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Bang Bang Von Loola in a photography by Sheila Broderick of Sheila Broderick Photography

Are Pin Ups Feminist? Why Yes, Yes They Are

A few weeks ago I was talking about my interactive documentary project with some colleagues at the university where I teach. One of the women (of the second-wave feminist generation) said something along the lines of

“Well, you know that many of these images would be considered problematic for women.”

“Why????,” my brain screamed, as I politely attempted to talk with her about individual agency and the need to respect how a woman chooses to represent her body (the colleague is, after all, more senior than me).

Pinky Swear in a photograph by Mitzi Valenzuela of Mitzi and Co. Photography

Of course, I knew the answer. The women were posing in a sexual manner. They’re provocative and often wearing few — or sometimes no — clothes. The retro poses draw their inspiration from an era when women were presumed to be repressed by the patriarchy, being gazed upon by men and taken (or drawn) by men. The kitschy, throwback pin up is clearly a woman repressed.

Oh. My. God.

The problem with this narrative is that it ignores not only the individual wants, motivations, and desires of contemporary pin ups (and their often-female artistic collaborators), but it also ignores the feminist history of the pin up herself.

Published by Duke University Press

In part, I’m drawing from the research done by art historian Maria Elena Buszek, whose wonderful book Pin Up Grrrls traces the feminist and artistic evolution of the genre. According to Buszek, the pin up evolved in the mid-1800s as a type of calling card for burlesque performers, who were using the photographic based carte de visite to not only promote their acts but also to challenge the idea that a woman could only be either the madonna or the whore. The burlesque artist of this era hovered somewhere in between the two archetypes in a state that Buszek calls “awarishness”: consciously inserting their “improper” burlesque identities into the non-theatrical world.

Pin up by female illustrator Zoë Mozert, who frequently used herself as a model for her paintings and drawings. Courtesy Lou Meisel and The Great American Pin Up.

Buszek argues that subsequent iterations of the pin up would similarly challenge boundaries in a very feminist way. Gibson Girls of the turn of the 20th century? Advocates of the right to vote, whose images were used by both sides of the debate as either an argument for female liberation or an illustration of what would happen when girls go wild. Flappers of the 1920s? Ditto. Three of the top ten 20th century pin up illustrators were women: Zoë Mozert, Joyce Ballantyne, and Pearl Frush (this according to Lou Meisel, gallery owner and co-author of The Great American Pin Up).

A photography by the U.S. Navy from the 1940s shows how pin up imagery was being used for the recruitment of women into the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). The Navy also commissioned recruitment posters by pin up artists like Alberto Vargas and George Petty. From the U.S. Navy Heritage and History Command.

It’s when the 1940s roll around that the pin up begins to make her way into the hands of the average woman. During World War II, women were increasingly entering the workforce in non-traditional female work, such as in the military or in factories. Buszek found that these women began experimenting with do-it-yourself pin ups, not to share with boyfriends and husbands but to share with their friends.

“They are doing it to capture their own audacity,” she told me.

“There was something inherently dangerous and transgressive about what those images must have represented to young women.”
Bettie Page (left) and Marilyn Monroe (right). Bettie Page TM is a Trademark of Bettie Page LLC and licensed by CMG Worldwide, Inc. Photo released by CMG Worldwide. Monroe was photographed by George Barris for Cosmopolitan in July 1962.

By the 1950s, pin up icons like Bettie Page and Marilyn Monroe were using their sexuality as a way to promote their “brand” within popular culture. Page and Monroe were in control, not necessarily the photographers behind the images. Scholar Kathryn N. Benzel traced how Monroe constructed poses, accessories, costumes, and expressions within her images, forcing viewers “to contemplate an aesthetic form rather than a glamourized nude.” Page’s carefully cultivated persona, meanwhile, poked fun at the very genre itself. Buszek sees her as a counterpoint to the Playboy Playmate (who would also emerge during this era), a feminist alternative to the nonthreatening Bunny.

Modern icons (from left) Madonna, Debbie Harry and Gwen Stefani. “Madonna, Rotterdam, 26–8–1987” by Olavtenbroek — Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons. Publicity photo of “Blondie1977” by Private Stock Records. NBC publicity photo of Gwen Stefani on “The Voice.”

During the latter third of the 20th century it would be artists who would reclaim the pin up, often for very pointed commentary on the roles of women in society (such as Nicole Cawlfield, whose photograph graces the cover of Buszek’s book). But the look was also beginning to percolate in the rockabilly, new wave, and punk rock subcultures, where vintage style was often as much an economic choice as an aesthetic one. Debbie Harry of Blondie, Madonna, and Gwen Stefani of No Doubt (who’s been called “the ultimate 21st-century pin up” by Sefan Lindemann of Grazia magazine, largely due to her fashion-forward stylings) all adopted the pin up aesthetic as part of their everyday look. Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, and even comedian Tina Fey all have adopted the pin up look from time to time.

Dapper Dan Doll in a photography by Daemon Donigan of Donigan Artworks

So what about those modern women I’ve been talking to in connection with my project? Well, here’s the interesting rub: the vast majority of them self-identify as feminists. This is fascinating to me because feminism in the mid-2010s often is fraught with a ton of negative baggage (evidence: any internet comment section about any feminist news item ever). Meanwhile, as my colleague pointed out, the women are actively aping the aesthetic aspects of an era when female empowerment wasn’t exactly a buzzphrase. They adopt monikers that promise sexuality and submissiveness, like Delicious Ruckus or Ginger Rose.

Delicious Ruckus in a photograph by Rene Soliz of Soliz Images Photography

But these same women tell fans on their social media accounts to unfollow them if they don’t support feminist issues. They post on issues ranging from pay equality to LGBTQ rights to sexual reproductive freedoms. They bemoan injustices such as sexual bigotry or racism.

Evalette Bizou (left) and Coco Soleil (right) in a photograph by Celia Morissey of Nightlight Digital.

Evalette Bizou and Coco Soleil are examples of this modern feminist pin up. The two also share a burlesque act, and were photographed together in one image (above).

“We both strongly identify ourselves as feminist,” said Coco.

“Exactly,” Evalette said. “I strongly believe in equality, and have never been anything but a feminist.”

Or, as Coco added:

“All my friends, both male or female, are feminists.”
Kat Stroud photographed by Tami Williamson of House of Winter

Their feminist impulses come out in various ways. Models Delicious Ruckus and Kat Stroud as well as photographer Mitzi Valenzuela all consider the pin up community a type of sisterhood, where women support each other regardless of race, ethnicity, body size, sexual orientation or economic background. All three are involved with charity causes (Pinups for Charity for D-Ruck; Bullied Into Greatness for Stroud; Bombshells Against Bullying for Valenzuela). And all, like Page and Monroe, tightly control their shoots, from the posing to the costuming.

Miss Rockwell De Vil in a photograph by Mitzi Valenzuela of Mitzi & Co. Photography

And from this control comes something. The modern pin up looks back. Even in a highly sexualized pose, such as Valenzuela’s image of Miss Rockwell De Vil in a clawfoot tub (which is one of the promotional posters for the film Pin Up! The Movie), the model is catching the eye of the camera. She’s aware of and in control of how she is looked at.

Rockwell is like those burlesque performers from the 1800s. There’s a tension in her control of the image, and it’s empowering.

Kathleen M. Ryan is the director of Pin Up! The Movie, which is currently in film festival release. She is also a university professor in media and journalism studies.