Aussie pin-up girls' war on inequality

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Hamilton, Madeleine: Our Girls: Aussie Pin-ups of the 40s and 50s. Arcade Publications, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-9804367-5-4

Hamilton, Madeleine: Our Girls: Aussie Pin-ups of the 40s and 50s. Arcade Publications, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-9804367-5-4When I think of 'cheesecake' models, pin-up girls from the '40s and '50s, I ignorantly assume that they were desperate women. I imagine that they unwittingly participated in an industry that sought to idealise women unrealistically, as women without families, ambitions or personalities of their own.

Madeline Hamilton's new little book Our Girls has altered my assumptions of these women dramatically.

It follows the history of Australian pin-up girls, from before the war through to the dawn of the bikini. She offers us a glimpse into the world of the models' lives. Through their interviews and their letters, we develop a closer understanding of their personal lives, motivations and pride.

Hamilton asserts that due to the rigidity of the times, women who sought out swimwear modelling work were in fact 'trailblazers of the sexual revolution'.

Now, I'm slightly cynical about this 'sexual revolution', a revolution that occurred long before I was born. I'm grateful it granted both sexes unimaginable freedoms, and formed the basis of a much more equitable society. My dilemma is that it also seemed to open the floodgates for the commodification of female sexuality, something we plainly accept in our cultural lives.

Hamilton suggests that far from cowering to the reigning patriarchy of the day, pin-ups had to be daring, assertive and confident to work in that industry. They could certainly earn more money than they would otherwise, sometimes even more than the average Australian man.

They often met with resistance from their families. They seldom possessed plastic surgery-modified bodies, and were not digitally enhanced. These women were healthy, poised and radiant. They did it — the modelling — for a laugh, for adoration, and often for the independence it gave them.

Probably due to our great exposure to American popular culture, we associate the pin-up girl with the ambitious, young and naïve starlet baring flesh for fame. Hamilton reveals that the Australian experience was quite different. During the Second World War, women who featured in magazines for the diggers stationed in distant and inhospitable lands were often photographed in their work uniform while working in men's professions.

They were every-women. Beautiful with their youth and femininity, but not always typically 'sexy'. They played a vital role in building the esteem of desperately homesick young men on the battlefields, men who, although subjects of a liberal democracy, were expected to sacrifice their lives for their government.

Perhaps in representing the wholesome attractions of home life, the models provided the basis of patriotism required for these men to justify their great sacrifice. One admiring digger wrote to 'Sweet' June Myers, 'I feel like throwing in the towel at times and getting away from army life, but your picture reminds me of my duty to my country to protect our heritage and womenfolk. You are truly my inspiration.'

In another letter to a pin-up, Chas Leach, an Australian soldier wrote to Linda, 'Well Linda it is well over 12 months since I last saw the mainland, and life in New Guinea goes monotonously on. One has to reconcile himself to this deadly sameness of routine, day in and day out, by realising that the day will dawn again when a normal life can be resumed.'

Our Girls is full of this gut-wrenching stuff. One cannot help but take pleasure in the company of the girls and their personalities, their patience and compassion towards men they didn't know, but knew were in anguish.

After the war, pin-up models began to occupy a new space: post-war affluence and the birth of Playboy culture, the 'relentless celebration of high living' that was definitely manly and heterosexual but toyed with sophistication. Sex became a selling point, and so began the 'sexual revolution'. We (both men and women) became liberated by sex, only to find ourselves in the confusion of consumer culture sexuality where we now remain.

Our Girls is a nostalgic journey into a world where Australian women were celebrated for being fun, healthy and self-assured. The dimensions of their bodies were secondary to the confidence with which they presented themselves. I'm certain a handful of cellulite wouldn't have stopped them. Hamilton's writing is bright and personal, and the pictures, which are generously scattered throughout the book, are delightful.

Madeleine Hamilton will be speaking as part of the Debut Mondays series, the Wheeler Centre, Melbourne.


Ellena SavageEllena Savage edits  the University of Melbourne University student magazine, Farrago.

Topic tags: Madeleine Hamilton, Our Girls, aussie pin-ups, Arcade Publications, ISBN: 978-0-9804367-5-4

 

 

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The pin-up girls might have been "trail-blazers of the sexual revolution" and "the unimaginable freedoms" it brought but what has been the real impact of this revolution? - exploitation of women (and very young girls), promiscuity, toxification of women's bodies through chemical contraception, pornography of the grossest type, spread of venereal disease including AIDS, abortion, the decline of family life, divorce, the absence of fathers and all of the personal pain and social dislocation that flow. And don't forget the demographic time bomb - caused by the decline of marriage and family life, the contraceptive mentality and abortion - which is about to hit Australia like a speeding freight train.
Sylvester | 22 January 2010


So how would you have it Sylvester? Turn the clock back to the 'pre-revolution' treatment of women?
Ginger Meggs | 22 January 2010


I don't believe in turning clocks back but I would like to think that we can do better than we are doing as a society today, especially as regards the maltreatment of women.
Sylvester | 22 January 2010


Out of the two submissions, I agree with Sylvester. China had a cultural revolution, obey The Little Red Book or else. Sadly also the western world had a cultural revolution or a sexual revolution in the 1960s. The contraceptive pill, promiscuity, defacto-relantioship, pornography. Disrespect of authority and the flag. The decline of Mass attendance. After 11 or 13 years of catholic schooling, students coming out illiterate catholics. Yes, I am sure we can do better. We can turn to our religious and political leaders and expect them to do better for us.
Ron Cini | 23 January 2010


Ms Savage writes, 'homesick young men on the battlefields ... although subjects of a liberal democracy, were expected to sacrifice their lives for their government'. These few words show Ms Savage's ignorance of history.

The men were not fighting for the government. They were fighting, as the young soldier quoted in the very next paragraph says, 'to protect our heritage and womenfolk.' It was not as if the soldiers were fighting for a political system in which they had no franchise. It was very much the opposite.

Further to this, Ms Savage appears to imply that the soldiers were somehow compelled by the government to join up to go overseas. At least that is what I understand 'expected to sacrifice their lives' to mean.

Whatever pressures the soldiers might have felt from whatever sources, the soldiers of the Australian Imperial Forces were all volunteers. The were under no legal obligation or compulsion to join the army to fight on foreign battlefields.

It was only in 1943 that the Commonwealth Government changed the law to oblige conscripted men to fight outside of Australia and its territories. Given the proximity of the Japanese, this move was largely accepted by the population.
Patrick James | 25 January 2010


Sylvester, for once I agree with you, that 'I would like to think that we can do better than we are doing as a society today'. But to my mind, we miss the point if we focus exclusively on sexuality, or even on violence toward women.

Ours is a violent society, from the top down. Since the second world war, a sequence of PMs have taken us into conflicts and lied about them. They have talked up the Anzac Legend and in the process glorified war. They have played the race card whenever it politically suited them and failed to speak out against the shock-jocks who have nurtured and fostered the flag-draped thugs. They have talked tough on 'hard drugs' and ignored the epidemic of alcohol-fueled violence that threatens not just our young women but our young men as well.

Sex is not the problem.
Ginger Meggs | 26 January 2010


Ron, you speak about 'disrespect of authority'. A long time ago, I learned that one only manages with the consent of the managed. To be respected, those in authority must earn that respect. It's no longer good enough to demand respect solely because of one's authority.
Ginger Meggs | 26 January 2010


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