*the nose-art girl: eroticising military aviation in world war II
Babes on a plane: Nathan Geyer on the political power of the war machine pin-up
“Treat the machine as you would a lady”
F.D. Tredrey, Pilot’s Summer: An R.A.F. Diary
In 1946, the film critic André Bazin described the pin-up girl as a ‘wartime product, a weapon of war’; a kind of propagandistic military technology that he presents as having rapidly developed into an ‘industrial product’ comparable to the jeep in the course of World War II. Unlike pornography and erotica more generally, the pin-up, according to Bazin, figured as a visual phenomenon fundamentally bound up with wartime American identity. In contrast to the underground dissemination of erotica during World War I, by the 1940s, pin-ups had become embedded in the network of mainstream media, in paper and on film. As this multimedia phenomenon grew in ubiquity, the most adept with the brush amongst American airmen were inspired to begin painting erotically charged images onto the noses of their planes, resulting in a mutated form of the pin-up known as ‘nose-art’.
The decentralised nature of production, relative lack of censorship, and the social identification of the squadron with their own nose-art image betray a distinctive visual phenomenon which should not be conflated with the official and regulated discourse of the pin-up. Whilst Bazin identified a set of fixed visual norms that determined the appearance of pin-ups (such as diaphanous clothing and racial whiteness), the amateur and partially collective authorship of nose-art spelled out a destabilisation of these parameters, recasting American fantasies about sex, race and military machinery.
The most often cited reading of nose-art hinges on ‘sexual deprivation’, whereby painted girls acted as stand-ins for the real thing. Photographs show airmen touching the ‘body’ of the nose-art girl, with the physicality of the surface of the plane imbuing an embodied presence surpassing the paper pin-up. Whilst this seems to present evidence of planes functioning as surrogate women, elsewhere, women can be seen metonymically standing in for planes. Albert Vargas’s pin-up for the December 1943 edition of Esquire is an archetypal Bazinian pin-up amalgamated with the form of an American warplane, showing a young blonde woman floating through the air with her arms outstretched like the wingspan of an aeroplane, fabric billowing behind her bearing the blue star of the US Air Force insignia. The illustration was accompanied by a poem describing the girl as a ‘heavenly body’, which Despina Kakoudaki has proposed is an indication of her symbolic status beyond the basely erotic and human, now ‘literally stand[ing] for an airplane or the Air Force’.
Albert Vargas, ‘There Will Always Be a Christmas’, illustrated in Esquire (December, 1943).
‘Sexual deprivation’ clearly did not motivate Vargas to depict a pin-up girl in the form of an aeroplane, and it seems we must dig further to unpack the woman/warplane relation. Furthermore, the nose-art painted on warplanes by Anne Haywood, a member of the American Red Cross, parallels the erotic content of those made by male artists (though admittedly not as explicit as some). Nevertheless, it is worth noting the stark anomaly of the Women’s Corps’ warplane, which, far removed from body-oriented imagery, depicts a classical profile of Pallas Athene.
When interviewed about whether she felt nose art to be ‘an offence against women or other groups’, Haywood responded that she believed its purpose was unimpeachable: to ‘bolster military morale in a terrible time’. The historian John Costello has argued that nose-art represented ‘what it was that red-blooded Americans “were fighting for”’, as a symbol of American values and ‘the private obligations’ upon which this patriotism was founded. Kakoudaki has argued that underlying these moral justifications for the pinup was an implicit desire for “our boys” to be in a parallel state of military/sexual erectness. Several commentators have proposed that pin-ups were felt by the government to maintain apparently ‘healthy’ heterosexual fantasy amongst male servicemen.
Though consistently risqué, pin-ups very rarely (if ever) showed full frontal nudity, and had to subscribe both to the editorial standards of the magazine or film company distributing the image, as well as American censorship laws, which did not condone the dissemination of more explicit pornography. Though some nose-art images conformed to Bazin’s model of the pin-up, depicting a girl in a state of partial undress, the largely unregulated and amateur nature of the production of nose-art resulted in far more explicit images. Complaint letters written by privates to Yank magazine state bluntly, ‘I know you want to keep it clean, but after all the boys are interested in sex…’
Elsewhere, American values appear in more inexplicable and disturbing forms in World War II nose-art. Several American warplanes have nicknames that identify the girls depicted in their nose-art as virgins, which is explicitly rendered as an eroticised attribute coupled with the titillating display of their poses. This convergence of promiscuity and virginity becomes yet more paradoxical in a piece of nose-art entitled ‘The Foolish Virgin’, which bizarrely depicts a young ‘virgin’ wearing nothing but high-heels with a baby at her breast. The image seems to visualise an impossible catalogue of criteria for the ‘ideal American woman’: at once a mother, a virgin, and sexually lascivious. Things become yet more bizarre in the ‘Virgin Vampire’, which is a typical manifestation of what Jane Caputi and Lauri Sagle have identified as the ‘virgin/cannibal’ character type, which builds upon the ‘envelope of the classic virgin/whore paradigm’. By representing a virgin with monstrous, man-eating characteristics and reptilian eyes and fangs, it seems that there is a self-conscious play on the eroticism of violent aerial warfare, with the thrill of flying the (female) warplane and the danger of the military encounter compared to a sexual encounter with a monster.
Keystone Photographer, ‘Corporal Joseph Mesteller and Corporal John Spagnolo of the 385th Bomb Group admire the nose art of a B-17 Flying Fortress nicknamed "Foolish Virgin". 10th November 1943, FRE 4964, Roger Freeman Collection, Imperial War Museum Archive.
The ‘virgin/cannibal’ is one of the three so-called ‘femme noir’ character types, according to which ‘monstrous’ characteristics associated with ethnic minorities were often harnessed to make the white woman “bad” or “noir”. Another of these ‘femme noir’ types is the Dragon Lady, which has its origins in Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates cartoon (began in 1934), and is a recurrent theme in nose-art. Sheng-Mei Ma describes Caniff’s Dragon Lady as a ‘vampress’, located in the ‘Orient’ which is characterised as a ‘“virgin” continent explored/exploited by Western male characters’, drawing strikingly apparent parallels with the ‘Virgin Vampire’. Here, it is not ‘American values’ that are represented, but American fears and fantasies about the Other articulated through the lens of sexuality. Images of visibly non-American women posit the Other as something to be owned and protected as well as feared, plastered upon the surface of an emphatically American artefact of military technology, and irrevocably bound up with the identity of the crew.
Unknown photographer, c.1942-5, FRE 6607, Roger Freeman Collection, Imperial War Museum Archive.
Predictably, military technology itself also became the subject of eroticisation in nose-art. Several images present girls straddling bombs, with the missile itself a crude phallic stand-in, whilst one example, entitled ‘Slightly Dangerous’, suggests the act of fellatio. Here, the symbolic ramifications of the metonymic relation of woman/plane are explicitly realised – if the plane is a woman, the bomb must consequently be a man (phallus).
Unknown photographer, c.1942-5, FRE 7855, Roger Freeman Collection, Imperial War Museum Archive.
Unknown photographer, 3rd May 1943, FRE 3784, Roger Freeman Collection, Imperial War Museum Archive.
In a recent article that seems to shed light on this amalgamation of women and military technology, August Jordan Davis examines the ‘conflation of women and domestic labour’ in the years following World War II, specifically discussing what she describes as the ‘cyborgic transfigurations’ that resulted in the identification of ‘woman-as-appliance’. Davis draws upon the cyborg theory of Chris Hables Gray, who proposed that ‘[b]y the end of World War II it was very clear that the mechanization of the human, the vitalization of the machine… was producing a whole new range of…fantasies and practices that transgressed the machinic–organic border’. Davis concludes that the ‘truly cyborgic function of “‘woman-as-appliance’ is her structural necessity as the woman-in-the home to support her husband’s venturing forth from the home in the world of extra-domestic labour and the public sphere’. In a similar respect, it could be argued that the cyborgic function of the nose-art girl is to support the airmen’s venturing from the homeland into the danger of the warzone, with the symbolic act of copulation with the plane facilitating aerial warfare.
If this conclusion seems to veer away from history and toward science fiction, it is not without precedent. In the very article with which this essay began, Bazin described the pin-up girl as ‘the sexual ideal of the future’, drawing a direct link between the pin-up and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), where women (and men) are produced in test-tubes into a life of uninhibited ‘pneumatic’ sexuality. If the pin-up girl can be associated with Huxley, it seems that in many respects the nose-art girl can be understood through the lens of J.G. Ballard’s Crash (1973), in which a sadomasochistic image of the future presents sex, technology and violence converging in the dystopian framework of the automobile. Like much science-fiction, the prescience of both Brave New World and Crash lies not in their invocation of a fantastical future, but in the articulation of social tendencies in the present, which are exposed in the pin-up and nose-art respectivel
Antoine Verglas, Melania Trump, GQ Magazine, January 2000.
The example of nose-art seems to present an important document of an alternative discourse of sexuality during World War II that was permitted to develop into bizarre and sometimes disturbing manifestations never travailed by the pin-up. Erotic nose-art is now a thing of the past, with the USAAF and the British Royal Air Force concluding that nose-art be ‘gender-neutral’ in 1993 and 2007 respectively, much to the aggravation of the right-wing press. Nose-art seems to be a symptom of the coalescence of technology, sexuality and violence in contemporary America, which is continually
mutating and re-emerging in unexpected forms. In January 2000, GQ Magazine published a series of photographs showing a scantily-clad Melania Knauss in a variety of highly dramatized poses in and around Donald Trump’s ‘custom-fitted [Boeing] 727’, in which she is twice shown brandishing a chrome pistol. Elsewhere, Melania is styled in the form of a cyborg-like figure, draped in metal tassels that imitate the control panel of the aircraft. Weapons, technology and misogynistic sexuality converge in a Ballardian reincarnation of nose-art for the twenty-first century, representing a new American ideal encapsulated in the hyper-capitalistic hubris of the now President of the United States.
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