Monday, November 29, 2010

Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 9) [NSFW]



Today I'm finishing 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 Post-War Pin-Up: Playboy vs. Bettie Page

Doris Day via SMH.com

When WW2 was over and the men came back home to resume their lives, working women were quickly shunted out of their industries to make way for them. Suddenly, a strong, aggressive woman was no longer the ideal. In fact, the backlash against this ideal "began the 1950s era of the 'eternal virgin' and 'dizzy blonde bombshell,' in which popular culture reinscribed the ideal female according to nothing sort of a Victorian duality: desirable either for her asexuality and domestic potential or for her naive, yet overt, sexuality." Complicated, confident women were no longer wanted.

Marilyn Monroe via Starpulse.com
Whether reflected in the Doris Day/Marilyn Monroe binary that dominated Hollywood pin-ups during these years, or the illustrated pin-ups of postwar artists like Art Frahm...women's sexual simplicity, and even humiliation was suddenly sexy... As journalist Susan Faludi would later write of this "undeclared war against American women," in the postwar era the independent woman of World War II, who had flaunted her political, social, and sexual agency, was viewed as an outdated construction that "provoked and sustained the antifeminist furor [of the 1950s, and] heightened cultural fantasies of the compliant homebody and playmate."
Art Frahm Pin-Up via LILEKS

Suddenly, many "ladies clubs" were concerned about the morality of the pin-ups shown in Esquire and Life that could be viewed by children and ladies. Due to the change in public opinion, pin-ups started disappearing from popular culture, but Hugh Hefner, former Esquire employee, was there to fill in the void with his new magazine, Playboy. He stressed that his magazine was FOR MEN ONLY, saying in his publisher's statement: "If you're somebody's sister, wife or mother-in-law and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to the Ladies' Home Companion."
Instead of idealizing contemporary womanhood as complex and independent, Hefner believed that the Playmate should rather reflect the compliant and accessible girl next door with a 'seduction-is-immanent' look that addressed not the subject's but the male viewer's sexual desire... the attraction of the Playmate was the absence of threat... there was nothing to be feared from seducing them.
Vargas Pin-Up for Playboy via Pin-UpGallery.com

Hefner hired Vargas to draw illustrations, which were nudes, unlike his earlier work. Hollywood pin-ups changed too, featuring their actresses "home lives" including domestic chores rather than grand adventures. All of these images focused on the simple, serving, compliant ideal of womanhood that was popular, but it wasn't what everyone wanted. Specialty pin-up publications like Fantastique, High Heels and Bizarre, instead showed sexually dominant women, featuring work from freelance photographers, like the brother-sister team Irving and Paula Klaw, who offered photographic alternatives to the docile pin-up.

Klaw photo of Bettie Page via AngelFire
While the Klaws deserve credit for generally promoting the sexually aggressive pin-up in the postwar era, they are today far more famous for launching the career of pin-up model Bettie Page, among the first women to gain national renown for her wok in the genre alone... Page's unique style gained such crossover popularity among pin-up aficionados in the 1950s that by 1955, Page was hailed on national television as "Miss Pin-Up Girl of the World," had magazines dedicated solely to her pin-ups, and, with a now-legendary photograph taken by female pin-up photographer Bunny Yeager, landed the year's Christmas centerfold in Playboy. (Hugh Hefner apparently found the model's unique style powerful enough to not only waive the all-unknowns policy he initiated after the magazine's first centerfold... but he also stated his distaste for the "difficult" woman.)...

Bettie Page for Playboy via Thought Experiment

Page's most relevant contribution to the pin-up genre was not her successful crossover appeal as a dominating woman in the era of the demure playmate. Her brazen over-the-top poses and pointedly lighthearted approach to performing as a pin-up served to expose the very construction of the genre, revealing both its artificiality and performative nature, as well as its potential as an expressive medium for the woman so represented....

At once a celebration and parody of the genre itself, Page's destabilization of the pin-up throughout her brief but unbelievably prolific career would later provide one of the most imitated models for feminist appropriations of the genre.
Klaw photo of Bettie Page via AngelFire

I know for me personally, Bettie was the woman who first let me feel connected to the pin-up as a source of power for the woman in it, not the person viewing it. After meeting Matt (who I quickly learned was into handcuffs & Bettie Page the first time I went to his house), she was my only mental image for a while of BDSM culture, which those of you who've been reading for a while know is a fairly significant part of my life at this point. (As an interesting aside: it turns out the bondage proclivity is one that runs in my family, on both sides, as an informal survey of my extended family has revealed.)

Anyway, this is where I will end my story of the pin-up. There is LOADS more information and examples in Pin-Up Grrrls if you're interested in learning more.

What would you say are the continuing effects of Playboy and Bettie Page in our culture's view of sexuality? What about on your views? What kind of woman would you say is the current feminine ideal?

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)
Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 8)

Like what you see? Subscribe here

Share/Bookmark

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)

Like what you see? Subscribe here

Share/Bookmark

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 7)

Today we'll be discussing the "New Women" as they were shown in the cinema and related publications. 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.

1920s fan film magazine via Gatochy

Actresses & Pin-ups During the Roaring 20's


Cinema became popular as the New Woman was rearing her head in American society, and the two new cultural influences grew to support the other. By the end of the 1920s, women made up approximately 80% of the cinema audience, and so films catered to them, creating positive images of the New Woman through many characters.

The popularity of pin-ups was something Hollywood was happy to use to their advantage, and by "1915, Paramount Studios' publicity department was boasting to exhibitors that pin-ups extended advertising dollars ordinarily spent on newspaper ads." Pin-ups of actresses could be found on everything from pillows to make-up containers and helped to create a fan culture.
Much like the carte-de-viste pin-up in the early years of burlesque, most popular imagery of these early cinema actresses drew upon the novelty and desirability of their performing nontraditional sexual roles both on- and offscreen. While these increasily diverse representations of the period's transgressive new female ideals were compiled, compared, ad contrasted side-by-side in the albums and scrapbooks of fans who collected them in the manner of theatrical photos before them, cinematic pin-ups would be additionally used and admired in -- and, for many fans, even derived from -- the new, prepackaged "albums" that would soon replace them: film fan magazines.
One of the first film fan magazines, published in 1912, was Photoplay. It included a pin-up gallery in each issue. "By the end of its first year in print, Photoplay's pin-ups began replacing stills as illustrations for feature articles," and soon the articles became far less important than the images, which were incorporated further into the content and magazine cover.

[F]anzines sold an image of womanhood that was at once subversive and status quo, constructing and glamorizing the upside-down world of both movies and the studios that made them ... Photoplay built on this message of film culture in general by constructing Hollywood in particular as a sort of transgressive alternative society to established urban centers of the eastern and central United States -- a "wild west" full of new opportunities for intelligent, enterprising women.

This sense of California's unique possibilities for women celebrated by Photoplay was surely aided by the fact that, just before the magazine's launch, the state had joined its western neighbors Wyoming and Washington in allowing women the vote -- the first three states to grant universal suffrage to its citizens... California's voting female population surely lent to the glow of a woman-friendly aura around Hollywood.
...
Alas, in the same way that the success of suffrage with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment led to the dissipation of its supporters and a subsequent decline in the momentum of feminist activism throughout the 1920s, so too would the cinema lose an important and politically charged point through which to address and flatter its female subjects in these years.
The darkest and supposedly most sexually potent of the cinema New Women came to be expressed through the "vamp" archetype, which was "symbolic of not just feminism's potential power to destroy the family and society, but also the ways in which it might positively introduce new ideas about both women's passion and men's frailty as gender roles fluctuated not independently, but in relation to one another." The vamp was also one of the only opportunities for actresses of color to be represented as desirable in film and pin-ups in this era. "Vamps...would ultimately be victims to the very sexual openness that they helped usher into cultural history, particularly as sexual expression itself came to be presented in fan culture as nothing less than the inevitable next frontier..."

Pin-up advertising for A Fool There Was

The vamp evolved into the "vampette," a type of gal we know by the term, "flapper." Contemporary journalist H. L. Mencken described the flapper this way:
This Flapper, to tell the truth, is far, far, far from a simpleton . . . The Age she lives in is one knowledge. She herself is educated. She is privy to dark secrets. The world bears to her no aspect of mystery. She has been taught how to take care of herself. . . She has read Christobel Pankhurst and Ellen Key, and is inclined to think that there must be something in this new doctrine of free motherhood. She is opposed to the double standard of morality, and even favors a law prohibiting it. . . She plans to read Havelock Ellis during this coming summer. . . She is youth, she is hope, she is romance -- she is wisdom!
Clara Bow via Sprinkled In Pink

Clara Bow was one of the most popular actress/flappers. She played characters that moved easily "through scenes, across classes, and up ladders both professional and social." Her personal life was shown as equally dynamic. The many pin-ups she posed for (some of which I posted previously in this series) were meant to show "her ability to 'have it all' but [did] so by consciously constructing ironic pin-ups [to] underscore the fact that 'having it all' means 'doing it all' -- and, whether these actions are performed for the camera or in the workaday world, that such a woman's self-awareness and strategic agency is the key to both her success and her appeal."

Clara Bow via ClaraBow.net

Photoplay
and other magazines encouraged their readers to emulate and admired Hollywood women in their boldness and healthy activity. Strong women would continue to be admired through the Great Depression and during World War II, when the term "pin-up" was coined... so for more about that, stop by on Friday!

Related posts:
Erotic Power & the Pin-Up - Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6
Retro Sexuality
Racism in the Kansas City Area: 1900s - Present

Like what you see? Subscribe here

Share/Bookmark

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 Mum.org
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 Mum.org

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 NJN.net
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 LetsGoRideABike.com

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 Yale.edu
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

Like what you see? Subscribe here

Share/Bookmark

Friday, November 19, 2010

Intermission

Sorry to disappoint you! I know I promised I'd have the next part of Erotic Power & the Pin-Up for today, but between my tutor training for Literacy KC, helping my brother with a project, and otherwise being generally distracted, I'm not going to be able to get to it until Monday.

So to tide you over, here's some pin-ups!








Related posts:
Erotic Power & the Pin-Up, Part 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5
Tattooed Ladies (Part 2)
Hit Me, Baby, One More Time

Like what you see? Subscribe here

Share/Bookmark

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 5)

Pin-up of Ada Isaacs Menken

Well, now we've heard Audre Lorde's perspective on the erotic as a social and personal power for change, it's time to talk about how pin-ups got started in the first place. I'm taking my facts from Maria Elena Buszek's Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, and Popular Culture (but also from my prior knowledge), so all the quotes will be from there. It took me something like 10 months to read this book, but you're gonna get what I consider the essentials of it here in my blog, with, of course, my snazzy commentary. Aren't you excited? Let's get started...

Just Where Did Pin-Ups Come From Anyway?
Back in the day of corsets and hidden ankles, high class and middle class ladies would go visiting, often leaving a personal card if they found their friend not at home. With the development of photography, this went from being a business card-sized card with one's name to the slightly larger carte de visite, which was a photograph.

For decades after their invention, cartes de visite of bourgeois female subjects followed the earliest precedents set by its aristocratic sitters... Empress Eugenie, [exemplified] the era's feminine ideal in photographic portraiture. A carte de visite of 1860 is highly representational of her photographic portraiture of the period (see above). The empress stands, arms crossed in a stiffly "casual" pose, against the back of a thronelike armchair. She wears a fashionably modest, full-skirted, dark satin dress with minimal and monochromatic ruffled edging and embroidery, and she gazes off-camera with a look of dreamy repose in a tilted, three-quarter profile. A model of quietly virtuous, contemporary womanhood, Eugenie's cartes de visite also reflect the extent to which middle-to-upper-class female subjects were influenced by fashion plates of the period -- popular illustrations in, among other sources, ladies' journals -- with photographic subjects imitating the sweet and courtly illustrated ideal... The passive and unengaged demeanor of the fashion plate, reflected in popular images such as Empress Eugenie's, came to be the ideal for women across Europe and United States... [C]arte-de-visite photography strove to represent women as representational subjects whose personality (like their photographed demeanor) was constant and indexical.
But there were more women in the United States and Europe than just the high class ones, and we're going to talk about some of the racier women now. Before 1860 in the US, burlesque shows were staffed by prostitutes and any woman who so much as walked across a stage "was associated with the same display and commercial 'exchange' of the prostitute, a profession in which many women in the theater dabbled, if not took on as a primary source of income."

Laura Keene, a playwright and theater manager, worked to change this impression in order to draw a broader audience, including 'proper' ladies.
On the one hand, Keene was among many of the period's theatrical managers who sought to establish a space in which live performance could be 'elevated' as a virtuous and viable entertainment for a middle-class audience... On the other hand, Keene's theater sought to cultivate a unique niche within the middle-class market in that it had no bar (a staple at even the most expensive locales) and courted the patronage of not just female audiences, but in particular the very 'true woman' of genteel society whose unwillingness to participate in such popular entertainments had been a sign of their virtue.
Keene wrote female-centered plays that showed "sympathetic (and often contemporary) female lead characters" for the ladies, but a "hundred miscellaneous legs in flesh-colored tights" for the men. Her career helped to elevate the stage and ushered in "a flood of ballet- and burlesque-basked performance." Many of the more popular shows made use of flesh-colored costumes and costume pieces to titillate the audience.
[F]or many social critics of the late nineteenth century, women's ability to provoke sexual desire was an unfortunate fact of their existence, inevitably hindering women's ability to function in the public sphere. However, for women to actually invite, control, and relish the same was another, more dangerous issue entirely. It was also an issue that many burlesque actresses sought to explore and idealize in their professional and personal lives alike. Blurring the borders between character and actress, performance and reality, the birth of burlesque had created an unusual new role for its already unusual female performers: not just a charismatic public ideal for women, but an openly sexualized idea of... modern women very much aware.
Their awareness was captured in the photographic self-promotion in the form of cartes de visite. And so the pin-up was born!

Adah Isaacs Menken, a sexually-precocious performer and poet who wore her hair short in an homage to Byron, smoked cigarettes and "sought to capitalize on these transgressive qualities by constructing herself, in carte-de-visite pin-ups, as on the stage, as a new and wildly paradoxical model of contemporary womanhood." Menken set the standard for other female performers, "blurring the line between life and performance, Menken circulated imagery of herself in both stage and street clothes, performing her "real" identities with the same dramatic flourish and plurality as her theatrical characters." She also demanded control over her own poses and costumes as well as the sales from her photographs, which were available at each of her performances.


The impact of this new style of photography can perhaps only be understood by imagining the general public's conception of it at the time. According to Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., a famous doctor, poet and essayist, "the picture tells no lie" and many of his contemporaries believed the same. "Photography was as easily manipulated as the stage performances... yet photographs were scrutinized by the public as scientific and objective proof of one's essential personality." Essentially, the public's minds made the visual performance of photography real.
When the pin-up genre was born through the residual visual imagery of...theatrical identities, a medium was found through which their unstable, yet desirable, constructions could be further controlled by their subjects and witnessed by audiences both within and outside of the theatrical world. In other words, the pin-up genre developed as part of a theatrical discourse in which the onstage identities that emerged and oscillated between the period's binary of domestic/public womanhood found a way to exist beyond the confines of the theater, assisting in a discursive expansion of the broader extratheatrical identities that these images suggested were possible.
So now you know how the pin-up was born! Were you surprised that it developed through photography and not drawing and was female-perpetuated? It seems like most people assume Vargas invented the whole pin-up thing. I know it was quite the revelation for me. This history also made me realize just how little things have changed in the way that society views "decent" v. "undecent" women. What did you think?

Next time I'll be examining more about the pin-up as it developed through time and the ways in which it shaped and responded to ideas about womanhood in the 1900s. Don't miss it!

Related posts:
Erotic Power & the Pin-Up, Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4
Retro Sexuality (NSFW)
Self-Definition

Like what you see? Subscribe here

Share/Bookmark

Monday, November 15, 2010

Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 4)

Susan Hayward pin-up

Today's post is the last of four in which I've been publishing feminist author Audre Lorde's essay "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power" as a preparation for a discussion on feminism and the pin-up. See the links at the bottom of the post if you need to catch up, but for those of you who've been following along, let's dive right in!

Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power (Part 4)
By Audre Lorde

We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings. But, once recognized, those which do not enhance our future lose their power and can be altered. The fear of our desires keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful, for to suppress any truth is to give it strength beyond endurance. The fear that we cannot grow beyond whatever distortions we may find within ourselves keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, externally defined, and leads us to accept many facets of our oppression as women.

When we live outside ourselves, and by that I mean on external directives only rather than from our internal knowledge and needs, when we live away from those erotic guides from within ourselves, then our lives are limited by external and alien forms, and we conform to the needs of a structure that is not based on human need, let alone an individual's. But when we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us,. then we begin to be responisible to our selves in the deepest sense. For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and selfnegation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.

In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.

And yes, there is a hierarchy. There is a difference between painting a back fence and writing a poem, but only one of quantity. And there is, for me, no difference-between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love.

This brings me to the last consideration of the erotic. To share the power of each other's feelings is different from using another's feelings as we would use a kleenex. When we look the other way from our experience, erotic or otherwise, we use rather than share the feelings of those others who participate in the experience with us. And use without the consent of the used is abuse.

In order to be utilized, our erotic feelings must be recognized. The need for sharing deep feeling is a human need. But within the European-American tradition, this need is satisfied by certain proscribed erotic comings-together. These occasions are almost always characterized by a simultaneous looking away, a pretense of calling them something else, whether a religion, a fit, mob violence, or even playing doctor. And this misnaming of the need and the deed give rise to that distortion which results in pornography and obscenity - the abuse of feeling.

When we look away from the importance of the erotic in the development and sustenance of our power, or when we look away from ourselves as we satisfy our erotic needs in concert with others, we use each other as objects of satisfaction rather than share our joy in the satisfying, rather than make connection with our similarities and our differences. To refuse to be conscious of what we are feeling at any time, however comfortable that might seem, is to deny a large part of the experience, and to allow ourselves to be reduced to the pornographic, the abused, and the absurd.

The erotic cannot be felt secondhand. As a Black lesbian feminist, I have a particular feeling, knowledge, and understanding for those sisters with whom I have danced hard, played, or even fought. This deep participation has often been the forerunner for joint concerted actions not possible before.

But this erotic charge is not easily shared by women who continue to operate under an exclusively European-American male tradition. I know it was not available to me when I was trying to adapt my consciousness to this mode of living and sensation.

Only now, I find more and more women brave enough to risk sharing the erotic's electrical charge without having to look away, and without distorting the enormously powerful and creative nature of that exchange. Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama.

For not only do we touch our most profoundly creative source, but we do that which is female and self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society.

*****

That's Audre's take on female sexuality in American culture, which I'll be examining further this week in my discussion of the pin-up. For now, here's some discussion questions:

  1. Did this essay affect how you view sexuality/eroticism? If so, how?
  2. Do you agree or disagree that the erotic can be a force for strength or change in non-sexual aspects of one's life?
  3. How might Lorde's thoughts on eroticism as creative source apply to the idea of the pin-up?

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

Like what you see? Subscribe here

Share/Bookmark

Friday, November 12, 2010

Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 3)

Clara Bow pin-up via ClaraBow.net

Today I'm continuing the essay from Audre Lorde to frame our upcoming discussion of feminism and the pin-up. If you missed Part 1 and 2, I suggest you go back and read them first.


Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power (Part 3)
By Audre Lorde

The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.

Another important way in which the erotic connection functions is the open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy. In the way my body stretches to music and opens into response, hearkening to its deepest rhythms, so every level upon which I sense also opens to the erotically satisfying experience, whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea.

That self-connection shared is a measure of the joy which I know myself to be capable of feeling, a reminder of my capacity for feeling. And that deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes to demand from all of my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible, and does not have to be called marriage, nor god, nor an afterlife.

This is one reason why the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom alone, when it is recognized at all. For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.

During World War II, we bought sealed plastic packets of white, uncolored margarine, with a tiny, intense pellet of yellow coloring perched like a topaz just inside the clear skin of the bag. We would leave the margarine out for a while to soften, and then we would pinch the little pellet to break it inside the bag, releasing the rich yellowness into the soft pale mass of margarine. Then taking it carefully between our fingers, we would knead it gently back and forth, over and over, until the color had spread throughout the whole pound bag of margarine, thoroughly coloring it.

I find the erotic such a kernel within myself. When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.

***

The final section of this essay is coming at you Monday! Don't miss it!

Related posts:
Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 1)
Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 2)
My Imaginary Girlfriend

Like what you see? Subscribe here

Share/Bookmark

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 2)

Clara Bow via MartinKlasch

Today I'm continuing the essay from Audre Lorde, which I started Monday, to frame our discussion of feminism and the pin-up. So without further ado, here's Audre:

Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power (Part 2)
By Audre Lorde

Of course, women so empowered are dangerous. So we are taught to separate the erotic demand from most vital areas of our lives other than sex. And the lack of concern for the erotic root and satisfactions of our work is felt in our disaffection from so much of what we do. For instance, how often do we truly love our work even at its most difficult?

The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need - the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment. Such a system reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love. But this is tantamount to blinding a painter and then telling her to improve her work, and to enjoy the act of painting. It is not only next to impossible, it is also profoundly cruel.

As women, we need to examine the ways in which our world can be truly different. I am speaking here of the necessity for reassessing the quality of all the aspects of our lives and of our work, and of how we move toward and through them.

The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspects - born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony. When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our work, our lives.

There are frequent attempts to equate pornography and eroticism, two diametrically opposed uses of the sexual. Because of these attempts, it has become fashionable to separate the spiritual (psychic and emotional) from the political, to see them as contradictory or antithetical. "What do you mean, a poetic revolutionary, a meditating gun-runner?" the same way, we have attempted to separate the spiritual and the erotic, thereby reducing the spiritual to a world of flattened affect, a world of the ascetic who aspires to feel nothing. But nothing is farther from the truth. For the ascetic position is one of the highest fear, the gravest immobility. The severe abstinence of the ascetic becomes the ruling obsession. And it is one not of self-discipline but of self-abnegation.

The dichotomy between the spiritual and the political is also false, resulting from an incomplete attention to our erotic knowledge. For the bridge which connects them is formed by the erotic - the sensual - those physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us, being shared: the passions of love, in its deepest meanings.

Beyond the superficial, the considered phrase, "It feels right to me," acknowledges the strength of the erotic into a true knowledge, for what that means is the first and most powerful guiding light toward any understanding. And understanding is a handmaiden which can only wait upon, or clarify, that knowledge, deeply born. The erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge.

***

More great thoughts from Audre comin' atcha Friday! See you then!

Related posts:
Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 1)
Self-Definition
Retro Sexuality (NSFW)

Like what you see? Subscribe here

Share/Bookmark

Monday, November 8, 2010

Erotic Power & the Pin-Up (Part 1)


Today I'm going to delve once more into a topic I've covered quite a bit here: female sexuality. I just finished reading a big thick book about feminism and its relationship to the pin-up. I knew back when I started reading it that I'd want to do a series of blogs covering some of the info in there, and I still do.

But I decided that I want to introduce it by borrowing an essay (originally a speech) written by Audre Lorde, who was a Caribbean-American writer, poet & activist. I highly respect her and I love her perspective on eroticism and the empowerment it can give women. Since it's a long essay, I'm going to break it up into 4 parts, then I will start delving into the feminism/pin-up issue. So get set! I hope you enjoy it!

Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power
By Audre Lorde

There are many kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise. The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives.

We have been taught to suspect this resource, vilified, abused, and devalued within western society. On the one hand, the superficially erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority; on the other hand, women have been made to suffer and to feel both contemptible and suspect by virtue of its existence.

It is a short step from there to the false belief that only by the suppression of the erotic within our lives and consciousness can women be truly strong. But that strength is illusory, for it is fashioned within the context of male models of power.

As women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and non-rational knowledge. We have been warned against it all our lives by the male world, which values this depth of feeling enough to keep women around in order to exercise it in the service of men, but which fears this same depth too much to examine the possibilities of it within themselves. So women are maintained at a distant/ inferior position to be psychically milked, much the same way ants maintain colonies of aphids to provide a life-giving substance for their masters.

But the erotic offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough.

The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have often turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling.

The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.

It is never easy to demand the most from ourselves, from our lives, from our work. To encourage excellence is to go beyond the encouraged mediocrity of our society. But giving in to the fear of feeling and working to capacity is a luxury only the unintentional can afford, and the unintentional are those who do not wish to guide their own destinies.

This internal requirement toward excellence which we learn from the erotic must not be misconstrued as demanding the impossible from ourselves nor from others. Such a demand incapacitates everyone in the process. For the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing. Once we know the extent to which we are capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction and completion, we can then observe which of our various life endeavors bring us closest to that fullness.

The aim of each thing which we do is to make our lives and the lives of our children richer and more possible. Within the celebration of the erotic in all our endeavors, my work becomes a conscious decision - a longed-for bed which I enter gratefully and from which I rise up empowered.

***

Tune in Wednesday for Part 2!

Related posts:
Tattooed Ladies (Part 1)
Tattooed Ladies (Part 2)
Tattooed Ladies (Part 3)

Like what you see? Subscribe here

Share/Bookmark

Friday, November 5, 2010

Family Who Rescues Animals Needs Rescuing

Today I want to talk to you about a family I'll call "the Smiths." They live in Chicago and have been going through a heck of a lot. They made it out of a fire last year, but the caregiver lost a job the next day. A year later, they lost the new job to downsizing, and unemployment red tape took away their benefits for 10 weeks. They have 5 left to go.


This family has rescued dogs and cats for 15 years. They adopted two special needs dogs, an emaciated, deaf, heartworm positive pitbull, a corgi mix who had been at the pound twice, once as a puppy and later as a stray, and one black lab so fearful he could not be pet. Their dogs are all healthy and vibrant now because they are well cared for and loved. They are very concerned about being able to care for these animals, including needing food for them and cleaning supplies like paper towels to clean their kennels -- neither of these things are covered by any sort of governmental aid.


Their friend Sylvie, who's running this fund-raiser for them, asked me to help her in her attempt to get the Smiths through this 5 week period. They need some serious help for household supplies, but 147 agencies, from local churches to the Red Cross said no to everything - from bus passes to laundry to shampoo. The dog pantries offer one 5-lb bag twice a month but they need a bus pass to get there. The people who have donated so far put in $10s and $20s, so it's not about a lot, it's about a community lending a hand. The Smiths made 55k annually, before the job loss and spent all their savings after the fire, and asked no one for help.

If you are willing to share what you can to help the Smiths make it through the next few weeks, please this site Sylvie made so people could chip in.

Related posts:
Stray Cat Love
More Stray Cat Love

Like what you see? Subscribe here

Share/Bookmark