through her evidence that consumption of alcohol was a big part of leisure activities. As women began their increase in leisure activities, courtship practices began to change with the times. At the dance halls, “young people arrived at the halls alone or with members of their own sex, expecting to ‘couple off’ during the dance” (105). Peiss continues to talk about how the boys would separate the group of girls in order to “couple off”. The theater allowed for a more traditional courtship. “…Young women commonly ‘linger[ed] with a boy companion ‘making dates’ for a movie…’” (151).

The movies did not exactly allow for women to get “picked up” or “coupled off” by men they just met there. I agree that women’s “embrace of style, fashion, and romance” were at first sources of autonomy and pleasure, but in order to be able to wear clothes they wanted and experience romance also allowed for oppression. I say this because women got paid less then men, so they had to rely on men to “treat” them. For example, “By relying on the system of treating, women could enjoy a day at Coney’s resorts with their only expense being transportation” (126). This saved women money, while allowing them to have a social life.

Unfortunately with this treating came the man the upper hand in the relationship. Another flaw in “treating” was that you had to find a man to “treat” you. This led to women having “… the need to strive for popularity with men…” (107). Peiss shows how women sometimes had to go against their morals, such as drinking or smoking, to get a man’s attention. I think that this reading is very relevant and significant to the present time still. I know that many women are becoming a lot more independent of men, but I still feel that women occasionally do allow for a man to oppress her so that he will pay for the things she wants.

I think it is easy to fall into that pattern of letting a man always pay for things, even if the girl can pay for them herself. I do agree with the author’s main idea that women were trying to fight through the stereotypes brought on by the elder generation. Leisure played a large role in shaping gender relations and cultural change. These “cheap amusements” allowed for men and women to create more times and places to meet outside of the home. Also, the “cheap amusements” allowed for women to have a bigger role in society creating a cultural change in how women dressed and acted.

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