So what exactly is ‘femoribilia’, and what sparked your interest in collecting it?
I like to think of ‘femoribilia’ as the material culture of womanhood. What I’m fascinated by is prescriptive literature – the type of books and magazines and manuscripts that enforce the idea that there’s only one way of being a woman, and that any other way of being is incorrect and wrong. I call this the ‘pink think’ mentality. There’s a whole marketing strategy folded into that, because there’s usually a product that’s being plugged alongside the literature that you can buy to ‘fix’ whatever it is that’s wrong with you.
How do personality quizzes enforce the ‘pink think’ mentality?
Personality quizzes deliberately play on our insecurities. They feed off the inner fears that we all have: ‘Do people like me?’ ‘Am I attractive?’ ‘Am I going to grow up and get married?’ ‘Am I girly enough?’ As women, we seem to have endlessly low self-esteem; perhaps it’s part and parcel of misogyny, and the result of being told by men that we’re not good enough for so long that we’ve internalised it. We turn to these quizzes almost to self-improve. There’s a quiz from a book called Can I Hold My Beauty? (1946) by Veronica Dengel that starts off with a really detailed interrogation of your looks. You’re meant to follow the quiz through for several months in order to progress. It directs you to watch yourself “as though you are observing a stranger” as you get dressed, asking questions like: “Are your hips firm, slim and controlled? Are you amusing as you pull on your girdle? Are you engaging as you put on your bra? Are you wholly delightful as you emerge from the neckline of your dress?” It essentially encourages girls to see themselves from a male perspective. So much of this is clearly about being right for men.
So why are these quizzes so deeply enjoyable?
We turn to them to reassure ourselves in the face of all our internalised fear– the quizzes tell us that we can change, or that we fit into a category. They tell us that we’re OK. There’s also that sense of satisfaction if you do the quiz and you end up in the ‘winning’ category. Human beings love to be judgemental, so we crave the confirmation that we are better than somebody else. I think that’s why we are so drawn to them.
Do you think doing these kinds of quizzes has a big impact on the development of our sense of self?
I think for a certain generation, reading a Cosmo quiz at a slumber party was like a right of passage. Seventeen was a magazine that was born in 1944 specifically because it had identified a new consumer: the teenage girl. It had some serious articles but mainly it was about selling you silverware long before you were thinking about getting married. For me, a lot of this stuff didn’t register because it wasn’t who I was. I grew up with a working mum, and my dad was a Second World War veteran with PTSD. He was very difficult to live with and these quizzes reflected an idealised life that had no relation to mine. Quizzes feed into our deep need to learn who we are, but for me, they were also a great way of learning what I was not. I’m going to guess that for the majority of people they probably work in ways they are not intended to. I’m sure there have been girls flicking through Cosmo reading all about heterosexual sex who have realised that they’re not straight. The unanswerable question about prescriptive literature is that we aren’t able to know whether it has any effect on the people who read it.
Interview by Sarah Roberts