PRINT February 1992


THOUGH AN EAGER NINE-YEAR-OLD Boy Scout, I was perfectly unprepared when, with mingled horror and glee, my best friend and I discovered—you guessed it—a hefty stack of Playboys in his father’s sock drawer. The almost-too-clichéd scenario marks a kind of collectively held primal scene; for just about everybody has enjoyed (or suffered) a similar childhood moment, though I can only imagine what kind of an assault (or come-on) such pictures embody for little girls. As for me and my best friend, the experience was both “het,” because two boys were exploring girly pictures, and “homo,” because two boys were exploring one another exploring girly pictures. At any rate, the ever-so-sentimental education we received in the next feverish hour or so unfolded as if in a dream: for these impossibly cheesy images of naked women frolicking on beaches, waving cheerleaders’ pom-poms, twisting in satin sheets, or soaking playfully in bubble baths seemed to us to emerge from nowhere, like so many scantily clad and compromisingly posed Athenas springing fully formed from the head of Zeus.

But we were wrong. Like everything else under the sun (or the flashbulb), the oft-ogled American pinup girl has a deeply rooted, if perhaps surprising, genealogy, with a point of origin in certain pictorial conventions of late-19th-century academic painting. Just at the time the Impressionists and their ilk were suffering the neglect to which they had grown accustomed, establishment painters were basking in the prizes doled out by the institutions of high art by creating a seemingly endless series of prurient female images: Andromedas in Victorian versions of handcuffs; Salomes strip-dancing before the severed head of John the Baptist: Venuses rolling in their birth waves; female personifications of Hope (kinkily blindfolded), Temptation (often with one breast wantonly exposed), and Virtue (ironically stark naked).1 Indeed, what emerged was a high-flown prototype of soft-core pornography itself, in which women operated as fantasies in the newly emerging—and newly heterosexual—pornographic imagination.2

To be historically specified, however, soft core must be situated alongside. but distinguished from, hard core. Though both soft- and hard-core pictorial pornography appear more or less simultaneously, the ancestral differences between the two (and, as a consequence, the differences in their contemporary codes) are indeed distinctive.

Scholars have recently located an intimate, almost causal link between the early technologies of photography and cinema—magic lanterns, kinetoscopes, cameras, and the like—and the development of hard-core porn. Film theorist and historian Linda Williams, for one, reads the technological invention of cinema “as the first key moment in the history of filmic hard core.” For if hard core claims to provide absolutely documentary evidence about the body’s sexuality, the initial impulse to this brand of mechanized surveillance arose in such pseudoscientific pictorial discourses as Eadweard Muybridge’s series of stop-action photographs and in the images (captured by a Muybridge protégé, Albert Londe) of Charcot’s female hysterics in the infamous French hospital La Salpêtrière. In each case, such technologies sought to capture the raw “truth” of the body’s dynamics. And, as Williams says, “it is but a short leap from the ‘academic question’ of body movement mechanics to the ‘pornographic answer,’ wherein the elusive and prurient ‘truth’ is located in increasingly more detailed investigations of the bodies of women.”3 Hard-core pornography follows inevitably from—and as a direct consequence of—the photographic.

Soft-core visual porn, by contrast, emerged within a context that was distinctly painterly. It was, in fact, born out of what Peter Brooks identifies as a “crisis in representation of the nude” that galvanized 19th-century European painting.4 Brooks lucidly documents an anxious tension that arose in artists between, on the one hand, a nostalgic—and lewd—impulse to paint undressed women in a safely classicizing vein (Bouguereau’s wanton sylvan nymphs, for instance) and, on the other, an avant-garde—and equally lascivious—impulse to paint undressed women in the new, shockingly “realistic” style of Courbet or Manet. Indeed, Kenneth Clark’s useful but overly nice distinction between the naked, supposedly frank and unadorned. and the nude, supposedly decorous, muted, and conventional (a distinction insistently and nervously maintained to this day in college art-history courses), was collapsed during the Victorian period. What emerged in the space of the collapse was a newly and often misogynistically imagined female body mapped neither as a retreat into the old sentimentalisms of figuration nor as an advance into a brave new world of formalist abstraction. A body was manufactured that, paradoxically, was neither starkly naked nor softly nude, but instead a fusion of the two that formed an entirely new idiom. The old ambivalences were dismantled. A kind of compromise formation—an instant solution to the perennial problem, for heterosexual men, of female undress—had been negotiated. What emerged was soft-core pornography.

Interestingly, once this formulation was attained, high artists more or less abandoned the problem for nonfigurative concerns. For all the differences between, say, Picasso’s violently Cubist nude women, Magritte’s uncannily troped female body parts, or de Kooning’s monstrous, splattered earth mothers, there is one score, at any rate, on which they are all alike: the opposition between the “backward-looking” romantic nude and the “forward-looking” realistic naked no longer pertains. The true inheritors of the new soft-core idiom were the various purveyors of the ubiquitous 20th-century pinup girl.5 What Brooks aptly identifies as the 19th-century “kitsch Venus”6 hanging in the salons and academies of London and Paris mutated, through a complicated process, into a plethora of pinup imagery: World War II Rosalind Russells winking knowingly and patriotically into the camera’s soldierly eye; Betty Page in a leopard skin clinging to a knotty vine in the jungle; Alberto Vargas’ buxom, airheaded beauties poured into silken lingerie; Amazonian cyborg warriors on the covers of Heavy Metal; Penthouse’s chesty yet miraculously hard-bodied Pets-of-the-Year poised athwart pillars, poles, and countless other penis variations; and Playboy’s party joke cartoon girl happily curled up in a giant martini glass.

Compare, for example, William Etty’s Aurora and Zephyr, exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1845, and H. W. Hesselmann’s 1990 cover of “O”, the German rubber-and-latex fetish magazine, a couple of instances of the ubiquitous motif of two women set side by side. Stark differences, of course, are operative between the two images, separated as they are by a century and a half. While Etty betrays a characteristically Victorian anxiety to confer respectability upon a basically lascivious fantasy (in this case by melding two nubile young ladies into the sublime event of daybreak), Hesselmann, for his part, displays no such need to justify his female lovers. Or again, whereas Etty mitigates the potentially shocking nature of the situation by rendering ambiguous the relation between his cosmic personifications (are these women intently engaged in a pas de deux or, quite the contrary, innocently and randomly blowing past one another like leaves in a whirlwind?), Hesselmann remains calmly unapologetic about the intentions of his slinky S/M lovers.

At the same time, however, these images pound home a surprisingly unchanged ideology of the feminine. For, beyond their differences, both pictures reinforce the idea (constituted in the Victorian period but no less operative today) of Woman as a primarily—and primally—homoerotic creature, given at any moment to “descending” into dangerously nonprocreative self-love or its moral equivalent: the love that dares not speak its name. And despite the insistence of many Lacanians, in either case straight male desire is decidedly not (or not merely) structured as a uniformly invisible and voyeuristic gaze that fixes and captures its object in a frozen and vulnerable visibility. Instead, such desire is visibly relocated in and as the Other (because it is overtly figured in one or another of the lesbian lovers) even as it is invisibly accommodated (because the viewer nevertheless enjoys the covert and autoerotic pleasure of stealing a glance at female nudity).

In 20th- as well as 19th-century soft porn, this same magic trick can be managed literally with mirrors. Often, for example, the “natural” inclination of Woman to self-love is concretized in pictures of her staring wantonly at her own image as it is reflected in a pool or looking glass. Whereas in the supposedly lesbian images the two women constitute mirrors of one another, in these images a solitary woman, doubled by being presented with her own reflection, economically mirrors herself.

If we compare Henri Caro-Delvaille’s 1906 La Brune au miroir (Brunette at the mirror) with a photograph from the September/October 1990 issue of Playboy’s Book of Lingerie, we find that each image, in its own way, varies Etty’s and Hesselmann’s strategy for echoing the male machinery of looking. But here a double movement is at work: the mirror in both pictures simultaneously collapses the object of desire into a. dangerously self-absorbed masturbatory reverie and literally multiplies her image. If the immediate benefit of this multiplication is to grant the viewer’s gaze plural and inflected penetrations, at the same time the pictorial strategy has the curious effect of troping the viewer’s gaze into the model’s own solipsism. Even as the young woman is doubled in both images, so are we as spectators; as Edward Snow has it in his discussion of the woman-and-her-mirror motif, “As our counterpart in desire, the mirror’s image has a tendency to detach [itself] from the woman from whom [it] apparently derives and, assuming a priority in desire, to gaze on her intently, pleasurably, bemusedly—much as we do.” The woman in the mirror is “our viewing [surrogate] within the painting.”7

But while the female reflection in the mirror doubles, and thus externally represents, the viewer or his (or her?) straight (or lesbian?) surrogate, in Caro-Delvaille’s and Playboy’s images this doubling also has the effect of displacing the agency of looking. The viewer’s position, in short, is simultaneously represented (in the mirror image, where it is interestingly gendered female) and shrouded in darkness (because the viewer remains, after all, an invisible and surreptitious consumer of such irresistibly “feminine” delights). So when a woman is represented as masturbatorily self-absorbed in her own image, a dynamic is enacted in which the equally masturbatory (male?) viewer gets off by gazing upon a (female?) representation of his (or her?) own activity. Just what kind of sexuality is being manufactured and consumed here, exactly?

Doubtless the most potent precedent in the English-speaking world for this delicious game with mirrors is Milton’s Eve, who, upon first coming to consciousness in a relentlessly patriarchal Paradise, becomes profoundly absorbed in her own feminine image in a pool. “As I bent down to look,” she later tells Adam.

A shape within the wat’ry gleam appear’d,
Bending to look on me, I started back,
It started back, but pleas’d I soon return’d.
Pleas’d it return’d as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love; there I [would have] fixt
Mine eyes till now, and pined with vain desire,
Had not a voice thus warn’d me.

Milton thus stages, misogynistically and for all time, the primal scene of Woman’s masturbatory self-absorption. But for the collective (and corrective) voices of God and Adam, Eve would have missed out on the experience of shattering and dividedness provided by Lacan’s mirror stage and, therefore, on heterosexuality itself. instead lingering forever in her own narcissistic gaze. A terrible fate indeed.

When Woman isn’t busy slipping either into another’s embrace or into a masturbatory, mirrored self-absorption, well then, she’s out cultivating carnal relations with—gulp!—the very beasts that crawleth upon the earth and flyeth overhead. Frederic Leighton’s 1891 Perseus and Andromeda embodies a feverishly Victorian version of the damsel-indistress motif; Rowena Morrill’s Bush-era version, the cover of the July 1989 issue of Heavy Metal, at once marks a continuation and a radical departure. In both pictures, Andromeda’s softly curvaceous posture simultaneously echoes and counterposes the dragon’s sharp, overwhelming outlines. In the two works, therefore, Woman is at once intimately linked with the primordial and animalistic (an equation cherished by Alfred Tennyson and Bob Guccione alike) and reassuringly distinguished from the phallic and aggressive (a division as dear to Hugh Hefner as it was to John Ruskin). But, unlike the 19th-century Andromeda, Morrill’s Heavy Metal update isn’t helplessly chained to a rock or, for that matter, in immediate need of the male rescue that Leighton’s floating Perseus is about to impose. On the contrary, the lascivious gesture with which this Aryan beauty caresses the beast’s stiffened snout leaves the presumed straight male viewer neither identified with a heroic savior nor exactly clear about his own place in the fantasy.

While a “natural” link between Woman and Beast is implicitly threatened in Leighton’s and Morrill’s pictures, in other Victorian paintings and 20th-century pinups it is, by contrast, explicitly promised. For alongside the countless images of bestiality in which women figure in loving proximity to animals (dogs and snakes are favorites, but any old lower form—baboon, dolphin, swan—will do), there is another cluster of images in which women figure as those very animals—an entire menagerie of Victorian beauties and modern pinup girls reimagined as vultures, vipers, lions, and the like. These later fantasies, of course, are hybridizations, palm-pounding male daydreams of threshold creatures neither animal nor exactly human.

Consider the motif of that panoceanic temptress, the mermaid, feverishly imagined, for instance, in John William Waterhouse’s 1901 A Mermaid. In the Victorian period this figure was often particularized as one of the sirens luring that great-granddaddy of us all, Odysseus, to the rocks; in Waterhouse, though, she remains the vaguely transhistorical beauty we know so well from the Diver Dan television episodes and Chicken-of-the-Sea tuna cans of our childhoods. Half-fish, half–femme fatale, this crossbred specimen of exotica nestles temptingly on a seashore strewn with shipwrecked treasures, seductively combing her luxurious hair, and deeply associated with what the French have the punning poeticism to call la mer. And while 20th-century soft-core artists have more or less phased out explicit depictions of the mermaid, that voluptuous sea creature nevertheless boasts scores of progeny, evolved to be sure, but still mysteriously and metonymically connected with the sea. Take a look, for instance, at the model Jacqueline Sheen figured as a sushiesque morsel in Playboy’s 1991 Girls of Summer, newly caught in a lucky fisherman’s net. Or again, consider the photograph of Evi Kitt from the same issue. This marks yet another variation on the time-honored theme of the oceanic and, in this case, orgasmic temptress within whose loins the surf is lightly exploding in a veritable compromise formation of the semenly (seamanly?) come shot that characterizes hard-core pornography.

But this is not hard core. In each and every instance, soft core’s cousin is not hard core in spite of the (often persuasive) arguments of the feminist antipornography movement—but rather the high academic art of the late 19th century. Hard core seeks to document the supposedly raw truth of the body’s sexual mechanics; for its part, soft core, both in the kitsch Venus of the Victorian period and the pinup girl of ours, is concerned to package and purvey a very different brand of myth. And whereas hard core is suspended between a desire, on the one hand, pseudoscientifically to capture and, on the other, purely licentiously, to confer the body’s pleasure, soft core has its own fundamental tension, or what Marxists would call its own internal contradiction to navigate. I’m referring to the anxious double movement by which soft-core porn strives to render the scantily clad feminine as an object of desire that is at once (cheesily) individualized and (cheesily) generalized.

Soft core’s process of individualization comes multiply inflected nowadays. There’s the purportedly scandalous situation, for instance, in which a celebrity’s pinup past returns to haunt her (consider Madonna, Brooke Shields, or the Miss America Pageant’s Vanessa Williams). A reversal of this is the canny career option in which identifiable actresses pose as pin-ups (recall the swimsuited Farrah Fawcett in the popular calendar photo, or Sally Fields strutting her cleavage on the March ’86 cover of Playboy). There’s the convention by which the tempting centerfold is granted a supposedly particularized identity (Tanya, whose favorite novel is The Great Gatsby, majored in philosophy at Tufts, loves Dave Brubeck, and hates dishonest men). And there’s the strategy wherein “real women” (the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, the “Girls of the Ivy League,” or Hustler’s Beaver-of-the-Month, a nurse from Fort Worth) bare their breasts and, along with them, their particular identities, for the viewer’s, presumably also particularized, pleasure.

But in spite of all such efforts to particularize and individualize the pinup girl, soft core is equally at pains to codify her as a universal, indeed almost allegorical type (of vulnerable Innocence, naive Willingness, wanton Availability, and so forth). For rather like Joshua Reynolds—whose esthetic program the Victorian academic painters hungrily inherited the—artists and photographers of 20th-century soft porn seek to confer upon the model the muted glow of the general. To be sure, the pinup’s conventional roles vary from the Giggling Girl Next Door to the Leering Gartered Nurse and from the Cozy Blond Kitten to the Chilly Brunette Dominatrix. In each case, however, there is at work one and the same impulse (technologically managed, for instance, in the soft focus achieved by the greased lenses of Penthouse photographers) to infuse the particular model with a sense of radiant idealization that is crucial to soft core’s sense of the feminine.

So, unlike in hard core, in both the current pinup girl and the kitsch Venus of Victorian academic painting, an unalloyed and particularized kinkiness is simultaneously indulged and muted in softening quotation marks. In soft core, even as the male, heterosexual desire to gaze frankly upon the “truth” of the female anatomy is satisfied, that “truth” is shrouded—dressed, you might even say—in the clothing of euphemism. In the 19th century, this euphemism was achieved by recourse to mythology, gauze drapery, and the “high” tragedy of, say, the dead Ophelia; in the 20th, it is had by recourse to soft focus, coy poses, and the “low” giddiness of, say, Marilyn Monroe. But in either case, the same set of issues is being worked out; and a visual strategy for straight men safely to (re)think and (re)contain the overwhelmingly scary idea of Woman is being nervously negotiated and renegotiated.

Casey Finch is completing his Ph.D. in English at New York University.


1. For a discussion of this iconography see Bram Dijkstra, Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

2. Much recent scholarship has explored the late-19th-century emergence of the homosexual/heterosexual opposition. See. for example, Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, vol. I, trans. Robert Hurley, New York: Pantheon, 1978; Kenneth Plummer, ed., The Making of the Modern Homosexual. London: Hutchinson, 1981; Jeffrey Weeks, Sex, Politics, and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800, London: Longman, 1981; David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, New York: Routledge, 1989: and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

3. Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible”, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989, p. 36.

4. Peter Brooks, “Storied Bodies, or Nana at Last Unveil’d,” Critical Inquiry 16 no. 1, Autumn 1989, p. 14.

5. There’s really no way of diagnosing the muse of such a tradeoff. Every now and then, “high” and “low” forms simply swap motifs, traditions, procedures, problems. Just as, when high Modernist poetry more or less abandoned rhyme, popular song carried on the technique, so. when high art more or less abandoned the nude, the 20th-century pinup girl emerged to fill the void.

6. Brooks, p. 2.

7. Edward Snow, “Theorizing the Male Gaze: Some Problems,” Representations 25, Winter 1989, pp. 36, 37.

8. John Milton, Paradise Lost 4:460–67. ed. Merritt Y. Hughes, New York: The Odyssey Press, 1935.