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The Presentation of Gender in Diane Arbus´s Work in the Context of the Cold War Era

Hausarbeit 2006 13 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Literatur


Table of Contents

1. Diane Arbus and Cold War Culture
1.1. Gender Roles in the 1950s
1.2. Transgression and Deviance
1.3. Impacts of Cold War Ideology on Diane Arbus´s Work

2. Presentation of Gender Roles in Diane Arbus´s Work
2.1. Miss Stormé de Larverie, “The Lady who appears to be a Gentleman”, NYC 1961
2.2. Naked Man Being A Woman, NYC 1968
2.3. Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th Street, NYC 1966 & Girl With a Cigar in Washington Square Park, NYC 1965
2.4. Man Dancing with a Large Woman, NYC 1967 & Two Men Dancing at a Drag Ball, NYC 1970

3. Gender in Diane Arbus´s Work- Act of Performance?

4. Critics on Diane Arbus-Only Voyeurism?


1. Diane Arbus and Cold War Culture

1.1. Gender Roles in the 1950s

Having overcome the struggles of the Second World War America already had to face the next battle. The only difference this time was that the battlefields were not far away but in the homes of every American. Suburbia and its inhabitants served as the new weapon against the Communist threat.

The danger of the Cold War which could turn hot every minute lead to a regression to traditional gender roles and to the belief that the only safe place was to be found at home. With the construction of suburban homes, also known as Levitt-Towns, the American dream of owning a house became affordable for many American men and women. By purchasing a house in suburbia young couples not only got a new home for their family but they also got a new way of living on top. Life in the 1950s was determined by distinct gender roles. The female homemaker and the male breadwinner represented the new structure of the nuclear family. The woman´s typical role was that of the housewife and mother whose only concern was the cleanness of her home and the wellbeing of her family. She cleaned the house, made the dinner, took care of the children and despite all of her work she always looked like a model from a fashion magazine. In the public´s view this was not regarded as a problem as American women were not considered “to be 'hard-working' thanks to the wonders of American household appliances” so that there was still enough time left for “cultivat[ing] their looks and their physical charm” (May 19). Women were supposed to find their personal fulfillment in the private sphere whereas men were supposed to have a good, prestigious and well-paid job which would secure the family´s income. Although many of the marriages were not as perfect and satisfactory as they seemed the longing for a stable and secure home and the risks of a divorce like emotional and economic bankruptcy hindered many to consider divorce seriously. (Cf. Ibid., 32-36) These gender roles became such an important part of Cold War Ideology that life in the suburbs and the stereotypical nuclear family were seen as most important source of moral and patriotism, both attitudes which represented America´s superiority. As a consequence everything that did not fit into these categories was considered un-American.

1.2. Transgression and deviance

Not everbody in post-war America fitted into the picture of the well-educated, wealthy, white middle-class family. Blacks for example were not allowed to move to Levitt-Town so that their dream of owning a house often remained unfulfilled. But it was not only Blacks that disturbed the image. Women who refused or did not have the opportunity to live their life the way society wanted them to do were often regarded un-American as well.

Self-suppoorting women in particular had to face harsh critic. In the society of the 1950´s every transgression from the “normal” was a threat to the existing structure “in which sexuality was clearly prescribed by social and ideological conventions”(Budick 123). Women who remained unmarried and had no children were considered suspicious and un-American. Their independence of male support called into question the existing gender roles and thus threatened the nation´s stability. Women who refused to accept their given place in the hierarchy were often called mannish or dominant and were supposed to be the main reason for identity problems of their sons. Parents, and in particular mothers, whose sexual identity did not follow the norm were said to produce “sissies”, like homosexuals or transvestites, or even criminals. In the ideology of the Cold War homosexuality and Communism were connected and the government treated both equally. Homosexuals dominated by their pursuit of satisfying their sexual needs were said to leave any kind of moral behind. Their feminine side in particular their weakness and indecisivness were a threat to American superiority and would finally lead to the loss of the Cold War. (Cf. Ibid.123-125) “Being stigmatized as “soft” on Communism thus carried implicatons beyond the purely political.” (Ibid. 125)

Not only gender roles were rigid in the 1950´s also sexual behaviour was strictly divided into normal and perverse behaviour. Certain sexual practices like anal sex, possible because of the connection to homosexuality, were not accepted in society. The Kinsey Report consisting of two books Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) brought to light that many Americans despite the ideology of that time were not following these Puritan ideals. The results of this survey concerned premarital sex, homosexual encounters and extra-marital sex leading to the conclusion that deviance happened far more often than expected. “[Kinsey] made Americans and the world large aware of how just big a part human sexuality played in the life cycle of the individual and how widespread many kinds of sexual activities were.” (Bullough 131)

The explosive effect of the report resulted in harsh critique. Kinsey was blamed of attacking American womanhood and having connection to Communists.

The rigid structures of post-war America forced many to live on the margins of society and improvements took place only slowly.

1.3. Impacts of Cold War Ideology on Diane Arbus´s work

Born in 1923 in New York City Diane Arbus spent the first part of her life in a very protective, affluent environment. Her father David Nemerov was a descendant of Jewish immigrants and became later on the owner of Russek´s Fifth Avenue. She received a thourough education at the Ethnical Culture School and Fieldstone School from which she graduated in 1940. Although Diane Arbus had every chance to pursuit a higher education she decided not to go to college. Instead she married Allan Arbus in 1941 whom she knew since she was thirteen. In the course of their marriage the Arbus´ had two daughters, Doon who was born in 1945 and her sister Amy born in 1954.

Diane Arbus´s life in the 1950s followed in many ways the ideology of the Cold War. Her early marriage at the age of eighteen presented a common phenomenon of that time as “those who came of age during and after World War II were the most marrying generation on record.” (May 20) Another aspect of her life, the cooperation with her husband Allan which lasted until 1956, also fitted into Cold War Ideology. In an article published in 1947 in Glamour Magazine titled Mr. & Mrs. Inc the Arbus´ were presented as a perfect couple. The photo that accompanied the article showed Diane as a caring mother who despite her work had still enough time to take care of her child.

The Arbus´ had already started to work as fashion photographers in 1946. Diane´s part was the styling of the models as well as the composition of the pictures whereas Allan did the actual photographing. Their cooperation lasted ten years and in 1956 Diane started to take pictures on her own. This was also the time when Diane´s and Allan´s marriage came to an end and Diane moved with her two daughters into a separate apartment. It took two years which she spent studying with Lisette Model until she brought her picture to magazine editors. Her images showed those who lived on the margin of society. Dwarfs, transvestites and freaks. “Arbus, through her choice of subject matter and her portrayal of families, obviously rebelled against the gender stereotypes of the American Dream of the 1950´s.”(Guimond 225)



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
398 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg – Institut für Amerikanistik
Presentation Gender Diane Arbus´s Work Context Cold



Titel: The Presentation of Gender in Diane Arbus´s Work in the Context of the Cold War Era