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Women, Cheesecake, and Borderline material: Responses to Girlie Pictures in the Mid-Twentieth-Century U.S. Joanne Meyerowitz The proliferation in the mass media of sexual representations of women is, arguably, among the most significant developments in twentiethcentury U.S. women's history, the history of sexuality, and the history of popular culture. Stated simply, illustrations and photographs of scantily clad and nude women, once considered disreputable, now grace billboards , calendars, television, movies, and magazines. The exposed female body appears ubiquitously as our primary public symbol of eroticism. Since the protests against Playboy magazine in 1969, feminists have repeatedly questioned the meanings of the mass marketing of the female body. In fact, angry debates over mass-produced sexual representations recently split the U.S. women's movement.1 Curiously, historians have scarcely addressed this phenomenon. Histories of erotic images generally focus either on illicit pornography or on nudity in the Euro-American fine arts tradition, and histories of censorship tend to dwell on the battles and negotiations between predominantly male moralists and predominantly male modernists and entrepreneurs.2 In this essay, I shift the focus from pornography and art and battles among men to popular magazines and debates among women. I examine the most widely marketed forms of sexual representation—cheesecake and borderline material—and the vociferous public responses of women.3 This history demonstrates that commodified sexual representation was a "woman's issue" well before the contemporary feminist movement. As sexual images of women multiplied in the popular culture, women participated actively in constructing arguments to endorse as well as protest them. The open battles between women not only involved moralism, modernism, and mass-marketed culture but also concepts of respectability , female beauty, feminism, racial equality, and maternalism. This discourse on sexual imagery belongs within a larger context of cultural contests over changing sexual codes. The rise of popular erotic images was one component of a broader transformation toward a modern sexuality that assigned a heightened value to nonprocreative heterosexuality . As sexual mores changed in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries , sexologists and other experts regulated sexuality by codifying and © 1996 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 8 No. 3 (Fall) 10 Journal of Women's History Fall disseminating new definitions of "normal" and "abnormal" behavior.4 On a more popular level, the entrepreneurs who mass-produced sexual representations and the consumers who viewed them also constructed and categorized sex. Through the thousands of images they commodified and consumed, they not only defined and redefined what was attractive and arousing; they also distinguished respectable sexual spectacle from the questionable and taboo. In the early twentieth century, a new language emerged to represent the unstable categories of a new taxonomy of sexual display. The American slang "cheesecake" entered the common parlance around 1915 as a term for publicly acceptable, mass-produced images of semi-nude women.5 As "cheesecake" spread through the popular culture, the term "borderline material" came to refer to erotic imagery that stretched the gap between respectable cheesecake and illicit pornography.6 Cheesecake, borderline material, and pornography did not progressively unveil the reality of sex or of women's bodies; rather, they removed some images of women's bodies from the margins of obscenity to the center of mainstream popular culture. They helped define certain bodily images as clean, healthy, and wholesome, enjoyed by "normal" men and women, and left others as dirty, taboo, and grotesque. The content of cheesecake, borderline material, and pornography changed over time. Not surprisingly, cheesecake pictures in mid-century differed from cheesecake pictures forty years earlier.7 But into the 1960s the categories themselves provided a widely accepted classificatory schema, a schema at least as important as the oft noted one that distinguishes "art" from "obscenity."8 The changing content of cheesecake and borderline material, like the changing content of art, marked the shifting and contested boundaries of respectable female sexual display and of normal visual pleasure.9 Women joined in this process of classification when they argued for or against the respectability of certain sexual images. Women supporters welcomed a visual rhetoric that they read as a positive post-Victorian rejection of bodily shame and a healthy respect for female beauty...


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