Sunday, August 8, 2010

Of Sex and Battle Flags.

A young lady friend, whom I met through one of my daughters, posted a photo of herself on Facebook. She was sitting on the hood of my daughter's jeep, covered in mud. She was wearing shorts and sleeveless shirt, and was leaning back on her hands with one leg drawn up. The picture struck me in its resemblance to some of the famous cheesecake art from the 1940's, and I commented that the young lady would look great on the nose of a bomber. My daughter replied that this was NOT a compliment because in those days, women were seen as meat. Well, my daughter has been right about enough things that I always give serious thought to what she says, especially when she calls me down like that.

So, first of all, the remark was meant as a compliment. The photo was not immodest or in appropriate in anyway; it showed a beautiful woman enjoying herself. There are two elements in this which require comment: 1940's pinup art, in general, and bomber nose art, in particular.

The pinup art of people like Gil Elvgren is absolutely symbolic of the time. Elvgren did some nudes, but they were not as widely circulated as his calendar art, which is trenchant. In fact, I'd never even seen an Elvgren nude until a few years ago. The art to which I was comparing my young friend was innocent and fun-loving. The women were all lovely and dressed in what was, at that time, stylish, modest, and flirtation fashion. They were generally showing a lot of leg or cleavage, and were always in situations where their exposure was unintentional. I'd not be so disingenuous as to say no male ever looked on them with lust, but they were in no way similar to the porn stars or centerfold models of today.

The fact that Elvgren's nudes were not as well known is indicative of the attitude of the time. The vast majority of pinup art represented nice girls, and even a nice girl might have her skirt blow up, or not realize it had hiked up over her back, much as a nice girl today might be leaving church, turn to wave at a friend, and have her skirt blown clear up around her head. They weren't seen as meat, but as ideals to be sought after and dreamed of. If it had been a matter of meat, the nudes would have been more common, and more explicit. Even the pinup nudes of day were immeasurably more modest and prurient than many modern entertainers who are not primarily known as porn models. In fact, I have seen far more skin displayed in VASTLY more provacative ways on women in church. And don't even TALK about the mall! I say, without fear of repudiation, that the idea of women as meat is much, much more prevalent today than in 1943 - and I include modern women in this!

Hardcore porn existed back then, as it has for generations, and some of it was really vile. The popularity of the classic pinup was not because of a lack of anything more explicit. No decent man, possessed of any upbringing, at all, wanted one of those women.

There is no doubt that the standard of what stimulates people who like porn has changed dramatically. It would be fair to say that Elvgren's bare-legged innocents stirred, in some men, the same feelings that modern porn stirs in their grandsons. Fair enough. But that is not an indictment of the genre, itself. If we are to judge the men by modern standards, it is only fair to judge the art the same way. The world in which those men lived was several orders of magnitude more innocent and chaste than ours today. The intent of the art, and the art, itself, was different. A good friend of mine, who has long since passed on, said, "We looked at those girls and thought, "Man! If she were my wife, I'd never leave the house!" How many men today think about having porn models for wives? And that's the difference.

Nose art, or bomber art as some call it, was an outgrowth of the pinup of the day. And for the record, pinup nose art was actually in the minority. A lot of nose art was cartoon characters, song titles, pictures of wives or sweethearts (like Richard Bong's "Marge") and themes of survival (like the B-17, "Round Trip Ticket"). Nose art gave the crew a way of identifying themselves as a unit: "I'm a gunner on "Outhouse Mouse." It also gave them a way of identifying with the machine that would carry them into hell, itself, and hopefully bring them home. The art was like a battle flag - a symbol for rallying. Men have always named their weapons after the women in their lives - or women they wished were in their lives, for instance, the classic American icon of the frontiersman with a squirrel gun named, "Ol' Betsy" . Maybe Betsy wasn't always so old.

Young men would paint a beautiful girl on the side of an airplane, then get in that airplane and fly it into a level of savagery that can scarcely be imagined. On many occasions, the US 8th Air Force lost over 600 men in a single afternoon. The odds of survival were slim. That girl was what gave them hope. She was a symbol of what they'd come home to - if they came home. Yes, they were testosterone-laden horn dogs. It goes with being young and male. Why, even today's young men fit that description. Fighting like that requires the strength, reflexes, and endurance of youth. It requires the sense of rectitude that allows a man to kill others and see his own friends die, and go back the next day and do it again - and again - 25 or 50 times.

A man can't face death like that, day after day, without some affirmation of life and beauty. Those girls gave them that. "They knew what they were fighting for." "Two Beauts" wasn't just a piece of meat. She was a battle flag - a talisman of luck and courage - a woman to ride the river with - a valkyrie who would not only fly with them into hell, but be waiting for them at home. She inspired ten men to do what men should never have to do, and she went with them ever inch of the way

So, my precious, insightful daughter, and my dear, generous young friend, it wasn't with thoughts of lust or carnality that I said you'd look great on a bomber. That particular picture put me in mind of those innocent beauties who inspired our fathers and grandfathers to do the impossible. I said it with the thought that if the young men of your generation have to go into the fire called battle, they could do far worse than fly under your image. It was, most emphatically meant as a compliment. I love you both.