Friday, November 26, 2010

Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 8)

Today I'm continuing my series exploring the pin-up in American culture. I'm taking my facts from the in-depth examination of the pin-up by Maria Elena Buszek's book Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, and Popular Culture, so all the quotes are from her book.

The Pin-Up and Sexual Exploration during WW2

Pin-up by Petty via Nueva Direccion

In the late 30s, Esquire magazine hired George Petty to draw "girlie cartoons" which later moved from a comic format to the format we currently know as the centerfold. By 1940,
Peruvian-born Alberto Vargas y Chavez, known as "Vargas" to his many fans, was hired to replace Petty. "Vargas embellished freely upon his renderings of the female body in order to exaggerate their sensuality."
This juxtaposition of fantasy and reality in Vargas's work reflected American propaganda campaigns that encouraged women to emulate and men to idolize female types normally vilified during peacetime and actively discouraged during the depression -- powerful, productive women in professions and the military, whose beauty and bravery resulted in large part from their very entrance into these spheres.

However, the home front woman's sudden comfort with playing the sex symbol wasn't the result of her patriotism alone. With women's entry en masse to the workforce came firsthand experience with collective, productive, and economic power that generations of men had taken for granted. Perhaps more important, it meant for more women than ever meeting and dealing with men in a role that was neither domestic nor submissive.

Vargas with a model and several drawings via Kitten Feathers

Vargas' drawings represented women with sexual awareness and sexual power, making "explicit the fact that these home-front women's desirability was due to the capacity for sexual agency that developed with their explosive and socially sanctioned entry to the American workforce." Vargas and the women he idealized in his drawings were inheritors of the "professional, sexually self-expressive woman that Hollywood had been glamorizing since the First World War."

Vargas pin-up for Esquire via Fiendish Delights

The military demand for Vargas' pin-ups was so strong that from 1942 to 1946 Esquire printed 9 million copies for American troops - completely free and without ads! "Swept up in the context of the 'good fight,' the Vargas Girls were no longer the monthly centerfold that spiced up reading at the prewar study or breakfast table, but a liaison to the home front and a metaphor for the American girl."
[W]artime Vargas Girls were painted on Army bombers named in honor of the ladies represented... As historians Elaine Tyler May and Despina Kakoudaki have noted, to parallel the pin-up's overt sexuality with the generally male-identified implements of destruction (and liberation), female sexuality represented in such a manner would have to be associated with danger and strength. As such, bomber art pin-ups further underscore the power which modern women so represented became invested during World War II.
Image via Bomber Girls

Of course, Vargas Girls weren't the only pin-ups making a splash. Images such as Rosie the Riveter were part of a War Manpower Commission and Office of War Information "womanpower" campaign to glamorize the government jobs that the war had made available to women for the first time. However glamorous they appeared, these jobs came with real problems of sexual harassment and double standards which forced many women to confront their own sexuality in ways that had never happened before.

Poster via War Stories
Wit a professional reason to escape the confines of the home, as well as to move from rural to urban areas, young women had space to reinvent themselves and explore their sexuality outside of marriage and without parental supervision. Their generation had unprecedented personal and economic freedoms, and opportunities to meet single men on a relatively level professional field. Moreover, these women witnessed birth control's first steps into the mainstream with the formation of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942.


Unmediated by many of the traditional influences that kept women's sexuality tied exclusively to their roles as wives or mothers, women were able to relate their sexuality to their own desires and pleasure in much the same way they might relate their jobs to the same. Ultimately, the necessary sexual awareness taught or developed in the public sphere not only served to make women more protective and controlling of their sexuality, it also encouraged them to construct a feminine ideal that reconciled traditional elements of beauty and glamor with new attributes of strength, independence, and bravery.
Women aircraft workers via American Memory Digital Collection

Many women identified with Vargas Girls, viewing them as "active subjects luring men, not as victims of the male gaze." In the first issue featuring a Vargas Girl, Esquire published a poll that revealed that 75% of the magazines subscriptions were read by women, and "reportedly one-fourth of Vargas's fan male was from women - who wrote not just in support of his work, or for advice on how they could emulate the Varga Girls' style, but also asking how they could get into a career as pin-up illustrators."
Through calendars, magazines, and films, the Varga Girl contributed to the growing visibility of the pin-up genre beyond the realm of privilege male viewing, and where it was embraced as part of the consciousness and culture of American women... As the proliferation of of popular publications circulated between the battleground and the home front, the pin-up in its new contexts contributed to American women's sense of its possibilities as an icon of their sexual selves... In all these World War II constructions of the pin-up ideal, women so represented were almost invariably depicted as sexually aggressive and self-aware.
Many women photographed themselves in the pin-up style and sent images to their far-away boyfriends. Still others made pin-ups just to show their female friends and colleagues. Pin-ups provided both a model and a vehicle through which female sexuality could be explored and expressed both politically and personally, and as an "outlet through which women night assert that their unconventional sexuality could coexist with conventional ideals of professionalism, patriotism, decency, and desirability -- in other words, suggesting that a woman's sexuality could be expressed as part of her whole being."

Next Monday, we'll continue our exploration of the pin-up in the post-war era and find out about the influence Hugh Hefner had on the pin-up. Don't miss it!

Related posts:
Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 1)
Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 2)
Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 3)
Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 4)
Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 5)
Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 6)
Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 7)

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KarenG said...

May, this was an indepth analysis and report on the pin up phenomenon. Very interesting! I really enjoyed it. And yours is the first blog I'm following in my quest to follow 50 blogs by Christmas! Woo hoo!


Francine said...


Great post on pin-ups! A lot of the pics out there are really quite erotic, some even with air of romance about them, and you've done a fantastic job of highlighting the quality of this style of artwork.


May said...

Karen - Thanks for following me :) I've followed your blog as well!

Francine - Thanks so much :)