Monday, March 16, 2015

The Last of the Redhot Pinup Girls

Sometime ago, I read the Stephen King novella, "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," upon which the now-classic film is based.

King's story, and the adaptation, uses the pinup girl as a means of escape as metaphor, (and literally too) from the hellish prison in which the main character, Andy Dufresne, is placed after being wrongly convicted of the murder of his unfaithful wife and her lover.

The movie concludes about ten years sooner than the novella, in the 1960s, and so the last pinup that Andy places upon the wall of his cell is Racquel Welch.  In the story, though, it is "a country-rock singer by the name of Linda Ronstadt."
Million-dollar smile.

I’m surprised, that King didn't specify Farrah Fawcett instead.  She was, after all, the last real pinup girl of the traditional kind.  Fawcett became a sensation in 1976, posing in a one-piece red bathing suit, her body in profile and her face turned seductively toward the camera, a pinup poster selling in the millions.  

Following her death in 2009 at age 62, the swimsuit itself was donated to the Smithsonian museum in Washington, where it is displayed as one of the Popular Culture exhibitions.  No subsequent pinup image has managed to achieve such enduring popularity.  Certainly, there have been models whose images were pinned up on many a wall, after Farrah (who at the time went under the name “Fawcett-Majors” because of her marriage to the Bionic Man).  

But none have been able to achieve the immediate and broad recognition that truly deserves the name “iconic.”  Farrah had been around Hollywood for a number years as a series guest-star and supporting player, and so she was almost thirty when she became photo-famous.  This belies the commonplace male fixation on female sexuality, aged no more than twenty-one.  It suggests that the pinup answered something in male longing in addition to base sexual desire.  

Previous pinup queens were of a similar age to Fawcett: the World War II beauty Betty Grable, was born in 1916, while post-war poster “girl” Rita Hayworth was born in 1918.  The pinup star of the early 1950s was Marilyn Monroe (born 1926).  In the late fifties, it was Jayne Mansfield, who was born in 1933; a decade later, Racquel Welch became the iconic bimbo, having been born in 1940, six years before Farrah.  

A woman twenty-six to thirty years old is still a sex object, obviously.  The pinups’ appearance is, though, strongly redolent of fertility icons.  Models previous to Farrah were basically the same physical type: narrow hips, ample waist, and large breasts.  Fawcett was thinner and less endowed in the chest.  Significantly, though, in her bestselling poster, she was sitting on her bum with her legs up, making her body more similar to the classical pinup style.  With the Farrah pinup again the exception, the most popular cheesecake posters were photographed with the camera positioned close to the ground, so as to accentuate the model’s hips (the bone-rack Fawcett could not have achieved such a thing, no matter what the pose).  

Stone-Age Pinups.

The widespread photo-fetishization of the female body, seems to arise from the same motive as the creation of the "Venus" nude figurines, discovered in the thousands by archaeologists, dating long before the Neolithic revolution ten thousand years ago (when humankind settled down to farm).  

Experts have disagreed as to whether they were created with sacral or sexual intent.  But there was probably then no strict division between things made distinct only after thousands of years of civilization.  The photographic reproduction of women’s bodies in the thousands and millions, couldn’t have other than transfixed the male at a primal level.  

They were about reproduction, in a holistic sense: the sex act itself, but also the wonder that the male has always had in the ability of the female to, in essence, become two (or more).  The images in pinups were “real”, except in so far as they were often as retouched as any Renaissance work.  The pinup continued the modern tradition of presenting a window of beauty into which the viewer could gaze.  

As Andy Dufresne explains to Red, the narrator of the “Shawshank Redemption” (who is Irish-American in King's story): 

“they mean the same thing to me as they do to most cons, I guess," he said.  "Freedom.  You look at those pretty girls what and you feel like you could almost ... not quite but almost ... step right through and be beside them.  Be free.  I guess that's why I always liked Raquel Welch the best.  It wasn't just her; it was that beach she was standing on.  Looked like she was down in Mexico somewhere.  Someplace quiet, where a man would be able to hear himself think.  Didn't you ever feel that way about a picture, Red?  That you could almost step right through it?"”

Pinups were omnipresent precisely where women were absent: in the prison-house, as well as the pre-feminist military, and blue-collar workplaces where female staff are still relatively uncommon.  Their presence became subject to politicalcontroversy, as the workforce shifted toward the pink-collar.  This is part of the reason for the decline in their popularity.  In spite of feminist critiques, there was something literally wholesome about the pinup (or at least, the most popular of pinups), even if it was objectifying of the feminine.  It aroused lust directly, but also yearning, to escape and to embrace Mother once again.  It is interesting in this regard, that with the exception of Monroe, none of the great pinup queens were conventionally beautiful.  Farrah Fawcett, for examaple, was without cosmetics if not exactly homely, than no more beautiful than many other Hollywood actresses — including her Angels co-stars Kate Jackson or (especially) Jacklyn Smith.  However, these two are pop-culture footnotes while Fawcett remained a celebrity (if only because of that famous image) the rest of her life.  After stardom faded, Fawcett ultimately received good acting reviews mostly in tragic roles as the avenging victim of rapists or abusive husbands. 

Aside from feminist disapproval and legal action, the pinup ceased to have such an impact, due to the very success of this advertisement of Farrah for herself. Through it, she got a star turn on a network television series after jobbing in show-business for years: Charlie's Angels.  

Famously, this show was premised on a mysterious, unseen "Charlie", who employs only young female rookie dropouts from the police force at his private-detective agency.  In effect, the millions - tens of millions - of mostly male viewers vicariously assumed the role of Charlie, a perv who enjoys the very sight of young female bodies facing danger and violence (as occurred every episode).  As Charlie (voiced by veteran character actor John Forsyth) frequently says, "I've been watching you Angels..."

Watching you, indeed.

Before Charlie’s Angels, the pinup poster was the only way for men to gaze at a female form, in colour and with lifelike definition, at will.  All the iconic pinups were movie-actresses.  But movies were a public and transient use of the male gaze.  Until well into the 1970s, commercial television forbade immodesty in the display of the female body, as the Hays Code did during the era of black-and-white film.  Nudie magazines were more erotically charged, but also necessarily more sporadically and covertly viewed.  It was considered acceptable to display posters of sexy women, even in workplaces, precisely because they were attired revealingly, but without the exposure of any naughty part.  Charlie’s Angels took advantage of the relaxed sexual mores of its time, to have its stars costumed as revealingly as any pinup.  The smash success of the program assured that all other TV series soon featured at least one scene per week, of a woman in a bathing suit or cutoff shorts. 

Thus commenced the era of "t-and-a."  It's never really come to an end.

No comments:

Post a Comment