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Pin Up! The Subculture

Negotiating Agency, Representation & Sexuality with Vintage Style

Kathleen M. Ryan

Dangerous. Sexy. All-American—or rather All-World—Girl. Pin Up! The Subculture is the first book to explore the contemporary international subculture of pin up, women (and men) who embrace vintage style, but not vintage values.

Award-winning filmmaker and author Kathleen M. Ryan spent more than five years in the subculture. It’s a world of cat eye makeup, carefully constructed hairstyles, and retro-inspired fashions. But it’s also a world that embraces the ideals of feminism. Beauty, according to the pin up, is found not in body type or skin color, but in the confidence and sexual agency of the individual. Pin ups see their subculture as a way to exert empowerment and control of their own sexual and social identities—something that is part of the pin up’s historical legacy.

This lavishly illustrated book includes interviews with more than fifty international pin ups and helps readers to understand how they use social media and personal interactions to navigate thorny issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia, sizeism, and other difficult topics. Ryan demonstrates how even within subcultures, identity is far from homogeneous. Pin ups use the safety of their shared subcultural values to advocate for social and political change.

A fascinating combination of cultural history, media studies, and oral history, Pin Up! The Subculture is the story about how a subculture is subverting and reviving an historic aesthetic for the twenty-first century.

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8 Negotiating Representation


In spring 2018, an online conversation focused on one of the top global pin up contests, after a potential contestant questioned the representation, or lack thereof, in the initial slate of finalists.1 All six were cisgender women who appeared to be White, and only one was plus-sized. The discussion advocated for greater representation of women—race, ethnicity, size, age, gender identity—in the popular vote that would determine the remaining contestants, and asked why a contest that claimed to be “inclusive” failed to do that initially.

Through oral history interviews, this chapter explores the issue of representation and the successes and failures of pin up’s claims of inclusivity and agency considering multiple intersections that exist within the individual. In it, I seek to see how pin up can avoid the White habitus—or the centering of whiteness in any discussion of intersectionality. I’ll first outline some of the other intersections in the pin up subculture. Then I will look at how the negotiations of representation and subcultural capital play out in one of the highest profile areas of pin up: contests at car shows, music festivals, and other events.

The tension—between who “belongs” and who is an “outsider”—plays out in subgroups of the pin up subculture. There are various intersections for women within pin up culture in addition to race/ethnicity or body size. Each potentially impacts a woman’s acceptance within the subculture, and each is trying to remedy the historical erasure of women like...

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