Rosie in the Empire: Gender in British and Australian Film Propaganda during the Second World War

British National Identity: The Victorian Gentleman

“Keep Calm and Carry On” is the most famous British slogan from the Second World War (though was not actually used during the war). The slogan calls for stoicism and discipline—traits that have a much longer history in Britain. The “Keep Calm and Carry On” mentality comes from nineteenth-century ideals of masculinity and are best exhibited by the figure of the Victorian gentleman. This figure is immaculately dressed in a pinstripe suit and top hat, holding a cane in one hand and a pipe in the other. He is disciplined, emotionally reserved, and stoic. His famous “stiff upper lip” and unflappability have become national stereotypes of Britons.  

We’ve already seen how these Victorian ideals of masculinity were applied to women in propaganda films, like to the telephone operators in “Fires Were Started.” Celia, the main character in Millions Like Us, provides another example, when she learns that her husband, a pilot in the RAF, has been killed. She holds back her tears, not wanting to cry. The film’s final scene takes place during a lunchtime concert at the factory where Celia works—a concert that includes a song that was played during Celia’s wedding reception. Though still mourning her husband, Celia joins in and sings along with the other workers, determined to be cheerful. Celia, as well as the telephone operators in "Fires Were Started" are as utterly unflappable as any Victorian gentleman. But, of course, none of these stoic British heroes were gentlemen at all. They were women.

Why did women in British propaganda films start to embody the same ideals that—in the Victorian period—had applied to men?

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