Petty Girl: The Ideal Male Fantasy of a Woman
On the 27th of April 1894, the American graphic artist George Petty was born in Abbeville, Louisiana. He is mostly remembered for creating the Petty Girl, one of America’s favourite and most popular pinups, which was used frequently in advertisements, calendars, magazine centrefolds, posters, and most importantly, as an element of building soldiers’ morale during wartime. The characteristic features of a typical Petty Girl were her unnaturally long legs and her head being relatively smaller in relation to the rest of the body. One of the most recognisable images of a Petty Girl is probably the one used as the ‘nose art’ on the famous WWII B-17 Flying Fortress, Memphis Belle.
Petty’s career as a graphic artist began in 1933 working on the men’s magazine Esquire. His famous images, as well as the magazine’s mission, corresponded in a way with the socio-cultural changes brought on by the Great Depression. “Surely not by coincidence, social commentators rapidly developed a discourse that highlighted diminished male self-esteem as an outgrowth of the Depression. Pundits of Eleanor Roosevelt’s stature argued that losing one’s job, whether real or feared, and the possibility of seeing one’s wife forced to become a breadwinner was resulting in a dislocating loss of masculine self-respect (Roosevelt 1933, 20). The opportunity seized by Esquire was recognizing that this multivalent “loss” could be refigured into the site of a marketable new male identity. Key to such sleight of hand was the notion of “leisure,” a buzzword among Roosevelt braintrusters who hoped that commodifying the free time attendant on a reduced work week would lead to more consumer spending.” (Kenon Breazeale, In Spite of Women: “Esquire” Magazine and the Construction of the Male Consumer, Signs, Vol. 20, No. 1, Autumn, 1994). Thus, Petty’s images were used for the purposes of attracting male audiences, stimulating their consumerist desires, and reshaping social consciousness and its perception of traditional gender relations. From now on consumerism was no longer a phenomenon ascribed exclusively to women. Moreover, Esquire suggested that men were finally getting hold of something they were unjustly deprived of – it was a chance for a leisurely break with a magazine addressed specifically to them: “It is our belief, in offering Esquire to the American male, that we are only getting around at last to a job that should have been done a long time ago-that of giving the masculine reader a break. The general magazines, in the mad scramble to increase the woman readership that seems to be so highly prized by national advertisers, have bent over backwards in catering to the special interests and tastes of the feminine audience. This has reached the point where the male reader is made to feel like an intruder on gynaecic mysteries” (Esquire 1933, 4).
The illustrations of Petty Girls in Esquire were highly eroticised – the girls dressed in provocative lingerie were usually talking on the phone to an unidentified person, expressing sexual puns of double meaning, such as for example: “Pick me up – How about you?” or “Well, we could go to the opera, Mr. Hammond, if you insist on preliminaries.” “In Esquire, the person she is talking to on the phone is usually suggested by the captions as a friend or lover (or sometimes as a friend who hears her confessions about a male friend or lover), and the puns of the text create an identifiable sexual setting. The captions may appear from “her” point of view or as something an assumed male voice is saying about her. Petty himself never supplied these captions; they were created by the magazine editors (often as a bet), and they produce a secondary plane of meaning that is age-, class-, race-, and gender-specific.” (Linda Williams, Porn Studies)
In 1941, Petty, despite his popularity, left Esquire and was soon replaced by another graphic artist named Alberto Vargas. Vargas’ pinups bore a slightly different look, which caused a stir among Esquire readers. There appeared to be differing opinions between males and females. For example, a Mr. Langston claimed that: “We (the readers) have missed the shapely Petty Girl, but her absence is not nearly so disappointing as your giving us a substitute such as this one. She is good, yes, and shapely too, but she is not what we have been wanting – and getting. …Miss Varga looks far more hardened and callous than the inviting, yet more reserved, Betty Petty. …The Varga Girl is desirable in her own sort of way, but she, unlike Papa Petty’s creation, is not as likely to be taken out in public. Women’s beauty is – and should be – judged from the standpoint of that which would make her desirable to men. We want a female who is a lady in the daytime and a woman at night. …[Petty’s] women have their emphasis in such a manner as to make one take them in the belief that such women really exist – and they do.” (Elena Buszek, Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture). Mr. Langston’s opinion was met with criticism from some female readers, such as “A.K.V.” of Dallas, stating that: “My colleagues (female) and myself have decided that a Varga girl (if such could breath) would be at least understandable, while a Petty wench is something you view with lifted eyebrow and censor your thoughts. …[Langston’s comment,] ‘we want a female who is a lady in the daytime and a woman at night.’ simply slayed [sic] me, as I did not know there was such a vast chasm between night and day.” (Buszek)
These comments are rather interesting as they show a visible change in men’s attitude both towards women as well as their own position as newly identified group of consumers. Given the right to express openly their consumerist desires they commodified the image of the modern woman and probably influenced it to a certain extent. After all, from the comment of the female reader we learn that women did not oppose the highly eroticised and objectified perception of their sex as such, but merely one of its variations. Was it dictated by their growing feminist liberalism or rather by their need to compete for male attention? If the latter was the case, then they simply set themselves to compete against sheer male fantasies.