I stumbled onto Dian Hanson’s History of Pin-Up Magazines in a used bookstore and knew I had to have it. A beautiful, colorful block of three hardback books in a case, promising to not only educate me about a genre of historical erotic literature outside my particular area, but also to be beautiful in its own right.
And it is beautiful, with colorful full-page art of gorgeous women (painted and photographed), expensive-looking design, and text that flows along in an easy to read manner, all the more impressive because it’s written in three languages side-by-side. But I became increasingly confounded as I realized Hanson, a woman, has managed to spend three entire book volumes talking about women without ever talking about women. Yes, they’re “men’s magazines” and of course their male readerships and male producers are intensely relevant, but also relevant are the subjects of the magazines, let alone any potential female readership.
This is not only frustrating from a feminist point of view, but also as a historian. I’m left wondering about fundamental aspects of the magazines’ production. How did they get models? Were famous actresses knowingly posing for these magazines, or were their pictures reprints, or both? Was there a female readership, and if so, were those women straight or queer or both? The series is much more “coffee table book” than academic inquiry, and the text basically consists of a date-by-date narrative of who was publishing which titles and what genres were in fashion, but still. This is basic information that should have been included many times over, assuming that the industry changed over time. I had originally intended this post to be called “Is This Feminist? Pin-Up Art” but, while I don’t think erotic art is inherently exploitative, I certainly don’t have a more-informed opinion on the subject after reading these books and can only comment on the books themselves, not the genre they purport to explain.
And I’ll say it again, this is not an academic inquiry, despite being labelled a “history.” There is no interpretation aside from occasional editorializations on progress, it is entirely descriptive, and thus would be a tad bit boring were there not splashy photographs to keep it going. But even then I would’ve liked a closer relationship between text and images; on some occasions the text references a distinctive magazine and then never shows us what it looked like.
Conclusion: Beautiful, fun to browse, perhaps useful for research in that it reprints a vast number of pin-up covers with citations, but frustrating, and not feminist at all.