Vargas' Blonde Sambos
Copyright ©2000 by Andrea Dworkin
Having spent September 14, 1999 at the University of Kansas at Lawrence looking at original drawings of women by Alberto Vargas I came to a few simple if rude conclusions: the drawings are caricature of women's bodies, distorted, anti-anatomical, and exceptionally empty as if the space were a gendered vacuum; the generic cartoon is more complex, more substantive, more engaging; Vargas' subject--or object, to be more precise--is some lazy, fetishistic view of white women, pale women, usually blonde; the drawing itself delineates the boundaries of nonexistence, a white, female nonentity. The empty space has a shape, which is why the line is necessary; the shape is female, which is why the nothingness is taken to have meaning; the meaning is masturbatory, which is to say that a suggestion of female corporeality-a hint-approximates a sexual perception of a woman. Having seen drawings by artists as distinct as Goya, Lautrec, Rodin, or David Smith, one must ask why these drawings are seen to have any merit whatsoever. And there is only the simple-minded answer: the drawings are valued because male masturbation is the generous response to female emptiness however expressed or articulated. If women existed in any one of these drawings, would men be similarly aroused; or is the absence itself the turn-on? Is the work of Vargas a study in absence rather than presence? It is probably important to remember that these drawings (most of which were printed in Esquire, a self-proclaimed magazine for men) were accepted as sexual representations of women by U.S. male soldiers during World War II. One might understand the minimalism of the drawings as war propaganda, the kind that lets the individual man fill in the sexual detail or the human detail; by his choice he designates or experiences a friend or an enemy, whichever he prefers. Then there is the pop-culture meaning. The fact of publication in Esquire establishes the manliness of the reader; the simple consumption of the magazine is an experience of virility. It's a snake paradigm: bigger snake eats littler snake, the Vargas girl being the tiniest snake of all but the snake that elicits hard won ejaculation. Esquire slimes women by exclusion; Vargas slimes women by trivialization or, perhaps more maliciously, by creating invisibility. The faces are all cosmetic, not a life line in them, the so-called women mostly blonde, with an emphasis in all the drawings on the breast or vaginal area. There are lots of bright red nails but no rib cages or muscles, no fat because there is no flesh; there are hard nipples, vacant smiles, painted toe nails, infantilization, hairless bodies; big eyebrows to designate the hairiness not seen; the blondes are good and childlike; the redheads are a little tougher; black hair is the sign of the wicked woman.
There is a strategy, propagandistic, not artistic. That which is covered exposes the nakedness underneath. A right foot is near a left knee in such a way as to emphasize the hidden opening behind both foot and knee; or legs are closed in such a way as to indicate an opening underneath, the visual center of the drawing. Or the visual center of the drawing might be the woman's vagina/rectal area, the female body modified in a distorted fetal position. Most of the drawings are not anatomically plausible but the idea is to draw the attention to what is hidden while at the same time slandering the female form itself.
For instance, in the January 1941 Varga Girl Calendar published by Esquire, a woman is in a cradle lined in a fur baby cap with pink ribbons and white lace. (I know that makes no sense but I didn't draw the damn thing.) A diaper is fastened with a huge safety pin. The material of the baby cap covers the woman's aureole and the top part of her breasts. She's wearing baby shoes. Her hands are childlike and frame her face, which is turned in a direction opposite to that of her body. That the vagina and the rectum seem to be in the same anatomical place emphasizes the utility of the covered parts and the falseness, phoniness, or fecalness of the body the drawing supposedly represents. There are animals that have what amounts to the human vagina and rectum in the same place--the human woman is not among them.
In the Varga Girl gatefold publshed in the November 1943 Esquire the she-thing has no underarm hair, her eyes are cast to stage left but the visual center of the drawing is where her legs are closed, a purposeful evocation of the legs open, the open vagina: the hidden stigma.
In December 1940 gatefold the ploy is the same: she's standing up, blonde, big eyebrows, red nails, phone in left hand, pointy breasts, a pre-Madonna pop icon as if the breasts were dangerous, metalicized weapons, that hard nipple a sword, not a shield; she's wearing a Santa costume that shows her right buttock; she's holding a Santa in her right hand; she's wearing high heels, a fur collar, there's a bag of toys behind her, of which one is an old man in an elf uniform ogling her ass. It's a kind of proto-pornography. Goebbels and Streicher, not having to be accountable to motherhood and apple pie, went right for the hard-core. Americans were supposed to be and to feel clean in the World War II era, the beacon of decency; the U.S. soldier embodied the good even before Spielberg got to him in "Private Ryan"; thus the Vargas banality. Streicher's motive was ideological-Jewish whores, Jewish rapists; while Vargas was in it for the money and the so-called fantasy, the making of a creature so boring and stupid as to make the American soldier, among others, smile and masturbate in the killing fields. It's not that the Germans didn't have their own brand of sentimentality the locus of which was women; rather the shock comes from recognizing how much Americana and German kitsch had in common-each sentimentalized the Aryan maiden, so white, so blonde, so pale. In the war of imagery up to the point at which violence became explicit, the U.S. and German soldiers were on the same side. One might ask the classic question: how German is it?-or one might ask the political question-how perverse is it? Esquire's pride in keeping the U.S. boys happy, which is to say titillated, requires some hard-hearted scrutiny. Between 1942 to 1945, Esquire provided six million copies to U.S. troops overseas and three million to the domestic military.
Vargas' notion of sophistication is not benign. In the January 1941 gatefold, breasts are dead center and covered by what appear to be bird wings. This suggests the post-war O who in Story of 0 is led to an orgy dressed as an owl, tethered through her vagina. Zoo drawings-women as quasi-animals-appear to be the single conception Vargas had of adult, as opposed to infantalized, women: sculpted but black eyebrows, dashes of red lipstick, one visible arm holding a green mask covered in a translucent (or not) black glove. The hair on her head is a dark blonde.
In another prophetic strike, Vargas does an early proto-Marilyn Monroe (January 1941, unpublished gatefold]: has the flaring skirt of Monroe's seven-year itch iconography; the woman appears to be dancing; her breasts are emphasized under a red heart; and she's a blonde with red nails. The visual center of the drawing is the area from the breasts to the front line of the flair just below the vagina. Apparently, Vargas modeled this on his wife, a little too much reality for the editors of Esquire--they rejected the drawing. There is a certain athleticism to the figure that suggests more joie de vivre than Esquire's editors could stand in the drawing of a woman or in a woman.
The bird reenters the zoo drawings again in the February 1941 calendar. A blonde with sculpted eyebrows has hands covered in gloves that have feathers from fur: the claws. The headpiece is black with silver feathers that create a high V at the very front. The body is in a skating costume, the hem of which is decorated with fur claws; the legs are split nearly 180 degrees. Her weight is on one leg and her vagina-rectal area (which is not dead center) is the visual center. Black and the fur claws suggest evil.
It is only fair to tell the reader that Vargas's visual vocabulary is an amazingly stultified one and never goes much beyond Santa, skaters, babies, and masked but painted faces. Looking at these drawings is like reading a very long book that has a maximum of five words; at some point one must ask: I'm going to die some day so why am I reading this book and isn't there another book that I could read? In this sense, too, Vargas is proto-pornographic: deeply boring and repetitive. The consciousness of the viewer feels caged: why won't someone open these damned doors and let me out? Anyone with a large conception of the world, art, or women could use these drawings as if they were ether.
In the October 1943 calendar (not exhibited), the woman is lying down on her back. One sees two arms, breasts, a face with hair spread out under the face. The vagina is once again dead center. The hair is a white-blonde and the skin has the same coloration. There is no background so it's as if she's reclining in the air with her head pulling her down. A red-orange slip covers her breasts, buttocks, and vaginal area with the color of the garment echoed in her lips. The lips reiterate the theme, which is accessibility. She's pure retro-sex and glamour without flesh or energy, a flat, pale, porcelain doll packaged in a carnal color.
A more sophisticated composition is the May 1941 gatefold: there is a female pilgrim dressed in black and someone designated as Spanish dressed in white. Conceptually this is Vargas' biggest perceptual puzzle: what is the thematic congruence between the two? Is there a point here, visual or conceptual? The pilgrim wears a black sheer robe that covers most of her body but divides to show one naked leg and, of course, to emphasize the vagina; there are white cuffs on the black sleeves and black shoes with a buckle; the pilgrim's face is painted, with Vargas' typical bright red lips, she's blonde and she has a smoking cigarette in one hand. The buckle, it would seem, is the defining representation of pilgrimness. The so-called Spaniard is dressed in a white lace mantilla and gown and both legs are arranged so that the vaginal area is highlighted; she has dark hair, red nails, the tops of her breasts are exposed and she wears high, high heels. This juxtaposition of pilgrim and Spaniard seems ideal for the postmodern crowd, since meaning is meaningless in contrast, in congruence, in coherence. Xenophobia is the only logic to the drawing, the pilgrim being Americana, the Spaniard standing in for the world of the foreigner. Or maybe one gets two for the price of one: two vaginas, nicely hidden and therefore nicely highlighted. This is the randomness drawing: two women from any category, Alberto, one can hear his muse (or his Esquire editor) intoning-don't you worry your pretty little dick about what it means, sweetheart.
Vargas returns to the intellectual simplicity for which he is best known with the May 1941 calendar: a woman with light brown hair has polka dot on blue fabric tied around her head, breasts, waist, and thighs. In one arm she holds a rake with prongs on top but the rake in fact looks like the stick part goes right up inside her because the rake meets her vagina. This occurs because she is holding one foot at knee level, which again emphasizes the vaginal area. The visual target is her painted face. Vargas seems to be editorializing here: why would a wholesome farm woman wear make-up and dress in cloth that can be untied in one fell swoop? The brown hair gives it all away: she's Eve in a U. S. garden. The painted face that shows up in virtually all of the drawings as the reversed vagina, the place of evil or the sign of evil, says she wants it or acts as the defamatory evidence of female guilt. Norman Rockwell's purpose may have been different, but Vargas makes Rockwell's Americana look deep.
Some of Vargas' drawings were consumed as playing cards (and also on calendars) not unlike the playing cards Serb soldiers enjoyed so much while passing time during the recent Balkan war against women and children. The more explicit the cards, the more explicit the targets; the more explicit the cards, the more explicit the war-rape. Emphasizing the genitals by hiding them allows a nostalgia for Vargas' pin-ups as if no rape follows from his stupefied objectification. There is, for instance, a woman in a bathing suit posed as if she is lying on a flat surface but her body is vertical, her face is painted, her nails are red and so is her hair. On another card, Vargas's pin-ups are to the right and to the left of the center pin-up's vaginal area and buttocks; and then there is the exact opposite of this card all in shades of gray, pin-up reversed head-to-foot and right-to-left. On another card a woman wears a bathing suit that is light greenish yellow in color but turns to brown at the pubic area, the brown indicating the dirty place. Did the cards keep the card-game exciting? How many hours of poker could Vargas' playing cards sustain? If one thinks about a support system for rape or less violent expressions of women's subordination to men, wouldn't these cards be part of that support system? A Hershey bar and silk stockings is probably about the fight price for a woman who reminded the valiant G.I. of a Vargas pin-up. The women were so white, the blondes so blonde. In the same way that the boys embodied the best of America in fighting the Nazis, the Vargas pin-ups embodied the best of the sexuality just under the surface of the good, clean, milk-white American maiden. The lips and nails, red, embody the broken cherry, the blood under the skin, the menstrual blood, the sexed or gendered blood.
Never let it be said, however, that Vargas' iconography of the sadomasochistic was accidental or subtly implied. In the November 1942 gatefold one sees a smiling blonde, painted face, wearing white, in some places sheer white, a slip emphasizing her breasts, the way in which her skirt is pulled has folds in the vaginal region; she's also wearing cowboy boots, belt, hat, studs on leather on both wrists, and high heels; the whip is held above her head. Along with an overt vocabulary of visual sadomasochism there is overt nakedness. In the April 1943 calendar, the woman has orangish hair, a painted face, painted toes, and the nakedness of her back and legs are emphasized and this nakedness is echoed again in the configuration of her torso and bent leg. She holds paper, which rests under her breasts and creates the illusion of space: nakedness. The primitive is also given its proto-pornographic due. In the June 1943 calendar there is a woman with black hair, painted face, red nails, flowers cover her ears, a wrap resembling a loincloth covers her vaginal opening which is dead center and the focus for the eye. Aggression is shown in the placement of her face, which is at the forefront of the picture; her breasts are naked but obscured by flowers and her left arm. Her shoulders are shaded to suggest strength, and her buttocks are at the same height as her shoulders. Beast-like, she's coming at ya. The ?prowl 2 ?? calender is the same but darker; every element of the figure is darker but especially the shading on her exposed torso, which emphasizes the ribs under her breast and possible back muscles. The purposefulness of the pornographic premises in these drawings is expressed when Vargas, ever the master of the literal, draws a blonde, painted face, the woman reclining on her stomach with her face turned backward as if posing for a camera. She's wearing silver pants that hug her buttocks and her anus is the visual dead center of the dead drawing. Her breasts rest against what appears to be a disrobed top. And ever a dreamer, Vargas wanted to show the literacy of the toy doll. A blonde, with a painted face, painted nails on her fingers and on her toes, is dressed in high heels; she has a black ribbon in her hair; she's wearing a sheer slip; the body is viewed sideways and her face is pushed forward ostensibly to approach something called "diary" at her right knee, which provides the visual key to where the vagina is hidden. The prominence of her back and buttocks suggest rear access.
The November 1943 gatefold shows a blonde woman with a black ribbon in her hair, painted face, upright back, legs crossed in a sitting position, open-toed shoes. The woman is wearing a lavender corset such that one perceives the torso of the body with the vagina indicated by the crossed legs. The woman, the sister, the lady, the representation-whatever-is very childlike and seems to be pouting or frightened.
In the December 1943 gatefold, a blonde with a painted face replicates Superman, although her back is arched to show off her buttocks; there is a patriotic red, white, and blue motif.
The November 1943 calendar goes back to the primitive, or the primitive conspires with the zoo: a childlike woman is shown with a tiger. She is on her knees; she is wearing a leopard skin, backless bathing suit; her knees are resting against the tiger. The tiger looks to the front, essentially addressing the viewer, while the woman is looking away.
In the December 1943 calendar, a skirt made of cloth has fallen off the drawing (there are occasionally collage-like techniques used in the originals). The vagina is centered and the left buttock is presenting, almost as an animal would present itself for intercourse. In front of the model is a box that says WAAC and on top of the box is a military hat of some kind. The model is broad-shouldered, which separates her from the usually reduced and infantalized corporeality of Vargas' sexual imagination.
In the March 1944 Military Issue of Esquire, there's a blonde, painted face, with eagle feathers in blue as a headband, her face forward over her left shoulder, the vaginal area shaded dark, the exposure of a breast and her right buttock; the line of her torso is emphasized by the boundaries of clothes, which cover her breast, vagina, and buttock. The clothes are the same color as her skin. Is it white, flat white, egg white, or off white? It would be hard to care.
The April 1944 gatefold shows the same childlike model as the November 1943 gatefold: blonde, painted face, black bow in hair, high heels, mouth open in what appears to be a scream or a yawn, torso and shoulders covered in a silver dress.
?Ever the patriot, in the July 1944 Military Issue of Esquire Vargas has a red-haired female in a pink bathing suit reclining on her back, one knee raised to emphasize the vaginal opening, which is the visual dead center. The model is holding a piece of paper that says "To the Guy who buys G.I. bonds XXXXX.' In a related homage to Americana, the September 1944 gatefold shows a blonde, painted face, standing up, hands on hips or buttocks, a red flower behind her ear, red sleeves from just above the elbow to the wrist, the torso covered in a "baseball" dress, gray with stripes; her right breast is prominent, her legs are spread, her skirt emphasizes her anus and vagina from the back. The October 1944 gatefold herself has red hair, a painted face shown in profile, a naked back with a sarong-like wrap around her buttocks; her thighs and the bottoms of her feet are naked. In Vargas' ouevre the red-haired woman appears to be neither good per se nor evil per se: it may be that the redheaded women were as close as Vargas could come to the real War Goddess ?[the October 1944 gatefold appeared on the nose of a B-24 with the caption "War Goddess"], Rita Hayworth, whose auburned tresses framed a pin-up pose attached to the first nuclear warhead dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima.
Playing cards, on the other hand, were ideal for alternating the red, white, and blue. In the playing card of January 1945, there is a blonde, painted face, with a red background that is repeated on her lips. A white, huge hat is behind her face and breasts, a white scarf around her neck, she's wearing a white bathing suit and white heels, which are open-toed. There is a triangle composed of her arms, thigh, and the red background that provides emphasis for the vaginal area. Similarly, in the accompanying blue playing card there is a blonde, she's white with a naked back; there is the back of her head, a blue background behind her; she's wearing silver panties with a rectal split to accommodate her buttocks.
The November 1945 gatefold has a blonde, painted face, reclining with an emphasis on her buttocks; her knee against her shirt shows where the vagina is; she's wearing a Navy-like hat, a Navy-like short dress, a blue tie around her neck, a Navy-like insignia, and her hand holds down a book that looks as if it has semaphore signs. The Navy hat is repeated in the April 1945 calendar, in which a woman with brown hair-brown hair-is lying on her back and arms with her legs in the air. Her face is painted, she's shown full-face; the Navy-like hat is on her foot, the long leg extended. She's wearing a white top and blue pants; in this new moment of pants-wearing, a fold in the pants indicates the vagina and emphasizes her buttocks. In the October 1946 calendar, an auburn-haired woman presents the back of her head and a naked back. There is an emphasis on buttocks and the anal crack from the back; the breast is made prominent and yellow army-like signets that resemble big sewing stitches are on a white and silver swimsuit. The auburn-haired sister reappears on a playing card: she's in a leopard swimsuit; and a blonde gets the same treatment in another playing card. The blonde has a painted face, her back and legs are naked, her face is full against a blue background. The red-head has a painted face, and her vagina is emphasized through the configuration of her legs and arms. In a more fully articulated image in the July 1944 Military Issue of Esquire, the text reads: "Oh G.I. I hear you bought another G.I. bond! [this is gray] BUY BONDS the G.I. way! [this in blue]." She's blonde, she has a painted face, she's holding a telephone, she's got a big smile, her red top emphasizes her breasts, she has a bare midriff, she's wearing a blue and white sarong-like thing, her legs are crossed, which emphasizes the vagina. Getting soldiers to finance their own war did have an element of genius. Using the form of a woman to do it was the cliché.
By the time I got done looking at the original art after some five hours I had one reaction and one reaction only: I never wanted to see another white woman as long as I lived. Of course, I had not been looking at white women at all but rather some man's silly if socially central trivialization of white women. This is the fantasy element of this proto-pornography: that one can see all these body parts on the same body at the same time. The distortions of Vargas' pin-ups refuse to acknowledge the internal reality of a human woman, simply on the biological or anatomical level. That doesn't turn to the right at the same time that the other thing turns to the left. One can't see both the front and the back at the same time. Where's the rib cage? Is it true that any woman, including a so-called Vargas woman, has only a vagina and breasts and they twist and turn with an elasticity unknown to the human male? Where's the room for the pancreas or liver or spleen or appendix? Is there a stomach and a uterus? Is the skin purely decorative, its value in its whiteness, as opposed to being an organ of the human body? Is the color of the hair an indicator of character, the light signifying good, the dark signifying aggression or bad? How dangerous are women with black or brown hair? Where's the blood in these anemic renditions of toy dolls? She's like child, like primitive, like animal, like WAAC, like Navy, like a faux innocence, like a sinister creature; but she's never like a woman. Does she ever swim in a swimsuit or do anything other than pose? Don't her eyes matter-windows into the soul, remember? No soul for her; no rib cage, no viscera. These are Sambo-like representations of white women, infantalizing stereotypes that show white women as primitive and stupid. One is supposed to accept on some level that these are idealized representations of women but they have the logos of propaganda-they eliminate human intelligence from the perception of the consumer. For those taken to be lower on the human scale than white men, which was certainly the truth about the social and political situation of white women in Vargas' day, these drawings and play cards along with the calendars are not charming, not delicate, not idealized, not complimentary, not trivial, not sexual, not harmless, not innocent.
In Vargas' so-called art both gender and race matter. This is an iconography of the white woman that is supposed to represent a summit of female beauty; if the white woman is the measure of beauty, whiteness itself becomes the definition of beauty as indeed it had. At the same time, if one can communicate that the sexuality even of these pristine white women is dirty, venal, sinister, imagine the implications for women with darker skin alluded to by darker hair. It's the female parts not shown but suggested, especially the vagina, the aureole (the darker skin surrounding the nipple), and the lower half of the breast (closer to the vagina/uterus), that carry with them contagion, the corrupted status of the female body as a sexual trap; covered in such a way as to suggest that she's defined by what one doesn't see. In the same way that one doesn't see the vagina, one also doesn't see black skin. Vargas' blondes get so white that they are virtually encrypted; the whiteness itself suggests a darker, danker picture. Vargas' red-heads and the few brunettes have aggression added by the singular means of darkness added. As the blues singers sang, the darker the skin, the sweeter the grape. There is no sweetness in Vargas's work, no love for the female form, no love for any natural woman, no love for dark white or dark red or dark brown or black, sinister black. These drawings freeze women outside of humanity and the women look frozen, white as the Arctic though without an equivalency of interest. I don't know why Vargas did these drawings, except for money and hatred of women, including women of color; I don't know why Esquire was proud to publish them, except for money and hatred of women, including women of color; I don't know why soldiers liked these drawings, except for hatred of women, including women of color. I don't know why anyone would be or should be charmed by these drawings now: these women are white Sambos and belong to a dishonorable past. These drawings are a disgraceful part of the heritage offered by Esquire to the University of Kansas, which did not have to accept them; and they become a disgraceful part of University of Kansas' present. As for Mr. Vargas himself: he had yesterday but today and tomorrow should not belong to him or other anti-female, anti-black propagandists like him. Women-white women and women of color-deserve better. There is no reason to settle for this malevolent, headache-inducing pabulum.
Copyright ©2000 by Andrea Dworkin
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