Pin-up Girls as Role Models?

(Sources: left, right)

The first fruits of my lecture last weekend!

Of the two, Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs (2005) is by far the easier to read, taking just the trip home to finish. Feeling much more like a expanded version of the New Yorker article it was based on than a real in-depth examination of the subject though, unfortunately it has little that wasn’t much more thoroughly covered later in The Lolita Effect (2008) and Guyland (2008), and is not readily applicable to Korea. However, it will still be – ahem – a goldmine for pithy quotes, and for 16,500 won (US$15.19) a good choice for those who’ve never read a feminist text before.

In contrast, Maria Buszek’s Pin-Up Grrrls (2006) is a daunting 444 page tome, which in hindsight I am not surprised to have found second-hand for a mere 15,500 won (US$14.27): the cover and frequent photographs belie its rigorous academic approach. Moreover, as Korea lacks a tradition of pin-up girls (although perhaps it does still have a “pin-up culture” nonetheless?), then you’d think that it would be even less helpful than Levy’s book for gaining insights into Korean gender issues and popular culture.


But, reading the introduction in the bookstore,  I was already intrigued as soon as page 4:

Contrary to the popular belief – held by many within, outside of, and even against the movement – that a “feminist pin-up” is an oxymoron, it is no more so than “feminist painting” of “feminist sculpture,” or “feminist porn” for that matter” these are all media and genres historically used and appreciated primarily by men, about which nothing is inherently sexist, but which have all been both kept from women and used to create images that inscribe, normalize, or bolster notion of women as inferior to men. While this fact has been recognized by many feminist thinkers – indeed, many such media and genres have been avoided by certain feminist artists for these very reasons – few would deny that the same have been and may be strategically used by women to subvert the sexism with which they have historically been associated. Yet the pin-up – because of its simultaneous ubiquity and invisibility, prurient appeal and prudery, artistry and commercialism – has not been so readily granted a feminist interpretation. The genre is a slippery one: it doesn’t represent sex so much as suggest it, and these politely suggestive qualities have as a result always lent it to a commercial culture of which feminists have justifiably been wary for its need to cultivate the kind of desire and dissatisfaction that leads to consumption.

And on my way to the checkout by page 6:

Freuh has articulated this desire succinctly in her writing on the relevance of sexuality to the feminist movement: “As long as I am an erotic subject, I am not averse to being an erotic object.” The problem with this conflation of subject/object is in constructing and representing a feminist identity that is both subversive and alluring….As Bell Hooks puts this conundrum: “It is has been a simply task for women to describe and criticize negative aspects of sexuality as it has been socially constructed in sexist society; to expose male objectification and dehumanization of women; to denounce rape, pornography, sexualized violence, incest etc. It has been a far more difficult task for women to envision new sexual paradigms to change the norms of sexuality.”


While acknowledging that it may indeed be a false dichotomy, nevertheless I too have long maintained that women being sexual objects in the media doesn’t necessarily preclude the models concerned from also being sexual subjects. But still, I simply had no idea how subversive pin-ups could be, or how, often used by the models for their own ends, they could indeed include flaunting their own sexuality.

In that vein, as Korean society continues to grapple with the issue of the increasing sexualization of young women and especially teenage girls in the media, it’s going to be very helpful to have examples of genuinely sexually-empowering images of women to inform critiques of that trend, or at least the intellectual tools to help better understand what constitutes such. Because frankly, for me personally it’s high time to move beyond simply repeatedly pointing out that what is often touted as female empowerment is in fact frequently forced upon unwilling participants, but without ever actually elaborating on what would be a positive alternative.

Meanwhile, has anybody already read either book, or any others by the same authors? Or do you already have some of your own ideas for images of women you’d like to see more of in the Korean media? For a quick introduction to my own thoughts, please see from slide #97 onwards in the lecture!


7 thoughts on “Pin-up Girls as Role Models?

  1. I was on a discussion panel for Levy’s book when she was coming to give a reading from it back at university. It was one of the most disappointing conversations of my life, as the other (almost exclusively) female participants quickly divided themselves into two sides of the room arguing over whether or not women need to allow or participate in male appropriation of female sexuality. No one in the room seemed to understand that women could also participate in their own sexuality, and that it could have nothing to do with men. And this was a liberal, liberal arts college. With more than a few bisexual women in the room, actually. Which was beyond confusing for me.

    Overall, I found the book to be far too simplistic and easy. I thought it got very close to making an important point, but failed to drive it home when it really mattered. It seemed to border on embracing a lack of understanding of what sex positive feminism was really originally about, perhaps due to a generation gap. When you’ve grown up being told that you already have something, it’s too easy to turn around and criticize that thing, or misunderstand it, without really acknowledging what other people had to give up to achieve that for you. I thought Levy got close to understanding that point, and perhaps maybe even did, but failed to write it in well enough for her audience not to misunderstand. We’re not yet at a place yet where we can criticize sex positive feminism without also aggressively asserting our right to it, in my opinion.


    1. I can’t really think of anything to add to that sorry (am about to go home after a sleepy, tedious afternoon of marking exams), but thanks: that was a good summation of the book, and I’ll bear it in mind if and when I do use it here.

      Related, can you yourself think of any examples of sex positive feminism in Korean popular culture? Given your background, you seem to be the person to ask!^^


  2. I read Female Chauvinist Pigs some years ago when I had some down time in between school work. It was an interesting, easy to grasp, read for someone who was fairly new to WGS as a whole.


  3. “It has been a far more difficult task for women to envision new sexual paradigms to change the norms of sexuality.”

    How much do gender studies folks and feminists in particular take into account biological wiring? Culture can inflame or tame impulses but it cannot extinguish them. If new paradigms are to take root, they must work with human nature, not against it. Normal expressions of human sexuality are sometimes judged as sexist. Let me give you an example here:

    Are the men who ogled the breasts of the woman in the story really sexist? I’m a hetersexual woman, and if I walked past a woman who looked like that, I’d stare briefly before averting my eyes to something else. I’d like to see a man follow up with a dick-cam and a butt-cam. How ’bout it, James? ;)


    1. I don’t have the book on me as I type this sorry, but I suspect that even just based on those 2 paragraphs I quote, then what Buszek has in mind would very much take biological wiring into account. But still, well put.

      Meanwhile, I’m willing to accept any donations towards buying a dick cam or butt-cam, but until then…


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