Flappers, Sluts and Beauty Queens

I attended a recent presentation in Berlin entitled “Femmes Fatales: Japanese Bathing Beauties, Berlin Flappers and America’s Teenaged Sluts.” Three scholar/authors presented their research on the aforementioned female groups. First came Uta Poiger, who spoke on European attitudes towards color cosmetics and their advertisement in the inter-war period. Then Emily White, an editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, read from her book on the myth of the high-school slut. Finally, Jan Bardsley spoke on the first Japanese Miss Universe in 1959. While wildly diverse, each presentation touched upon the tension between natural and artificial beauty, upon the simultaneous admiration and distrust of beautiful women, upon the cultural and behavioral bounds in which women find themselves trapped.

Poiger detailed European ambivalence or negativity towards visible cosmetics usage in opinion polls following their mass introduction in the earlier part of the 20th c. Cosmetics wearers were chided for disguising their natural beauty and fooling intended suitors with powder and lipstick. This persisted despite the fact that many women admitted to using color cosmetics at this time. Further, Poiger deconstructed four advertisements for cosmetics from this period, noting that beauty companies walked a fine line in promoting their products, turning to the more neutral messages of hygiene and health or to an international and cosmopolitan image of the “new” woman for whom cosmetics served to accentuate her natural features. In the 1930s, a female author writes that with the advent of these personal care products, there is no longer any such thing as an ugly woman. Then as now, the perceived overuse of makeup signifies a “loose” woman; these masked temptresses are in marked contrast to nubile, natural, pink-skinned beauties whose “purity” of face (and race) is read into their character.

Similarly, many of the so-called sluts White profiles had physical features developed far beyond those of the other girls in their class; their “fast” bodies were projected into presumed advanced sexual experience. Race and class differences between students also contribute to the identification of the (outsider) slut. Taunted by curious boys and jealous girls alike, these young women are known to the entire school by first and last name (often scrawled in bathroom stalls). The stories of their supposed misadventures are eerily similar across time and place, illustrating that the “slut” is more a social construction for delineating boundaries of adolescent sexual exploration than a real collection of stories and rumors about any one supposed slut. In her profiles of individuals, White examines the impact that quasi-celebrity teenaged slut status has on these young women as they grow up and leave high school.

Finally, Bardsley told the story of Akiko Kojima, 1959 Miss Japan and the first ever non-white winner of the Miss Universe pageant. In the context of a post-WWII world, Kojima — with her natural height and her “western” ways — was a contested symbol of the newly-franchised, modern Japanese woman: a triumph of U.S.-led reform efforts in Japan. Kojima’s success, however, was quickly criticized as a ploy to win Japanese support for a new treaty with the States. Rumors began circulating that Kojima’s breasts had been augmented, that she was secretly planning to marry her handsome American escort from the evening gown competition, that her crowning was simply a marketing ploy by Max Factor, sponsor of the pageant, to introduce American cosmetics on the Asian market. Returning home a winner, she was no longer “Japanese” enough. Bardsley examined each of these rumors in turn — not to dispute their veracity, but rather to consider what each reaction said about post-war society at-large.

While women have for centuries sought to augment their beauty, to thereby gain respect and authority, these three examples all illustrate the knife’s edge that is beauty: too much attention quickly turns into a public assault on a woman’s character and reputation. These codes of behavior continue to be written in shades of lipstick, in neck- and hemlines, in water cooler gossip and apparently in football stadiums. If the price of failure is so high, why do those of us with other means of gaining respect and authority continue to even flirt with the beautiful? More fundamentally, wherein lies the danger in the beautiful woman or even in rampant female sexuality that society continues to react so strongly? Finally, what is fatale about any of these three stereotypical female postures?

— posted by poetloverrebelspy

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2 Responses to Flappers, Sluts and Beauty Queens

  1. Matthew Sayre says:

    A couple quick questions on Akiko Kojima and I suppose on Japanese culture. Was the negative perception of her in Japan or America (or both). Was her success vilified in America because a white woman hadn’t won, or denegrated in Japan because their victory had been tainted by Americanization? I ask because if its America’s response, all the talks are about Western attitudes towards beauty, and if it’s Japan, then it becomes human attitudes towards beauty. What happened to her in the long run as well?

    I suppose in a more general question to those who might know, did the different use and connotations of makeup in Japan (such as those used by geisha) color western attitudes towards Japanese and Asian woman after WWII?

  2. poetloverrebelspy says:

    The presentation focused on Japanese opinions and gossip, not on American (though the press articles presented were largely from American, or at least English-speaking, sources — probably for audience benefit). Bardsley’s speeches tend to focus on the influence of American and Western culture on post-war Japan(ese women).

    The Wikipedia article says that she settled into private married life. There is not a lot of information in English to be found on her doing a quick search.

    As for geisha, I can only contribute something Bardsley mentioned. A few years later, Miss Japan was the daughter of a geisha, her mother accompanying her to the U.S. for the competition. Japan didn’t like the press this got and began actively recruiting young female students — seen as “better” representatives — to compete in future pageant competitions.

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