Oder – irr’ ich wieder? Verändert dünkt mich alles

March 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

I recently attended a lecture in which Linda Nochlin — widely considered to be the mother of contemporary feminist art history — addressed the issue of the nude. She approached the subject through the lens of her life experience, which has informed her tastes in and fascination with its representation. Reading from her essay “Offbeat and Naked,” Nochlin said: “I like any nude that isn’t classical, any naked body that doesn’t look like Michelangelo’s David or the Apollo Belvedere. For me, as for the poet-critic, Baudelaire in the 19th century, the classical nude is dead, and deathly. What is alive? The offbeat, the ugly, the other, the excessive.” Afterward, I asked Nochlin where, if anywhere, she felt the pin-up genre belonged in this aesthetic of the offbeat. Without hesitation, she began an impromptu paean to perhaps the most beloved pin-up in the history of the genre — the Varga Girl. Nochlin recounted how, as a young girl during the Second World War, she would rifle through her uncles’ Esquire magazines to marvel at the grotesque beauties within. Those endless legs! Those bowed feet! Those fetish fashions! Absolute freaks of nature! “Yummy!” she enthused with a troublemaker’s grin…

At Esquire, the shift from the wartime to postwar pin-up reflects such wider trends in American culture. First, the magazine lost the artist whose women personified the transgressive wartime woman on her way out of fashion. Esquire’s legal troubles with Vargas had begun at the cusp of the war’s end; when the artist attempted to renegotiate his contract with the magazine, he proceeded to lose his job as well as his rights to his name at and work for Esquire. As a result of his departure from the magazine in 1947, the transition from the “Varga Girl” to the “Esquire Girl” coincidentally occurred in the shift from wartime to the postwar eras–making the change in the magazine’s pin-ups all the more dramatic in their adherence to postwar ideals of femininity. Fritz Willis, Al Moore, and Joe De Mers were among the new pin-up illustrators who eschewed the career woman and sexual dynamo for the bobby-soxer and cuddly co-ed. The one working woman represented among these postwar pin-ups was chided in the accompanying text to “shake off the phony blessedness of her solitary way in favor of the more savory satisfactions which only come from sharing.” As feminist historian Susan Faludi would later write, in the postwar era the independent woman of WWII, who had flaunted her economic, social, and sexual agency, was viewed as an outdated construction that “provoked and sustained the antifeminist furor [of the ‘50s, and]… heightened cultural fantasies of the compliant homebody and playmate.” In fact, a new “playmate” emerged in the pin-up genre that capitalized on both the dearth of openly transgressive female models in the ‘50s and the era’s willingness to (re)construct womanhood in a simplistic, one-dimensional manner.

With the renewed focus on morality and maternity that accompanied many women’s postwar retreat to the home — similar to the “cult of True Womanhood” among upper- and middle-class women in the Victorian era — came a resurgence of the “ladies club.” These groups aimed female activism at societal disruptions of “moral order,” under which they felt young women’s access to and influence by pin-ups fell. Due to such groups’ postwar protests against the display of pin-ups in media viewed by women and children, many popular publications (such as early pin-up pioneers, Esquire and Life) de-emphasized or altogether eliminated their pin-up features. To fill the void left by the disappearance of images of the sexualized female in broader popular culture, former Esquire employee Hugh Hefner molded a new kind of pin-up — the “Playmate” — in his magazine, Playboy. Here, Hefner sought to both reclaim the genre and postwar women’s sexuality for privileged male viewing.  read more

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