© Kevin Freeman
I would be remiss not to mention the relationship of pin-up art to the popularity of the photographic image. While the artist delivers their unique interpretation, the camera faithfully reproduces a model's likeness, making the subject central to the viewer's experience. Just as the Gibson Girl and Arrow Shirt Man were icons of their generations, we now know our non-fictional objects of desire on a first name basis and can follow their exploits daily in the media. Where else would America be spoon-fed sexual archetypes than that engine of self-promotion, Hollywood?
While the list that follows is by no means comprehensive, I have attempted to break down roughly, by period and genre, specific women who have made an impact on our consciousness and have defined beauty for their time. Since the silver screen made characters larger than life, it follows reason that these carefully packaged personas should provide fodder for the public's imagination. While we may have dozens of tabloids to choose from and 24-hour entertainment television channels, this is not that different from the adulation movie stars have received for the past hundred years.
Before delving further, I'd like to digress into different archetypes that Hollywood has fostered. While the notion of 'good girl' vs. 'bad girl' may work for the universe of comic books, there is some history behind the mythology. The 'fallen woman' may sound like a quaint term, but she represented a direct affront to the Victorian ideal of domestic tranquility. Since Darwin, popular sociologists have reminded us of our innate animal inheritance. While the woman was seen as the weaker sex, she also had the capacity to drag some pure man down into the gutter just by using her feminine wiles. We see examples of this supposed manipulation from biblical times, but the modern Femme Fatale was dangerous not only to the individual, but to society as a whole. She lived beyond the accepted mores of the time and threatened the status quo by her promiscuous nature.
The Femme Fatale might have the potential of salvation, but usually it provided a more satisfactory thrill to watch her descent into degradation and, frequently, crime. The zenith of the Femme Fatale character might be seen in the Film Noir period, which was in turn influenced by the hardboiled literature pioneered by the pulps. She was sexually liberated and yet, lacking a nurturing side, she was invariably doomed. Previous to that it was easy to point a finger at those damn foreigners and their 'exotic' ways.
Silent cinema gave us a classic example of the Madonna/whore schism: Lillian Pickford, America's Sweetheart, opposed by Theda Bara, the Vamp. Personifying the looser morality of the Roaring Twenties, Clara Bow was proclaimed the 'It Girl' for her rowdy energy. Although rumors of her sexual exploits were exagerated, it was her speaking voice that doomed her career when talkies were introduced. Jean Harlow was one of Hollywood's original manufactured beauties. Her carefully developed image made her seem unattainable and death before the age of thirty made her an icon.
Then, in 1933, there was scandal from Europe: The movie 'Ecstasy' not only dealt with the subject of infidelity, but included several nude scenes by Hedy Lamarr! Europe had long been seen as more permissive than America: 'French Postcards', the Follie Bergere and more fueled the impression of Sodom.
Following the high profile scandals courtesy of Fatty Arbuckle and the murder of director William Taylor in the early Twenties, Hollywood attempted to regulate itself by appointing a commissioner, similar to the response of Major League Baseball only a few years earlier following the 'Black Sox' episode. By 1934, the movie studios had adpoted the infamous 'Hays Code'. While this should have blackballed the inimitable Mae West, she effectively managed to work within the structure without sacrificing her blatant sexuality. Lana Turner and Veronica Lake provided rich and sensual portrayals in classic films of the 1940s. Similarly, icons such as Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable kept wartime morale high.
European imports, with their exotic looks and mysterious ways, were a source of endless fascination. Whether cool Scandinavians like Ursula Andress and Elke Sommer, sensual Gallic stars such as Catherine Deneuve and Bridget Bardot or smoldering Mediterraneans like Claudia Cardinale, Sophia Loren and Gina Lolibrigida, these stars brightened many an art house theater and made subtitles superfluous.
Rather than relying on their acting abilities, Hollywood later manufactured the 'Sex Kitten', that delicious piece of eye candy that promised box office success just on the strength of her charms being prominently displayed. This class would include Mamie Van Doren, Anne-Margaret, Jane Fonda, Raquel Welch, Jayne Mansfield, Kim Novak and, of course, Marilyn Monroe.
With competition from television, movie companies battled back with more adult and risqué material. In 1966 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' was released without the Production Office's seal of approval. 'Midnight Cowboy' was originally released with an 'X' rating in 1969 and went on to win Oscars for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay. The code was abandoned for the MPAA's rating system.
There is a shadow side to mainstream cinema: The Underground. Early peep show loops gave way to more erotic fare; usually under the guise of being 'educational' to circumvent restriction. While classic burlesque stars like Blaze Star might have been an appealing subject, producers quickly realized that almost any naked body could draw a crowd. Nudist films offered vicarious thrills and other low budget companies were pushing the boundaries of sexual content. Although difficult to believe, the camp films of Russ Meyer were considered pornographic in their time. Now, of course, anything between two or more consenting adults is quickly packaged and available at the local video emporium. The only crossover star of note from that genre has been the redoubtable Traci Lords. The B movie 'scream queen' lives on, mostly in the horror and action categories. Famous alumni include Sybil Danning, Jami Lee Curtis and Julie Strain.
Television makes it easy to imprint us weekly with dramatic and comedic sex symbols. Pitchwomen were early celebrities as were game show hostesses like Vanna White. We have seen crime fighters like Diana Rigg and Lynda Carter, as well as vamps like Tina Louise and Julie Newmar. MTV created a whole new class of pre-packaged sex symbols suited to the small screen and short attention span of youthful consumers. Despite the attractiveness of the stars, most television personalities appear diminished from their cinematic counterparts.
Three's Company and Suzanne Summers introduced America to what was quickly termed 'Jiggle Television', a proud genre including such classics as Charlie's Angels and Baywatch. All the shapely leads quickly capitalized with calendars, magazine appearences and more. The poster industry was changed in the 1970s when Farrah Fawcett's poster sold millions.
Photographic pin-ups have been with us since the invention of the technology. Other than the present exmples of Playboy and other men's magazines, early pin-up materials would include 'French postcards' and glossy publicity shots from starlets looking to make a break into show business.
Present barometers of style range from the Euro-flavored Pirelli Calendar, introduced in 1964, to the popular Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue , 1965, and, of course, Playboy. Supermodels, such as include Cindy Crawford, Anna Nicole Smith and Pamela Anderson have sold millions of calendars, usually reflecting a healthy, active lifestyle.
Sex continues to sell and, despite an atmosphere of political correctness, will continue to do so. Look at recent ad campaigns by Camel cigarettes and Altoids for examples. Lingerie and print models have become the modern equivelent of the classic pin-up genre. While some practiioners, like Calvin Klein may push the boundaries of taste, we can console ourselves with regular doses of the Victoria's Secret catalog.