"I'm Not Bad, I'm Just Drawn That Way"
October 1, 2020 – January 15, 2021
The American Woman in 100 Years of Ephemera
Curated by Marnie Melzer, Florida Atlantic University
Supervised by Karen J. Leader Ph.D., Associate Professor of Art History
“I’m Not Bad, I’m Just Drawn That Way” looks at 100 years of FAU Special Collections ephemera, postcards, and advertisements, to understand how women are drawn. The images collected reflect the spirit of the times, but as we look critically, the cartooning of the female gender is unchanged. The title derives from the character of Jessica Rabbit, from the 1988 live-action animated film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" The curvedly drawn figure is one of those archetypal images like the femme fatale, the teenage sexpot, and the crotchety feminist, all of which outlive centennials. The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic recast women in the role of domestic goddess, and fine-tuned our scrutiny of the visual feminine. As we celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage and the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, FAU’s visual archive tells a story of familiar sameness, and this has implications for the feminist movement. The images wake us up to born again American messaging.
Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and letters
Florida Atlantic University
While cataloguing, I contemplated my own defined personas as citizen, lawyer, wife, mother, historian and feminist. And in the words of Linda Nochlin, “Nothing, I think, is more interesting, more poignant and more difficult to seize, than the intersection of self and history.” 
 Moira Roth, “Of Self and History: Exchanges with Linda Nochlin,” Art Journal Vol. 59, No. 3, 2000, pp. 18-33.
At the Woman’s Club
Puck Magazine was the New Yorker or Daily Show of the late nineteenth century for political satire. Before it supported women’s suffrage, the March 1899 illustration, “At the Woman’s Club” featured an anti-suffrage cartoon as its cover art. Founder Joseph Keppler held the traditional view of the role of women, so his magazine poked fun at suffragists. The fashionable, menswear-clad women, illustrated by Frank A. Nankivell, smoke, drink and joke about a female on female rendezvous as reason for a marital quarrel. One of the ladies holds a newspaper with the word "Freedom" at the top. The dialogue takes place in a progressive-era women’s club.
Likewise in drag, The Uncle Sam Suffragee postcard uses the inverted iconic symbol of American patriotism to demonstrate anti-suffrage views. Icons carry agency and present current societal dogma. The year was 1909, and it was the golden age of postcards. Dunston-Weiler Lithograph Company, New York, produced a series of twelve postcards warning people about the eroding effect the vote would have on society. Uncle Sam is depicted in drag with his hands on his hips, in a skirt, jacket, bonnet and heels. The image encapsulates the silent fear that American men would become feminized by women’s suffrage. The message: suffrage is a threat to the American masculinity.
Puck mocks women who engage in dignified or energizing behaviors, like voting, smoking, and wearing pants. The Uncle Sam Suffragee turns the masculine icon on its ear. Both images shame the suffrage movement by disturbing the classic American trope of manliness.
There are things we mere mortals associate with gracious living and they include exotic vacations, fancy restaurants, jewelry, dining room linens, tablescapes, home accessories and sterling silver. And you can thank advertising for that. Here, a 1908 comic postcard pokes situational fun at a typical dinner date, where the female in the cartoon accepts her fate. Her role is to accept the “spoon” from the pig-snouted man. To use a spoon means to eat or ingest, but also to “have a cuddle,” as they say in England. For a triple entendre, one could receive the proverbial silver spoon. This postcard was collected by Special Collections as part of its Women’s Collection, and although we do not know much about its publisher, we do know it served a spoonful of topical humor.
Compare that image to an advertisement 40 years later in Life Magazine, the canon of American culture. In the 1950’s, consumerism spiked, and it became the dream decade for advertising, and also the most sexist. Advertising propaganda was so effective, it actually instructed readers how they should live and what to consume, but through an imagined middle-class white woman’s insecure eyes. In 1948, housewares manufacturer Oneida Ltd. advertised for the product range “Community” fine silverplate. A blonde bride plays house against an infantile pink background. She wears a veil that looks like a baby’s bonnet. Her white teeth remind us that women have been airbrushed long before Photoshop. “Community” is typed in loopy cursive, and it likely confined you to a lonely dining room.
Both women are being paid, and must sing for their supper. The currency is ice cream and silverware.
An Officer but Not a Gentleman
The first image is a “comic” World War II postcard from 1940’s era, 1 in a series of 9. In 1942, Congress established the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), and 300,000 women volunteered for military service. Back at home more than seven million women joined the eleven million women already in the workforce. American companies used patriotic imagery in postcards and posters as war propaganda, and they sold the link between the home front and the front lines. The neat little house in the postcard makes that visual connection. The bubbly cartoon gals are off to war, wearing rouge. The pro-military message is served with a spoonful of dismissiveness, as if being a female soldier was just a form of adorable new costuming. The caption presupposes a feminine preoccupation with style. Thus, stereotype is essential to the World War II postcard pun.
In 1976, Life printed an iconic photograph from the moment when women were first inducted into the US Naval Academy. Here, 18 year old Naval Officer Sandra Erwin is the superior Officer to male soldiers. Life pays genuine tribute to Officer Erwin, but the feature has a nuanced stereotype. The cutesy caption reads, “You call this shipshape Mr.?” Her gender makes it appear that she is nitpicking a uniform, even though she is just doing her job.*
Back then, a woman's sexual autonomy was considered transgressive behavior, but the sexual prowess of a male soldier was touted. So, if the image of the female soldier aligned too closely with the likeness of a male soldier, then the constructed American social order could be displaced. These images celebrate military women, but keep the gender lines drawn with the perpetual female focus on fashion.
*Nitpick - to be concerned with or find fault with insignificant details.
Firmness that Feels Good
The photograph “Saddle Up 1,” 1967, was shot by Helmet Newton, a photographer known for his "porno-chic" style. Newton made fetish fashionable; his trademark was to shoot a female subject in vampy high heels, suspenders, silk, and leather, riding saddles, harnesses and bridles. Here, Newton made the picture-story for Condé Nast’s Vogue Hommes. An unknown model is kneeling on a bed wearing Hermès equestrian equipment. Newton called the set up a playful subversion, but his sexually decadent symbolism objectifies the sitter, and compares her to an animal. Even if she possesses self-assurance, emblematic of the '70s woman, she is still the object of possession and submission. The voyeur has the power, thus she is no dominatrix. The shot entitles, and maybe even encourages, the rich and powerful to exploit. It was included in Life Magazine’s “The 70’s”, which boasted it as one of the most influential photographs of the decade.
Jump to another bed where the 1979 Serta Perfect Sleeper advertisement puns “Let me introduce you to firmness that feels good!” Actress Susan Anton welcomes the spectator with a smile and marks the ad with her signature. Riding on the assumption that the '70s woman was sexually liberated, the ad makes you wonder, was Ms. Anton properly quoted? Serta’s message objectifies Anton, with her permission. The ad makes the causal argument that if you buy this mattress, you’ll get her too.
Neither picture is empowering. Both images subjugate the female using misplaced feminism.
Bill Reynolds pictured “the American dream” in an Electronic Realty Associates (ERA) real property advertisement that appeared in Life Magazine (1988). A family picnics on a lawn in front of a newly acquired home. In an imagined Eden of their own success, the wife holds the children as the husband offers an apple. At the bottom, a female real estate agent services the couple. He signs the papers. Blue skies and green grass abound, and those saturated colors promote feelings of security and prosperity. It is the '80s, and while the working woman entered the ad as bonafide realtor, the domestic goddess is still being sold as the ideal passive doll. The ring of keys locks up the future. The ad is a visual time-capsule leveraging nostalgia to sell houses.
In 2020, artist Alejandra Oviedo, aka Rüttu, illustrated this poster to promote health and safety awareness in response to COVID-19, the ongoing pandemic that has infected the global population with novel coronavirus. Erase COVID, Artists Give Back initiated a relief to support artists.* With Global Business Solutions, Inc., Erase COVID printed and sold graphic prints by participating artists. Rüttu’s poster “Stay Home,” promotes tranquility in soothing pale green. The Jetsonian, multi-raced female-gendered couple lives in domestic happiness. The white woman talks on an old-fashioned rotary phone and lounges on a mid-century style chair. Rüttu paid homage to Ben-day dots, a 19th and 20th century printing technique that uses small dots of color. The work conjures nostalgia, and the two sensual Betties make the most of the time at home. But lest we forget, this is a poster promoting quarantine during one of the worst viral outbreaks of the 21st century. The purple woman is unapologetically nude, and spells out omens on an Ouija board, a game associated with spirits and soothsaying, and to some, demonic pseudoscience.
The pairing uses nostalgia to convey the message. ERA hopes society will long for the traditional nuclear family (where the husband owns the deed). Rüttu’s retro poster for Erase COVID dreams up a same-sex household, hoping for a less ominous forecast.
“Really Johnny, when’s the last time a man put his hand under a woman’s skirt looking for a library card?”
-Joan Rivers, 1986.
In, The Rationale of the Dirty Joke (1968), Gershon Legman wrote, “One fact strikingly evident in any collection of modern sexual folklore, whether jokes, limericks, ballads, printed 'novelties', or what not, is that this material has all been created by men, and that there is no place in it for women except as the butt.” This theory was bookended by Dr. Sigmund Freud, in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1909), and Christopher Hitchens, in “Why Women Aren’t Funny” (2007), which both concluded that women can’t be funny. Thus, a woman’s comedic performance is resistance, cloaked in entertainment.
Feminists actually employed the dirty joke, usually in role reversal, to prove a point. This 1940s-era postcard, “After the Third Drink, Anyone Could Feel It”, pictures two female caricatures joking about penis size. “Horse’s Neck” beers are advertised on a sign at the bar. The women are drawn as curvaceous, penned similarly to the future Jessica Rabbit. The meaning of the bartender’s expression is unclear, but he could be amused, shocked, or serving scorn. This 1940s mailbox delivers a refreshing dose of the raunchy sexual humor that women share.
In 1986, Life Magazine, “The 70's: A Decade in Pictures”, paid tribute to Joan Rivers as a comedic star and permanent guest with Johnny Carson. In 2017, Rolling Stone ranked her sixth on a list of 50 of the best stand-up comedians of all time. Born in 1933, Joan Molinsky was the child of a doctor and his status-obsessed wife, wrote Emily Nussbaum in her article marking Rivers' death in The New Yorker, “Last Girl in Larchmont” (2015). Rivers’ career began in 1950 when stand-up comedy was a man’s world. Institutions run by men didn’t want her, but she conquered clubs and Hollywood by knocking down doors. Rivers was an exuberant storyteller, using timing, quick-wit, and, of course, self-deprecating humor. Rivers had a “funky authenticity fetishized by that generation,” explained Nussbaum. For the Life portrait, Rivers wore a bust-accentuating magenta strapless dress and glamorous jewelry. She never downplayed her sexuality in dress or looks. Rivers presents two sides of herself in this picture, like a Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde. Her eye makeup is both a satirical cat-eye and a believing doe-eye. But her head tilt suggests submission to the “powers that be.” Rivers was staunch in keeping up her appearance as a good looking woman, and she was well-known for her obsession with plastic surgery. Her most successful zingers were shredding jokes about the appearances of women in Hollywood. This comedic brutality was the first of its kind, and love it or hate it, many Real Housewives seasons later, it lives on. Rivers was a warrior for comedy. We are somewhat closer to a fuller representation of comics because of female gate-crashers like Rivers.
To combat sexism, Rivers closed her shows with, “I’m Joan Rivers, and I put out.” Like the '40s postcard, comedic women subvert the patriarchy with wit.
Today’s political sparring happens on social media. In 1910, one visual tool was the postcard. Thousands like this one were produced by commercial publishers to oppose the women’s right to vote. This image subverts the patriotic act of voting by illustrating a monochrome stereotyped suffragist. The woman stands at the podium in a prim high-collared blouse, with a single ostrich feather in her hat, and knocks over a beverage. The caption reads “good for 1000 votes,” suggesting she will commit the ultimate in election fraud! The spilled drink represents her support of temperance, aka the prohibition of alcohol. Alcohol abuse was rampant at the time, and caused suffering, domestic violence, and destitution. For the good of families, many women supported temperance legislation. The liquor industry used images like this as part of a campaign to keep the ballot from women. Saloons even gave out a free beer for a “no” vote on a suffrage referendum. The fear mongering failed, and in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution gave women equal voting rights.
The next image is the famous 1956 snapshot of Rosa Parks, taken by Gene Herrick, a staff photographer for the Associated Press. The Library of Congress entitled it, “Woman fingerprinted. Mrs. Rosa Parks, Negro seamstress, whose refusal to move to the back of a bus touched off the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala.” The photo became part of our collective memory of a bus boycott that propelled the civil rights movement. On February 22, 1956 Parks was arrested and fingerprinted by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey. She was among 100 people charged with violating segregation laws. Special Collections is lucky to have this image as part of a 1990 postcard book, “Women Who Dared.” Senior curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, William Pretzer, said, “There is nothing that makes this event look extraordinary. It is being treated as a typical misdemeanor violation of the city code. In fact, that is exactly what it was.” Parks’ body language communicates resolve. It was an act of civil disobedience and a staged protest. The photo became the visual equivalent of moral consciousness.
The pairing shows a history of oppression. Both women use their hands in protest. (The fist will eventually become part of the symbol for Women’s Liberation.) The suffragist postcard was drawn to oppress. The Parks photo became a touchstone for protest against racial oppression. Thus, Parks stands up to a continuum and intersection of oppressions.
Women in proximity to power will invite visual vitriol, which enters the mainstream through viral circulation. The 2016 candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton for President of the United States threatened the very bedrock of patriarchal continuity as the locus of power in the mechanisms of governance. Every stereotype imaginable was activated. The depiction of Clinton as Nurse Ratched, originally a character in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) references a dictatorial authoritarian nurse at a psychiatric facility, a ruthless wielder of the metaphorical “ratchet” her name invokes. Brought to vivid life by Louise Fletcher in Miloš Forman’s 1975 film adaptation, Ratched’s chilly emasculation of tough guy Randle Patrick McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson, is deployed here in painting wretched Clinton as a castrating shrew.
In hindsight, much of what Clinton grimly warned about a Donald Trump presidency has proved accurate and prescient. Writer Melissa McEwan wryly captured that truism in her satirical mock-up and suggestion of a title for Clinton’s hinted-at memoir, eventually published as What Happened (Simon and Schuster, 2017.) The generous use of vulgarity is subversively “unladylike,” echoing a common 21st century idiom that Secretary Clinton simply has “no more fucks to give.”
--Karen J. Leader, Ph.D.
*Term Donald J. Trump used to describe Hillary Rodham Clinton during the third presidential debate, October 19, 2016. It was then adopted as a label of pride by millions of women.
Borax, Clorox! The Queen of Clean
Borates (boron) is a pure crystalline mineral discovered in Northern California in 1856. It is the fifth element on the Periodic Table and is 3.8 billion years old, explains Kim Stringfellow, professor and founder of the Mojave Project, a transmedia documentary and curatorial project that explores the geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The most well-known use of boron is as a laundry detergent, made famous by Smith’s 20 Mule Team Borax brand.*
This 1986 Advertisement for Borax displays nine American women from 1872 to 1986. The advertising tag reads, “We’ve been leading the clean life since 1872.” Each portrait is a happy, white woman against an artificial backdrop. The women engage in “modern” behavior, i.e. talking on the phone, wearing a trendy hairstyle, or fashionable earrings. The first three portraits are in sepia. The second row of portraits is in black and white. The third row is in color. But all of the women are sublimely immune to the women’s movements of their day. The patchwork snubs historical changes in diversity, household structure, and women’s educational and career advancements, and the fact that men also do laundry. Finally, myriad Borax products are lined up. “We’ve been leading the clean life,” suggests that a blind dedication to cleanliness, fashion, and ultimately whiteness, will deliver a happy, mythic America. Sometimes what you omit is as important as what you say.
The cleanliness cliché is part of our national identity, and the ad exposes a visual history of sexism and default white womanhood in advertising. During the COVID-19 pandemic, where cleansing is being intensely encouraged with products like Borax, I found the urgent need for an archeological sifting.
* Kids also use it to make slime.
The Moving Target
1970s advertising can be encapsulated in one famed Enjoli perfume advertising concept. The catchy TV jingle featured a blonde lady singing that she can, “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man!” The magazine ad had identical messaging, but added a menagerie of pets and a responsibility to delight a “sourpuss” boss. Enjoli sold the myth of the Superwoman to a generation of female executives previously excluded from corporate America. Enjoli called her, “The 24 hour woman.” First, she is pictured in profile with her son. The snapshot of her day continues at the office, where she beautifies her boss’ desk with a red rose. Finally, with feathered hair, red lips, and smelling like Enjoli perfume, she heads home to her third man of the day. The hypothetical perfume buyer achieved corporate success and likability, had excellent cooking and nurturing mothering skills, and possessed a sex kitten’s mystique to sustain a man, and all in the same day! It’s classic American sexism because the marketing rhetoric works to contain, not liberate. Rena Bartos, senior vice president at the J. Walter Thompson Company, nailed it when she said in her book, The Moving Target: What Every Marketer Should Know about Woman. (1982), “'This isn't women's lib, it's marketing lib.''
Carolyn Diehl designed the next striking graphic when she was an art department associate who worked alongside Bartos. Together, the team at J. Walter Thompson created a ceiling-shattering, feminist marketing analysis on advertising to and for women entitled, The Moving Target. A target is something you aim for, and Diehl’s hypnotic, multi-colored bull’s eye symbolized the moving priorities in a woman’s life. Bartos’ unintentional manifesto pioneered change in the way advertisers marketed products. Women’s self-perceptions and aspirations became the keys to the consumer queendom. Purchase habits in women’s travel, cars, cosmetics and breakfast cereal informed the study*, as did Bartos’ recognition of the “era of partnership” among men and women. Interestingly, she also conducted focus groups on destructive portrayals like Enjoli, and women did not like them. Bartos realized the multi-dimensional American woman.
“We need to find the common threads that run through these consumers’ lives and develop advertising that reaches them in their terms, not ours. And if we do, there is no way that we can be guilty about perpetuating outworn stereotypes or run the danger of creating new ones,” she said.
The term "moving" means arousing, emotive and exciting, and the conceptual target graphic is moving indeed. From the Superwoman to the New Woman, consumer capitalism repeatedly shapes gender in its own image.
* In retrospect, the lack of diverse, non-white females in the focus-groups flawed the study.
I’m Every Woman
The photograph is a potent story teller. A single image can change minds. As seen in some of the imagery above, Life Magazine, “the great American magazine,” founded in 1936, recorded wars, liberations, politicians, political rights movements, advertisements, and celebrity culture. Life was circulated weekly and its photojournalists spoke to generations of Americans, some who had never been out of their hometown or on a plane.
On August 26, 1970, John Olson took a photograph for Life, “1970 Women’s Strike for Equality”. He captured a moment of vibrant progress for women’s rights. Fifty years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, every kind of woman took to the streets of New York to commemorate suffrage and to protest our unfinished business. At the time, women were largely absent from social and professional progress, moon landings, Supreme Court hearings, and election ballots. Olson’s photo demonstrates intersectional feminism through body language. The linked arms present a visual symbol of connectivity. The fusion of the appendages showed unity and shared purpose. This photo communicated a shared dream for equal and civil rights. As the shutter went down on Olson’s camera, he captured a "second wave of feminism."
Pink Outside the Box
Women get pinked in products and illustrations, and it is a strategy consumers buy. The pussy hat (illustration by Danielle Amy Staif), graced the cover of Time Magazine (February 2017). A sea of handcrafted pink caps, originally conceived by Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh, unified women at the National Mall during the Women’s March in January, 2017, the day after President Trump’s inauguration. The Time cover graphic by Danielle Amy Staif features the pussy hat, the most recognizable symbol of Women’s Marches, but also foreshadows its destiny as a failed one-size-fits-all symbolizer for feminism. The photo has visual texture and celebrates the heroic, women-centric craftivism, but it also includes the hat’s shadow. Some critics felt the pussy hat was problematic. If it was a metaphor for female genitalia, then it excluded black or brown women, and trans-gender women. It also demonstrated the kind of gender stereotype the movement hoped to avoid, that pink = feminine. The Women’s March inspired political activism, motivation to run for office, and feminism in cyberspace. But, the pink cat hat couldn’t address intersectional feminism and would ultimately be shadowed with embarrassment.
Margeaux Walter, photographer and 2020 recipient of the Sony Alpha Female Award, designed the photograph that accompanied a March 2020, New York Times Magazine article, “The Wing Is a Women’s Utopia. Unless You Work There,” by Amanda Hess, a critic for the Times who covers internet and pop culture. The article narrated the rise/fall of an exclusive women’s club in NYC, founded by CEO Audrey Gelman. The Wing was branded as a women-centric, co-working space. Social media posts placed it in the proverbial sunlight and it attracted big capital and global franchisees. But membership was $2,350 a year. Empowerment was being defined by a woman’s spending capacity, aka consumer feminism. Then, The Wing had to change its female membership condition in response to gender discrimination lawsuits. The company suffered further moral reproach when the Times exposed its dishonest, race-based hiring in order to appear diverse. Gelman resigned in July 2020. Walter’s brilliant photograph confronts The Wing’s façade with psychological whimsy. The staged, stylishly designed illusionistic work space sits comfortably in a snow globe. The bookshelf is Instagram-ready, but rainbow order is a dysfunctional classification system for any real scholarship. The glitter is a metaphor for the company’s artificial sparkle. Walter used studio lighting and saturated colors to make the space look like an advertisement. The photo is a staged social satire. Like the pussy hat, Walters’ cotton candy pink background is a badge of failed feminism.
I’m Not Bad, I’m Just Drawn That Way
When a female stereotype embeds into the American psyche, the gender role becomes performative.
Custom Works of Genius made the 35mm film cell presentation, and the poster is from One Stop Posters, featuring the 1988 live-action film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, directed by Robert Zemeckis. Jessica Rabbit is the subject, and she is a sultry redhead human femme fatale cartoon temptress.
Jessica was drawn in satire, and in the movie she is impossibly shapely and buxom. As if coming out of Botticelli’s clam shell, Jessica was drawn partially as camp, and also in the likeness of actresses Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth and Lauren Bacall. In the poster, her crimson hair matches luscious lips, lids and revealing ball gown (which she never changes out of). In the close up film still, she’s the objectified leading lady from 1940’s Hollywood, at a detective’s office. It is not the typical cartoon genre. The movie cleverly exposes the motivations of big oil and mocks Hollywood stereotypes. As the quintessential femme fatale, Jessica pled in her own legal defense, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” Jessica’s toon form says in camp what our parade of images say in seriousness. She is drawn “bad” because she is impossibly sexy, and that is threatening because men have anxiety about feeling helpless to desire. Voilà! That’s how the femme fatale, fatal woman, became a staple archetype of patriarchal literature and art. In the original detective fiction, Who Censored Roger Rabbit, author Gary K. Wolf wrote Jessica as a film noir femme fatale. She used her wiles to achieve an evil plot. But, in the adapted film, Jessica is innocent! Who Framed Roger Rabbit subverts misogynistic convention. Jessica is drawn self-aware. She knows her sexuality empowers her and she’s not ashamed or afraid to use it. She’s far more complex than what she was drawn to be.
The Girl of Tomorrow
When Life pictured the woman of the future in 1939, it imagined actress Jane Wyman, as a frozen persona wearing a celluloid helmet to protect her curls. Wyman is smiling in profile. Indelible lipstick, large bauble necklace, and wire lashes make her look like a pseudo-mannequin. There is nothing futuristic in her presentation as a woman of tomorrow. Life imagined her with no feminist assertion of self. The plastic helmet forewarns, unintentionally, about contemporary plastic pollution and its practical use as a material to shield from germs or viruses.
In 2020, Jay Vollmar made a graphic poster for Erase COVID, Artists Give Back in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that infected millions with coronavirus. Special Collections proudly added “Look Silly Today” and “Stay Home” (above) to its permanent collection this year. “Look Silly Today” is a portrait of an elegant woman in earrings, but despite the mask covering her mouth she isn’t helpless; she is Audrey Hepburn. In orange and fuchsia, the extreme close-up is like a pop art celebrity portrait with a 2020 twist. Here, the woman was drawn confident and stylish in a protective face mask. It is the graphic depiction of a woman who takes charge of her health at a time when President Trump trivialized the use of face masks. The text stamped on her forehead asks you to look silly along with her to defend yourself and protect public health.
While the pairing applauds overzealous eyelashes, Vollmar’s graphic urges self-protection and assertion of rights. She is the girl of tomorrow. One image suggests it is curls that need to be protected, the other, her life.
During World War II, millions of women joined the workforce in a social revolution. In this 1940s postcard, a classic “pin up” female mounts a warplane and rivets. Her shirt is emblazoned with Rosie the Riveter, the early feminist icon. The plane between her legs is phallic. For a man, it is an advertisement for why the ladies need to come home. Left to their own devices, they’ll find their own form of satisfaction. For a woman, it denotes independence and is sexually exciting and empowering. It is the message of Women’s Liberation ahead of its time. That frank sexual freedom would be shamed in post-war America. Return from war meant back to the kitchen.
“What we two need is a good wife,” joked artist William de Kooning to his wife, artist Elaine de Kooning, according to author Mary Gabriel in her book Ninth Street Women. While the line originates from the 1942 film Woman of the Year, spoken by Spencer Tracy’s character to Katherine Hepburn’s, it neatly categorizes the expectation that women belong in the home. The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine has proven this turn of phrase just as applicable today.
Artist Efi Chalikopoulou illustrated the graphic for The Washington Post, included with the collection of articles, “A Working Mom’s Quarantine Life,” posted online May 10, 2020. The fall-hued wreath is the eternal welcoming symbol for the home. An archetypical working mother sits inside the wreath and works alongside her children during quarantine. Phones, computers, and a myriad of scribbled post-it notes are ubiquitous. The shapes are purposefully hard-edged. The only curvilinear figures are the tweens and dog trying to dance, play or get out. Literal and metaphorical papers hover. We don’t know whether she was a single mom, but she was drawn here as the adult responsible for three kids in quarantine. Yet she remained focused on work and persisted. Men bravely shared the financial responsibility, childcare, domestic maintenance, joy and grief of 2020. But, this “mother with children” represents everlasting gender roles. It is a powerful visual cacophony of a working mom’s mental noise during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Don’t Let Racism Divide Us,” (1978) is a silk-screened activist poster that expresses public policy outrage. See Red Women’s Workshop, UK, produced the image, which dissents with its subjects, calculated abstraction and typography. See Red Women’s Workshop was a feminist collective screen printing studio in London. “Don’t Let Racism Divide Us” visualizes resistance from a gendered perspective. Three multi-raced women are mobilized by sisterhood and their union is inked in ombré. The blended red, orange and yellow evokes danger and warning. The hand that rests on another woman’s shoulder communicates empathy. The poster uses the clenched fist + the female sign ♀ as the universal symbol of women’s liberation. The slogan is hand-drawn letterform and expresses urgency. An abstracted group of women’s faces populates the background. The flag’s message, “organize against the national front,” (a far-right fascist political party in the UK) conveys the desire for a transformed society. The women’s liberation movement, a “second wave of feminism,” swept across continents and aligned women and men. The suffrage movement, a “first wave feminism,” was also fought across the pond in postcards and visual images. This might sound like an episode of The Crown, but I found it necessary to align with our feminist allies as we celebrate women’s suffrage. Visual culture has played a contested role within the social movements of both countries.
In 2017, graphic artist, muralist and activist Shepard Fairey also used the printing press as a machine for social change in the poster, “We the People Are Greater Than Fear.” The graphic work was inspired by photographer, Ridwan Adhami, who photographed a Muslim woman wearing an American flag as hijab for the five-year anniversary of 9/11. Ten years later Fairey recreated her image in a politically charged poster for the “We the People” campaign for the Amplifier Foundation, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization. According to the Foundation the commissioned art needed to “disrupt the rising tide of hate and fear.”* Fairey’s three posters featured Muslim, Latina, and African-American women. The Foundation circulated the posters in the Washington Post on President Trump’s inauguration day and made free high-resolution downloads available online. Here, Fairey drew a strikingly beautiful Muslim woman, who confronts the viewer. With intensity, her steady gaze draws attention to what it means to be a Muslim American woman in America 2017. The U.S. flag hijab was drawn as a deliberate, patriotic declaration of “the people’s” shared values, including hers. The typography asks the viewer to interpret “We the People,” from the preamble of the Constitution of United States. Fairey drew the archetype “lady liberty” and she communicates empathy for the unheard American. The poster is a graphic display of activism.
The pairing represents public poster art that speaks self-evident truths. Visual activism is hard to draw, and when you see it done right you know what is right.
Placing the woman in tired stereotypes and archetypes limits us all. Through the course of this research, I have questioned the signifiers which instruct women and men, girls and boys. As we celebrate 100 years since the 19th amendment for women’s suffrage, and the social advancements of the 20th and 21st centuries, we hope this exhibition framed the past and will shape the future. We must call out pathological images, praise the attentiveness of others, and seek new representations of women that inform the present. A 2020 paradigm shift is possible, but only if we picture a diversity of views and draw fresh visuals.