Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture / Edition 1

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822337461
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 5/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 998,379
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Pin-Up Grrrls

By Maria Elena Buszek

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3734-8

Chapter One


The Theatrical Origins of the Feminist

Pin-Up Girl

Faye E. Dudden's Women in the American Theatre begins with an anecdote about the author's grandmother, who once told Dudden, "with an air of considerable importance, that she had seen Ellen Terry." Whether her grandmother had witnessed a performance by the legendary nineteenth-century Shakespearean performer or had simply caught a glimpse of the actress in the street, Dudden could not tell. What the author did understand, however, was that the awe with which her grandmother regarded the actress revealed something of the curious status which women of the stage possessed in the early decades of the industrial revolution-an age in which society generally indexed white women at one of two poles of existence: the idealized domestic "true woman" or the vilified "public woman." Women's dissatisfaction over this binary existence would ultimately lead to the emergence of the first wave of feminism in Europe and the United States, which would battle for recognition of the actual (and growing) spectrum of realities for women in between.But before these "New Women" were able to articulate and project their demand to transcend the binary order by which female identity was indexed in society, in the theater the presentation of the multiplicitous, shifting, even unstable womanhood of the actress was not only an acceptable but a celebrated identity for women.

While female performers like Ellen Terry pursued careers in the performance of theatrical classics-Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, and romantic drama-a great many more, such as the sensational Adah Isaacs Menken (fig. 4), thrived in contemporary musical comedies and melodramatic spectacles that demanded comparably physical and sexually-suggestive performances. By the mid-nineteenth century it was acceptable for women to act out not only these multiple female but also multiple male roles without fear of reproach in an age where, we shall see, the mere presence, much less voice, of women in the public sphere was considered an aberration. Moreover, as actresses' talents came to afford them a certain celebrity status, the "performance" of off-stage personae became increasingly acceptable, even when they performed real-life roles considered taboo for ordinary women. Dudden concludes that, for all these reasons, to a woman like her grandmother the actress "stood for pecuniary independence, authenticity, or the possibility of self-transformation; perhaps she was simply beautiful, famous and desirable. Perhaps, indeed, she was both."

Among the stage performers of the early burlesque era, we find interesting connections not only between these actresses and the goals of the slowly emerging "women's rights" movement, but also between these women and the continuing goals of feminist artists today. Then, as now, the construction, fluidity, and politics of sexuality was a focus of their work and identity. Most striking is how much these women's photographic imagery-when created to represent and promote these sexualized theatrical identities outside of the contained space of the theater-was created, circulated, and made visible in ways that would be used and debated by feminist thinkers for decades to come. As we will see, early carte de visite photographs of bawdy burlesque actresses represented not only the earliest examples of pin-up imagery but also a space in which these stage performers could construct, control, and promote what one nineteenth-century burlesque performer would call a feminist ideal of sexual "awarishness" in an era of both great oppression and great strides for women.

Sex and Sphere

To understand both the complicated identity and the subversive nature of the nineteenth-century actress, one must also understand that the era's views on women's potential were inextricably tied to their sexuality, which in turn was tied to their level of visibility in the public sphere: regardless of race, class, or background, it was generally assumed that the more public the woman, the more "public," or available, her sexuality. As the middle class exploded in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, not only making up its own codes of conduct but also affecting those previously thought stable (and even genetic) in populations both "above" and "below" the bourgeoisie, middle-class morality held sway over more than just its own members as its numbers and influence grew in the early years of the industrial revolution. In their monumental study of sexuality in American culture, Intimate Matters, historians John d'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman assert that influential literature from this period (both scientific and otherwise) reversed earlier beliefs in the inherent Eve-like carnality of white women, suggesting rather that woman is a passionless creature, whose "maternal instincts ... were stronger than her sexual desires." This supposedly natural asexuality would inevitably lead these women to disdain any sort of public life, where the passions and vices of men ruled and corrupted. D'Emilio and Freedman also note that this "new ideal of sexually pure womanhood created an antithetical model: the so-called fallen woman who defied nature or failed to resist men's advances." Exemplary of this era's fallen woman were the Caucasian, working-class women of Western urban centers, caricatured as the flamboyant "Bowery Gals" of New York City's low-rent and theater districts or the seductive filles publiques of Paris. Although some of these women might have supported themselves through prostitution, many simply indulged in the sensual and commercial pleasures of these districts with wages earned from the new labor opportunities available to them outside of the home-jobs created directly (like mining and factory work) or indirectly (like sales and service positions) by the industrial revolution.

But, as feminist historian Jean H. Baker notes, one also found determined, educated women from both bourgeois and upper-class backgrounds living increasingly public lives alongside the working classes: women from families headed by fathers working in the rapidly expanding managerial class whose families not only enjoyed more money and leisure time than their predecessors but also felt it increasingly appropriate to educate their daughters in a manner similar to their sons. Like their working-class sisters, these women felt similarly entitled to their own professional and personal lives and would increasingly come to consider political enfranchisement an obvious and tardy entitlement as well. While the ramifications of such changes in the education of women would not reach critical proportions until the fin de siècle-the consequences of which will be explored in the following chapter-by midcentury one nonetheless finds the stirrings of what would eventually become a formidable, if diverse and contentious, movement advocating the greater influence of women in the public sphere. With radical antislavery, free-love communitarians, and socialist "wild women" arguing for equal rights regardless of gender, race, or class at one end of the spectrum, and Victorian "true women" (subscribing to the feminine ideal of "four cardinal virtues: piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity") arguing for the necessity of woman's innate nurturing instincts in determining government policy on the other, these women found that they had little choice but to make their lives increasingly public in order to obtain a political voice. Whereas "proper" upper-and middle-class women began the nineteenth century cloistered in the family home and engaged in strictly private courtship and marital relations, as the century wore on more women, and more kinds of women, would find reasons to become familiar with and comfortable in the public sphere, openly pursuing the social, political, and even sexual pleasures available there.

The female stage performer existed in the same urban centers where all these women proliferated but, as Tracy C. Davis wrote, enjoyed a unique status there: "Actresses were symbols of women's self-sufficiency and independence, but as such they were doubly threatening: like the middle classes generally, they advocated and embodied hard work, education, culture and family ties, yet unlike prostitutes they were regarded as 'proper' vessels of physical and sexual beauty and legitimately moved in society as attractive and desirable beings." As such, by the mid- nineteenth century, female performers were among the first women to negotiate a rare gray area between the two poles of the period's societal binary for their sex. They were proof that there existed alternative, unstable, and powerful roles for women in the modern public sphere-transgressive identities that were not only made visible but even celebrated in the theater and its promotional imagery.

Like the stage identities they were meant to represent, these photographs-among the earliest modern pin-ups-call into question the ability to define women according to a binary structure while marking the spectrum of unstable and taboo identities imagined and imaged between these poles as acceptable and even desirable. Moreover, these early pin-ups served to create a popular awareness of these transgressive identities-sexual, certainly, but also professional and even intellectual-through media more readily controlled than and separate from the theater. Such uses of the pin-up genre resulted in a decontainment of their subjects' unstable performances from a specific physical site. In this way, the period's theatrical cartes de visite aided in the pin-up's establishment at its origins as a genre defined by the ways in which its media and viewers were manipulated by the will of its subjects. As representations of female performers who pointedly explored roles (both on-and offstage) in the interstices of the period's binary construction of femininity, their pin-ups can also be read alongside the larger activist culture of the nascent women's rights movement that would blossom in the years following the burlesque boom.

Photography, Women, and Burlesque in the Realm of "Democracy"

The invention of photography was shared by several individuals working independently in France and England in the late 1830s, but the patenting of the positive metal-plate process daguerreotype is credited to French photographer Louis Daguerre. By the 1850s, however, negative-positive methods were invented, lending the photograph-heretofore a singular and unreproducible image-to mass production. In 1854, A. A. E. Disdéri patented the carte de visite (or "calling card") process, through which a multiple-exposure camera recorded up to eight images on one negative. These images were then mass-produced and distributed by the photographed subject (if a private patron) or the photographer (if the subject was a celebrity), and prints sold for pennies apiece. Cartes de visite, generally six by nine centimeters, were mounted on the reverse of the conventional calling cards that the European aristocracy had used to identify and document their presence upon visits to other persons of rank since the sixteenth century. As Elizabeth Anne McCauley notes in her study of Disdéri and the carte de visite, from its inception the portrait taken and circulated of the card carrier using this photographic process-like the calling card from which the process took its name-served as "a legitimization of identity and proof of a certain social standing, even if the claims and titles printed on the card were bogus." The novel, inexpensive cartes were aimed at attracting, and mainly consumed by, the expanding middle classes of Europe and the United States, eager to demonstrate materially their social and cultural clout.

McCauley also notes that such "commercial photography grew out of the popular Boulevard de Crime circus and vaudeville entertainments"-and the population in which both aristocratic pretensions and vaudeville vulgarity frequently intermingled was the bourgeoisie. The growing middle classes of the nineteenth century, with more money to spend and a proliferation of popular theaters at which to spend it, demonstrated a demand for imagery of theatrical celebrities, a familiarity with whom the bourgeoisie asserted their modernity. As one critic of the period noted: "The private supply of cartes de visite is nothing to the deluge of portraits of public characters which are thrown upon the market, piled up by the bushel in print stores, offered by the gross at the book stands, and thrust upon our attention everywhere. These collections contain all sorts of people, eminent generals, ballet dancers, pugilists, members of Congress, Doctors of Divinity, politicians, pretty actresses, circus riders and negro minstrels." The American Journal of Photography spoke to the democratic and even educational potential that exposure to the various careers and classes represented in cartes de visite could offer a collector, writing that viewers "might take no harm from associations which now they could regard with sentiments of aversion and even of horror; indeed, much of mutual benefit might be derived from very many persons coming into contact with one another, who now stand sternly apart; and certainly, very many persons might confer most important benefits, even though they received within more than a fresh lesson in experience with both classes of individuals that are now absolutely unknown to them."

Capitalizing upon the period's breathtakingly optimistic views of photography's potential, McCauley asserts that "Disdéri's cartes devisite, which had been conceived as inexpensive portraits for the bourgeoisie, became a means of advertising or propaganda for the rich or talented." The images were snapped up by middle-class consumers at photo studios, cigar shops, book and print stores, and theatrical venues, and displayed in albums alongside cartes of friends and relatives. Because of cartes de visites' associations with both professional and social "calling cards," they were collected by women as well as men-indeed, because carte albums often served to document the familial and social connections of the families that owned them, many women went to great lengths to create impressive volumes of imagery for display in their homes. By 1870, carte-de-visite albums were such a ubiquitous accessory of bourgeois women's lives that even dolls' "trousseaus" included them-complete with miniature cartes of other dolls purchasable through the manufacturer. A technology aimed at bourgeois consumption and social "upclassing," this sneaky commercial ploy demonstrates how quickly the early photographic medium was exploited from the outset for both its identification with the middle class and its propagandistic potential. French emperor Napoléon III and England's Queen Victoria used the new technology to construct and promote the imperial families as dignified and fashionable, yet unpretentiously modern and accessible. However, as we will see, the leveling quality of the carte de visite was used rather toward upwardly mobile motives of the "pretty actresses" of the demimonde-the shadowy, yet exciting "second society" of artists, performers, and courtesans-who used the medium to advertise and elevate the perceived status of their professions as entertainers.

For decades after their invention, cartes de visite of bourgeois female subjects followed the earliest precedents set by its aristocratic sitters-the understated images of Napoléon III's beautiful Spanish wife, Empress Eugénie, exemplifying the era's feminine ideal in photographic portraiture (fig. 5). A carte de visite of 1860 is highly representative of her photographic portraiture of the period. The empress stands, arms crossed in a stiffly "casual" pose, against the back of a thronelike armchair. She wears a fashionably modest, full-skirted, dark satin dress with minimal and monochromatic ruffled edging and embroidery, and she gazes off-camera with a look of dreamy repose in a tilted, three-quarter profile. A model of quietly virtuous, contemporary womanhood, Eugénie's cartes de visite also reflect the extent to which middle-to-upper-class female subjects were influenced by fashion plates of the period-popular illustrations in, among other sources, ladies' journals-with photographic subjects imitating the sweet and courtly illustrated ideal of the "steel-engraving lady." The passive and unengaged demeanor of the fashion plate, reflected in popular images such as Empress Eugénie's, came to be the ideal for women across Europe and the United States, and the power of the steel-engraving lady as an icon of "true womanhood" in the popular imagination would last well into the twentieth century. Such standardization of appearances for women-notably lesser for men in both the imagery and magazine suggestions of the day-also reflects a more subtle issue: the period's desire to represent the individual woman as the timeless and essential definition of woman. In other words, carte-de-visite photography strove to represent women as representational subjects whose personality (like their photographed demeanor) was constant and indexical. Burlesque performers approached the medium with radically different ideals and motives.


Excerpted from Pin-Up Grrrls by Maria Elena Buszek Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction : defining/defending the "feminist pin-up" 1
1 Representing "awarishness" : the theatrical origins of the feminist pin-up girl 27
2 New women for the new century : feminism and the pin-up at the fin de siecle 69
3 The return of theatrical feminism : early-twentieth-century pin-ups on the stage, street, and screen 115
4 Celebrating the "kind of girl who dominates" : film fanzines and the feminist pin-up 142
5 New frontiers : sex, women, and World War II 185
6 Pop goes the pin-up : new roles and readings in the postwar era 232
7 Our bodies/ourselves : pin-ups in the wake of women's liberation 268
8 From womyn to grrrls : the postmodern feminist pin-up 311
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