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Aussie pin-up girls' war on inequality

  • 22 January 2010

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

When 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