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Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture

by Maria Elena Buszek
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2006
464 pp., illus. 94 b /w, 9 col. Trade: $89.95; paper, $24.95
ISBN: 0-8223-3734-7; ISBN: 0-8223-3746-0.

Jonathan Zilberg, Ph.D.

Director, Museum Gedungdua8, Jakarta


Pin-Up Grrrls is an ambitious engagement with 20th Century feminism through the history of the pin-up. The title affirms the book’s and the genre’s central sentiment of expressing "the growl in each girl." The study documents the feminist ideal of "awarisheness" that defined the pin-up from the beginning, the burlesque boom from which the pin-up derived its original force through a daring theatricality, the war goddesses and the bombshell victory girls of World War II, the birth of the 1950’s Varga girl soon to be subdued by post-war suppression, the frowning whip wielding high-heeled heroine and the "difficult" woman, the attack of the 50 ft woman and much more thereafter. In doing so, Buszek not only provides us with an encyclopedic historical entomology of the pin-up but participates in a potent ongoing reaction to Clement Greenberg’s Adorno-esque pre-World War II condemnation of kitsch.

Though everyone knows what a pin-up is, Buszek methodically lays out what it is in order to reveal its diversity and the ways the genre has changed and been variously received since it first emerged with the birth of print culture in the 15th Century. As she acutely describes, the pin-up is a sexualized burlesque image of a monster beauty produced for a mass audience. It is at once a barometer for attitudes towards sexuality and feminist responses to those attitudes and has long been a visual tool for simultaneously resisting and appropriating the repression of female sexuality. In necessary labor, she situates the history of the pin up within three waves of feminism, the first beginning with the publication of the Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecroft (1792) and cresting with Simon de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), the second energized by the labor and civil rights movement and the storming of the ivory tower, and the third led by Generation X. There, in the 1980’s, fueled by the Reagan sex wars, feminists reclaimed the erotic power of the image hence Judy Chicago’s "cunt-positive attitude" and fascist feminism, radical camp and ironic femininity. In an ensuing pleasurable confusion of boundaries, race and culture entered the picture, and a postmodern "queer" alliance was born.

The pin up genre came into its modern form during the Industrial Revolution as the mass produced carte de visite used by burlesque performers in the 1850’s. Born at the confluence of audacity and ambition, it emerged in full force during the 1860’s leg show boom in which actresses used the genre to advance a burlesque sexual "awarisheness" By the 1870’s, it was tamed and incorporated into Vaudeville after the inevitable backlash against this "epidemic of ‘flaxen scrofula’" infecting its bourgeois victims with a threatening "alien" sexuality Through her long engagement, Buszek sets the stage for all that follows. From Adah Isaacs Menken in the 1860’s to Madonna in the 1990’s, she deftly details libertinism and repression and the genealogy of the pin-up, the changing politics of sexuality and the commercialization of images of women.

Through her audacious and playful use of language, she takes us into both old and new territory. From mainstream cheese cake to the ever more daring baring and spreading of pink, back and forth from sleazy vagina dentatae to feigned innocence, the pin up is revealed as insolent image and 20th Century Odalisque. It became a critical medium for postwar artists to destabilize and pleasurably pervert notions of master narratives and Greenbergian modernism. In this view, the Playboy playmate centerfold is today’s nude and it and the pin up carry an intense social freight in imitating and repudiating the classical Odalisque. Moreover, precisely because the pin up was an object of scorn as kitsch, it provides the perfect foil for insolently disposing of moral pretense and ivory tower elitism in the art world.

The postwar traffic in the use of the pin-up by the avant-garde provides a potent trace of the trans-Atlantic fertilization of images and culture, of the Americanization of Europe and the subsequent return of an expanded pin-up to America. Thus though Andre Bazin conceived of the pin up as a form of bubble gum for the imagination in 1946, it carried a far heavier and more seductive message than the aphorism implied and presented unusual opportunities for pumping up the sheen of allure through excess and exoticism as Eduardo Paollozi did so famously with his painting I Was a Rich Man’s Plaything. It was this Odalisque image that Andy Warhol subsequently transformed into a Byzantine Madonna with his Golden Marilyn (1962), an icon that became an object of teenage worship and lust, queer and otherwise. Similarly, Antonio Saura’s 1959 portrait capturing the smoldering sexuality of Brigitte Bardot inspired Willem de Kooning’s shockingly brutal Women Series and — And God Created Woman. And more, in retrospect, it seems that Robert Rauchenberg’s playful manipulations subject — object relations in the Odalisque tradition constitute post-modern birth spasms.

Even better still, Buszek constantly connects the larger art worlds of painting and film, for instance recalling Fellini’s playful but dangerous giantess. From there to Madonna’s performance in Like A Virgin, we can trace the Burlesque Bardot alisque onwards through Catherine Deneuve and Jane Fonda and beyond into the porno-lisque. But future such studies will have to contend with how the combination of art, commerce and the dangerous pleasures opened wide by the internet as the ultimate medium for pornography and predation has inevitably led us down a dark and difficult crack in the social imagination. To be Adorno-esque, even Madonna forbids her own children from watching her own pulchritude.

Finally, one of the great contributions of this book is its bibliography and copious notes. From the slippery issues of pornutopia and female fetishism, from The Bridge Across My Pussy to queer monsters, she-devils and fierce funny feminism, there can be few books as usefully provocative as this for an undergraduate or graduate class on feminism, popular culture and art history.



Updated 1st April 2007

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