European and North American art abounds with images of naked women artfully posed for the delectation of male spectators. However, it was not until the Industrial Revolution's technologies for producing mass-media images that the pin-up genre emerged "to both negotiate a space for itself between the fine and popular arts and define itself through the representation of a pointedly contemporary female sexuality," observes Maria Elena Buszek in Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture (2006). This book is the most comprehensive study to date of the pinup's complex historical, cultural, aesthetic, and ideological dimensions examined in relation to the three waves of feminism. A core question posed by the pin-up phenomenon as well as feminists and other philosophers of sexuality, culture, being, and identity is: Can, or how can, individuals subjected to the consuming gaze of an other, as an object of that spectator's desire, inspiration, projection, or fetishistic fantasy, find a space in which to become subject? If, as Simone de Beauvoir has famously written, the persistent condition of femininity as constructed by patriarchal culture objectifies woman as a secondary support for the subject that is man, how can women contest this objectification to attain subjecthood? And how do visual images of women perpetuate and/or contest these misogynist, asymmetrical subject/object power dynamics?
Fin-de-siècle pin-ups arose in relation to both the advent of cinema, fan culture, and fanzines such as Photoplay, and the first-wave feminism of the suffragettes and the Anglo-American New Woman, who were leaving patriarchal domestic confines to seek employment, voting rights, and self-determination. In the 1880s artist Charles Dana Gibson (1867–1944) created pin-up images for Life Magazine that simultaneously celebrated the New Woman's resourcefulness and beauty and reinscribed her within conventional romantic narratives (Buszek 2006). Early cinema in an artistically thriving interwar Europe and pre-Hays Code Hollywood both fed and was shaped by a pin-up culture that enabled representations of provocative, ambiguous sexuality; the androgynous beauty of Marlene Dietrich (1901–1992) and Greta Garbo (1905–1990) was shot in butch and/or femme poses. Similarly valorized within pin-up culture, if not stereotypical film roles, were exotic foreign or racially ambiguous actresses such as Anna May Wong (1905–1961) and Dolores del Rio (1905–1983) (Buszek 2006).
The most famous pin-up artist is Joaquín Alberto Vargas y Chávez, born in Peru, 1896. Esquire publisher David Smart demanded that Vargas eliminate the "s" from Vargas, presumably to defuse his foreignness. The Varga Girl who graced Esquire pages from 1940 to 1947, became a huge sensation, embodying the shifting cultural zeitgeist. Both sweetly innocent and hypersexualized, these apple-cheeked, rosy-lipped hometown girls and bathing beauties sported physiques with endless, shapely legs, enormous but perky breasts, and taught tummies that defied the law of gravity. Airbrushed and rendered in glossy palettes of satin pink, silky black, or valentine red, their bodily contours were seductive but clad. Varga Girls were hugely popular amongst World War II (1939–1945) troops, who pinned them above army cots, had their girlfriends mime their poses, and emblazoned them upon military aircraft and barges (Buszek 2006). Traditional femininity was combined with strength and a glamorized sexuality within images of girls working, maintaining the home front, or even wearing military drag. This hybrid of sweetheart and siren, patriotic professionalism and soft-skinned domesticity made them ideal for consumption by a culture rife with wartime anxiety. Pinups and 1940s Hollywood film-starring actresses who embodied these qualities mutually reinforced these visual and cultural constructions of femininity.
The 1950s pin-up model Bettie Page's (b. 1923) trajectory illustrates a link between pin-ups and crypto-pornography in postwar, presexual revolution America. Page posed for wholesome cheesecake photos, as well as for film reels and photos taken by the siblings Irving (1910–1966) and Paula Klaw featuring bondage/domination scenarios, and Hugh Hefner's (b. 1926) Playboy (founded 1953). Hefner's playmates were designed as subservient objects for their male readers' pleasure as against the bondage and discipline (B&D), sadism and masochism (S&M) images starring threatening dominatrixes, in accordance with a postwar backlash patriarchalism that eschewed the female independence glamorized in wartime pin-ups (Buszek 2006). These discussions of sexuality unfolded within a cold-war culture both confused about and obsessed with the binaries pornography/art, American/foreign, normal/deviant, and heterosexual/homosexual. With the sexual revolution pin-ups metamorphosed into increasingly pornographic centerfold images. This shift was accompanied by fierce debates between second- and third-wave feminists who either condemned pin-ups as irreducibly sexist exploitations of the female body or valorized their potential as complex aesthetic phenomena in which to negotiate feminist sexual and existential identity.
Numerous artists from the 1960s to the early twenty-first century have appropriated the pin-up as a means of contesting patriarchal subject-object gender dynamics toward a feminist aesthetic of self-determination and pleasure. Art historian Joanna Frueh uses her own bodybuilder physique in poses that are both erotic and powerful, wedding subject and object of desiring gaze. Susie Bright's (b. 1958) deconstructed lesbian pinup, shot by Phyllis Christopher for the feminist magazine On Our Backs (1989), Anna Magnuson's Revenge of the Vargas Pin-Up Girl (1992), whose subject turns a phallic airbrush against the photographer, and performance artist Annie Sprinkle, Cindy Sherman (b. 1945), and others have innovatively explored the pin-up's potential for celebrating feminist agency, pleasure, and autonomy.
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