Tuesday, June 03, 2008

I wear my reviewer's cap for books, too: Pin-Up Grrrls AKA awesome book I wish I'd written

So, after watching the fantastic The Notorious Bettie Page with Ka$h (a rare movie we could agree on, though our local independent video store has tragically CLOSED and I don't know what we'll argue over now), I remembered I'd processed a book about pin-ups and feminism back when I worked in the library.* So I went and checked out Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture by Maria Elena Buszek and added it to my seemingly never-shrinking pile of books to be read, and eventually got to it. Can I just say that it was awesome? Because I am saying it. It was awesome. This is exactly the kind of interdisciplinary analysis of pop culture that I'm totally hoping to pursue in my academic career.** I have to say my main complaint was that there weren't enough illustrations. Sometimes she'd be talking about a particular image, but we'd just have to imagine it as she described it. Stupid lame academic presses that won't shell out for more pictures!

But so content: Buszek gives a fascinating and thorough outline of the history of what came to be known as the "pin-up." The coolest part is that she explicitly fleshes out the connections between sexualized imagery of women in pop culture and Western feminist movement in general. Just as fascinating as Pin-Up Grrrls is as an art history or cultural studies text, is Buszek's ability to retell the story of modern feminism in a really accessible way. She successfully uses material culture (pin-up images) to help illustrate how women were publicly perceived at various times. And so while we get to see the evolution of the portrayal of sexuality in popular culture, Buszek makes clear that this is part of the continuous historical narrative of feminism. Even during its "lulls," the women's movement was contributing to and reappropriating pieces of culture that were subversive, empowering, and celebratory of women's sexuality.

Buszek starts out discussing how the advent of easily-reproducible photographs in the mid-1800s led to the earliest identifiable pin-up-type images being disseminated to promote certain actresses. They quickly gained popularity, and became standard for any woman of the theater to have done. Some of the imagery was pretty risque for the time: scandalously small costumes, dressing in drag, etc. And though the styles are obviously dated, you get the sense that the women being photographed retain their subjectivity in a frank and anachronistic way. They appear to be in control of the messages they're trying to send, and seem to really relish their ability to buck contemporary mores restricting women in the public sphere. Buszek calls this an "awarishness," that marks early theatrical pin-ups as feminist in nature. And one of the most interesting and important points she makes is that though they are often created to titillate male viewers, women have always made up a large part of the pin-up's audience. These photographed women are allowed to transgress cultural boundaries that ordinary women cannot, and are rewarded with popular stardom instead of ostracization. The appeal is obvious.

In subsequent chapters, Buszek goes on to discuss the ebb and flow of support for feminist causes through the early twentieth century, using illustrations like the Gibson Girl to trace the development of a new, more modern and independent ideal of femininity. The suffrage movement was the main focus of much of the first wave of feminism, and some of its proponents didn't shy away from using the theatricality of pin-up imagery to promote their cause. During a quieter period of feminism in the post-20th Amendment, interwar years, the emerging motion picture industry brought with it a whole new set of pin-up subjects. Movie star fanzines have been around since the early days of silent films, and young women have long been their biggest consumers. The progressive view of women (and the special social allowances given to actresses) presented in these magazines and represented by their idols helped feed the incipient feminist resurgence that would come with the homefront demands of WWII.

The huge blow-up of what we now see as the "classic" pin-up image popularized by the Varga girl occurred leading up to and during the war, and captured an acceptance of a more overt feminine sexuality.*** Unfortunately, as we all know, the immediate post-war period was all about "get back to the kitchen" and judgey-judgey sexual double standards. And then came Playboy. The pin-up had definitely shifted from more subjective to objectifying. But rebellious imagery was still being created, with the mainstreaming of bondage-inspired photo shoots and such (Bettie Page!), even during the buttoned-up 1950s. As time past, the classic Varga-type pin-up came to be seen as, well, cheesy.

When the '60s rolled around and the second wave of feminism started heating up, artists and activists started drawing on these cheesecake images to express subversive messages. Conflict within the movement over whether sexualized imagery of women could really be considered "feminist" continued through the nasty sex/pornography wars of the late second wave and into the emergence of women of color and third-wave feminisms in the '80s and '90s. More recent feminist artists have again reclaimed the pin-up as a mode of expression, both drawing from and undermining the layered cultural messages (re)presented**** therein. This tendency to accept the artifacts of popular culture as important influences on our lives is part and parcel of the third wave. The difference between just kowtowing to any sort of exploitative depictions of women and realizing the power of such imagery and media and using it OURSELVES to reshape the message is the type of action Buszek is trying to celebrate with the writing of Pin-Up Grrrls. She has definitely bought into post-modern ideas of reappropriation as useful tools in feminist expression. The best part is that she links the attitude of reclaimed sexy modern pin-ups with its predecessors, the subversive and just-as-popular theatrical pin-ups of the nineteenth century and all that came between.

So: read it! It will give you great fodder for nerdy academic conversations about sexualized imagery of women, as well as a good grounding in basic modern feminist history.

Also recommended for awesome pop cultural feminist history magic: College Girls and Pink Think by Lynn Peril (especially College Girls). It's a good thing they always put pink on the covers, or else I wouldn't know it was for girls! (This is sarcasm. See: Pink Think and my recent HuffPo rant.)

*I used to work in the library. On campus. It was sweet.

**Though I have recently decided that when I get to grad school I should try and form a band because music is fun, and being in a band is a surefire way to pick up chicks hot hot boyfriends (the desired result, in my case). The MA/PhD/professor track is still the back-up plan, however.

***In a drunken discussion with Ka$h post-Bettie Page movie, I decided a classic pin-up girl would be what I would get if I were to get tattooed. Still thinking about it, actually.

****My crazy first-year course professor would be so proud of me for using this term this way. (Notice the single dangly earring. OMG.) If she remembered who I was.

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