Recently, I was talking about my interactive documentary project with some colleagues at the university where I teach. One of the women (a second-wave feminist generation) said something along the lines of,
Well, you know that many of these images would be considered problematic for women.
Why????, my brain screamed, as I politely attempted to talk with her about individual agency and the need to respect how a woman chooses to represent her body (the colleague is, after all, more senior than me).
Of course, I knew the answer. The women were posing in a sexual manner. They’re provocative and often wearing few – or sometimes no – clothes. The retro poses draw their inspiration an era when women were presumed to be repressed by the patriarchy, being gazed upon by men and taken (or drawn) by men. The kitschy, throwback pin up is clearly a woman repressed.
Oh. My. God.
The problem with this narrative is that it ignores not only the individual wants, motivations and desires of contemporary pin ups (and their often-female artistic collaborators), but it also ignores the feminist history of the pin up herself.
In part, I’m drawing from the research done by art historian Maria Elena Buszek, whose wonderful book Pin Up Grrrls traces the feminist and artistic evolution of the genre. According to Buszek, the pin up evolved in the mid-1800s as a type of calling card for burlesque performers, who were using the photographic based carte de visite to not only promote their acts but also to challenge the idea that a woman could only be either the Madonna or the whore. The burlesque artist hovered somewhere in between the two in a state that Buszek calls “awarishness”: consciously inserting their “improper” burlesque identities into the non-theatrical world.
Buszek argues that subsequent iterations of the pin up would similarly challenge boundaries in a very feminist way. Gibson Girls of the turn of the 20th century? Advocates of the right to vote, whose images were used on both sides of the debate as either an argument for female liberation or an illustration of what would happen when girls go wild. Flappers of the 1920s? Ditto.
It’s when the 1940s roll around that the pin up begins to make her way into the hands of the average woman. During World War II she is increasingly making her way into the workforce in non-traditional female work, such as in the military or in factories.
Buszek found that these women began experimenting with do-it-yourself pin ups, not to share with boyfriends and husbands but to share with their friends.
They are doing it to capture their own audacity. There was something inherently dangerous and transgressive about what those images must have represented to young women.
Maria Elena Buszek
By the 1950s, pin up icons like Bettie Page and Marilyn Monroe were using their sexuality as a way to promote their images within popular culture. Yes, Page and Monroe, not necessarily the photographers behind the images. Scholar Kathryn N. Benzel traced how Monroe constructed poses, accessories, costumes and expressions within her images, forcing viewers “to contemplate an aesthetic form rather than a glamourized nude.” Page’s carefully cultivated persona, meanwhile, poked fun at the very genre itself. Buszek sees her as a counterpoint to the Playboy Playmate (who would also emerge during this era), a feminist alternative to the nonthreatening Bunny.
During the latter third of the 20th century it would be artists who would reclaim the pin up, often for very pointed commentary on the roles of women in society. But the look was also beginning to percolate in the rockabilly, new wave, and punk rock subcultures, where vintage style was often as much an economic choice as an aesthetic one. Debbie Harry of Blondie, Madonna, and Gwen Stefani of No Doubt (who’s been called “the ultimate 21st-century pin up” by Sefan Lindemann of Grazia magazine, largely due to her individual fashion-forward stylings) all adopted pin up stylings.
So what about those modern women I’ve been talking to in connection with my project? Well, here’s the interesting rub: the vast majority of them self-identify as feminists. This is fascinating to me because feminism in the mid-2010s often is fraught with a ton of negative baggage (evidence: any internet comment section about any feminist news item ever). And, the women are actively aping the aesthetic aspects of an era when female empowerment wasn’t exactly a buzzphrase. They adopt monikers that promise sexuality and submissiveness, like Delicious Ruckus or Ginger Rose.
But these same women tell fans on their social media accounts to unfollow them if they don’t support feminist issues. They post on issues ranging from pay equality to sexual reproductive freedoms. They bemoan injustices such as sexual bigotry or racism.
Evalette Bizou and Coco Soleil are examples of this modern feminist pin up. The two also share a burlesque act, and were photographed together in the image (above) taken by Nightlight Digital.
“We both strongly identify ourselves as feminist,” said Coco.
“Exactly,” Evalette said. “I strongly believe in equality, and have never been anything but a feminist.”
“All my friends, both male or female, are feminists,” Coco added.
Their feminist impulses come out in various ways. Model Delicious Ruckus and photographer Mitzi Valenzuela both consider the pin up community a type of sisterhood, where women support each other regardless of race, ethnicity, body size, sexual orientation or economic background. Both are involved with charity causes (Pinups for Charity for D-Ruck; Bombshells Against Bullying for Valenzuela). And both, like Page and Monroe, tightly controls their shoots, from the posing to the costuming.
And from this control comes something. The modern pin up looks back. Even in a highly sexualized pose, such as Valenzuela’s image of Miss Rockwell De Vil in a clawfoot tub (which is one of the promotional posters for the film), the model is catching the eye of the camera through almost-closed eyes. She’s aware – and in control – of how she is looked at.
Rockwell is like those burlesque performers from the 1800s. There’s a tension in her control of the image: and it’s empowering.