Diana Dors, "As Long as They're Happy", 1955

Diana Dors, "As Long as They're Happy", 1955

I've always been a fan of "The Pin-Up," and through it all, I've had conversations with other women questioning this interest of mine. The led to my own internal dialogue--my own questioning of why I continue to like them. It also led me to the question, is the pin-up feminist?

What is a pin-up? Webster's Dictionary defines it as:

That which is affixed to a board or wall for scrutiny or perusal; specifically, a clipping or photograph, usually of an attractive young woman… Designating a photograph, clipping, or drawing used in this manner, or a person who models such picture (Buszek, 8).

Marilyn Monroe, 1952

Marilyn Monroe, 1952

I have various pin-ups in my room. One is a Marilyn Monroe poster where the blonde bombshell is lifting weights. Another, is a more modern pin-up poster of Beth Ditto, the lead singer of Gossip, which was designed for Gossip's 2009 tour. These images, both very different, exhibit a similar aggressive sexuality. Both are atheistically pleasing. Both utilize the "Monster/Beauty" paradigm, as discussed in Maria Elena Buszek's book, Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture. Buszek cites the "Moster/Beauty" theory, created by Joanna Frueh. She states:

‘Monster/beauty is a condition, and it can also describe an individual. Because extremity is immoderation—deviation from convention in behavior, appearance, or representation—and starkly different from standard cultural expectations for particular groups of people, monster/beauty departs radically from normative, ideals representations of beauty….Monster/beauty is artifice, pleasure/discipline, cultural invention, and it is extravagant and generous’  (Buzsek, 3).

Gossip tour poster, 2009

Gossip tour poster, 2009

With the two pin-ups I discussed, this rings true. The Marilyn Monroe poster exudes sexuality, which was threatening during the time period (and some may argue, still is), as well as a resiliency/strength (lifting weights) rarely displayed in typical images of women. The more "modern" pin-up of Beth Ditto is also subverting cultural norms and expectations. Ditto is a large woman, both in size and personality, and has been a fierce advocate for the body-positive movement. Because of her size, the pin-up image of her is subverting the societal norm of "skinny" and size 0 models. In the image, Ditto drapes herself over a chair, exuding confidence and sexuality.

The way in which many (not all) pin-ups subvert culture roles or societal expectations is definitely of a feminist nature. Speaking to this, Buszek states:

Contrary to popular belief—held by many within, outside of, and even against the movement—that a ‘feminist pin-up’ is an oxymoron, it is no more so than ‘feminist painting’ or ‘feminist sculpture,’ or ‘feminist porn’ for that matter: these are all media and genres historically used and appreciated primarily by men, about which nothing is inherently sexist, but which have all been both kept from women and used to create images that inscribe, normalize, or bolster notions of women as inferior to men (Buszek, 4).

Johnny Depp, "Cry Baby", 1990

Johnny Depp, "Cry Baby", 1990

It's interesting to note that, initially, pin-ups were meant for women, as well as men. The pin-up created a fantasy realm for women (specifically housewives)--a place they could go to play "pretend." It was fine for men to enjoy these images, but women had to do so in private.

The pin-up acts as an embellished existence of the subject. Some pin-ups exaggerate femininity, most exaggerate sexuality. The image is a paused burlesque show, revealing and hinting at society's epitome of female sexuality. Feminist Theorist, Judith Butler explored this with regard to cross-dressing. Buszek argues that this idea can be used in pin-up politics as well. She states:

In much the same way that Judith Butler has argued that drag cross-dressing can mime, rework, and resignify the external signs and stability of gender ideals, so too will we see the pin-up mime, rework, and resignify the signs and stability of specifically female sexual ideals (Buszek, 12).

"Black as Pitch, Hot as Hell Pin-Ups", Wanda Ewing, 2010

"Black as Pitch, Hot as Hell Pin-Ups", Wanda Ewing, 2010

When you look at a pin-up in this way, so much more is discovered. The viewer begins to see beyond the pin-up-as-just-another-picture-of-a-pretty-girl. There is depth and breadth. From a feminist lens, one can critique the image, asking, "Is this subversive?" or "Does this rework stereotypical gender roles?" The picture forces the viewer to look beyond the image-as-arousing motif. And, as Buszek notes, how a woman's sexuality is displayed and discussed has the potential to be detrimental. She states:

The most obvious problem with representing sexuality is the fact that sexualized representations of women have—like female sexuality itself—historically been used to limit women’s growth and opportunities as nonsexual beings (Buszek, 13).

In what we have seen and known of culture, women are designated a box--the Virgin or the Whore--commonly referred to as the Virgin/Whore dichotomy in feminist texts. This polarization is extremely restrictive and damaging to women, and has seemingly been happening for centuries. Though women are still faced with the Virgin/Whore dichotomy, exciting subcultures are rising, creating a "fresh face" for the Pin-Up. New and different gender roles are being displayed and celebrated.

J.D. Samson, 2003

J.D. Samson, 2003

The way in which pin-up culture has "...reflected women’s roles in the cultures and subcultures in which it is created" (Buszek, 5) is a feminist feat. Also, the pin-up's ability to reinvent itself time and again supports this claim of subversion. Take, for instance, the pin-up of J.D. Samson. Samson is a lesbian feminist and plays in the bands, Le Tigre and MEN, respectively. In 2003, Samson created, J.D.'s Lesbian Calendar. Samson's masculine femininity subverts stereotypical binary gender roles in a culture that is so dichotomous in thinking. If we compare and contrast J.D. Samson's pin-up with Diana Dors', we see a great difference, yet similarities remain. Both images reflect women's sexuality in a confrontational, in-your-face way.

When pin-ups are done well, they uproot the engrained societal expectations that live in all of us. For this, they are definitely feminist.

8 Comments