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From Litho Stone to Pentium Chip: Interpreting Gender in U.S. World War I Posters

1

Anonymous (after Hayden Hayden)
Untitled (Join), 1929
offset lithograph mounted on board
14 7/8 x 10 (sheet); 15 1/2 x 10 5/8 in. (board)
95.3.8

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Text by Daniel B. Fix '01
 
The day before he was assassinated, Abraham Lincoln is thought to have remarked to one of his closest advisors, "women run the world, and we all know that ." (1)   Though this was said over a hundred years ago, even today many wonder who really wears the pants in the White House.  While women do not overtly hold the power in this country, they serve as powerful images.  Whether it's the advertising billboards and commercials pumped out by Madison Avenue, covers of popular magazines, or a 1929 poster for the Red Cross, it is no mystery that the image of a woman is the clear choice when a message needs to be conveyed. 

This particular poster, which dates back to 1929, is significant not only to the year but also in its use of gender imagery.  The Great Depression had begun, and millions of Americans found themselves jobless, homeless, scared, confused, and more importantly hungry.  During the Great Depression the Red Cross was responsible for many aid programs including soup kitchens and the distribution of clothing for the needy.  The poster portrays a double meaning.  On one hand it serves as a recruitment tool, appealing to Americans who might want to help those less fortunate than themselves.  The use of a beautiful, angelic-looking women puts forth the message that by volunteering, a person will be perceived as a savior, and achieve a higher sense of morality.  On the other hand it also serves as an invitation to the needy.  Again the perception that such a sweet and gracious creature is on the other side of the soup line makes it easier to take a handout. 

The most prominent image is that of the women.  First off she does not represent the traditional-looking nurse but rather a fantasy, a mixture of nurse, nun, and angel all rolled up into a beautiful package.  Her perfect face and features grab the viewer's attention.  However, her sex appeal ends where her motherly tenderness begins.  She is offering comfort and salvation.  With one hand she is beckoning the viewer to join her, while her other hand points to the sign of the Red Cross.  It is not she alone but the entire organization working together that will answer humanity's challenge.  The stars and stripes that make up the backdrop represent patriotism.  By joining the Red Cross, one affirms a patriotic duty to America. 

The woman in the poster is uncommonly attractive.  Employing the services of a beautiful woman to advertise a product is not a new practice and this poster is no different.  Is this wrong because it doesn't offer an accurate depiction of the Red Cross?  The answer is no.  Society decides what is appealing and what is not, and the mass media just gives us what we want.  Regardless of the obvious good nature and intentions that the poster is conveying, without the model, the message might have been looked at differently or had no attention paid to it at all.  Perhaps dispelling these sorts of stereotypes is humanity's challenge, and we as a society have to answer it. 

1.  The Day Lincoln Died, TNT original movie.

 
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