By Kai Shuart
Recently, I finished reading Craig Yoe’s Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster. Yes, it’s true. Even though I’m as much of a feminist as you’re likely to meet, I also love fetish and pinup art. I say this not to claim definitively that pinup or fetish art is feminist; I’m too well aware of the incongruity of these two things to make such a bold claim. Rather, I state my identity as pinup fan and feminist to remind everyone that feminism is not a monolith—it comes in many different varieties. I also state these seemingly contradictory positions to remind everyone that our desires know no political affiliation. We all have fantasies that we can’t explain for the life of us.
So let’s start from the beginning. What can I say? I grew up in a house where my dad’s collection of Gil Elvgren and Alberto Vargas books were on the shelves side-by-side with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. When I was a teen and my mother was away on business, Dad and I would watch Heavy Metal. Yes indeedy, Ta’arna was, and on a bad day, still is, an icon to me.
Because of this, not only did I know of Bettie Page and Chris Achilleos before many co-opted their respective aesthetics, but many of my ideas about sexuality were formed by such exposures.
So let’s start with that. I have to say that looking at drawings of women together, men together (Mapplethorpe? Check!), as well as heterosexual couples sent me the message that if I didn’t want a heterosexual partnership, that was OK! And even though I’m personally not a big fetishist, images of fetish sexual expression let me know that whatever I wanted was OK as long as my consenting partner (whoever that was) and I were playing nice. And let’s not forget that women were not universally the so-called bottoms in these pictures. For every image depicting a woman being whipped or bound, there was another of a man being spanked or made to serve.
Now, let’s get to the question of objectification. It seems to me that many well-meaning people, both male and female, are very quick to unequivocally state that the women in these pictures are being objectified without really asking the opinion of the women in question. Yet this statement cannot universally be applied. The fetish models and sex workers with whom I’ve corresponded (admittedly not many, but a handful nonetheless) have said that their work is an innate part of their sexuality. This is not to say that there are no problematic aspects to pinup and fetish art. I am, however, asking that we solicit and acknowledge the opinions of the women themselves before making such a sweeping generalization.
As far as the aesthetics of pinup and fetish images, yes, they are meant to arouse and titillate. However, the women in them look beautiful, no matter their state of undress. Great attention is paid not only to how little clothing the woman is wearing, but how the picture is composed. In this painting by Gil Elvgren, not a hair is out of place, and the angle is extremely flattering. With the whimsical placement of the toy alligator, the model looks like she’s having fun. Here’s another painting by Alberto Vargas. Again, not a hair is out of place, and the look on the woman’s face reads (to me, anyway) that you can see her back and the side of her breast only because she’s letting you, and no, you probably don’t have permission to see anything else.
So far, we’ve discussed the women in front of the camera or easel, but what about the women behind it, taking the pictures? This is a little-discussed aspect of pinup art. I don’t wish to falsely extrapolate and say that there were tons of female fetish and pinup artists, but I can certainly say that one of the chief artists of the genre is a woman named Olivia de Berardinis. If you don’t know who she is, you’ve certainly seen her work. She’s given us some of the most enduring images of the Pinup Queen Herself, Bettie Page. (Hey! My dad has that one in his garage!)
So maybe we can’t say that pinup and fetish art are feminist in the strictest sense of the word. What we can say is that it is an artistic genre which showcased women’s bodies in their most flattering light, is sometimes created by women themselves, and allows women to express a part of their sexuality that (a by and large patriarchal) society deems unacceptable. When you think about it, I guess my feminism and my love of risqué art don’t conflict as much as one might think . . .