Pin-ups

Creative Commons image from Wikipedia

Lately, it seems I’ve found myself reading or watching a number of articles and panel discussions which have touched on the way women look, both negatively and positively. I read an article by a legal journalist where she (yes, she) stated women who wore their hair long over the age of 40 were ruining their careers and were ‘slightly disturbing’. Something was slightly disturbing to me, and it wasn’t the length of anyone’s hair, but rather the article itself, LOL. I also watched a panel discussion on TV, slack-jawed, as an old icon of feminism criticised Australia’s prime minister, Julia Gillard, not for her policies, not for how she’s running the country, but for her taste in jackets. I turned to my husband and said, “Did she really just say that?” Things that make you raise your eyebrows and go hmmmmm . . .

But on to the most interesting and, for me, the most mind-bending:

I watched an amazing documentary entitled PAPER DOLLS on the SBS channel in Australia, about the rise to prominence of the pin-up girl in WWII, and how those women were seen generally, and the reason for the phenomenon to begin with. (For some amazing images from PIX and MAN magazines at the time, you can go here, and this one is my absolute favorite – the model, Adelie, continued on to become one of the best photographers in Australia of her day, man or woman.)

What made this documentary so fascinating was that they were able to talk to three of the pin-up models themselves – how they came to be photographed (almost always pure chance!) and how being a pin-up girl affected them. It seems both Man and Pix magazines would publish the girls’ addresses, along with their names, under their photograph. To us today, absolutely UNTHINKABLE. Then, common practice.

What it meant to these women was that they began to receive a heap of mail from Australian soldiers fighting in the war. Units would choose a pin-up girl to be their mascot, and in one case, a unit wrote numerous letters to one of the girls, and she wrote back to all of them, becoming a friend and confidant to them. Almost every single one of them was killed in an engagement. She had tears in her eyes as she spoke about hearing the news, even though it was over 60 years ago. As she said, they became your friends. She had become part of their unit, and it was as if she was the sole survivor.

Soldiers looked to the pin-up girls for news from home, for an outlet from the dismal conditions they were fighting in. The embodiment of home, and everything that was familiar, and feminine and safe.

For me, this turned what I previously thought of pin-up girls on its head. I thought it was all about sex, and the objectification of the female form, but like most things in life, there was a lot of grey in there. Yes, it obviously was about sex. The army, navy and airforce encouraged and allowed magazines like Man and Pix to circulate, because they knew most of the men were sexually frustrated. But it wasn’t only about sex. It was far deeper than that, and the women took on a meaning way beyond a pretty picture of a girl.

Pix Magazine, in particular, chose women who were literally the girl next door. Some of them went on to become sophisticated icons of an era, but many of them, and I loved the way the SBS documentary found so many of them to talk to, were truly just ordinary girls, who had no ambitions for fame at all. They rightly felt that they contributed a great deal to the war effort, writing hundreds of letters a week to the service men that sent them fan mail.

I’ve been interested in writing a couple of WWII-set novels for a while, and have a few outlines already, but after this documentary, I am really so eager to get writing.

What are your thoughts on pin-ups? And have you ever had a vague idea about something, and then were surprised to learn how much more there was to it?

About Michelle Diener

Michelle Diener writes historical fiction for Gallery Books. Her debut novel, IN A TREACHEROUS COURT, released in August, 2011, is set in the court of Henry VIII. It features the real historical figures of illuminator and painter, Susanna Horenbout, and Henry's Keeper of the Palace of Westminster and Yeoman of the King's Robes, John Parker. A second book, also featuring Susanna and Parker, THE KEEPER OF THE KING'S SECRETS, was published on April 3rd, 2012. THE EMPEROR'S CONSPIRACY, a historical novel set in London during the Napoleonic Wars, is set for a November 27th, 2012 release.
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12 Responses to Pin-ups

  1. Amy Remus says:

    Wow, Michelle, I had no idea the pinups were more than just a sex thing. I just assumed the men were lonely so that is what they used to get through their day. Nice to know there is more to it. I used to be quick to come to an opinion about something only to learn there is so much more. As I have gotten older and experienced life more I think I am better at realizing there is more to what one sees in many aspects in life. The media tends to influence people a lot but there is usually always more than one side to a story they are telling! Thanks for the reminder, Michelle!

  2. Cynthia Eden says:

    Wow–I had no idea that a pin-up girl’s life was like that! What an interesting discovery. Thank you for sharing!
    Cynthia Eden`s last blog was …Thank you! (And another Kindle–or Gift Card, Your Choice!)

  3. Edie Ramer says:

    Michelle, that’s so sweet. I teared up reading about the servicemen dying and the former pinup girl feeling as if she was the lone survivor. I’m still crying as I type this.

    I think the time has come for a great WWII story that only you could write. And I have vague ideas about things often, lol. And every once in a while, I hear or read something that excites me or makes me want to learn more.

    • Edie, not only did she feel like the sole survivor, she also felt guilty, that as their mascot, she didn’t bring them luck. You could tell she felt somehow, in some magical way, she should have been able to protect them, and was devastated when she couldn’t.

      xx on the encouragement for a WWII book :)

  4. Joe Barone says:

    Interesting post. It humanizes pin-up girls which I think is good.

    • Definitely, Joe. That they corresponded with so many of the service men who wrote to them, and some of the letters they wrote (a few were read out on the documentary, and were wonderful to hear) showed how much they cared and wanted to help.

  5. Misty Evans says:

    Michelle, you touched on a subject that drives me crazy about how women’s looks are still so important. When people get hung up about Hillary Clinton wearing a scrunchy instead of talking about her work as secretary of state or about Gabby Douglas’ hair instead of her awesome showing at the Olympics, it peeves me to no end. Brains, skill, talent…they might get mentioned, but it’s whether they wear the right jacket or how their hair looks on camera that cause the biggest stirs. Really? So annoying!

    The story behind the story about the pin up girls is amazing. Thank you for sharing that with us!

    I was doing research this morning about coffee – tough stuff, let me tell you, LOL – and I came across some cool background information on growers. Did you know there are coffee bean growers in India who expose their beans to monsoon winds and rain to create a special type of flavor? I thought that was pretty cool!

  6. Very cool about the coffee!

    And yes, it drives me nuts that looks play a role in how women in power are described and criticised. The long hair fashion police journalist took a swipe at Hilary Clinton’s hair in her article, as well.

  7. Michelle,
    How fascinating this was! I had no idea at all about the history of the pin up girls or that many were avid letter writers…what a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing it! And as for your WWII novels, I bet you’ll do a fabulous job with those!!
    Marilyn Brant`s last blog was …On the Banks of the Mississippi with Mark Twain

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