Not Oprah’s Book Club: Pin-Up Grrrls

The_Pin-up_Page.jpgIn the same way that Lisa Jean Moore used a pinhole focus on sperm to elucidate the giant topic of masculinity in last week’s feature, art historian Maria Elena Buszek uses the pin-up as the way in to explore huge questions about the history of feminism, sexuality, and pop culture. (How much do you love this one I found? What’s up with the fish?)
Her approach is definitely academic (the book began as her dissertation). This book is not going to appeal to a gal without a little Judith Butler or bell hooks under her belt. If you are up for a challenge, it is infectiously interesting and bold. I found myself reading and thinking, “Damn, I want to have a drink with this lady.�
Buszek ambitiously looks at the entire history of pin-ups and feminism concurrently, from the nineteenth century actress to Wanda Ewing. Her aim, as she articulates it is:

In my analyses of pin-up history from its origins to the present, I hope to reveal moments in which the pin-up has presented women with models for expressing and finding pleasure in their sexual subjectivity.

This is one of the key themes of the book: the relationship between object and subject. To my mind, what Buszek is really exploring is power. When we feel like objects, we tend to feel powerless (not always, I know…there is also the really clever way of reclaiming objectification which is also touched on in the book). But when we feel like subjects, there is a the potential sense of being adored, scrutinized, an aim to understand and, perhaps, even celebrate.
Buszek also looks at how pin-ups have been a tool of transforming popular culture to reflect a more authentic and less patriarchal version of female desire. She writes:

Moreover, by using this popular signified for desirable womanhood toward a feminist expression of subversive sexual agency, I will explore the ways in which these pin-ups not only image and provoke desire but also, by penetrating and influencing the cultures of fashion and consumption, succeed in the feminist aim of changing the rigid patriarchal terms by which desire has historically been flamed.

I know, damn.
After her tour de force through the centuries, Buszek lands smack dab in the middle of third wave feminism. A regular contributor to Bust and a third waver herself, Buszek gives young feminists (artists) a real tribute by uncovering lots of interesting efforts in complex ways.
The conclusion looks at the ways in which the different generations, particularly in the art world, seem to be crashing up against one another once again. Older feminist artists see younger feminist artists as repeating the same themes without acknowledging their legacy. Younger feminist artists see older feminists artists as critical and bitter. And on and on and on…
Buszek is sure to assert that this infighting is not representative of the majority of the feminist art world, however. She even quotes the fabu Linda Nochlin who likes our generation for our “feistiness.� Word Linda. Thanks.
Buszek sums things up in this way:

As I hope to have shown through the pin-up’s feminist history, this drive to survive and reproduce has consistently led the movement to evolve according to each moment in which it has found itself. However, as the pin-up’s evolution through these same moments has proven, both sexuality and pop culture have remained among those few issues too important to move past, but too complex to resolve conclusively.

So true. Look at the REAL Hot 100. Look at burlesque. Look at Pink’s “Stupid Girls” video.
Buszek offers us an important perspective on intergenerational feminist infighting in general. Why shouldn’t younger women be rehashing the same old issues? They are the tied into the essence of human existence. They aren’t legislation to be passed or numbers to be crunched. These are the fundamental expressions of who we are, so yeah, it makes sense that we keep wrestling with that in our own ways. We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re taking our own ride.
Next week, keeping with the intergenerational/feminist academic theme: Not My Mother’s Sister by Astrid Henry.

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