Recently a brainy Columbia undergrad, Jessica Gingrich, interviewed me for the Columbia Spectator on the penchant for pinups amonst today's empowered and feminist-like (or lite) young ladies. I got to rock the big words and sound brainy. Lucky for me perhaps, she cut me going on and on about Althuser and the Ideological State Apparatus. Anyway, read on where you can get my take on this phenom. (AKA girls just want to have fun-- with their images).
Pop culture in recent years has seen the reemergence of a classic sexual icon: the pinup girl. From celebrities like Katy Perry and Dita Von Teese to the branding we see Sunday nights in Mad Men, this early-20th-century image of female sexuality is making a comeback. Yet unlike many other representations of feminine sexuality, pinups have gained widespread acceptance within female communities in addition to the expected male audience.
The daintiness, femininity, and harmless countenance of the pinup may be part of what has garnered her approval among women today. “These images have been emptied of their sinfulness,” says Jennifer Kabat, curator for the Museum of Sex exhibition “Vamps & Virgins: The Evolution of American Pinup Photography 1860–1960.” “They are not transgressive or forbidden like they used to be. They are suggestive of something playful versus taboo about sexuality.” The pinup fits nicely in the modern feminist toolbox, which treats sexuality as a source of female empowerment. “The idea that women can be sexy is still a very powerful idea,” Kabat says—and the return of the pinup has provided women with a relatively safe outlet for that sexuality.
Today’s pinup is also three-dimensional, leaving behind the flat cigarette ad or 1940s calendar for appearances on TV, in live burlesque performance—and, in effect, in us. “We take different information from that than we would from just a still image,” says Simone Wolff, a junior at Barnard and the vice president of Conversio Virium, Columbia’s BDSM group. “You see the person in the motion of posing and I feel like that is the sexualization of the person as a whole. The thing that is desirable has been moved from the pinup image to the person itself, the pinup girl.”
In this sense, the pinup has diverged from the pure objectification of her earlier representations. She is no longer just an image, but an identity, which can be accessed by anyone at any time. “People have become interested in performing the role more broadly, that is to say, the movements, the ways of taking up space,” says Kellie Foxx-Gonzalez, a junior in CC and the president of Conversio Virium. “It becomes a persona or state of being one can tap into as art as opposed to just an image caught in time.”
Von Hottie, the pinup alter ego of prominent New York producer and performer Laura von Holt, is the new live pinup incarnate. Von Hottie’s eye-catching appearance—a black curve-hugging bathing suit, sunglasses, and a chunky pearl necklace—casually adorns the city streets. Her mission? To promote “the ability to be comfortable with yourself, in any moment, in any situation,” according to her website.
Von Hottie is more than a figurehead of female sexual empowerment: The fact that she releases a yearly pinup catalog and has her own brand of condoms gives her an agency over her sexuality. “Women are often objectified in circumstances where they have no control over how or why they are admired or objectified, and pinup provides a moment where they can turn and ‘take the reins’ of their sexuality, present themselves as they would like to be seen, and wield momentary control over how a man sees them,” von Holt told Jezebel.
The modern pinup girl is also challenging the style’s traditionally exclusive association with heterosexual white women. “The image of the pinup is still usually a white woman and usually relatively thin, so looking back and seeing yourself in that image is not necessarily a privilege that everyone can have,” Wolff says. “But then again, definitely queer people, people of color, people of various sizes can recreate those images with their bodies and take those images for themselves for the first time.”
There is a rich history of pinups and burlesque performers of color, which until recently has been largely ignored. In a Racialicious blog entry last June, Sydney F. Lewis, a professor at the University of Washington, informs us of the many forgotten women of color in burlesque history, such as Rosalee Takeela, Elizabeth “China Doll” Dickerson, and Rose Hardaway. “Black and brown women must be acknowledged as pioneers and integral players in the golden era of burlesque ... and given their proper dues for being among the first to shamelessly bump and grind,” she writes. “As long as the historical face of burlesque is porcelain then contemporary neo-burlesque performers will always be seen as exotic others, brown-skinned derivatives of Sally Rand, Dixie Evans, and Dita Von Teese.” Contemporary groups such as Brown Girls Burlesque and Harlem Shake Burlesque are among the many dedicated to redefining the image associated with the neoburlesque and pinup movements.
Despite these motions toward self-empowerment and reclamation, sexist sentiment still lingers behind the pinup girl. Even with the major advances of feminist movements, the pinup girl’s often innocuous and borderline submissive image complicates the ways in which she is perceived and the ways in which women should therefore use the pinup to their advantage. “This isn’t an Andrea Dworkin world we live in where porn equals rape, which doesn’t allow for any of the flippage between spaces. But as women, when you objectify yourself, what are you saying?” Kabat says. “It’s not to say that there isn’t a sort of self-awareness, but it is something that [can] recreate a certain kind of sexism.”
Though the redefinition of the pinup girl is limited, it has provided women with new possibilities for expressing their sexual identity, a way to counterbalance more explicit representations. Using the pinup as inspiration, a woman can explore herself while directing how she is perceived—a unique fluidity vital to modern feminine sexuality.