Monday, November 22, 2010

Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 6)

We've covered the birth of the pin-up and now we'll discover how the pin-up was part of the women's suffrage movement. I'm taking my facts from the in-depth examination of the pin-up by Maria Elena Buszek in Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, and Popular Culture, so all the quotes are from her book.

The New Woman and Gibson Girls

Women weren't content to stay confined by picture-perfect feminine ideal, due, in part, to the influence of the popular, and now respectable actresses who modeled a type of freedom that women from other walks of life began to dream they could also attain. In 1894, feminist British author Sarah Grand coined the phrase "New Woman" as "a catchall to describe every type of vaguely rebellious womanhood -- from suffragists to anarchists to flappers -- that emerged in industrialized nations between the [end of the 19th century] and the Great Depression." The "New Women" helped to diversify and spread the discussion of sexuality, which became increasingly acceptable for the bourgeoisie.

Illustration by Gibson via
American magazines tended to treat the New Woman more sympathetically than did the press in countries like England and France -- reflecting a belief that the American women, fostered by the atmosphere of liberty and progress in their native land were capable of doing anything. In this environment, the glamorization of the New Woman would bring the feminist pin-up into the twentieth century with Life magazine's introduction of the Gibson Girl.

Illustration by Gibson via

In 1886 the magazine began publishing Charles Dana Gibson's illustrations of fictional women based on this new type being lampooned in the popular press. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, Gibson depicted the New Woman as a romantic ideal... Gibson's character studies presented her as neither an oversexed nor an undersexed creature, but a healthy balance of "natural" passions tampered by an understanding of bourgeoisie manners.


[B]y 1900, his illustrations appeared not only in Life, but also in Scribner's, Harper's Monthly, and the Century... [T]he most popular of his published volumes were those in which his previously published magazine work was compiled and reproduced in deluxe monographs. These were collected and admired by individuals and families in precisely the same way as carte-de-visite albums had been by a previous generation -- amusing, even titillating, but ultimately "educational" compilations of imagery that attested to the modernity and sophistication of the owner. During this time, the Gibson Girl shifted from illustration to icon, in need of neither narrative nor backstory... a modern and self-aware sexualized "character," [inviting] admiration in the same manner as earlier burlesque pin-ups: as an object of desire presented for the viewers' delectation. But, also like these earlier works, the women's desirability is derived in no small part from the unconventional yet composed manner with which they conduct themselves. The Gibson Girl's contribution to the continuum of the feminist pin-up is the fact that her subversive behavior is made appealing by its appearance in the figure of an otherwise ordinary bourgeois young woman...

Illustration by Gibson via Wikimedia Commons

[A]t a moment when real women's struggles for independence were met with outrage and thwarted at every turn, in magazines, the Gibson Girl was bold, confident, and free to do as she pleased. Although it is a mark of the period's fear of precisely such women that this was true, it makes Gibsons imagery and popularity no less remarkable... [A]ccording to the biographer (and great-great-granddaughter) of Madam C.J. Walker, the first hair-straightening products marketing in the early 1990s by the African American entrepreneur were developed precisely so that black women could look like Gibson Girls... The Gibson Girl's beauty and inoffensive exploits ensured that her image as an icon of New Womanhood could be circulated among wide audiences without fear of disrupting either bourgeois morals or the white supremacy that even the period's feminist culture was guilty of perpetuating.
Illustration by Gibson via
Of course, Gibson was hardly the only person exploring the New Woman's image. Many magazines and news papers published their own illustrations, and "many [artists] associated with the women's movement created appealing sympathetic New Woman characters." Frances Benjamin Johnson was one such artist who created a series of self-portraits, in which the New Woman was one of the many characters she theatrically created. She also cross-dressed for some, such as the one below, in which she poses with the bicycle - an invention that helped promote independent, physically-active women.

Francis Benjamin Johnson via

Sarah Bernhardt was a popular, daring stage & early film actress. Her career lasted for decades as she "infused historical and modern characters alike with not only the sex appeal inherent in her famous, uniquely physical style of acting, but also the blatantly contemporary and personal sex appeal heretofore associated with the burlesque." Bernhardt also enjoyed drag performances, including one in which she played Hamlet!

Sarah Bernhardt via WikiMedia Commons
Bernhardt understood the potential of exploiting her eccentricities both on- and offstage through shrewd self-promotion that, naturally, included pin-up imagery... Because of Bernhardt's broad appeal, she would share her photographs with outlets from progressive papers like La Fronde to illustrated "pulp" tabloids like the National Police Gazette... Also, like her burlesque predecessors, Bernhardt constructed pin-ups that invited viewers into her intimate personal life as another staged spectacle.

Sarah Bernhardt via
Like Bernhardt, other women of the burgeoning film industry, who posed for many pin-ups, would also do their part in advancing sexual permissiveness and the suffrage movement. But we'll get to that Wednesday! So be sure and come back :)

Related posts:
Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
Retro Sexuality (NSFW)
Jackie Ormes: First African-American Woman Cartoonist

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