Pin-up Girls as Role Models?

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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.

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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.”

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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!

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