A brief history of the pin-up grrrl (Feminist interpretations of the pin-up)
Mass culture and the "New Woman"
The Birth of the Varga Girl
Women, WWII, and the Varga Girl
Postwar and postscript
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."(1) 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.
Sixty years later, the Varga Girl continues to impress young feminists with her aggressive sexuality, imperious attitude, and frightening physique--that ideal feminist art historian Joanna Frueh has appropriately dubbed "monster/beauty."(2) As such, the parallel between photographer Ali Smith’s recent portrait of the popular young feminist icon, comedian Janeane Garofalo, and a 1942 Vargas pin-up should come as less of a surprise (January 1942 calendar). Posed in the reversed but otherwise exact style of a 1942 Vargas Esquire calendar girl, Garofalo’s portrait manifests many of the complex issues surrounding the feminist appropriation of the pin-up genre. On the one hand, the irony is palpable as the militant anti-glamour girl Garofalo poses with the sultry come-hither stare of a classic pin-up, wearing a comical pair of satin ears one instantly associates with Esquire’s cheesecake successor, Playboy. However, it can also be argued that Garofalo has never looked so sexy, so confident, or so intimidating. Although her rumpled garb and hairdo provide a pointed rejection of the Varga Girl’s polished femininity, Garofalo’s candy apple-red lipstick and suggestively handled cigarette reflect not only those same aspects of the original, but also the Varga Girl’s audacity and allure. Smith and Garofalo may poke fun at the pin-up, but they do so in a way that betrays both their affinity with the vision of female sexuality that this particular pin-up represents and their affection for the genre itself.
To those with a limited or stereotypical view of the feminist movement--as a cadre of humorless, asexual harpies that eschew pleasure, art, and pop culture--such appropriations of the pin-up seem surprising, if not completely implausible. In reality, anti-censorship and pro-sex thought has existed as part of the women’s movement since its origins, as have feminist appropriations of the pin-up. Although there are many shades of opinion and activism between the anti-pornography and sex radical stances in contemporary feminism, the extremes of today’s debate have existed at least since the popular women’s movement of the 1960’s and ‘70s, or beginning of the "second wave" of feminism. This generation of women emerged to act on the idea that a revival and re-tuning of the work of female suffragists and early women’s rights activists (or "first wave" of the women's movement) was long overdue. On the one hand, these women questioned conventional beauty standards, patriarchal notions of sexual health, and even women’s ability to explore and enjoy sexuality in a world where gender inequalities not only proliferated in society, but were often internalized by women themselves. On the other hand, the popular women’s movement saw the publication of books like Our Bodies, Ourselves and Dr. Betty Dodson’s research on female masturbation and orgasm, and many feminists asserted that sexual liberation could not be separated from the struggle for women’s liberation. Many and varied perspectives on the representation female sexuality would emerge as women negotiated the truths in both these oppositional positions and strove toward the creation of a new, feminist language of sexual desire. But where, then, would old dialects be salvaged or destroyed as this new vocabulary was built? And who would determine its rules of grammar?
Two radically different "anatomical studies" by second wave feminists illustrate the poles book-ending the spectrum of feminist positions on the representation of female sexuality as far as traditional visual languages of desire are concerned. Published in her landmark study of misogyny in pornography, Woman Hating, Andrea Dworkin’s "Beauty Hurts" diagram breaks down the sexualized female body by way of the containment, adornment, and manipulation imposed upon it in the name of sexual desirability.(3) The stylized woman--whose resemblance to a shooting gallery human "target" underscores her victimhood--becomes nothing more than the total of her painfully primped physical parts.(4) Feminist artist and pornographer Annie Sprinkle’s "Anatomy of a Pin-Up" near-replicates Dworkin’s deconstruction of the sexualized female body--in this case, Sprinkle’s own--but to a very different end. In a similarly cartoonish fashion, Sprinkle points out her own body-manipulation toward attaining a conventional pin-up girl allure. However, Sprinkle’s lighthearted approach to these endeavors, as well as asserting her control of and pleasure from them, contrast sharply with Dworkin’s evocation of the pain and humiliation they represent to her.
Although Dworkin’s and Sprinkle’s different approaches to the sexualized woman in popular culture stand for oppositional positions in the feminist debate, it should also be said that the latter image was also part of a larger response to the influence that the former had by the mid-‘80s exerted upon the women’s movement. By this time, many feminists had found in their new access to sexual and pornographic imagery, which Dworkin’s work strove to eradicate, a liberating and necessary language for erotic expression. Historically dominated, in consumption as in creation, by men, women felt finally free to study and converse in its vocabulary, and resented the limitations they felt anti-pornography dogma placed on their self-expression. Moreover, as scholarship and activism by the gay and lesbian communities gained visibility, new feminist voices joined the critique of anti-porn feminist scholarship. Queer theorists primarily questioned anti-porn activists’ strictly heterosexist construction of both sexuality and the gendered nature of viewing into oppositional, "binary" structures: male/active/master/oppressor v. female/passive/servant/victim.(5) Through such influences, in the last 20 years feminist thought on sexuality and its expression has grown to accommodate the issue of gender as a construct often independent of one’s biological sex--performative and fluid rather than essential and stable--as well as accept that women’s sexual pleasure and fantasy is beyond dogma. Dworkin’s image exposes the fact that popular culture often represents women according to patriarchal myths that have controlled and oppressed many women through their sexuality. Sprinkle’s image, however, asserts that if one might take control of, deconstruct, and find pleasure in the representation and performance of such myths--acts that also ultimately serve to expose their mythology--Dworkin’s judgment of and desire to eradicate them is itself oppressive to a great number of feminists.
Although the pin-up has become for many an icon symbolic of the more rebellious streak in contemporary, third wave or "riot grrrl" feminist thought, its appropriation appears fairly early in the popular women’s movement. In perhaps the first "feminist pin-up" of the second wave, Judy Chicago’s first class at Fresno State College’s Feminist Art Program created the hilarious collaborative poster, Miss Chicago and the California Girls. The alleged "bra-burning" protests surrounding the Miss America contest of 1968 were still a fairly fresh media coup for women’s liberation, which the Fresno artists drew on as they mocked the concept of the beauty competition.(6) The image was part of a series of role-playing performances staged by the program, in which students and teachers alike restaged and reclaimed feminine stereotypes such as the bride, whore, and lady.(7) However, as student Cheryl Zurilgen wrote of how feminist "consciousness-raising" (C-R) affected art practice in programs such as Fresno’s, the intent behind such images was not limited to mocking or deconstructing sexual representations of women. "We began discussing our sex lives very openly in C-R . . .. We learned that as long as we could not demand that our sexual needs be met, we could also not make demands that other needs in our lives be met."(8) Viewed in this light, Miss Chicago and the California Girls’ bikini-clad women of different shapes and sizes, conventionally and unconventionally beautiful, should also be viewed as part of this aim of the movement; the women obviously take a subversive delight in their own sexual pride, audacity, and exhibitionism. Moreover, these images also shared the subject of women attempting to re/assert control of their own sexuality and its representation--as well as advertising all these issues in the poster medium, meant for display and/or distribution. Later generations of feminist pin-ups would find both the masquerade and mass-reproducibility of the genre part and parcel of the genre’s appeal, applying the genre toward similar explorations of sexual identity. However, if the Fresno poster hinted at the subversive potential of the pin-up, in the years that followed few feminists saw either the humor or the pleasure in such forays into the genre.
In the same year that Woman Hating was first published, outrage surrounding the publication of feminist sculptor Lynda Benglis’ pin-up self-portrait in the November 1974 issue of Artforum demonstrated the extent to which the very possibility of a feminist pin-up eluded many established feminist thinkers in the art world. Reproduced as part of a two-page advertisement for a Benglis exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery (after the magazine refused to publish it accompanying a feature article on her work in the same issue), several Artforum associate editors were horrified enough by the image that in the following issue they published a lengthy objection to its inclusion.(9) Misreading the image--which Benglis, ironically, produced as part of a series of "sexual mockeries"(10)--as a "shabby mockery" of the feminist movement, the letter’s tone was typical of much feminist scholarship and criticism uncomfortable with what it viewed as "vulgarity" in the popular depiction of the female form.(11) Two years later, Hannah Wilke would also rebelliously conjure the pin-up in her poster self-portrait, Marxism and Art: Beware of Fascist Feminism. Addressing the ways in which purposeful sexual outrageousness by artists like Benglis and Wilke was met with scorn in the name of feminism, the work denounced the "fascism" with which she felt certain thinkers had influenced both the art world and women’s movement.(12) That Wilke chose a seductive and confrontational pin-up pose to protest limits on her artistic expression is not surprising; her earliest artworks consisted of pin-up self-portraits that she took of herself as a fifteen-year-old, which would reappear in her work both literally and in the joy with which she continued to be "sexually silly."(13) These and other appropriations of the pin-up railed against the stereotype of the sexualized woman as an object incapable of subjectivity. This patriarchal notion of the sexual woman as an unthinking woman, unwittingly reflected in much of the period’s feminist thought on sexualized imagery, is plain in the comments of a longtime female friend of Wilke’s, who said of her earliest impressions of the artist: "I never thought of her as arty. She was too pretty."(14)
By the mid-80s, however, increasing numbers of feminist scholars, artists, and activists came to see the logic of exploring the issue of sexual expression in their work, and toyed with how the appropriation of the pin-up could upend expectations of both the genre and the movement. Barnard College’s 1982 conference, "The Scholar and the Feminist: Towards a Politics of Sexuality," and the subsequent publication of the writing and images presented there, helped initiate a broader feminist investigation of how women’s sexual expression had been fought not only by patriarchal systems, but by feminism itself.(15) The conference encompassed the spectrum of feminist positions toward sexuality that existed between anti-censorship and anti-porn thinkers. However, reflecting Wilke’s protest against a "fascist feminism," editor and conference coordinator Carole Vance intended for the conference to call into question the "dogmatic, dry, compulsive, and ineffective" measures that such thought imposed upon feminist thought and expression. Vance’s contention that "feminism must increase women’s pleasure and joy, not just decrease our misery," reflected the beliefs of many for whom the rising prominence of an anti-porn minority represented a threat to both personal liberties and plurality in the women’s movement.(16)
After the Barnard conference, the pro-choice Carnival Knowledge collective, begun in 1981, extended their interests in reproductive rights to include support of sexual expression and anti-censorship activism. Their 1984 conference/multi-media exhibition at the Franklin Furnace, entitled The Second Coming, represented a landmark feminist collaboration with sex workers through its "Deep Inside Porn Stars" panel. The discussion brought porn stars and performance artists (and combinations thereof) together to talk about the place of both eroticism and feminism in their various works and professions. The panel’s group photo resurrected the spirit of the 1970/71 Fresno "class portrait," in which the participants provocatively posed topless behind placards identifying each woman’s role in the talk. (Reflecting the point of the session--to assert that "porn star" and "feminist" are not mutually exclusive roles--the placards do not necessarily correspond with what position/profession society might stereotype each based on their work.)(17) The same year, Debi Sundahl started On Our Backs (a play on the title of virulently anti-porn feminist news journal off our backs), an erotic lesbian magazine that featured articles on women’s health and feminist activism, as well as photo essays encompassing a wide range of lesbian pin-ups, sex practices, and politics. With contributing writers such as Susie Bright and Joan Nestle, and photographers like Tee Corinne and Honey Lee Cottrell, On Our Backs hilariously subverted Playboy’s concept of a "pleasure primer for masculine tastes" to live up to its slogan, "Entertainment for the adventurous lesbian."(18)
This kind of subversion of pre-existing models of pornography and erotica that On Our Backs utilized toward pointedly feminist ends was further explored two years after the magazine’s debut with Caught Looking: Feminism, Pornography, and Censorship, published by the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT).(19) The volume was a collection of imagery and essays that underscored the complex links between feminist sexual expression and popular visual culture, questioning the notion that such imagery intrinsically objectifies women. The book’s legacy for a burgeoning generation of feminists would not only be its compilation of erotic art and essays by contemporary feminist thinkers, but also the book’s appropriation of pin-up and pornographic imagery taken from photography, comic books, magazines and films ranging from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. Caught Looking’s juxtaposition of contemporary feminist work and the wildly varied historical images that inspired it (selected by FACT’s designers mostly from women’s private collections) was revelatory in its suggestion of the direct affinities between sexualized imagery from feminist and commercial sources.
Since the early ‘90s, such direct feminist appropriations have found increased affinities with a new generation of feminists presently reaching adolescence and adulthood, for whom previous generations’ manipulation and radical readings of media imagery would become a veritable second language. Presently dubbed the "third wave" of the women’s movement, until very recently the generation’s most prominent presence has been through popular culture as opposed to the gallery or academe. The third wave’s most famous incarnation to date--the brief but fiery riot grrrl movement of the early ‘90s--was founded on the concept of a grass-roots infiltration of pop culture. In an inversion of organized demonstrations, riot grrrl instead promoted local, terrorist action, where one girl gleaned support and knowledge from the sprawling collective, then acted locally by papering a neighborhood with agitprop posters, starting a band, or establishing a website--all of which were methods through which they sought to contribute a feminist voice to ordinarily male-dominated spaces in which they felt silenced. The ‘zine (as in magazine, or fanzine), however, was the primary medium through which riot grrrl expressed itself and connected participants with one another. Through these small, cheaply Xeroxed, but highly imaginative takes on the artist’s book, young women across the country distributed their prose, poetry, and artwork in hopes of creating a network of like-minded feminists among music and art fans. Like the punk communities from which it sprung, riot grrrl and third wave art often focus upon recycled and recontextualized imagery taken directly from mass culture. As a genre associated almost exclusively with the representation of women, classic pin-ups came to be inscribed with slogans or juxtaposed with other imagery in such ways that made the "feminine" genre iconic for the grrrl-style revolution. From Geekgirl to Minx,one is still hard-pressed to find a third wave ‘zine, album cover, or website without finding a pin-up as its mascot.
Marlene McCarty’s 1992 matchbooks pin-ups from the Friends of Anita project (protesting the Clarence Thomas’ election to the Supreme Court) are exemplary of riot grrrl aesthetics and activism. The matchbooks were given away at U.S. newsstands, where their antagonistic but sexually provocative text was meant to give pause to patrons who were used to such free matchbooks advertising phone sex or escort services(20) Photographer Renee Cox crossed Wonder Woman’s Amazon sister Nubia with the fierce, contemporary homegirl to create her alter-ego Rajé. Dressed like a personification of the Jamaican tri-color, Cox’s series of self-portraits play out Rajé’s adventures, in which she invests the comic book pin-up with the power to battle racism and sexism in the real world.(21) Most recently, painter Shonagh Adelman similarly conjured the illustrated pin-up in her Playgirls series. But, rather than morphing the two-dimensional beings into flesh-and-blood women, Adelman’s works highlight instead the grotesque quality of the pin-up. Dividing the unattainable bodies of women appropriated from comics, fashion photography, and cheesecake illustration into thirds, Adelman reproduces and "reassembles" the sources into seamlessly merged, tripartite paintings based on the Surrealist "exquisite corpse" drawing game. In what the artist calls a "Frankenstein spectacle," the works are deceptively accessible; once lured by the familiarity and technical mastery of these luscious pin-ups, one must simultaneously confront the monstrous nature of their size, aggressive presence and cut-and-paste construction.(22)
So, where amid the Miss Chicagos and Frankenstein spectacles can we place the Varga Girl? As implausible as it seems to us today, with our nostalgic view of the WWII era, the Varga Girl was part of a similar dialogue--a dialogue in which women’s increased and socially-sanctioned agency in the public sphere raised questions pertaining to the place of their simultaneous sense of sexual agency. I would like to consider the Varga Girl in the context of this dialogue, where she affected and was affected by women’s progress in the public sphere as well as these women’s new roles in setting the terms of heterosexual desire in their private lives. Existing in a space between pornography and portraiture, from its origins the pin-up presented women with a template for representing one’s sexuality implicitly as opposed to explicitly--with all the play, guises, and control that accompanies this kind of highly posed portraiture. The Varga Girl’s legacy would be in her assertion that the pin-up could be everywoman; and that every woman could similarly be free to exude a sense of her confidence, capability, and sexual power. Through appropriations by women and men alike during WWII, the Varga Girl would contribute to the genre’s transformation away from its earlier association with the exciting but morally corrupt and socially marginal female. As such, the Varga Girl can be interpreted as an image of womanhood that embodied the plurality and contradictions of female sexuality while helping to make this transgressive model a potentially wholesome ideal for young women. Moreover, she represents an era in American history in which such an unstable identity for women was popularly accepted and celebrated (at least for "the duration")--an acceptance that feminist artists would reference and attempt to regain for generations afterward in their postwar appropriations of the genre.
Although recognizable pin-up "types" exist and originated in fine arts precedents, feminist art historian Abigail Solomon-Godeau has argued that the pin-up as we understand it today has its true origins in the nineteenth century. It was at mid-century when bourgeois influence and tastes, and modern reproductive techniques in print and photographic imagery converged to make the spectacle of female sexuality a popular commodity. The genre as it emerged from early fine arts types--sexually charged representations of women ranging from the Greek Late Classical Aphrodite of Knidos to Goya’s Majas of the early 1800s--focused on a lone female figure, attractive by contemporary standards, in various states of undress. However, the pin-up distinguished itself by stripping the image of the academic or allegorical pretenses that gave reason for the women’s state of nudity or arousal. The resulting genre is defined succinctly by Solomon-Godeau as "an image type... predicated on the relative isolation of its feminine motif through the reduction or outright elimination of narrative, literary, or mythological allusion.... [and a] decontextualization, reduction or distillation of the image of femininity to a subject in and of itself."(23) Also unlike the fine art images that it partially appropriated, the pin-up was aimed at a popular audience that could only afford such an image if cheaply mass-reproduced. Designed for such broad appeal, it by necessity differed also from explicit, pornographic imagery--which had by the mid-nineteenth century only recently attained a separate distinction from other forms of art and literature.(24) As such, the genre that emerged from these criteria depicted the implicit sexuality of the contemporary female, whose representational distinction from privately and guardedly consumed pornography--through the conscious elimination or strategic covering of the genital area, and artful posing according to the tenets of academic painting--allowed it to be widely and openly reproduced, distributed and displayed. These very qualities would later lead to the genre's WWII christening as the "pin-up" when such images were tacked to surfaces for exhibition in a semi-public space.
The media and promotional uses of the pin-up--through popular prints, photographs, and magazines--afforded the genre a fluctuating visibility to different genders and classes in the years before its rise as a popular culture icon in WWII. From the genre’s origins in the mid-nineteenth century, the pin-up was utilized for the representation of celebrities--particularly female burlesque performers, whose performances were becoming increasingly popular with both male and female audiences. Simultaneously, the earliest and most affordable of mass-reproducible photographs, the carte de visite (taken from the French term for "calling card," which the images resembled in size and use) was invented and allowed for both cheaply-made portraiture of private citizens and widely-reproduced imagery of public figures. Taking advantage of the middle-class craze for collecting cartes de visite, ambitious actresses found a medium through which they could promote both their shows and own celebrity. The cartes de visite of actresses like Adah Isaacs Menken and Lydia Thompson featured the women in their most scandalous roles and costumes, which both shocked and delighted the Victorian audiences that viewed their often satirical, cross-dressing performances as a kind of world-upside-down. Bourgeois collectors, particularly women, vied for the largest, most complete albums of contemporary personalities, in much the same way baseball or Pokémon card collectors do today. Eventually, burlesque performers not only became acceptable personalities within the theatre, but their images (and influence) infiltrated Victorian homes through the carte album. As "respectable" bourgeois women came to idealize these increasingly visible actresses of the demimonde, their own attempts at imitating their theatrical idols threatened to blur traditional distinctions between the domestic angel and streetwalker. Soon enough, the theatre was recognized as a corrupting influence on otherwise decent (but, alas, impressionable) bourgeois women; and the pin-up, like the taboo-breaking performers it represented, was deemed appropriate only for the delectation of male audiences.(25)
By the turn of the century, the pin-up continued to represent that which was accepted within societal limits of such mass-reproduced, sexual imagery: working-class women, dancers and actresses. These women's transgressive display of self-aware sexuality was viewed as both part-and-parcel of their class or trade, which instantly distinguished them from the domestic, bourgeois "true woman," whose passionlessness and asexuality were virtues that the pin-up genre was ill suited to idealize.(26) However, as more young women joined the work force, and more privileged women took to enrolling in colleges and choosing professions before or over marriage, women's presence in the public sphere increased exponentially. By the early twentieth century the "public woman" could no longer serve as a euphemism for the prostitute. Illustrator Charles Dana Gibson’s feminine types based on the new, educated, and independent young woman of the period debuted in Life magazine in 1890, and later graced the pages of Harper’s, Scribners, and countless bookplates. The "Gibson Girl" made a pin-up of a new subject: the middle- and upper class "new woman"--who replaced the Victorian "true woman" as the quintessential feminine ideal--whose style and attitude influenced male desire and women’s culture through to the 1920’s.(27) With a confidence and sexual self-awareness that less resembled the new woman’s well-bred mother than it did the burlesque performers of her mother’s youth, the Gibson Girl eased the pin-up genre away from its questionable associations with the demimonde. By the time she joined the propaganda campaigns of WWI as a stand-in for the American girl, Gibson suggested that there was a real woman in every pin-up. By the time of the United States’ involvement in the next World War, however, real women would wonder instead if there might be a pin-up in every one of them.
After the Gibson Girl’s demise with the rise of the fast-living "flapper," Esquire magazine picked up Life’s mantle in elevating the social status and visibility of the illustrated pin-up girl. In what one feminist historian has argued as "the first thoroughgoing, conscious attempt to organize a consuming male audience," Esquire was founded in 1933 and inspired by the period’s explosive growth of the men's clothing trade.(28) The magazine was originally intended for distribution primarily through male clothiers, modeling itself after the ladies’ fashion journals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by merging fashion news with articles on contemporary culture and lifestyles. However, popular demand for the innovative men's magazine was so great that 95,000 copies of the premier issue were recalled from clothing stores and redistributed to newsstands.(29) In addition to the magazine's interest in documenting fashion trends, Esquire also sought to cultivate a reputation as a literary and cultural leader, publishing essays and fiction by such luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway, and providing its readership with erudite articles on contemporary art, music, films and American politics. The magazine's most popular features, however, were its "girlie" cartoons. Their subjects were, like the Gibson Girls, the glamorous, white, upper-class women of the American nouveau riche. However, Gibson’s comparatively modest young ladies of the eastern seaboard were players in urbane excursions or drawing room morality tales. Esquire’s women were, like the flappers of the Hollywood fanzine, represented in various states of undress and (often humorous) "modern" sexual situations. The conflation of these two seemingly irreconcilable female ideals was part and parcel of Esquire’s appeal: combining cultural sophistication and bawdy humor in what one critic succinctly defined as "a heavy load of excellence with a fine streak of vulgarity."(30)
Illustrators E. Simms Campbell, Alex Raymond, and Howard Baer, and photographer George Hurrell helped construct the ideal Esquire woman in the magazine’s one-panel comics and photo features. However, the most famous artist of the magazine's early years was George Petty. His wildly popular "Petty Girls" were primped and sporty cuties that began life as subjects of his one-panel comics. The ladies were accompanied by gag caption one-liners, which generally quoted their comical reactions to the ogling viewers ("Oh, you would, would you?", or pouty responses to the sugar daddy at the other end of her phone receiver. In December 1939, the Petty Girls moved from the one-page, single-panel comic narrative format to a foldout centerfold of her own. In these, all narrative indicators (save the gag-line) were reduced to the point that the Petty Girls eventually occupied a blank, white space, where her physique, costume (or lack thereof), and expression were literally the sole focus of the image. Rarely addressing the always-presumed male viewer with her gaze, and toothily grinning for his approval on the rare occasions that she did, by 1940 the Petty Girl was thoroughly established as a naïf whose only real talent, much less profession, involved charming men out of their money.
As Petty's popularity increased with Esquire readers, and his outside advertising commissions skyrocketed, so too did his monetary demands from the magazine. By 1940, Esquire actively sought a comparable but inexpensive replacement for the artist, which they found in Alberto Vargas. A self-taught painter, Vargas’ only art training came from a childhood apprenticeship with his photographer father, where he had been taught to manipulate an airbrush--which would eventually become his "brush" of choice as a watercolorist. After attending private boarding schools in Paris and Zurich to complete his liberal arts education, his interest in a career as an artist grew. In these cities, Vargas was exposed to the academic work of neo-classicist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, as well as that of popular continental illustrators Raphael Kirchner and Alphonse Mucha, whose styles he assimilated and juxtaposed in his own paintings. In 1916, twenty-year-old Vargas was detained in New York City on the way to a photography apprenticeship in London--an appointment to which he never arrived. Of this soon-to-be permanent layover in the United States, Vargas wrote of his motives for staying: "From every building came torrents of girls. . . I had never seen anything like it. Hundreds of girls with an air of self-assuredness and determination that said: ‘Here I am, how do you like me?’ This certainly was not the Spanish, Swiss, or French girl."(31) In the heyday of the new woman, the suffrage movement, and the Gibson Girl, Vargas had come to America and was dazzled by these audacious young women. Although it cost him both the apprenticeship and financial support of his disapproving father, Vargas remained in the U.S., determined to make a career as painter.
After his surprising move, and a short stint as a hat illustrator at Butterick Patterns, Vargas found the perfect place to start learning about and representing American women: he began working for Florenz Ziegfeld--himself the self-proclaimed "glorifier of the American Girl"--where he joined his hero Kirchner as a Follies portraitist.(32) Here, the artist was responsible for painting the Ziegfeld Follies’ actresses for theatre displays and sheet music covers, the popularity of which led to commissions from theatrical and society patrons. Combining Ingres' fantastical idealization of the feminine figure; Mucha’s and Kirschner’s deification of theatrical femmes fatale; and the ideal of the smart and social new woman borrowed from Gibson, Vargas sought to create an image of a twentieth-century goddess that fit what he viewed as the country’s uniquely sophisticated and independent woman. Not surprisingly, by the ‘30s Vargas had relocated to Hollywood and was accepting commissions from Paramount, Twentieth-Century Fox and Warner Brothers, where he worked as both a set designer and portraitist. His knack for flattering the type of modern woman populating the screen and fanzine was well suited to the promotion of Depression-era sirens like Marlene Dietrich, Alice Faye, and Barbara Stanwyck --all of whom Vargas painted.
After having been blacklisted by Hollywood studios for taking part in unionized walkouts, Vargas began working for Esquire in 1940 as the Petty replacement that the magazine had sought to groom. The artist, desperate for work and unfamiliar with publishing issues such as reproduction and ownership rights, accepted the magazine’s $75 weekly salary. In this arrangement, the artist would produce pin-up imagery on demand, which the magazine would own outright--a fraction of the $1500 that Petty would receive per image by 1941, an agreement in which Petty also retained ownership of and reproduction rights to his work. Esquire then dubbed the artist "Varga"--citing reasons ranging from a wish to distance the artist from "fascist-leaning" Brazilian President Getulio Vargas to publisher David Smart’s claim that the name simply sounded more "euphonious"--a name that the magazine, not the artist, would own.(33) As one could well imagine, in the long run these terms would prove disastrous to Vargas’ career and legacy, but in the meantime the artist was thrilled to be filling the shoes of the legendary George Petty.
Vargas' first fantasy pin-up appeared as a gatefold in the October 1940 issue, in which the pressure for the artist to live up to the precedent set by Petty was apparent (October 1940 gatefold). The telephone scenario and accompanying gold-digger verse of this first "Varga Girl" were perfectly in keeping with Petty's style. However, the dramatic, lingerie-clad figure striking an artfully foreshortened pose was a complete departure from Petty's cheery naïfs. The subtly-colored and -shadowed blonde lounged languidly with a slightly bemused expression that contrasted writer Phil Stack’s exclamatory verse about the woman at hand falling for the previous evening’s disastrous date only after the girlfriend on the other line informs her of said date’s silver mines. ("AS RICH AS THAT? He surely doesn’t show it . . . MY GOD! I’ve been in love and didn’t know it!") (34) Thankfully, by Vargas' third Esquire pin-up he began to shrug off the baggage of the Petty prototype and returned to the glamour-goddess style of his earlier work (January 1941 gatefold). Defying the full-body format that Esquire’s centerfold was devised to accommodate, this January 1941 Varga Girl was a head-and-shoulders rendering of a meticulously-coiffed masquerader in a strapless feather bodice ("Your bodice, oh, my goddess/ Proves that you and love have wings!").(35) Following the style of this centerfold, Vargas’ women, poses, and compositions began more closely resembling his Ziegfeld and Hollywood portraiture than the magazine’s usual nude-with-a-narrative. Two months after the 1940 introduction of the Varga Girl, Esquire confidently published the first Vargas calendar, with a unique new pin-up girl for every month. The magazine previewed the calendar’s images in the December 1940 issue, and in one fell swoop doubled Vargas’ annual output for the magazine. This debut Vargas calendar (as would the seven that followed it) made history by becoming the best-selling calendar of any kind worldwide in the year it was released. Eventually, Esquire would commission Varga Girl playing cards, notepads, and print series from the artist, all of which propelled the girls’ images far beyond the magazine’s pages.(36)
Shortly after her debut in Esquire, The New Yorker’s "Talk of the Town" made note of the Varga Girl’s decidedly unladylike exhibitionism with the now-famous quip that Vargas "could make a girl look nude if she were rolled up in a rug." The same column made note of the manner in which his women were "faultless in limb and shaping, curved with strange magics."(37) In fact, Vargas' freakishly "faultless" women uncannily mirrored the Odalisques of his hero, Ingres. Like Ingres' career-long disfigurement of the human figure in the name of sensual pleasure (his famous Grande Odalisque prominently featured three extra vertebrae in her seductively-exposed back), Vargas embellished freely upon his renderings of the female body in order to exaggerate their sensuality.(38) The Varga Girls' impossibly long legs ran derriere-lessly into their waists (October 1941 calendar); their ample breasts spread irrationally far across their chests; their doll-like and fetishistically detailed feet teetered on pumps rendered with equally lavish attention ( April 1942 calendar); and even eighteenth-century period drag clung to their bodies like the wet peploi of Hellenistic marble goddesses (August 1942 gatefold). Adding to the Varga Girls' unsettling perfection was Vargas' airbrush technique. With the controlled paint-sprays of the tool, Vargas held enormous control over the subtleties that the artist chose to heighten their look. With the same instrument used to paint the flawlessly gleaming finishes of American roadsters and coupes, Vargas conjured up lemon meringue blondes with bodies just as steely and dangerous as anything rolling off the assembly lines in Detroit. In contrast, Vargas meticulously rendered details such as eyes, lips, feet and hands with extra-fine sable brushes that lifted the subjects' gazes, gestures, and accessories forcefully off the page (October 1941 gatefold and November 1945 calendar). All the action took place in a surreal void that seemed the result of the women’s refusal to accept anything on the page that might detract from the viewer’s undivided attention to their person. In fact, the Varga Girls didn’t seem to like any company of any kind: during Vargas’ six-year association with Esquire they appeared only once as a duo, once as a trio, and once with a man. Engaging the viewers with their forward, even predatory gazes and beckoning gestures while distancing them with the shimmering solidity of their impossible figures and spectral surroundings, they aimed to entice but not necessarily to invite.
Interestingly enough, Vargas’ fantastical women were supposedly modeled after life-studies of his wife, former follies dancer Anna Mae Clift, and a movie usher, Jeanne Dean, whom he had discovered as a teenager.(39) While the figural studies of Clift and Dean do explain why Vargas’ figures seemed to generally come in two flavors--either tall and athletically toned like the former, or petite and curvaceous like the latter--his composite style in fashioning each pin-up guaranteed that they would be chimeral. As we will see, the Varga Girls’ dependence upon shifting ideals of beauty and womanhood from popular culture guaranteed that she would change along with the American women that first inspired the artist.
Regardless of the magazine’s months of breathless, anticipatory Vargas propaganda, such differences were certainly not appreciated by all of Esquire’s readers, who were used to thinking about the Petty Girl as the Esquire girl. The first letter on the subject was immediate, and representative of complaints to follow, from one Richard J. Langston, who wrote in the December 1940 issue:
We (the readers) have missed the shapely Petty Girl, but her absence is not nearly so disappointing as your giving us a substitute such as this one. She is good, yes, and shapely too, but she is not what we have been wanting--and getting. . . . Miss Varga looks far more hardened and callous than the inviting, yet more reserved, Betty Petty. . . .The Varga Girl is desirable in her own sort of way, but she, unlike Papa Petty’s creation, is not as likely to be taken out in public.
Women’s beauty is--and should be--judged from the standpoint of that which would make her most desirable to men. We want a female who is a lady in the daytime and a woman at night. . . . [Petty’s] women have their emphasis in such a manner as to make one take them in the belief that such women really exist--and they do.(40)
Langston’s comments would be highly representative of those from Petty fans, for whom the Varga Girl reflected a decadence and sexual self-awareness absent in the Petty Girl.
Others, however, saw in these same "hardened and callous" qualities a sophistication and complexity that they cheered. In response to several male subscribers’ anti-Vargas letters, one female reader wrote to defend the new artist’s women over Petty’s. Her comments about the Vargas vs. Petty debate speak not only to the different appeal of each illustrator, but also more subtly to a desire for men like Langston to approach women’s sexuality as a part of their whole being--a manner that she apparently felt Vargas had over Petty. This reader, "A.K.V" of Dallas, spoke directly to Langston’s above comments when she wrote,
My colleagues (female) and myself have decided that a Varga girl (if such could breathe) would be at least understandable, while a Petty wench is something you view with lifted eyebrow and censor your thoughts . . .. [Langston’s comment,] ‘we want a female who is a lady in the daytime and a woman at night,’ simply slayed [sic] me, as I did not know there was such a vast chasm between night and day.(41)
Apparently, the Varga Girl struck a chord with female readers like A.K.V, for whom this particular pin-up represented a more believable image of female sexuality. Letters such as this represent an Esquire audience that historians rarely take account of--its large female readership. The "dialogue" between readers like Langston and A.K.V. signaled more than friction in the change from the Petty to the Varga era in Esquire. It foreshadows another, broader dialogue in American society that would soon occur when both female sexual ideals and women’s role in constructing them goes through a dramatic makeover after the U.S. joined WWII in December of 1941. As the war instigated drastic changes in gender dynamics in both the public and private spheres, the Varga Girl came to serve as an icon for the many ways in which new, wartime ideals of women’s sexuality related to by such changes.
Within the first year of Esquire's Varga Girls, they had begun to find their own identity. The magazine dropped the Petty-esque gag-line jabs at the gatefold girls and replaced them with the adulatory verse of Phil Stack, constructing the Girls as women to be worshiped, not ridiculed. As early as April 1941--eight months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor--Vargas' pin-ups and Stack's text came to not only praise the Varga Girls' beauty and underscore her sexuality, but also to give them a "voice" as a patriotic ideal for American womanhood. Between 1942 and 1945, almost every gatefold and most calendar captions would address the war in some way, and gatefolds like "Yours to Command" (October 1941 gatefold), "Victory Song" (August 1942 gatefold), and "Peace, It’s Wonderful!" (April 1943 gatefold) represented women in military garb and insignias with correspondingly patriotic poems. Still contributing the occasional pin-up to the magazine, George Petty's military women of the period were predictably represented as charmingly gullible girls playing "dress-up" in masculine drag. In a July 1941 centerfold the Petty Girl, on all fours and talking to a ragdoll and wearing just the jacket and hat of a Navy officer, tells the doll childishly, "--so take my advice and just bet your shirt," when dealing with military men.(42) Varga Girls, on the other hand, were sexualized, yet pointedly active women usurping and clothed in the accoutrements of male power, learning drills and semaphore (April 1945 gatefold). The first real "recruit" was a WAAC (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) in the 1943 calendar (December 1943 calendar), who announced, "I’m off to join the WAACs/ and serve the country that I love/ until the Axis cracks!"(43) Later, Vargas represented a Navy WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), mid-push-up, in the 1944 calendar (April 1942 calendar), proclaiming: "I’m going to join the Navy WAVES/ and help the war to halt/ and also show my navy beau/ that I am worth my salt!"
Suffice it to say that many male soldiers in WWII took just as strong a liking to the Varga Girls as the Girls had to military drag. The military demand for Vargas’ pin-ups eventually became such that from 1942 to 1946 Esquire printed nine million copies of the magazine--without advertisements and free of charge--and sent them to American troops stationed overseas and in domestic military bases. In addition to the magazine, Varga Girl calendars circulated widely, and Esquire eventually commissioned extra Varga Girl pin-ups prepared specifically for and reproduced exclusively on the back covers of the free "Military Editions" (March 1944 military issue). Swept up in the context of the "good fight," the Varga Girls were no longer the monthly centerfold that spiced up reading in the pre-war study or breakfast table, but a liaison to the homefront and a metaphor for the American girl. Bob Hope summed up the Varga Girls' overwhelmingly strong connection with American GIs when he proclaimed: "Our American troops are ready to fight at the drop of an Esquire."(44)
Nowhere was the Varga Girls' role in this capacity more prevalent than in their exhibition and appropriation by the American military troops. Addressing the "travels" of the Varga Girl in a 1944 editor’s note, Esquire’s editor-in-chief, Arnold Gingrich reminded readers that "there’s no doubt which pages cover more territory than the rest of the magazine put together."(45) Letters from GIs poured into Esquire, detailing the ways in which Varga Girls accompanied U.S. soldiers overseas. They hung alongside photos of friends, mom, and F.D.R. in the barracks and officers' quarters alike, graced the inside walls of tanks and planes, and even shared foxhole spaces with young soldiers. In an image that stresses the almost religious iconicity of the WWII pin-up, one Marine Corps photo sent to Esquire shows the August 1943 Vargas centerfold unrolled on the deck of a landing barge and meditated upon by Marines approaching the Japanese-held South Pacific island of Tarawa (Gilbert Islands), which burns ominously before them.(46) More than just a diversion, in the words of one soldier, these women provided "the background to danger."(47)
Significantly, the most common and most recognized appropriation of the Varga Girls was in the nose art of WWII bombers. Considering the talismanic quality of the Varga Girl for many soldiers, it should come as no surprise that they were often reproduced for good luck on these planes. Moreover, the Varga Girl’s hypersexual physique and prosaic innuendo shaped her into a creature whose sexuality tended to be more than a little fearsome. . Although there was the occasional "girl next door" type--caught in mundane domestic acts of yard work or dressing, looking on in a moment of dreamy repose--in image and prose, the Varga Girls were remarkably aggressive about their sexual desires and prowess. The centerfold of February 1941 reclines in orgasmic abandon, recalling "that inn tiny inn we sought when night would fall/ The candlelight . . . the wine . . . and you and I."(48) The racy November 1942 centerfold (November 1942 centerfold) rocked back on her satiny dressing-room ottoman--wielding a riding crop with a devious grin--while the text’s narrator informs the viewers: "I bet she wears the pants forevermore!"(49) The August 1943 calendar girl stretches luxuriously, aware that "All the men who pass me by/ Just look at me . . .and swelter!" And the shockingly saucy Miss July in the 1944 calendar (July 1944 calendar) throws a knowing look at the viewer in the midst of a highly suggestive yoga pose to say: "I’m learning some commando tricks/ for keeping fit, they’re dandy/ and when you men come home again/ they’re apt to come in handy!"(50) Whether through their abbreviated choice of gown (June 1944 centerfold and June 1945 calendar) or randy honeymoon behavior (June 41 gatefold), even Vargas’ June brides hardly seemed virginal.
Varga Girls were painted on Army bombers that were named in honor of the ladies represented--often taken directly from the titles of Stack’s poems that accompanied the pin-ups. Gary Valant’s catalog of WWII bomber art includes dozens of bombers on which Varga Girls appeared, menacingly dubbed "The Dark Angel," "Double Trouble" , and "War Goddess". One bomber pilot wrote Esquire to testify that "the Varga beauty stenciled onto his bomber made a German pilot come within gun range for a better look."(51) A specially designed Varga Girl created by the artist for a U.S. bomber squadron is a wild-eyed, scarlet-clothed blonde that coaxed allied missiles--seeming to spring forth from beneath her skirt--toward their targets. Even the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) had a pin-up mascot painted on the noses of their planes in the form of a curvy sprite, Fifinella, designed specifically for the WASPs by Walt Disney. As feminist historian Elaine Tyler May has noted, to parallel the pin-up's overt sexuality with the generally male-identified implements of destruction (and liberation), female sexuality represented in such a manner would have to be associated with danger and strength. As such, bomber art pin-ups further underscore the power with which modern women so represented became invested during WWII.(52) Like Miss August headed toward Tawara, the use of contemporary pin-ups as bomber-nose mascots--to serve as a sort of troop "protectress"--demonstrated how the genre’s use by the military could symbolically reverse the traditional roles of male/protector, female/protected.
Of course, American soldiers were aware that it was not fantasy women helping to win the war. As demonstrated by a 1944 Cy Hungerford war effort poster, Varga Girls weren’t the only kind of pin-up girl admired in the military. Standing before Rosie the Riveter--the icon for the female home front war worker--a sailor, a soldier, and an airman give a thumbs-up salute to "Their real pin-up girl."(53) As the pool of male workers drained from the American labor force to the military overseas, the government campaign of which Hungerford’s poster was a part forcefully promoted the notion that it was not only necessary but also fashionable, and even sexy for women to enter the work force. After the abrupt end of the Great Depression with America’s entry into WWII, the new economy was desperate for any workers to fill the void left by men leaving the home front. President Roosevelt’s 1942 Columbus Day speech directly addressed the fact that traditional biases privileging white, male workers would not be tolerated in the wartime work force: "In some communities employers dislike to hire women. In others they are reluctant to hire Negroes. We can no longer afford to indulge such prejudice."(54) As a result, women and people of color on the home front were soon asked to learn to perform roles that years--even months--earlier had been deemed beyond their physical and intellectual capabilities. Hungerford’s simple propaganda poster was part of the visual culture that would help instigate the dramatic shift in American attitudes toward workingwomen that would occur during WWII, during which 60% of the female population would find themselves working outside the home before the war’s end in September of 1945.(55)
Hungerford’s poster reflects the influence of the American government’s "womanpower" campaign, through which groups like the War Manpower Commission and the Office of War Information sought to make war jobs appear both patriotic and glamorous to women. In such campaigns the government recruited the News, Motion Picture, Graphics, Magazine, and Radio bureaus in influencing the industries they monitored to depict women in industry and the military as models of patriotism, wholesomeness, and even romance.(56) However, these campaigns often pointedly glorified the American housewife, as either a current or future "profession" for women, urging women to maintain their pre-war housekeeping and childrearing duties. These campaigns also overtly stressed the notion of "the duration" to the women that they were recruiting. Women were constantly reminded that soldiers would expect their jobs back upon their return. For those with notions of working up in their professions, a glass ceiling often kept women from becoming too useful or comfortable in home front positions they attained. On the one hand, these strategies helped the national objection to wives working outside the home plummet from 80 percent during the Great Depression to 13 percent by 1942.(57) On the other hand, the phenomenon of what historian Leila Rupp calls "the housewife-turned-factory-worker came into the limelight," reminding women of their "real" domestic identity at the same time it encouraged them to work outside the home.(58) Such mixed messages that women were given pertaining to their wartime role on the home front represent an ominous shadow that followed all women’s gains in the public sphere during this era.
However, it can also be argued that the contradictions resulting from the country’s conflation of women’s traditional and non-traditional roles ultimately encouraged women to reconcile qualities of both within themselves in different ways than the "housewife-turned-factory-worker." In fact, particularly for young and single women, it seemed that this contradiction represented a delicious manner through which they could re-shape their personal balance of propriety and progressiveness. And their experiments in self-reinvention were not limited to their roles as workers. As they encountered both difficulties and successes in their entry to the newly integrated public sphere, women also discovered the power and problems that their sexuality posed in relations with their male counterparts. Naturally, once on their own in sex-integrated workplaces, there was ample opportunity for women to be sexually harassed and exploited by male colleagues and superiors. As aircraft worker Stella Vanderlindel Always put it, often times male supervisors demanded, "Either you ‘came across’ or else."(59) Simultaneously, women were themselves often blamed for the "distraction" they posed in the workplace and forbidden from wearing sweaters or form-fitting clothing.(60) Oral histories prove that many women nonetheless dealt with issues of sexual harassment and double standards with the same wit and determination that they did other workplace obstacles, often with the help of both female and male colleagues. Machinist and self-described "tomboy" Phyllis Kenney Skinner threatened one male worker with a punch, and swung a piece of machinery at another when their flirtations became unwelcome. "I wasn’t that type of girl to begin with. Very shy, and I was raised very strictly . . .. I said, ‘This is to let any of you know that I’m not that type of person.’ And from then on, I was Miss Kenney."(61) One welder, Julie Raymond Elliot, was taught by a male supervisor to fend off unwanted advances by striking an arc with her welding gun, creating a painful flash for the unprepared aggressor.(62) Librarian Josephine Carson recalled how women escaped their boss’ groping by a system of coded warnings from woman to woman, devised to inform those working alone in the stacks of when the perpetrator was coming.(63) Many other women discovered the power in such organization; some groups even collaborated in "reverse discrimination," learning that when "men were faced with catcalls, whistles, and sexual aggression by women, their own misbehavior stopped."(64)
Through such scenarios, both positive and negative, women of unprecedented numbers and different classes were for the first time forced to confront and address the issues that their own sexuality posed in the public sphere. While surely frightening for many, it also encouraged others to explore the pleasures of their newfound sexual awareness and confidence. With a professional reason to escape the confines of the home, as well as to move from rural to urban areas, young women had freedom to reinvent themselves and explore their sexuality outside of marriage and without parental supervision. Their generation had unprecedented personal and economic freedoms, and opportunities to meet single men on a relatively level professional field. Moreover, these women witnessed birth control’s first steps into the mainstream with the formation of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942.(65) Then-college student Kay Hearn remembered that the difference between a girl’s sexual life before and during the war seemed immediate and dramatic: "All of a sudden, you were just a play girl . . . We’d party as much as we could."(66) Writer Sean Elder’s mother confessed that patriotism alone didn’t send her to enlist in the Marines: "It was something to do and it was exciting. And besides, there were men around."(67) Winston Ehrmann’s 1959 study of Premarital Dating Behavior of the WWII era included stories of young women who approached sex with "a feeling of high adventure," as well as young men recalling the extent to which working girls were "on the make." In the heady environment of WWII, one young man matter-of-factly asserted: "The times were conducive for this sort of thing."(68) John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman note that where it was the issue of prostitution that worried moralists during WWI, "by the 1940s, it was the behavior of ‘amateur girls’" that was cause for concern. D’Emilio and Freedman cite the period’s proliferation of new and not necessarily derogatory names for these sexually adventurous women--"khaki-wackies, victory girls, and good-time Charlottes"--as evidence of the extent to which women’s sexual agency was both widely expressed and accepted during wartime.(69)
Regardless of moralists’ fears, the establishment of the United Service Organization (USO) showed the extent to which even the government sanctioned young people’s mingling and romancing for "the duration." Founded in 1941 at President Roosevelt’s request, the USO recruited young women to entertain male troops through morale-boosting performances overseas and in home front facilities for soldiers on leave--serving homemade food, sponsoring dances, and planning outings--where older women served as temporary moms and young women served as temporary sweethearts.(70) Although the organization did everything it could to keep the festivities chaste, young women easily figured out ways to skirt the rules. Catherine Ott would spend her weekends home from college at the Rhode Island USO canteen run by her mother and rendezvous with young soldiers after hours. She noted, "You weren’t supposed to leave the building with men, so we would leave alone and meet them around the corner. There [were] always ways of getting around things like that."(71) In this environment, where sexually active young ladies were no longer necessarily "tramps," but "victory girls," women constructed new and positive ways of publicly expressing and representing their sexual agency. Unmediated by many of the traditional influences that kept women’s sexuality tied exclusively to their roles as wives or mothers, women were able to relate their sexuality to their own desires and pleasure in much the same way they might relate their jobs to the same. Ultimately, the necessary sexual awareness taught or developed in the public sphere not only served to make women more protective and controlling of their sexuality; it also encouraged them to construct a feminine ideal that reconciled traditional elements of beauty and glamour with new attributes of strength, independence, and bravery.(72) As an icon for the active, desiring, and desirable woman, the pin-up girl fit the bill as a template through which these women might represent their reinvented selves.
In images like Hungerford’s, directed at female factory workers, we see the artist using the subject of the pin-up to appeal to this type of woman who, if she did not already see herself as a pin-up-styled subject of some man’s admiration was certainly being encouraged to do so by forces ranging from Hollywood to the White House. In fact, pin-up artists were commissioned by the armed forces for the precise purpose of using their talents toward flattering and glamorizing women toward the recruitment of women. This tactic was not new; during WWI Charles Dana Gibson led the Division of Pictorial Publicity, where he and other popular artists created recruitment posters for the war. Gibson and fellow pin-up artist Howard Chandler Christy (creator of the Gibson Girl’s main competitor, the Christy Girl) each utilized the female figures they were famous for in home front propaganda.(73) However, Gibson reinvented his formerly feisty girls as modest "house managers" soldiering in the kitchen, and the Christy Girl was put not toward enlisting her fellow young women, but the recruitment of young men. During WWII, rather than tempering the sexuality of recruitment pin-ups, the same bold and glamorous types seen in Esquire were utilized for recruiting women for war jobs, nurse corps, and the military. The first Coast Guard SPAR (taken from their motto, Semper Paratus, or "always ready") to leave Esquire’s home base of Chicago was rewarded with a pin-up portrait by Vargas. Even George Petty was commissioned to create a (hardly heroic but certainly enthusiastic) Navy WAVE--who seemed far better suited to her Navy blues than his earlier Petty Girl’s attempt with the uniform. Rejected by the draft, legendary calendar artist Al Buell "served" the country by glamorizing military women for Brown and Bigelow’s calendars. His military recruitment poster, "Join", is a perfect example of the pin-up put to work for the war. Surrounded by the hats of six different military corps, a glamorous young redhead muses over her choice of the many professions that she is implored--and, by implication, qualified--to join. In images such as these, young women were not only encouraged to follow active, "masculine" paths in the public sphere, but reminded of their choices among these paths in what must have felt like an abundance of traditionally subversive opportunities. These posters utilized the pin-up for all her seductiveness, sass, and self-assurance--the same qualities she possessed in magazines like Esquire, but wrapped in slightly more fabric and aimed specifically at women. Through propagandistic uses such as these, still subversively tinted with the naughtiness with which the genre was born, during WWII the pin-up would come to serve as an increasingly acceptable ideal for women’s sexual self-expression.
In the same way that women surely saw their own reflection in the illustrated recruitment pin-ups of WWII, it seems that many similarly saw the Varga Girl not as an unattainable fantasy of the heterosexual male imagination, but an ideal they could both associate with and aspire toward.(74) Contrary to contemporary assumptions that the Varga Girl (and Esquire magazine) were enjoyed by an exclusively male audience, we find her presence in such contexts where she would not only have been highly visible to women, but there as the result of what one can assume was her already existing popularity with a female audience. By the start of the war, women were certainly familiar with her; in the very same issue as the first Varga Girl, an Esquire reader-poll appeared that indicated nearly three-quarters of the "gentlemen's magazine" subscriptions were in fact read by women, for whom the magazines illustrations were the number one attraction.(75) During the war, advertisers courted Esquire’s female readership, frequently targeting women in ads that encouraged them to purchase consumer items both for themselves and the men for whom they presumably shopped.(76) Esquire followed suit by occasionally publishing women’s fashion features that complemented theme-based men’s features. In fact, if one reads the magazine’s letters section, "The Sound and the Fury," throughout the ‘40s, women’s letters were frequently published--many written solely to remind the male editors and readers that the magazine had a broad audience that included women, whose presence they should consider in features, cartoons, and advertisements. (As writer Marion W. Scholten put it: "You can be a Ph.D. or a bum and enjoy Esquire. And whether people know it or not you can be a twenty-year-old minister’s daughter at that and still appreciate it. [I’m one.]"(77)
The Varga Girls were interesting enough to Esquire’s female audience that reportedly one-fourth of Vargas' fan mail was from women--who wrote not just in support of his work, or for advice on how they could emulate the Varga Girls' style, but asking how they could get into a career as pin-up illustrators. A 13-year-old aspiring artist even sent Vargas her own pin-up drawings, which she asked him to contemplate and critique.(78) One magazine introduced an Indiana "Varga Club," in their report on Midwestern "sub-deb clubs" for high school girls.(79) Varga Girls taken from Esquire’s centerfolds and calendars were used for home front War Bond ads aimed at women (imploring them to give "Something for the Boys," as well as a Varga Girl ad campaign for Jergens cosmetics. In fact, Jergens not only encouraged women to "Be his Pin-up Girl," but did so by associating real-life, Caucasian makeup colors with particular Varga "types"--with signed testimonials by Vargas and packaged in a special compact designed by the artist. The homefront-girl-as-Varga-Girl theme was realized perhaps most vividly in the 1943 film, DuBarry Was a Lady, in which Vargas’ pin-ups came to life as real women during the musical number "I Love an Esquire Girl."(80) Through all these appearances, the Varga Girl’s increased visibility to and association with real home front women helped make the pin-up genre itself a greater and more personal part of women’s culture than ever before.
In WWII constructions of the pin-up ideal--particularly Vargas’ pin-ups, whose "fantasy" personae afforded them license to be more daring--women so represented were almost invariably depicted in sexually aggressive and self-aware poses, engaging the viewer with a direct gaze that underscored the figure’s confidence in her sexuality. As such, the genre provided a dramatic template through which contemporary women on the home front could construct themselves; at once both conventionally feminine, and transgressively aware of her own power for sexual agency. Also, by reinventing themselves as pin-ups through self-portraiture, home front women found a method for supplanting their images--and new identity--overseas in place of the "fantasy" pin-ups appropriated by soldiers.
Eventually, as Robert Westbrook notes in his essay on the role of the pin-up in WWII, the genre became popular enough as a mode for home front women's self-portraiture that homemade pin-ups circulated overseas as widely as published imagery.(81) In his analysis, Westbrook rightfully attests to the fact that pin-ups were part of the national construction of women as "icons of obligation." However, his assertion that women’s sexual exhibitionism was part of her patriotic obligation--presenting herself as "the sort of women their men would be proud to protect"--takes into account neither the talismanic appropriation of pin-ups by male soldiers, nor the apparent and subversive pleasure that women seemed to take in their own pin-up imagery.(82) Examples of homemade cheesecake from the WWII era shows women displaying a sense of humor, fun, and creativity that call into question the uncomfortable "obligatory" origins that Westbrook claims for these images and, in turn, female sexuality of the era. Many of these snapshots feature women in dress-clothes, modestly posing but with an expression of sass or sentimentality. In one of these, a young brunette sits on a small, stone bridge, smiling happily, seemingly amused over her own audacity at both posing for a cheesecake photo and hiking up her full skirt for the occasion. Like many others, this image is just risqué enough to blur the boundary between "portrait" and "pin-up." But the photo’s dedication on its reverse, revealing that its intended recipient was "a swell soldier," demands that we recognize it as a pin-up. A look at WWII pin-ups from various collections of vernacular photography include similar examples; young women of all shapes and backgrounds posing for the camera with a knowing look, saucy strut, or comical wiggle, in backdrops both conventional and surprising. Many of these are also personalized, inscribed with lines like "Eileen ‘44," "Mostly Legs," and "Glamour Cut-Ups," and likely intended for display in a footlocker or barracks wall.
Not all pin-ups, however, were destined for the iconic or masturbatory uses of a heterosexual male soldier. Like the recruitment pin-up, much home front cheesecake appears to have been created for the delectation and amusement of exclusively female audiences. Among other pin-up-styled snapshots taken from the back of a 1944 WASP yearbook, one shows a flyer posing in a provocative portrait/parody of the hard-living, trouble-seeking, pistol-packing WASP stereotype. Sitting sideways, skirt hiked over her knees in the ¾ view pose of Vargas’ September 1942 centerfold, a petite WASP casually fingers a pistol at her side, the cigarette dangling out the side of her mouth completing her menacing expression. Although highly sexually charged, the image is also a lark, reproduced for the pleasure of her female classmates.(83) Another example of women dabbling in the pin-up for their own fun and delectation is found in a collection of snapshots featuring a group of frolicking young women that appear to be picnicking together, taken shortly after the war’s end.(84) A group photo shows the women gleefully posing in casual summer clothing, in the style of a chorus line. On what is obviously the same excursion, the women also took more pensive, pin-up style photos of one another at the site. Whether any or all of these photos were intended for each other or male admirers, the "session" proves that the very staging, as well as appreciation, of the pin-up seemed to be a pleasurable part of women’s culture by the end of the war--and a genre in which a male audience was not necessarily prerequisite for its creation or circulation. However, if and when these images destined for the admiration and display of men, they appear to be an extension of the pleasure that women received from exploring and flaunting their sexuality in a public manner.
Despite her impossible proportions, The Varga Girls were part of the dialogue that gave women a language for such sexual self-expression. As fictional icons of female allure and American productivity, upon them could be projected either the image of any woman or ideals of everywoman--and women were both comfortable and flattered by the comparison. One audacious female Esquire reader went so far as send a pin-up self-portrait along with a letter to the magazine itself, inviting readers to compare the day’s "flesh and bone competition [to the] Esquire beauties."(85) Her confidence was warranted; as the Varga Girls helped shape the style and popular visibility of the pin-up genre for these amateur female subjects, the era also saw the Varga Girl shaped by her "real" counterparts in the public sphere. The Varga Girl had long associated herself with not only the war movement but also trends in contemporary female issues and identity. And, as we’ve seen, by 1946 the Varga Girls had joined the WAVES, the WAACs, and the War Bond effort. In addition to her various manifestations as home front workers and warriors, Phil Stack’s verse on the September 1942 Varga Girl gatefold, "Miss America," deals point-blank with women’s home front labor, and makes the claim that as home front women are symbolic of America, so is the Varga Girl a symbol of home front women:
This lovely creation has earned a vacation
for she is a symbol today
Of all the career girls, those deadly sincere girls
who fight for the old USA.
She’s taken dictation with speed and elation
From men who are running the show
And gotten out orders that stream from our borders
to cover poor Adolf with woe.(86)
The Varga Girls’ anonymity provided another opening for women as well as men to identify the pin-ups with real women. As Vargas himself would explain his popular creation’s appeal, "she is a composite picture of all American girls. Each boy sees in one of my girls a little something of his own sweetheart back home, so he pins up a Varga girl and says, ‘My girl looks something like that.’"(87) Vargas’ obvious (and ironic, for an Hispanic immigrant) racial generalization of American womanhood aside, it is worth pointing out the extent to which many soldiers did in fact identify the surreal Varga Girl with the very real women in their lives. One group of soldiers wrote Esquire with a story of celebrating Independence Day overseas by creating a Varga Girl shrine. The men named a pin-up after each of the battalion’s nurses, and toasted them with cake, Chinese vodka and fireworks--their celebration fashioning the pin-ups as icons of both America in general and of specific female camp members.(88) WWII pilot Robert Swanson’s commission of a Varga Girl pin-up on his B-25 was even more typical in its association of the Esquire ladies with real-life women on the home front. Just weeks after meeting Jerre Vaught in Shreveport, Louisiana while stationed at the army training base there, Swanson left for the Mediterranean Theater, and took with him a pin-up photo of his new sweetheart (Fig. 37). Signed, "I love you, your ‘Paper Doll’" (in reference to the Johnny Black song of the period, made popular by the Mills Brothers), Vaught’s image complemented the constant letters that the young couple sent back and forth during a courtship that took place almost entirely by mail. When time came to select a mascot for his plane, Swanson chose the December 1943 (December 1943 gatefold) "aviator" Varga Girl popular with many pilots. In honor of Jerre, however, Swanson requested that the soldier painting the work turn the blonde Varga Girl into a brunette, and named her the "Paper Doll"--effectively transforming the fantasy pin-up into an appropriate stand-in for his real-life love back home.(89)
In examples such as these, we find that the pin-up provided a model through which women could construct themselves as icons of contemporary womanhood. Through the genre, women were representing themselves as at once both conventionally feminine and transgressively aware of her own power and potential for agency on levels both personal and political. Furthermore, it can be argued that the Varga Girls' modern, self-aware, and ubiquitous performance of female sexuality would seem the perfect stance to emulate for a nation of young women looking to assert their new-found sexual confidence and prowess. The pin-up provided an outlet through which women might assert that their unconventional sexuality could coexist with conventional ideals of professionalism, patriotism, decency, and desirability. In other words, that a woman’s sexuality could be expressed as part of her whole being. By literally turning themselves into Varga Girls through self-portraiture, home front women also found a method for supplanting their images--and modern identity--overseas in place of the fantasy pin-ups appropriated by American soldiers. Perhaps more importantly, the proto-feminist drive to shape, express, and represent their transgressive new sense of sexual agency was not only realized in these women’s interest in and appropriation of the pin-up; the period’s images provided later generations with icons representative of the fleeting moment in which such women’s freedom to exercise their ability, sexuality, and potential was encouraged by society at large.
At the end of the Second World War, and with the return of men from overseas, the home front climate changed dramatically in terms of national ideals of female identity that had been so thoroughly transformed during wartime. The nation that had rallied feverishly for women to question their traditional stations in the domestic realm during the war soon demanded with equal ferocity that it was now just as much their patriotic duty to return to their homes--and their supposed prewar contentment there--as it had been to rush into the labor force during the war. The reality of "the duration," which had been utilized in coaxing women into the work force, took on an entirely new meaning as it was now applied to mass layoffs of women to make way for male laborers. The same government that had launched propagandistic efforts to call upon women’s patriotic duty to serve the nation as "production soldiers" now used such tactics to return women to the home. Similarly, images of women in popular culture reflected the postwar American interest in idealizing a less aggressive, thoroughly nostalgic construction of the contemporary woman, fit to cultural demands for a return to more conventional gender roles.(90) Historian Pamela Robertson articulates this rejection of the WWII woman in popular culture as plainly reflective of the "backlash against professional women coincident with the return of American GIs after the war and the need to reassert masculine authority in the workplace after the unprecedented wartime employment of women."(91) Thus began the 1950’s era of the "eternal virgin" and "dizzy blonde bombshell," in which popular culture reinscribed the ideal female as desirable either for her asexuality and domestic potential or for her naïve, yet overt, sexuality. As such, the postwar U.S. constructed "the ideal American woman as [either] a dependent and happy homemaker . . .[or] sex object, kept childlike by a permanently arrested development."(92)
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."(93) 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."(94) 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.(95) 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.(96) 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.
Unlike Esquire’s cultivation of a female readership during the war, from its first issue in 1953, Playboy’s founder emphatically stressed the magazine’s interest in catering exclusively to a male audience. In the first issue’s publisher’s statement, articulating the magazine’s "philosophy," Hefner churlishly wrote: "We want to make it very clear from the start, we aren’t a ‘family magazine.’ If you’re somebody’s sister, wife or mother-in-law and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to the Ladies’ Home Companion." Hefner promised that the magazine would "form a pleasure-primer for masculine taste," and delivered with articles on politics, sports, and entertainment; pages of party jokes and photo-spreads and centerfolds of nude models, drawn from what Hefner dubbed his stable of "Playmates."(97) Playboy Playmates’ allure was by design distinct from the aggressive, self-referential sexuality of their WWII prototypes. Instead of idealizing contemporary womanhood as complex and independent, Hefner believed that the Playmate should rather reflect the compliant and accessible "girl next door . . .[with] a ‘seduction-is-immanent’ look" that addressed not the subject’s but the male viewer’s sexual desire. In other words, to counter the transgressive nature of the pin-up as constructed and popularized during WWII (and the threat to gender stability that she posed in the postwar era) Hefner biographer Russell Miller writes, "the attraction of the Playmate was the absence of threat . . .. [T]here was nothing to be feared from seducing them."(98) Ironically, in 1959 Hefner succeeded in hiring the man whose pin-ups first gave Hefner the inspiration to create his own--Alberto Vargas. In keeping with the Playmate theme, Vargas’ women from his Playboy era lost the style, aggression, and certainly the clothes of his Esquire pin-ups. Now accompanied by gag-caption one-liners in the style of Esquire’s Petty Girls ("I never go out with married men -- so won’t you please come in?") Vargas’ Playboy illustrations generally lacked the references to women’s culture and reverence for his subjects that had made his WWII work subversive.
However, the Playboy "philosophy" involving the cultivation of a space for the sole enjoyment of men did not keep away female readers; nor did it do so in a culture where women were completely satisfied in their roles of "homebody and playmate."(99) Betty Friedan’s publication of The Feminine Mystique in 1963 was groundbreaking in its analysis and critique of both the postwar relegation of women to roles of infantilized subservience to men and women’s compliance to such a cultural mandate.(100) By the end of the decade, Friedan’s voice was one of many instigating a widespread questioning of the submissive postwar ideal, giving rise to a popular women’s movement led by the "Baby Boom" daughters of WWII war brides. Leila Rupp reminds us that the strides made by these women’s mothers during WWII had been considerable, even if the changes they enacted "were in a larger sense superficial, because they were meant by the government, and understood by the public, to be temporary."(101) Nonetheless, both the personal and public successes they experienced through their active participation in public sphere gave these women a taste of their potential. As Ann Snitow wrote of the home front workers of WWII: "They experienced--within one lifetime--four or five fundamentally different versions of what a woman is and does. They had reason to whisper into their daughters’ ears that a woman might need to be any number of things." Like their mothers, many of these daughters would explore how this "frightening malleability of gender" might affect their sexual as well as professional selves.(102) And, in the feminist generations that followed, many rediscovered and utilized the pin-up as a medium through which their sexual selves were represented.
Famous for her feminist reinterpretations of female archetypes from music, cinema, and television history, Ann Magnuson’s recent image, "Revenge of the Vargas Pin-Up Girl" references the long shadow that the Varga Girl has cast on women’s uses of the pin-up. In Magnuson’s Revenge of the Vargas Pin-up Girl, the artist poses in the guise of an elegant WWII Varga Girl, but turns the artist’s airbrush gun--the medium through which Vargas created his fantastical women--back onto the world.(103) Magnuson parallels her appropriation of the Varga Girl with a motive remarkably similar to homefront women’s: "Women’s sexuality has been shunned; there’s so much shame attached to being sexual. But then, why should frat boys be the only ones who get to appreciate a curvy figure? When the pin-up is allowed to speak (and has something to say) it changes the landscape."(104) Magnuson’s assertion that the tools of the pin-up’s male creator, in the hands of its dangerous spawn, can be easily turned against a her creator’s or viewer’s hurtful or oppressive motives serves as a metaphor for much contemporary feminist appropriation of traditional pin-up imagery. The Varga Girl’s additional "revenge" lies in the fact that, although she was created as a tantalizing but unreal object for the delectation/auto-eroticism of heterosexual men, she would in fact transgress this role to reflect and encourage the erotic self-awareness and -expression of real women. This particular element of the Varga Girl’s legacy makes itself clear in performance artist Annie Sprinkle’s 1995 playing card deck, Post-Modern Pin-Ups. Combining the popular pin-up medium with images of 52 feminist "pleasure activists," the deck’s cast of characters ranges from artist Jocelyn Taylor to "Elvis im-puss-inator" Leslie Lowe to masturbation authority Dr. Betty Dodson to On Our Backs’ "sexpert" Susie Bright. Sprinkle specifically clothed and posed her subjects in the style of the Varga Girl, both in homage to the WWII pin-up and to underscore the tradition by which "women have taken what interests them from earlier eras, and created a more current reflection of their own needs and desires."(105) In honor of the pin-up’s do-it-yourself history, the final card in the deck depicts an empty, leopard-upholstered chair before a red backdrop--labeled "THIS COULD BE YOU: Pleasure Activist Extraordinaire"--where female viewers are invited to picture themselves among the deck’s subjects.
The history of the pin-up genre, the plurality of feminist discourse, and the evolution and diversity of feminist thought all seem to indicate that the pin-up as a contemporary female icon cannot be neatly dismissed as a metaphor for women’s sexual "subordination" to male heterosexual desire. In both its historical and contemporary constructions, the pin-up can be interpreted as a creative convention with the potential to embody the plurality and contradictions of female sexuality. Simultaneously, the genre is often recognized and accepted in a patriarchal culture that has historically denied such unstable constructions of women --in representation as in life. Feminist uses of the genre take advantage of these seemingly contradictory elements and use it toward the clever bait-and-switch process that artist perhaps best defined by Barbara Kruger as: "Seduce, then intercept." As the recent feminist reclamation of the pin-up seems to demonstrate, many women have looked to the genre and its history as a secretly subversive medium though which the elusive, debated, and intangible sexual agency of women might be made visible. As a visual manifestation of the shifting roles and sexual identities of women throughout the twentieth century, the pin-up genre continues to inspire women to explore the boundaries between such binaries as domestic/public, sensual/intellectual, subject/object--as well as traverse the broader boundaries between tradition and transgression.