A lot of folks have been posting about a “forgotten plus-sized pin-up” named Hilda who was created in the 1950s as she’s more full-figured than we’re used to seeing in sexualized images of women. Hilda was recently rediscoverd by the mainstream and now, it seems, feminist outlets everywhere are celebrating her image, mostly because she’s plus-sized (an expression I hate, for the record).
They’re not critiquing the fact that she is sexualized and objectified in the exact same way as the thin models; they’re just applauding their efforts on being superficially diverse.
Feminist blogs are celebrating Hilda’s image and calling her “beautiful” and “inspiring.” Meanwhile, those of us who routinely critique sexist displays of women in mainstream culture are left on the sidelines confused because we are well aware that the pin-up girl image helps facilitate women’s dehumanization. Okay—maybe I didn’t get the memo, but why, as feminists, are we celebrating the pin-up?
Ok, I get it. We live in a culture where we claim to be post-everything. So, we pat ourselves on the back, acting like we’re so progressive because we hang up sexualized images of large women on our walls instead of thin women. Damn—so many activists!
Pin-ups were not created for women, no matter how many women’s eyes grace the model’s body. I mean, they’re called PIN-UPS. How much more objectifying can you get? They were created for the heteronormative male gaze. The fact that women keep trying to appropriate heterosexist male culture for their own liberation demonstrates a deeper problem.
We currently live in a “pin-up” culture where women are only granted visibility when they display their bodies for public consumption; therefore, most women are groomed and disciplined from young ages to have pin-up ready bodies.
That’s what white-centered postfeminism is all about. A vision of sexual liberation that hinges on the male gaze and male approval. Now we can sit here and have that long, uncritical, derailing conversation about women who “choose” to strip and enjoy being “pin-ups”; but I’m going to spare myself a stroke and move on, because talking about “individual agency” is irrelevant when we’re discussing hegemony.
When women fight to end negative media representations of women in contemporary culture, yet still circulate vintage images of white, female, pin-ups, they’re missing how the culture surrounding vintage pin-up girls largely informs the sexism that we’re trying to fight today.
This is what happens when we only focus on the individual and not the system that conditions the individual.
If we have a superficial surface-level understanding of oppression, then we will have superficial surface-level solutions. It’s that simple. Posting up any sized sexualized woman on your wall, originally created for men, won’t solve the reality that systemically, women are degraded, dehumanized, and are robbed of understanding their sexualities organically. It also teaches men that sexualizing “diverse” or “alternative” bodies is progressive and therefore acceptable.
Additionally, as I reiterate all of the time, the idea of publicly displaying your sexualized body is largely a white enterprise and endeavor. Black women are not granted the same privileges when we showcase our bodies because we’re viewed as public property; evidenced through our high rape rates and low pay-rates in spaces of sex work, etc.
The idea of a woman’s (sometimes nameless) body being on display for public consumption, ironically repackaged as “sexy” and “liberating” for women today, is merely another hint that feminism is being co-opted by patriarchy. I guess this is what happens when the most privileged, women are allowed to decide how feminist sexual empowerment looks. I’m afraid I just don’t understand how we can simultaneously critique sexist media culture, but then subscribe to the idea of pin-ups as feminist.
“Pin-up” images conjure up nostalgia for an era where women were disciplined to be “in their places” and had to comply with men dominating women. This is another example of how “ironic” sexism and hipster culture is impacting women and feminism.
The pin-up girl image replicates some of the most damaging, clichéd, commercialized stereotypes of women’s sexualities — that we exist to invite the male, heterosexual gaze, that we need to “perform” sexiness publicly in order to be viewed as authentic sexual women — that we cannot conjure up any authentic sexual feelings without catering to a man’s desire first.
This kind of binary logic is not liberating. For example, I keep seeing this image posted everywhere:
The issue is not body size—the issue is that beauty standards (regardless of what they look like) define a woman’s worth. Since these “beauty standards” are being created through a white supremacist patriarchy, they will inevitably be exclusionary and limiting. Many fail to realize how exclusionary and limiting the actual concept of a “beauty standard” is — we are stuck in a perpetual battle over which expression of beauty is the most “real” or “beautiful.” The idea that a “real” woman is defined through surface-level measurements, like skin tone, hair length, and body size is merely a manifestation of living in an uncritical neoliberal white supremacist patriarchy where women still do not have access to “defining” themselves.
In fact, I would argue that women are not even viewed as sentient human beings anymore, and the pin-up image helps solidify women’s dehumanization, alongside contemporary porn culture.
In reality, women have become units of measurement to help bolster men’s masculinity; therefore, women cannot benefit from these pin-up images as men do. In fact, it’s impossible to do so in a heterosexist patriarchy.
Even if you individually feel aroused by pin-up images of women as a woman, she is not meant to be your source of liberation. She is meant to be a symbolic tool of men’s oppression towards women. Her image is used as a discursive lesson: that life as a woman can be so easy if you just follow the gendered rules. All you have to do is flaunt your body and use your commodified femininity, and you will be celebrated. What better celebration can there be than men AND women gazing at your sexualized body and hanging your image on their wall for their needs?
We cannot conflate women’s natural sex drives with commercialized institutionalized mass-produced images of “sexy” women by men. If we do, we are being bamboozled into believing that women’s liberation can ever be *celebrated* in a patriarchal sexist culture that takes every opportunity to dehumanize women.
There’s an irony inherent in these “celebrations” of women’s bodies—an irony that’s worth paying attention to. Be suspicious of a culture that has to keep convincing you that you’re free and liberated while profiting off of your enslavement and oppression.
Remember, the pin-up is a distorted expression of men’s sexualities, not women’s. We have yet to have an expression of sexuality because we’re still trying to figure out what sexuality means for us. We cannot “reclaim” or “celebrate” women’s sexuality or bodies because being able to “reclaim” something means that you know what state it is currently in, or who currently possesses it. As women, if we are not aware that our sexuality does not belong to us currently, we will only be reclaiming and celebrating an expression and an image that was designed to keep us oppressed. In other words, in celebrating the pin-up, we are celebrating our own dehumanization.
Now, we can either start engaging in real feminist conversations about the pin-up, or we can just keep staring at the two dimensional images of women, who don’t speak, don’t think, don’t move, don’t eat, but smile.
Aphrodite Kocięda is a graduate student in Communication at the University of South Florida and a contributor to the Vegan Feminist Network. Her current graduate research focuses on feminist activism in a postfeminist rape culture climate.