Of Sirens and Scholars: The Making of a Pin-up Feminist

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“You look like a victim.”

I pursed my cherry-painted lips and folded my arms. “What do you mean I look like a victim?”

“I would just suggest dying your hair brown. Wear glasses. Invest in some baggier clothes.”

I instinctually pulled at the hem of my pencil skirt.

“But I have perfect eyesight. And my natural hair color is blonde…well, maybe not this particular shade…”

I thought back to the beginning of the semester and the orientation I attended for doctoral student professors.

A seasoned instructor proffered this gem: “The best piece of advice I can give you women is to dress like a man. Students won’t take you seriously otherwise.”

I remember turning to a female colleague and exchanging an incredulous smirk. Dress like a man? What does that even mean?

Years before, a graduate professor had instructed me to speak in a lower register for similar reasons. Determined to be “taken seriously,” I unintentionally delivered my class presentation in a cartoonishly seductive voice. Needless to say, the professor promptly retracted his advice.

Dress like a man. Talk like a man.

It sounds like a Four Seasons’ rip off.

Personally, I find it curious that men should serve as the paragon for scholarly attire. I’ve known male professors who wore the same stained corduroy pants week after week, male professors who accessorized with obnoxiously big and bright felt hats, and male professors who donned Tweety Bird ties with freshly pressed shirts. I always got the impression that they wore whatever the hell they wanted to, rather than adhering to some ubiquitous male dress code. Their clothing choices, no matter how eccentric or unfashionable, were never mistaken for academic incompetence. I doubt anyone told them that their colorful hats and Loony Toon ties would cause students to take them less seriously.

Ah, behold the epistemic authority of penises in pants.

But for those of us unlucky enough to prefer skirts, we face a different level of scrutiny. We are expected to “dress like a man” which, I’ve gathered, is really a misnomer for “adopting a masculine aesthetic.” For, it should be noted, masculinity is not synonymous with maleness, just as femininity is not a biological corollary of being female. Gender expression and gender identity are quite separate things.

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The swimsuit police hard at work in Washington D.C. circa 1922. Photograph by the National Photo Company. Colorized by redditor kibblenbits.

As such, men are not axiomatic adherents to the elusive male dress code. I have known a handful of men who dared to put a little product in their hair, wear designer labels, and subsequently face the ire of their department. “You look gay.” Because, apparently, there are still people who think that constitutes an insult.

There is seemingly no room for femininity in academia—as a woman or as a man—leaving those of us of the feminine persuasion wondering: where is the logic in equating intelligence with masculinity? Is the height of my heel inversely correlated with my I.Q.? Do I inexplicably become less articulate the moment I put on a dress? Is my competency as a researcher predicated on my not wearing make-up?

Of course not.

Dressing “like a man” has nothing to do with logic and everything to do with conforming to socially constructed ideas of how a professor or a professional *should* look. Since academia has historically been dominated by men, the presumptive expectation is that women will check their femininity at the university’s doors and assume masculine characteristics.

Admittedly, we all conform to certain societal rules and rituals. I wouldn’t, for instance, wear shorts to the opera or a bikini to church. But when social norms require that I suppress my gender expression and adopt a contrived masculine façade, I must protest.  Femininity is not anti-intellectual, and I refuse to perpetuate that stereotype by “dressing like a man.”

Despite the apparent absurdity in conflating femininity with academic incompetence, recent studies suggest that female professors are evaluated far more harshly than their male counterparts, simply for being women. Sadly, wardrobe policing is only one among a plentitude of challenges that women face as they attempt to navigate the academe. Arguably, expectations regarding appearance are only emblematic of larger, intractable assumptions about women and their intellectual capabilities. By pushing back against the gendered professor aesthetic, we engage not only the superficial—we confront the monster behind the mask. Patriarchy.

At first blush, the pin-up persona seems an unlikely and perhaps paradoxical weapon to yield in the fight against patriarchy. Also, if taken literally, the pinup label simply doesn’t apply to me or this blog. I won’t be posing semi-nude (unless you want to count these swimsuit photos) and the mass reproduction of my image is doubtful and unwanted. I am no Bettie Page.

Marilyn Monroe, 1949 Photograph by Andre De Dienes

Instead, by “pin-up” I refer to a midcentury aesthetic: circle skirts and wiggle dresses, pin curls, red lips, brooches, hats, and pearls. Ironically, the look is typically quite conservative—except on those occasions when I want to be a rockabilly badass. It’s a style I fell in love with in my mid-twenties when I discovered Pinup Couture and Miss Candyfloss. I’d always presented as hyper-feminine, but wearing these vintage reproduction dresses made me feel like a siren. I taught classes in Katherine Hepburnesque pantsuits and went on dinner dates in Marilyn Monroe-inspired frocks.

But beyond cultivating an appreciation for vintage fashion, I began to recognize that midcentury history and culture elucidated modern problems of prejudice and inequality. I had something to learn about feminism from the sirens and scholars of the 1950s. I also discovered that the pin-up ideal–a two-dimensional construct in every sense of the word–may be used to subvert reductionist binaries, just as the June Cleaver aesthetic may be appropriated as professional attire.

Ultimately, this blog is a record of these realizations and an articulation of a particular expression of feminism: pin-up feminism, if you will. For, I am of the persuasion that feminism is not a monolithic movement, but an amalgam of various and diverse feminisms, united by one common goal: the advancement of women’s rights.

I do want to clarify, before writing any further, that despite playfully dubbing myself the “pinup professor” (I’m a sucker for alliteration if you haven’t noticed) I am no expert on women’s issues or midcentury culture and fashion. In fact, I am confident that there are thousands of women more qualified to write about these matters, and I’m hoping that many of them will contribute to this blog.

Consequently, instead of being instructional, my goal is to facilitate conversations and challenge assumptions in sort of a Socratic style. With this in mind, I’ve identified five tenets of pin-up feminism which are not meant to be prescriptive nor exhaustive. They are, however, integral to the aims of this blog and foundational to my personal worldview.

  1. Pin-up feminism celebrates femininity in all its forms.

    There is a pervasive myth that feminism is antithetical to feminine expression. I think some have confused equality with conformity, believing that in order to be treated “like men,” women must be masculine. Not so. In my view, feminism promotes the rights of women to express their gender however they choose, and femininity, masculinity, and everything in between are all valid manifestations of what it means to be a woman.

    Beyond the feminine aesthetic, pin-up feminism also celebrates so-called feminine traits and characteristics–characteristics which are frequently viewed as flaws or evolutionary defects in our society. All too often, little boys are derided for “acting like a girl” or being a “pussy”. Women are commonly viewed as being “too emotional”, “not assertive enough”, and “weak”. Qualities like compassion and empathy are reserved to the domestic sphere and ostensibly have no business in the workplace. Pin-up feminism challenges these parochial notions, arguing instead for a more complex understanding of human behavior which transcends circumscribed gender constructs.

  2. Pin-up feminism is inclusive and culturally sensitive.

    Historically, unless you were white, middle-class, and cisgender, first and second-wave feminisms were not particularly accepting or relevant. Similarly, the pin-ups and screen sirens of yesteryear were almost exclusively white. Rather than perpetuating this ridiculousness, pin-up feminism seeks to learn from the mistakes of the past, creating a space that is inclusive of ALL women. Consequently, this blog will include regular guest posts from women of color and will endeavor not to white-wash or overlook the experiences of women who were ostracized in the midcentury and who continue to face discrimination today. This tenet also necessitates that I be cognizant of and accountable for my own privilege.

    Maria Montez, A screenshot from the 1944 film “Cobra Woman”
  3. Pin-up feminism emphasizes a historical understanding of women’s issues and movements.

    Despite the feminist movement’s checkered past, we have much to learn from the achievements and failures of our predecessors. Faith Wilding, a feminist scholar, admonishes that the “repudiation of historical feminism is problematic” because it tends to throw out “the baby with the bathwater and aligns itself uneasily with popular fears, stereotypes, and misconceptions about feminism” (Pin-Up Grrrls p. 360).

    Unfortunately, some men and women appear ignorant as to how previous feminist movements have shaped and advanced our society. I recall being quite disturbed, for instance, by the 2013 #WomanAgaintFeminism social media campaign. Aside from being surprised by how many women misinterpreted the term “feminist”, I felt that the “I don’t need feminism because…” platitudes were a slap in the face to the many women who have fought for our collective freedoms.

    I wondered how many of the women protesting that “I don’t need feminism because I enjoy male attention” realized that without feminism, we wouldn’t be able to access birth control. I wondered if the women in athletic gear recognized that without feminism, we wouldn’t be permitted to run in organized marathons. I wondered if the women in lavishly decorated homes understood that without feminism, we wouldn’t be granted a mortgage or a credit card.

    At its most basic form, feminism is about equality. When we analyze historic texts like The Second Sex rather than relying upon Instagram memes for our primary information, this becomes apparent. With this in mind, pin-up feminism promotes a historically conscious perspective, adhering to the age-old maxim that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

  4. Pin-up feminism encourages ethical consumer practices.

    Pin-up feminism offers a responsible alternative to the fast fashion culture that is so popular today. Purchasing vintage clothes is a great way to reduce our carbon footprint while simultaneously supporting local and family-owned businesses. Additionally, many vintage reproduction companies (Pin-Up Girl Clothing, Bernie Dexter, Stop Staring!, and Bettie Page Clothing just to name a few) make their clothes in the U.S.A. rather than exploiting female labor in third world countries. For this reason, you can expect a higher price tag, which, unfortunately, makes owning pin-up clothes cost prohibitive for many women. In an effort to address this issue, every month I will be giving away a starter pin-up wardrobe, beginning with size XS and finishing with size 4X. Eventually, my goal is to create a swap & share network, so that all women can enjoy pin-up fashion while fostering a community of conscientious consumers.

  5. Pin-up feminism is sex and body positive.

    Despite decades of progress, we women have yet to transcend the shame that is so often associated with our bodies. The indelible Madonna-whore dichotomy is a societal fixture, forcing us into one of two reductionist extremes. Our bodies are objectified while our right to sexual expression is simultaneously discouraged. So deeply entrenched are these patriarchal constructions, that feminists have struggled to articulate a cohesive response. As bell hooks relates,

    “It has been a simple 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. Part of this challenge has been the drive toward creating representations that disrupt the patriarchal subjugation of women yet retain the right to use familiar conventions of representing women’s beauty and desirability to make this disruption more accessible.” (Feminist Theory, p. 7)

    Ambitiously, pin-up feminism seeks to assemble a new sexual paradigm—a paradigm that subverts patriarchal stereotypes while appropriating traditional expressions of feminine sexuality. A part of this bait and switch approach includes an expansive appreciation for beauty which is inclusive of all sizes, races, ages, and abilities.

    Pin-up feminism also acknowledges that sexual expression is a contentious and potentially divisive subject among feminists. One purpose of this blog is to create a forum for respectful debate and understanding as we attempt to reconcile concepts like “the male gaze” with women’s sexual agency.

Ultimately, I believe pinup feminism has something to offer a society that teaches women to be feminine, yet simultaneously discredits them for being “girly.” We’ll shout it through our lipsticked mouths and write it with our perfectly manicured hands: We’ve had enough. And as girls across the nation begin to challenge their school’s sexist dress codes, my hope is that women within academia and beyond its ivory towers will also fight the expectation to “dress like a man.” Together, I believe we can successfully subvert notions about femininity and intelligence, revealing that pin-ups only look like victims to victimizers. In fact, it is they who should be wary of us. For there’s nothing more threatening to patriarchy than a siren scholar.

And we’re riding a new wave.

Get The Look: Power SuitAnnie sitting on the beach

Swimsuit: Bettie Page Clothing

Shoes: Modcloth

Hat: Pinup Girl Clothing

I love this little swimdress by Bettie Page Clothing. Honestly, how can you go wrong with polka dots AND ruffles? For reference, I’m 5’5″, 115 lbs., 36-25-36 and took a size 6. I found that the swimsuit ran a little bit small; I would definitely recommend sizing up for comfort. I’ve also tried Bettie Page’s two-piece bathing suits, and I would recommend sizing up in that style as well, especially if you’re busty (D cup or higher). Unfortunately, at this time, you have to buy both the tops and the bottoms as a set. Please sell them separately, Bettie Page Clothing! Right now, the online store is running a 30% off sale on all swimwear, so this might be the perfect time to snatch up a power suit of your own. Sizes range from 4-26.

I am also obsessed with these adorable wedge sandals by Worishofer. Cute and comfortable: a combination rarely found in shoes, at least in my experience. Perhaps the only thing more difficult than finding a cute and comfortable shoe is identifying a footwear company that doesn’t rely upon sweatshop labor; I was thrilled to learn that these beauties are ethically manufactured in Germany. For reference, I wear an American size 6.5 and took a European size 37.

  • Amanda Zopp

    I am so excited to follow your blog, beautiful friend! I’ve always enjoyed your writing style and I’m so proud of you and what a strong person you are. <3

    • Your support means so much to me, Amanda. Love you!

  • Jordann McCartney

    Such a wonderful blog post! I’m ecstatic for a blog that addresses all of these points, and I look forward to seeing how we all grow together as pinup feminists! Thank you!

    • Thank you for joining me on this journey, Jordann!

  • Tawny Darlyn

    Everything I have wanted to say myself! I am so excited to learn more from you, Annie…

    • Thanks, Tawny! I’m looking forward to learning from you all too 🙂

    • Thanks, Tawny! I’m looking forward to learning from all of you too 🙂