Grrrls and Womyn
Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture By Maria Elena Buszek Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006, 445 pp., $24.95, paperback Reviewed by Rachel Fudge
Depending on your age, the title of Maria Elena Buszek’s new book will conjure up either a fierce reclamation of a kitschy icon or a lightweight embrace of a problematic emblem of womanhood. Fortunately, Pin-Up Grrrls is neither. Sassy title aside, it is a serious work by a thoughtful, knowledgeable, and passionate scholar. Buszek, an assistant professor of art history at the Kansas City Art Institute, uses the enduring medium of the pin-up to explore in great depth the history of female sexuality and visual/popular culture in the United States. She pays particular attention to the ways in which pin-up subjects and creators have transgressed, challenged, and subverted conventional ideas about women, their bodies, their sex, and the public sphere.
While claiming a role for the pin-up in the history of art, Buszek takes pains to differentiate the pin-up from both the artistic nude and the pornographic object. She roughly defines the pin-up as “an image where explicitly contemporary femininity and implicit sexuality are both synthesized and intended for wide circulation and public display.” Although she recognizes that the pin-up is not always or inherently liberatory, she is most interested in the ways that, throughout its long history, the genre has created a medium for women to explore and express their “sexual subjectivity” and thus has acted as a feminist “expression of subversive sexual agency.” Unearthing a plethora of illustrations (the book includes scores of black-and-white photos and nine color plates), Buszek does an admirable job of conveying the diversity of the genre to readers whose knowledge of pin-ups may extend no further than campy Bettie Page postcards or Playboy centerfolds.
Although—as her grrrl-power title intimates—she is clearly informed by postmodern theory and the third-wave feminist reclamation of traditionally feminine iconography, Buszek resists the temptation to reinterpret history. Instead, she carefully contextualizes each era’s pin-ups within their cultural and social milieus, painting a vivid portrait of the evolution of women’s rights and sensibilities over the past 150 years. She begins with the female stage performers of the mid-1800s, who, in an era of strict boundaries between the public (male) realm and the private (female) sphere, “were among the first women to negotiate a rare gray area between the poles of the period’s societal binary for their sex.” According to Buszek, the growing popularity and middle-class acceptability of the theater offered female performers the chance to act out a wide variety of feminine roles that were otherwise taboo. At the same time, with the refinement of photographic technology and the rise of commercial culture, the pin-up emerged. From the very beginning, then, the pin-up functioned as both inspiration and aspiration, chronicling popular ideas about female sexuality and public roles while also acknowledging, in its very format, how those roles were artfully, deliberately constructed.
This theme is repeated throughout Buszek’s subsequent explorations of pin-ups through the turn of the century, as images of the feminist New Woman appeared in popular culture as the Gibson Girl and in theatrical performances like those of Sarah Bernhardt. The rise of the US film industry in the teens and twenties, and the exploding popularity of fan magazines like Photoplay, made the pin-up a publicity must-have, which represented a variety of female roles.
It was during World War II, however, that the va-va-voom-style pin-up that now acts as shorthand for the genre really exploded into the popular culture. Esquire magazine featured impossibly curvaceous, aggressively sexual “Varga girls,” the creations of illustrator Alberto Vargas y Chavez. The images, says Buszek, were embraced as wholesome models of modern, war-era womanpower. This view changed after the war, with a backlash against assertive female sexuality and reassertion of conventional gender roles. As magazines like Esquire and Life downplayed or eliminated their pin-ups, soft-core porn magazines like Playboy and S&M fetish publications like Bizarre stepped up to fill the gap with centerfolds that were more frankly pornographic. Ebony magazine—founded in 1945 as a sort of Life for the civil rights movement—frequently used pin-up imagery both on its covers and in its profiles of notable African American women. While Ebony’s editors and many of its readers saw subversive potential in this bold assertion of black female beauty in an often-racist culture, other readers found nothing empowering about the images. Finally, in a sophisticated, complex analysis, Buszek shows how, from the sixties through the eighties, pin-ups were deconstructed and reappropriated by pop- and other artists and even feminists.
Actually, feminists had been appropriating pin-up imagery from the very beginning. Digging deep into the archives, Buszek finds that, as early as the end of the 19th century, feminists were using popular culture to counter negative stereotypes of progressive women—in ways that would be instantly recognizable to media-savvy feminists today. Fin-de-siècle photographer Francis Benjamin Johnson, in addition to her portraits of notable women such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Alice Roosevelt, and Susan B. Anthony, created a series of carefully constructed portraits of herself as a New Woman that deliberately played up notions of gender and performance. Recognizing the power of theater and film to advance the cause, suffragists found a platform in the pages of the film fanzine Photoplay, which in its pin-up profiles of actresses and female screenwriters gave its subjects the opportunity to hold forth on women’s rights and suffrage. Some suffragists even went so far as to produce a series of melodramatic movies like Votes for Women. (Buszek’s exploration of the woman-friendly environment of early Hollywood is fascinating enough to warrant a book in its own right.)
Despite her book’s length (a dense 445 pages) and breadth (spanning 150 years), Buszek had to pick and choose which eras, artists, and pin-ups to spotlight. Not surprisingly, she focuses mainly on images that either show the genre at its most empowering or most cleverly subvert the format. Despite the chronological structure, we don’t always get a full picture of a particular time period—especially when it comes to the more problematic, less subversive imagery. For example, in her chapters covering the 1960s through the early 1980s, while Buszek points out the incongruity of the pairing of increasingly graphic and subservient photographs in Playboy and Penthouse with centerfolds who paid lip service to women’s liberation, she is more interested in exploring feminist reactions to and reappropriations of the genre than in questioning the ever-more explicit porn industry’s similar claims of female empowerment and agency. . Nor does she sufficiently address the complicated relationship between the frequently male artist and the almost always female subject. Conspicuously absent are iconic 1970s and ’80s-era calendar-girls such as Farrah Fawcett, whose classic blonde-tresses-and-red swimsuit picture sold 8 million copies, and blonde-dreadlocked perfect 10 Bo Derek—not to mention contemporary babes like Pamela Anderson.
Buszek engages in a savvy analysis of second-wave feminist explorations of femininity and sexuality, as well as the burgeoning feminist art movement and its practitioners’ take on the pin-up, citing works from Miss Chicago and the California Girls, a satirical tableau of bikini-clad beauty-pageant contestants created by Judy Chicago’s students at Fresno State’s Feminist Art Program, to Lynda Benglis’s controversial nude self-portrait with dildo, a deliberate “sexual mockery” that was created for Artforum but rejected by its editors. But I would have liked to see Buszek tackle the concurrent existence of, say, Fawcett’s hugely successful pin-up and Cindy Sherman’s deconstructed Film Stills series (which Buszek discusses in some detail). In a cultural climate that’s recently been branded raunch culture, characterized by stripper chic and the “pornification” of mass media, a renewed discussion of the ways in which agency, empowerment, objectification, and sexualization overlap and intertwine seems essential.
Discussing the uneasy feminist reception of artist Hannah Wilke’s controversial work “Marxism and Art: Beware of Fascist Feminism,” Buszek writes, “This patriarchal notion of the sexual woman as an unthinking woman [is] unwittingly reflected in much of the period’s feminist thought on sexualized imagery.” In fact, as Buszek makes clear, this belief in the incompatibility of female intellect and sexual agency is not restricted to 1970s feminists. Pin-Up Grrrls is ultimately a tale of the feminist reclamation of female sexuality as it is the story of the pin-up. With great historical consciousness and painstaking research—and without falling back on tired old stereotypes of pro- or anti-porn feminists—Buszek stakes a thoroughly convincing claim that feminism is a political movement that has always championed women’s sexual agency And that is sure to appeal to both grrrls and womyn alike.
Rachel Fudge is the senior editor of Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, as well as a freelance writer and editor.