Sex for Sale:
Reginald Marsh's Voluptuous Shopper
He accepts his girls for what they are—gaudy, full-bosomed and hungry for pleasure, yet immensely appealing.
THOMAS CRAVEN , "A Paean for Marsh"
You are a painter of the body. Sex is your theme.
KENNETH HAYES MILLER to Reginald Marsh
Reginald Marsh's voluptuous shopper first appeared in his Fourteenth Street paintings in 1932. Her sexually provocative look (Figs. 3.19 and 5.1) is derived from the popular stereotype of the movie Siren (Fig. 4.7), an elegant image of a femme fatale that emerged in the late 1920s and dominated the popular imagination for much of the Depression. The Siren was the flapper's successor. Her looks and behavior projected a new ideal of femininity within the discourse of new womanhood. Her image was fashioned by journalists, advertisers, and movie producers who molded Hollywood stars from Greta Garbo to Joan Crawford in the Siren image, created endless fictions about the Siren in films, and used her image to advertise movies or to sell products in entertainment publications. This glamorous stereotype became so pervasive that women appropriated elements of it for their own purposes, as they had with the flapper. Some of these young women, imitating the Siren's look by exaggerating its components, became the voluptuous shoppers of Marsh's Fourteenth Street paintings.
Marsh's voluptuous shopper so dominated his 1930s imagery that she came to be called the Marsh girl. How are we to read this figure of hyper-glamorized working-class femininity? Like Miller's matron, she embodied a conservative ideal of post-franchise new womanhood; this New Woman had abandoned collective activism to express her independence, sexuality, and self-conscious femininity by applying mass-produced beauty products. Where Miller's shopper inhabits a clear,
stable composition, Marsh's voluptuous shopper is often trapped in a texture of confusion and uncertainty. Marsh's paintings foreground the powerful energy and sexuality of the woman consumer. Where she towers above helpless admirers, she can be read as a figure of sexual danger, a threat to masculinity already compromised by unemployment. Yet in paintings that accentuate that potent sexuality, she is not only subject to the consuming male gaze but also vehicle for and victim of the consumer culture. Thus, although the Siren stereotype informed Marsh's individual images of the voluptuous shopper, the paintings in which she is placed reveal the complex meanings that were part of the Siren image in the 1930s, whether or not that was Marsh's conscious intention. Thanks to his unusual strategy of combining forms and subjects from movies and movie advertisements with forms and subjects from old master works, the paintings uncover the contradictions of the Siren's persona, her power and passivity, desirability and unattainability.
With that argument about the Marsh girl more or less in place, I must digress to refine my claims—to make the pictures more problematic or at least to express my own discomfort with them. My perplexity arises from two sources, one critical, one personal. The critics, who either have slotted Marsh into virtually every available art-historical category or have equivocated in their response to his work, have described him as a romantic with an element of fantasy in his art, an objective documentary realist of everyday life in the thirties, an upholder of the baroque tradition, a Hogarthian satirist, or an affirmative celebrant of modern urban life. And no matter what the assertion, there seems to be a case for its opposite.
Within this initial problematic of "the failing grip of categories," I have two particular concerns, first with disclaimers about Marsh's politics and second with the self-referential nature of Marsh's art. Edward Laning, one of the artist's confidants, wrote that "Marsh held aloof from every sort of politics. While others argued, he drew and painted. As I look back on it, it seems to me that every faction believed he belonged to them, and I guess he did!" Because of Marsh's minimal participation in politics and his preoccupation with old master aesthetics, many art historians and critics have concluded that whatever his liberal leanings, they remained a distant issue in his art. Moreover, during the thirties, liberal and leftist critics faulted Marsh for refusing to take responsibility either for his lower-class subjects or, worse, for his elitist attitudes toward them. After Thomas Craven aligned Marsh with the Regionalists Benton, Curry, and Wood in the famous Time article of 1934, Marsh, who had claimed "well bred people are no fun to paint," was attacked by Stuart Davis in Art Front . Referring indirectly to the artist's Yale background and training with Kenneth Hayes Miller, Davis wrote that Marsh had the "psychology of the bourgeois art school." Three years later Marsh defended his social and artistic position in an autobiographical piece:
1932-33. Deep depression. Art world and Fords and Rockefellers conquered by Mexicans. Emphasis on the social conscious. The hung head. Time magazine launches "American Scene" painters—I seem to be included. Great uproar on all fronts. What? Thomas Craven praises Americans!!! With Benton, Curry, et cetera, condemned by prominent, Communist abstract painter, big chief defender of culture, as Hearst's New York "American" scene Fascist opportunist—"Chauvinism," "Nationalism," cry the Communist boulevardiers!! Well, what should we do—be ashamed of being what we are—or imitate Orozco, Grosz, African Sculpture, and draw endless pictures of gas masks, "Cossacks" and caricatures of J. P. Morgan with a pig-like nose? . . . Whatever you say, there is a tradition to be proud of.
That Marsh never made the political commitments of leftist artists seems especially clear in 1937, by which time he had almost completed his second of two government mural projects and had adapted his art to the broader ideological aims of American Scene painting. Nonetheless, in the early 1930s he worked diligently to educate himself in the debates on art and politics. His attendance at Workers' School classes and Union Square rallies, his contribution of satirical graphics to the New Masses , and his increased depiction of unemployed men suggest a desire to reach, not a broad proletariat audience—for that would have compromised his views about the relation between art and propaganda—but an audience with a broad point of view.
Given this distinction, it is important to interrogate the largely unexamined and often conflicting gender and class politics in his paintings, often manifested in the figure of the voluptuous shopper. In doing this, I wish to reinstate in Marsh's painted works some of the "cultural satire"—that "psychological and spiritual" probing of social ills and social contradictions—found in the dense details and dark tonalities of his graphic works. These qualities in his paintings subtly increase the deep ambivalance of these works toward both the female subjects and the commercial themes Marsh represented in them.
I want to address as well the division between the public and private (or self-referential) side of Marsh's art proposed by Marilyn Cohen in her interpretation of the artist's work. Cohen claims that the fascination with the affirmative, documentary, and public side of Marsh's art obscures the private darker motivations behind his themes; "characters, situations, and subjects repeated in his works have as much to do with the artist's psyche as with their actual presence in the contemporary landscape." In art whose major theme is "spectacle," with seeing, watching, and sexuality its major components, the endlessly repeated Bowery bums, muscle men, and untouchable striding women (Sirens) are not just social types but "artistic projections of aspects of Marsh's own self." The eroticized yet inaccessible terrain of Marsh's female imagery suggests the artist's anxieties about his own masculinity, the Bowery bum and muscleman his conflicts about his artistic position, his obsession with productivity, and his fear of failure. Although I have no wish to discount
Cohen's careful and persuasive arguments, I would like to blur the boundaries between public and private, social and psychic, to claim that the deeply personal anxieties and the ambivalent construction of gender relations we find in Marsh's presentation of the voluptuous shopper are also deeply social and pervasive in the Depression era.
The second source of my discomfort with the artist's pictures emerges from my own unease as a feminist interpreter of the paintings. My initial pleasure in comparing Marsh's dynamic and sexually energetic women with Miller's more complacent and passive matrons is immediately undercut by my reading of the overt sexism, classism, and racism inscribed in these images. It is a pleasure mediated, as for all viewers, by social and psychic formation, by knowledge and experience—in particular here by a historically situated awareness of feminist ideas. I assume here the feminist premise articulated by Rosemary Betterton, that all representations of the female body and female sexuality draw on "visual codes [that] reinstate the same relationships of sexual power and subordination." Images of women from various discursive sites are inevitably caught in a web of voyeurism and exploitation or defined in a regime of looking that oppresses women (in a museum, at the cinema, in advertisements, or in pornographic representation, to mention the most obvious). Because the Marsh girl resembles a popular cinematic stereotype, because the Fourteenth Street paintings thematize situations in which predominantly lower-class women are visually on display for men—at the burlesque, the dance marathon, or the movies or on the street near display windows—and, finally, because they are easel paintings for a bourgeois audience interested in "high art," the paintings are constructed almost exclusively for a male viewer's gaze. This is not to say that Miller's, Soyer's, and even Bishop's paintings do not address a masculine spectator, only that in Marsh's paintings the visual and sexual objectification of women appears extreme—and thus my initial discomfort as a female spectator is more palpable.
In thinking about the structures of spectatorship, I am concerned not only with my own position but also, and primarily, with the historical viewing subject—the artist and the viewers of the work in the Depression. Laura Mulvey's analysis of the cinema is particularly useful in relation to an artist whose work has cinematic codes and qualities. In "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Mulvey argued that the female spectator's pleasure in images of women comes from her assuming one of two viewing positions available to her. She might identify with the masculine, voyeuristic gaze—associated with looking from a distance—thereby assuming a position of power and control over the image. From this position, however, she would lose a sense of her own identity, not to mention a sense both of her own experience and of how her viewing pleasure might differ from that of the male.
The second viewing position, identified with narcissism, finds pleasure in closeness and self-identification with the image. But there can be a degree of danger in
this position because woman's narcissistic obsession with self-image (in art, the theme of women looking at themselves in mirrors) has been linked to her innate frivolity, her concern with individual appearance, and her self-indulgence—in a demeaning image of woman that is "naturally" hers. Rosalind Coward, refuting biological explanations, reasons that because woman's desirability in our culture is attached to her social/sexual success, a woman examines ideal images of femininity for what she might appropriate to achieve that success. Coward also points out that women usually fault their own image when they match it against the ideal, a condition she calls "narcissistic damage."
In her later work, Mulvey refined the notion of the female spectator. She identified as feminine a greater mobility in viewing that makes it possible to switch points of view or to appropriate some aspects of masculine and feminine viewing positions while rejecting others. Her revision was important for its recognition that "masculine" and "feminine" are not essential viewing categories but socially formed and historically shifting. Thus, as Betterton points out, it is possible to distinguish "between looking 'as a woman' and the fact of being one, between a feminine position and female experience"—to acknowledge simultaneously different viewpoints and read an image against the grain. Although a masculine viewer can engage in similar critical viewing, in a patriarchal culture whose forms most often address male viewers men are rarely forced to negotiate a viewing position in the same way.
Teresa de Lauretis discusses the social construction of gendered subjects in representation in a way that broadens Mulvey's consideration of the structures of spectatorship; both analyses contribute to my own reframing of how and to what effect gender relations are played out in the figure of Marsh's voluptuous shopper. De Lauretis emphasizes a double premise about gender: first, gender is the representation of a social relation—of belonging to a class, or a group, or a category; second, "gender [also] constructs a relation" between entities (individuals) "previously constituted as a class, and that relation is one of belonging." The mutually exclusive yet complementary categories male and female together constitute an asymmetrical sex-gender system—a system of meanings that in every society is connected to economic and political arenas. For de Lauretis, "the construction of gender is both the product and the process of its representation " (de Lauretis's italics).
Not only does de Lauretis give a complex definition of gender; she also asks how and where social subjects are constituted as "gendered." The process involves more than sexual differentiation—a psychic mechanism that posits a universal opposition between male and female. Male and female subjects result not only from the splitting of the subject through the unconscious but also from sexual relations, languages, cultural representations, and the experiencing of race and class. The "engendered" subject is multiple and contradicted at every turn, never unified or even simply divided. Finally, as de Lauretis points out, gender (and the gendered subject),
"both as representation and as self-representation, is the product of various social technologies, such as cinema, and of institutionalized discourses, epistemologies, and critical practices, as well as practices of daily life."
De Lauretis's discussion of how gender and representation construct social subjects, together with Mulvey's discussion of how viewing subjects take up positions with respect to representation allow a more nuanced and more historical reading of Marsh's voluptuous shopper. On the one hand, the Marsh girl figures one aspect of a revised new womanhood—itself a product of both the institutionalized discourses and the practices of daily life. As a Fourteenth Street shopper she expresses her independence and sexual liberation through consumption. As a stereotyped icon of female beauty, in paintings that foreground her potent sexuality, she becomes a mere sexual commodity, constructed for a male viewer's gaze.
These paintings of working-class women never displace the hierarchy of looking-of class and gender relations inscribed in them by an upper-class Yale-educated male artist who assumes a "naturally" bolder and more visually accessible sexuality in working-class womanhood. At the same time, however, the paintings interrogate that viewing position and the degrading conception of new womanhood forged through the stereotype by engaging in a veiled critique of consumer culture. This oscillating and ambivalent critique occurs because Marsh's construction of gender—of a sexually alluring image of post-franchise new womanhood—takes place at the intersection of competing discourses on advertising, on cinematic representation, and on the socially concerned forms of urban realism in the Depression.
Marsh's voluptuous shopper is easy to identify in his paintings of Fourteenth Street crowds and to distinguish from other Fourteenth Street women. Youthful, frequently blond, heavily made-up, she exudes sexuality. With snug-fitting clothes in flamboyant colors that accentuate every curve, she immediately calls attention to herself. Though she might double as a Fourteenth Street shopgirl, she appears in several major works of the early 1930s as a pedestrian. In Show Window (1934; Fig. 5-2 and Plate 4), for example, two blondes survey a crowded display of fashions modeled by mannequins whose appearance approximates their own. In In Fourteenth Street (Fig. 3.19; Plate 3), Marsh's most ambitious picture of Fourteenth Street shopping crowds, several glamorous women stand out from the vast undifferentiated crowd of stereotyped city people. Most striking is the saucy baby-doll blond in a bright blue skirt and frilly blouse, striding forward yet isolated from the crowd between the lamppost and ladder at the left of the picture (Fig. 5.1). Another sultry blond in vivid blue stands quietly at the center of the composition, arms folded, a still, mysterious figure in the swirling crowd. To the far right, a third provocative blond in bright red enjoys an ice-cream cone. In Fourteenth Street Subway Stairs (1932; Fig. 3.23), a mincing brunette wearing a brilliant turquoise suit and carrying only a purse stands aloof from a group of women carrying briefcases and ledgers on their way to or from work. Her chic dress, chilly demeanor,
and placement accentuate her isolation, her exaggerated beauty, and possibly her different class position.
In Women on Fourteenth Street (1934; Fig. 5.3) Marsh focused more closely on the individual shopper. Here a tall, self-assured blond (on the right) takes a provocative, sexually challenging pose. Arms akimbo, she gazes directly at someone or something outside the picture. Another Fourteenth Street shopper in Hat Display (1939; Fig. 5.4) with the more robust body typical of figures in Marsh's late-decade watercolors, primps beside a window filled with mannequin heads.
This voluptuous woman played multiple roles in all Marsh's other paintings. In Fourteenth Street images, she was a burlesque queen (Fig. 3.24), a taxi dancer (Fig. 3.25), or a live model on Union Square (Figs. 3.26 and 5.5). More regularly, she was a Coney Island beach bather (Fig. 5.6). The locales she frequented and the activities in which she participated mark her as a working-class woman. Marsh showed her caught up in the popular forms of mass entertainment that attracted members of her social class in the early years of the Depression. Unlike Miller's shopper, who remained a homemaker and was pictured in comfortable middle-class settings when not shopping, Marsh's shopper is always part of a public urban spectacle. A youthful single woman, she never appears with children. In the context
of an imagery dominated by scenes of mass leisure, shopping was another form of popular entertainment, not part of homemaking.
Although Marsh's women display themselves in ways that are alternately provocative, mysterious, aloof, or hesitant, all are portrayed as sophisticated and glamorous. All share an early 1930s look codified by Hollywood, whose films reached their largest audience in Depression America. By 1929, the look of this woman was marketed in movie magazines, where advertisers used film stars to sell their products, reaching an extensive audience through cheap periodicals and tabloids that claimed to tell the "whole truth" about the new popular heroes and heroines of America—the movie stars. Modern Screen , advertised as having "the largest
guaranteed circulation of any screen magazine," at a monthly cost of ten cents, provides evidence of the close visual relationship between the Marsh girl and the Siren stereotype.
In facial and figure type, pose, gesture, and fashion, Marsh's voluptuous shopper approximates in exaggerated ways the look of women in 1930s movie stills, photos of film stars, and fashion illustrations or advertisements. For example, the blond under the ladder in In Fourteenth Street (Fig. 5.1), with her parted red lips and heavy-lidded eyes, resembles Jean Harlow (Fig. 4.7) or Mae West. Her blue and white dress with puffed sleeves (Fig. 3.19; Plate 3) appears as an "utterly distinguished" and "adorable" up-to-the-minute frock in Modern Screen's monthly page of fashion patterns in the April 1933 issue (Fig. 5.7). The woman with her arms folded at the center of the painting has a faraway gaze and wears a hat that partially shields her eyes. This woman is more enigmatic than her perky counterpart under the ladder and more aloof than the straightforwardly respectable women in the
pattern illustrations. With her veiled and shadowy mien she resembles arch-Sirens Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, whose mysterious and alluring attributes exemplified the European origins of these important Siren qualities (Fig. 5.8). The painting's old master veneer, which comes from Marsh's limited gray-brown palette, sketchy brushwork, and deep flickering chiaroscuro, approximates the look of contemporary Hollywood portrait photographs, with their strongly contrasting lights and darks and their blurred soft focus. In Fourteenth Street Subway Stairs (Fig. 3.23), the shopper in turquoise with her short black hair and gamin features is a chilly version of Conchita Montenegro (Fig. 5.9). Finally, the suited blonde of Women on Fourteenth Street (Fig. 5.3) takes her pose from stars like Virginia Bruce who regularly modeled the latest fashions (Fig. 5.9). Indeed, the provocative pose of "display" appears regularly in fashion plates or photos in which movie stars appear as living mannequins.
Marsh's use of the Siren stereotype for his more garish image of the voluptuous shopper indicates his intent to showcase this new model of feminine beauty. The 1930s viewer would have known this woman and what she stood for. At the same time, however, Marsh placed his voluptuous shoppers in settings whose specificity left no doubt that these beauties were also meant to be seen as the lower-class
women of Fourteenth Street. Marsh filled his compositions to the point of horror vacui with documentary material and incorporated fragments of his neighborhood photographs and drawings into his pictures. For example, the legless beggar at the lower right hand corner of In Fourteenth Street (Fig. 3.19; Plate 3) is taken directly from one of Marsh's neighborhood photographs. Carefully lettered placards advertise beauty bargains and sales held, in all probability, at actual Fourteenth Street establishments. The neighborhood was filled with beauty establishments. Berenice Abbott's photograph of the south side of East Fourteenth Street (Fig. 5.10) shows Klein's Beauty Academy and the Manhattan Beauty School; Ida's Beauty Salon was located in Klein's building. In Show Window (Fig. 5.2) Marsh recorded prices on markers labeled Ohrbachs, one of the district's most celebrated bargain centers.
Marsh's voluptuous shopper appears "real," but the documentary realism of these works coexists uneasily with exaggerated, isolated fantasy females in paintings whose compositions and technique were perceived to be like "movies in themselves." Contemporaries observed, as have subsequent writers, Marsh's use of cinematic techniques. Some, pointing to sequential movement and the lack of a focal point in his frieze-like compositions, have compared them to 1930s newsreels. Others have noticed that his asymmetrical framing creates an anticipation of the next frame and that Marsh's paintings work best when seen together like the frames of a film. Still others have found resemblances between his shimmering brushwork and moving images and the insubstantial, flickering qualities of film. Marsh frequently sketched elaborate sets for his paintings from neighborhood storefronts or movie marquees and only subsequently inserted female figures, sketched separately from a model. In casting the voluptuous shopper as the star against a Fourteenth Street backdrop, Marsh used the techniques and subjects of Hollywood's 1930s fantasies. And his paintings, like the movies of his day, imaged women as sexualized movie queens.
In their concern to understand the relation between movies and conduct, psychologists and sociologists in the 1930s frequently examined the cinematic techniques that they felt fostered viewer identification with a hero, a heroine, or a situation. The psychologist Malcolm Willey, for example, demonstrated that quantities of visual detail (often related to lavish settings in movies) and the exaggerated vitality of film in general were used by filmmakers to heighten viewers' emotions. Marsh's paintings use similar devices to equally dizzying ends. The agitated surfaces of his settings generate a sense of continuous and accelerated movement. Moreover, he not only focused on the Siren stereotype by isolating her within crowds, but also took a particularly voyeuristic stance toward his female subjects, thereby accentuating the masculine viewing position. In fact, voyeurism was sometimes part of Marsh's process. His two-story studio at the top of the Lincoln Arcade Building contained a telescope, which he used to survey the crowds; In Fourteenth Street
inscribes the unequal class relations implied by Marsh's elevated point of view. Modeling Furs on Union Square (Fig. 5.5) places the viewer at the same level as the second-story display window instead of below and looking up, as in either Marsh's photograph of the same scene (Fig. 3.27) or Hudson Bay Fur Company (Fig. 3.26), where the viewer's position is that of a male watching the burlesque. In View from My Window (1938; Fig. 5.11) Marsh is the voyeur, gazing across the square to the roof of Klein's, where a nude sunbathes with two companions. The power of the male look—in this case, the artist's—is underscored by the elderly man as the impotent viewer who cannot see the rooftop scene from his window below the bathers.
Marsh's awareness of cinematic devices, including the camera's eye, would have come in part from a long-standing fascination with the movies. As early as 1912, when he was fourteen, Marsh described the kinemacolor moving pictures of the coronation of George V: "Remember, it was all in color." When his family moved from Nutley, New Jersey, to New Rochelle, New York, Marsh regularly attended moving pictures and vaudeville shows at Lowes Theater, sampling everything from Shakespeare to live acrobatic performances.
Marsh's records of his moviegoing in the 1920s are meager. But he made drawings to accompany film and theater reviews for both the New Yorker and Vanity Fair so that he kept in touch with new female and male stereotypes: the Siren, for example, began to appear in Cecil B. deMille extravaganzas in the mid-1920s. Marsh's diary entries suggest that his most active period of moviegoing was the early 1930s, when American preoccupation with Hollywood had reached an all-time high and when the Siren in her most sexualized form dominated the screen. He attended a variety of American classics like The Maltese Falcon but also liked German films and watched newsreels. He saw Siren films like Mae West's I'm No Angel and occasionally recorded movies by their stars (i.e., "Garbo Film," "Buster Keaton film"). Beginning in 1934, with his marriage to the artist Felicia Meyer, Marsh's social life changed. He seems never again to have given movies the same attention. Marsh had lived through and internalized the major changes in film iconography and technique, however, and made them part of his artistic and intellectual process.
Besides being fascinated with the movies, Marsh would have been well acquainted with the workings of the advertising industry. He witnessed firsthand the changes in a cityscape increasingly dominated by billboards and movie marquees. Edward Laning observed the influence on Marsh of the commercial world, suggesting that this environment was "an endless flow of free images which have no fixed locus but are woven through the entire physical fabric of our lives, in papers and magazines, on walls and billboards, in the air as skywriting, in electrical displays and in shadows projected on screens."
In the late 1920s and through the Depression Marsh received illustration assignments that sent him to Coney Island and to Fourteenth Street, enabling him to stay
close to popular culture, mass entertainment, and a variety of attitudes toward the working-class audience. He worked for elite publications like the New Yorker and Vanity Fair that targeted a well-to-do readership in their extensive advertising. For them Marsh drew cartoons, characterizing a range of city neighborhoods and their inhabitants. He also worked for the Daily News , the first of New York's successful tabloids, intended for a mass readership. Between 1922 and 1925 he drew "the humors of city life," for a column called Subway Sunbeams, a practice that enabled him to improve his skills as a caricaturist. He also illustrated a daily vaudeville column for the News that included both his drawings and his ratings of the shows. All these pursuits eventually fueled the illustrative, documentary, and sometimes mildly caricatural tone of his mature work in the 1930s. They also provided Marsh with themes he would continue to pursue throughout his life. They made him conscious of how film, fashion, and advertising were reshaping the American city by suggesting to its population new ways of seeing and being seen. He, in turn, mined popular culture and advertising to show how they were molding the contemporary environment and its population.
But Marsh had a far more intimate connection with the advertising industry—through William Benton, a former Yale classmate, a millionaire advertiser, a close friend, and one of Marsh's most important patrons. It was Benton who purchased Marsh's cartoons for the Yale Record after Marsh graduated. And, beginning in 1935, it was Benton who purchased a painting a month from Marsh. Between 1929 and 1935, when Benton sold out to assume the presidency of the University of Chicago, he and his partner, Chester Bowles, ran one of New York's most successful advertising agencies. In the Depression, agencies that succeeded did so by developing new techniques and special skills: Benton and Bowles, looking to popular culture, made a series of advertisements using comic strip "situation copy." They developed expertise in the new fields of consumer studies and product research; and they capitalized on a theory Benton borrowed from a friend called "progress through catastrophe." For example, Benton, recognizing the popularity of the "Amos n' Andy" radio show and ultimately purchasing it for Pepsodent sponsorship, rescued the faltering toothpaste company, whose sales quadrupled. Benton also established the number one program in radio broadcasting, the "Maxwell House Show Boat," eventually admitting that "the chain stores were selling coffee that was almost as good—the difference was undetectable—for a much lower price. But advertising so gave glamor and verve to Maxwell House that it made everybody think it was a whale of a lot better. It doubled and quadrupled in sales."
Marsh had a close relationship with Benton, and he shared the upper-class, elite cultural and Ivy League educational background of most of the advertising industry's upper-echelon workforce—who were overwhelmingly male. The artist would have understood something of advertising's strategies and (perhaps less consciously) its at times ambivalent conception of its mass audience. With his working experi-
ence for class-diverse New York publications he would also have understood the stereotyping and slogan making by which advertisers like Benton glamorized and marketed goods. One 1930s writer on advertising characterized the slogan as "a very powerful device . . . intended to short-circuit the reasoning process." The Siren and her lifestyle were products for a wide audience as well as a marketing device for businessmen promoting movies and fashion items. At the same time, Marsh's voluptuous Fourteenth Street shopper represented an audience Benton and his advertising colleagues addressed, one whose working-class desires seemed at odds with theirs and thus at times proved particularly troubling.
Because Marsh's voluptuous shopper is constructed out of competing discourses, I wish to look first at the Siren stereotype in relation to the discourse of new womanhood in the late 1920s and early 1930s. To understand the meanings behind this stereotype, we can examine the Siren's persona as defined by journalists, movie publicists, and advertisers as well as by Marsh, who borrowed her look from popular sources. The ideology that framed the discourse on the professional homemaker also helped to shape the Siren's image, for both the Siren and the housewife were seen as successors to the flapper, whose persona was understood (if not actualized) as that of the jazz-age rebel who had won freedoms for women. The Siren and the professionalized homemaker might capitalize on these, but in a decidedly unliberated way.
When the mysterious and alluring Siren began to appear in mid-1920s movies, everyone took notice. In a New York Times article of July 1929, boldly titled "Now the Siren Eclipses the Flapper," Mildred Adams codified her look and behavior for the Times's middle- to upper-middle-class reader with great self-assurance. Adams proclaimed that the "new woman" of the 1930s must renew her covenant with femininity, must strive to nurture and please men rather than compete with them—must, in short, remake herself into an attractive and essentially passive object of consumption rather than an active, independent woman. Adams urged women to abandon the frank, boisterous, and energetic behavior of the flapper and to relinquish clothes with boyish silhouettes. She advocated instead a new, European-style, femme fatale who would combine "high serenity, and seductive languor"; who would know how to wear feminine clothing "molded to her figure," veiling "line and curve only to accentuate them"; and whose behavior would give her a "mysterious allure that is at once the oldest and newest of feminine accomplishments."
Like publicists who raised the homemaker's status by professionalizing her and granting her a new and supposedly equal status, Adams assured her readers of the Siren's "independence," her freedom to choose and control her life. Above all, Adams argued that the Siren was "modern," countering any reference to an "old, traditional, or ladylike" quality with an assurance that renewing these older attributes of womanhood indicated a new kind of liberation.
Adams, however, makes her assertions of progress and freedom to choose in a rhetoric that covertly supports subservience to men. Her notions of liberation were conciliatory, like those of the popular historians of the late 1920s and early 1930s whose arguments I examined in conjunction with Miller's matronly shopper. These historians claimed that liberation had occurred with changes in social conventions, but they paid no attention to the economic and political arenas. Like them, Adams argued that the flapper, having succeeded in changing manners, was now obsolete:
By sheer force of violence she established the right to equal representation in such hitherto masculine fields of endeavor as smoking and drinking, swearing, petting and upsetting the community peace. They need no longer be the subject of crusade. Indeed, the incurable flappers who go on fighting for them are as absurd as the good ladies who still carry the hysteric air of martyrs in the cause of women's rights.
They being won , the new siren may elect to use them or not as she sees fit [italics mine].
Moreover, while suggesting that the Siren could borrow from the flapper-feminist, Adams clearly advocated the Siren's feminine and alluring persona. She criticized the pre-World War I feminists for having abandoned feminine charm. Indeed, she read the avoidance of charm as an insulting gesture, made by women who tried to meet men on equal terms. In her view, women would have fared better by using charm in the strongest sense of the term—to enchant, to bewitch, to subdue, or to captivate—in short, to gain power over men instead of struggling to achieve economic and political equality. She argued that the modern Siren could feel free to use her "brains" to manipulate men into doing what she wanted:
She turns the tired businessman into a courtier and makes him like it. Ancient wisdom teaches her to be a confidante but seldom to confide, to understand rather than to seek to be understood, to charm and delight rather than to demand amusement. She has learned . . . that men are not angels, but beings very human who prefer flesh and blood to sugar candy heroines. And she has discovered abroad that the best technique of managing them keeps always a reserve of power, and that mystery which suggests untold possibilities is more successful than frankness which knows nothing worth revealing. So she puzzles the boyfriend by leading him away from headlong petting parties into the ancient devious ways of courtship.
We have encountered this rhetoric before—in the writing of Dorothy Bromley, who like Adams rejected old-style feminism, and in that of Lillian Symes, who like Adams deplored the flapper. For the old-style feminist and the flapper Adams substituted an accentuated model of femininity that would reclarify the masculine and
the feminine. Somewhat cynical about men, her Siren possessed hidden powers (instead of direct and hence masculinized power). Covert manipulation, substituted for bold confrontation, would dispel men's fear of women as a threat while still making men need, and even serve, women.
Adams's article helps to clarify aspects of the Marsh girl. Adams proposed that a woman use charm to maintain a mysterious tension between desirability and inaccessibility. In this way she could achieve power over men. Deviously withholding her feelings, she could nonetheless make men reveal theirs. She became desirable by "delighting" men rather than by demanding amusement and by suggesting rather than explaining. So too the Marsh girl. Pictorially, she is powerful and dangerous, desirable yet unattainable—qualities suggested in In Fourteenth Street (Figs. 3.19 and 5.1; Plate 3). Glamorized like a screen Siren, more lovely by far than other members of the Fourteenth Street crowd, she becomes an object of desire, a visual commodity. At the same time, she is isolated pictorially from those around her. She occupies larger pockets of space and wears brighter colors than other figures in the gray-brown swirling mass. Such isolation and exaggeration make her fearful and inaccessible; her lack of emotion and individuality make her seem even more aloof. Here and throughout his work, moreover, Marsh places her in proximity to emotionally or physically crippled men; the baby-doll blonde and the crippled beggar move past one another in opposing directions. In Bowery images, the Siren strides purposefully past helpless drunks. At dance marathons, she frequently supports exhausted men. At the burlesque or looking down from Fourteenth Street windows (Figs. 3.24 and 3.26), she expands to take over pictorial space, towering above her helpless admirers or separated from them by window glass (Fig. 5.5). Desire becomes a form of weakness for men who fall prey to this sexually dangerous working-class version of the Siren.
Although Adams's celebration of Siren behavior suggests that women were equal, free to choose their roles, and armed with power over men, the underlying ideology signaled the same delineation of gendered activity and natural capabilities that lay behind the concept of the professionalized homemaker. Whatever power she might claim—the Siren, from her "charm," and the professionalized homemaker, from her managerial status in the family—the middle-class woman for whom Adams and others wrote in the late 1920s and 1930s were encouraged to trade independence and equality for economic security. According to Adams, the Siren's business was to be a Siren. She performed the important social service of being an attractive diversion, particularly in the Depression. Her behavior, Adams argued, was "one of those things for which a grimy and hard-working world is always grateful."
The Siren, like the professionalized homemaker, appealed to both sexes. For men, she was an object of sexual fantasy. For women, she offered an escape from inadequate working conditions and poor job opportunities. No one suggested that
the Siren engage in wage labor—though Adams's frequent references to "ancient" wisdom and devious ways of courtship allude not only to the mythical Siren's seductive powers but also to an older profession. No one suggested that lower-class women who needed to work were subject to the same "grimy" conditions of the modern world as men. Rhetorical claims to power and status notwithstanding, both Siren and professional homemaker stereotypes deferred to traditional ideologies where womanly nurture and self-sacrifice were ultimately of highest value. The great paradox of the Siren's claim to power was the resultant loss of power. Like all women she remained in the position of the other; she put male needs ahead of her own to gain economic dependence , and in so doing became an object to be consumed.
The anti-feminist ideology underlying Adams's New York Times piece, whose readership would have been middle- to upper-middle class, was disseminated to working-class women like those in Marsh's paintings through institutions of mass culture—movies and the beauty advertisements featured in tabloids, the popular confessional magazine True Story , and cheap film magazines like Modern Screen , a glance at which reveals that by 1933 the Siren's domestic habits, loves, and fashions were well established "norms," much preferred to those of the flapper.
The Siren's domesticity came to the forefront as movie stars married and had children. The title of a December 1933 article announced, "Divorces Take a Back Seat As a Fierce Marriage Epidemic Sweeps Hollywood." The article, which described Hollywood as a new matrimonial center, recorded Ginger Rogers's ambition to "make a million dollars, then marry and have at least 5 children." Six months earlier, Universal Studios had billed Gloria Stuart as the "All-American Girl, married to a nice young Sculptor." While Siren stars like Stuart occasionally combined marriage and career, more often movie stars retired as they had children and made a home. Furthermore, for successful stars, retirement with the birth of the first child presented no financial hardship.
"Glamour," the external and visible manifestation of the Siren's "charm," also had a domestic component. In April 1933, Modern Screen introduced a new feature column entitled Glamour—Hollywood's and Yours. Promising the "very latest"—the most "authentic" news about fashion, beauty, and the home, the monthly feature displayed Mary Pickford's spectacular mansion Pickfair as every woman's dream home and offered a "modern hostess department" to show the reader that "glamour had its practical [i.e., domestic] side." A regular part of this new feature, Hollywood Charm Gossip, brought "fascinating chatter" about the stars' wardrobes, homes, parties, and beauty secrets and even offered dress patterns so that readers could duplicate stars' wardrobes for themselves. The new column concluded, "If you're interested in your appearance, your clothes, your health, your home and your happiness—and what woman isn't, you can't afford to be without this every month."
In Modern Screen's features, everything glamorous reinforced a domestic rather than a working life for women, and the "models" for fashion and lifestyle were always actresses whose wealth exceeded that of all but a small fraction of Modern Screen readers. In a painting called Sentimental Girl (1933; Fig. 5.12), Raphael Soyer represented a rather plain and slightly overweight young woman, clad only in a skirt and chemise, sitting on the edge of a cot in a drab interior, musing over the contents of the True Story magazine she holds in her lap. Her wistful hopes, reflected in part by the warm luminosity that suffuses the painting, are fed by the myths of the magazine. Such dreams in the middle of the Depression were one of the few avenues of escape for working-class women.
As Modern Screen offered Hollywood Sirens as models of behavior, Hollywood films of the late 1920s and early 1930s presented the Siren in several formulaic situations. Commonly, the Siren used her sexuality to obtain men's attention and love, often "sacrificing" herself for a gangster or a ne'er-do-well, the implication being that she had no marketable skills, nothing to sell but her body. The Siren might also be a young woman who used her allure to capture a millionaire, as Mildred Adams recommended in her article on the Siren. In the immensely popular Gold Diggers films of 1929, 1933, 1935, and 1937; in Dinnerat Eight (1933) with the archetypal Siren Jean Harlow in the leading role (Fig. 4.7); and in Anita Loos's screenplays Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928), Red-Headed Woman (1932), Hold Your Man (1933), and Social Register (1934) the Siren became, as one author has observed, the female version of Horatio Alger—her goal being to win the man so that she could continue the business of being a Siren. The film historian Andrew Bergman summarized the situation of the Siren in 1930s films: "Each picture made evident the fact that no woman could perform work functions not directly related to sex. Once any fatal misstep occurred, complete ruin was certain, until a purification was effected which involved a virtual ceding of one's individuality for the love of a male."
A number of films characterized the Siren as a powerful or successful woman, a nod to her new social status following enfranchisement. Erica Doss, in her essay on Marsh's Paramount Pictures , suggests that many of these women were portrayed as flawed or evil (in these qualities the women resembled both the mythical Siren and the woman criticized in turn-of-the-century anti-new woman rhetoric). In Cecil B. deMille's popular historical epics, a scheming woman like Claudette Colbert's Cleopatra was punished for her destructive sexuality. Other assertive Sirens of the 1930s were portrayed as somehow problematic or "disobedient" characters: Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage (1934), Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face (1932), and Katharine Hepburn in Christopher Strong either capitulated to a male pursuer, repented their wrongdoing, or were punished for their misdeeds. Sirens as working woman held glamorous jobs, which they frequently relinquished for men.
The historian Lois Banner views the Siren somewhat differently—not as disobedient but as assertive and self-confident. She observes that in the 1930s women appear in higher-status jobs in movies; though women in these roles marry less frequently, when they do, they give up their jobs. These Sirens—even Jean Harlow,
who is extremely sensual—are also tough and wisecracking, their makeup, enlarging mouths and eyes, being further evidence of their defiance. Banner acknowledges that part of the Siren's allure was America's need for escape, but she also argues that the Siren was a strong woman in the chaotic 1930s. Using Banner's interpretation of the Siren, we can argue that the exaggerated sexuality, mystery, and lurid makeup of Marsh's figures also functions to destabilize a Depression era discourse on the revised new woman as a nurturing, quiet, and stable domestic figure who would not threaten males with unemployment by seeking her own career.
Like screen magazine writers and filmmakers, advertisers, in marketing beauty and fashion items, played on women's sometimes professed, sometimes culturally orchestrated desire for men's love and protection. They used Freudian psychology to manipulate women's anxieties about their appearance as central to their ability to please men. Their advertisements reflected the ideology of consumer culture in suggesting that the purchase of material goods was an expression of personality and spiritual values. For these advertisers the Siren supported the claim that beauty, allure, and mystery—what made women attractive to men—could be purchased. Advertisers, besides making women anxious, suggested that they had power over what they consumed and how they presented themselves—power that enabled them to make choices that would achieve their goals.
An advertisement for Irresistible perfume (Fig. 5.13) in Modern Screen depicted a close-up of a bare-shouldered blonde, her head seductively thrown back like Jean Harlow's in a movie photograph. Using the same terminology Mildred Adams had used, it identified charm and allure as essential to winning a man's love:
The smart Parisienne has long practiced the subtle art of the correct use of perfume. She chooses her perfume for its effect, for its ability to make her truly irresistible. But no longer need you envy her choice, for now with Irresistible perfume, you can give yourself that indefinable charm, that unforgettable allure that has attracted men the world over. . .. One trial will convince you that it has the magic power to make you, too, more irresistible.
Blue Waltz beauty products, also advertised in Modern Screen , used similar strategies in their copy. But instead of a close-up of a movie Siren, this advertisement shows a miniature tableau of upper-class life: a man in a tuxedo escorts an elegant woman to a dance. The caption reads: "To be beautiful and alluring is yours and every other girl's most treasured dream. Such beauty would mean popularity, romance, love! And, though it may seem beyond belief, it is not beyond possession. Beauty is not always a gift of the gods. It is more often the result of correct makeup."
Advertising in the 1920s and 1930s promised a new life through correct consumption. In doing so, it frequently co-opted rhetoric signaling women's modernity and attached product claims to women's new political and social freedoms. Here,
though, the tactic remains indirect; women can choose the best perfume just as they could choose a candidate or a career. The "vote" was often compared implicitly with women's choice of product and their "right to a certain fashion or look. This strategy, hardly new, altered dramatically in the post-franchise era. To sell cosmetics before the First World War, advertisers employed a feminist vocabulary to suggest women use cosmetics to achieve greater self-respect. In the Progressive Era many feminists and social scientists believed that woman's spiritual side rather than her physical appearance made her beautiful: beauty was available to anyone who followed the "proper ethical path." In an era preoccupied with personal spiritual development along with political and social reform, experts advocated this natural approach to beauty, stressing proper diet and exercise over the use of cosmetics. This view of the natural woman also reflected the long-standing belief that woman's distinctive moral superiority was part of her separate sphere of influence. Pre-World War I feminists adopted this idea of women's special contributions to American moral and spiritual life as their strategy to gain access to public life and to win the vote. Advertisers marketed cosmetics in pale colors to enhance women's natural beauty, capitalizing on a popular theme to sell products rather than working with any altruistic desire to back a feminist cause.
With postwar sexual and social liberation, however, the idea of woman's moral superiority fell by the wayside and, with it, the identification of beauty with the natural or spiritual woman. Two things remained: first, the idea that beauty was a natural right of all women and, second, a new commercial beauty culture. The mass production of cosmetics—dozens of creams, salves, bright lip and nail colors, and hair-care products—and an astonishing proliferation of beauty parlors created a new and widespread beauty culture in the 1920. Since women were no longer considered morally and spiritually superior, appearance superseded spirituality as a desideratum: beauty products alone could change any woman's appearance and, with it, her life. With this strategy advertisers forged an inseparable bond between the beauty branch of consumer culture, woman's evolving self-image, and a new ideal of womanhood.
In analyzing these changes in beauty culture, the historian Lois Banner recognizes that the pre-World War I feminist argument for woman's moral superiority was a way to maintain the differences between men and women. In this sense the separate and superior position was ultimately counterproductive in the quest for equality. But Banner also perceives that the argument for moral superiority had a positive side. Though the natural and ethical notion of beauty was as much a social construct as the commercial one that succeeded it, Banner concludes that it nonetheless "raised an important barrier to the commercial exploitation of women in the idea of physical appearance. With its demise, the modern commercial culture of beauty scored a significant triumph."
In this context Marsh's Siren, the powerful 1930s stereotype, becomes a textbook demonstration of the triumph of the commercial beauty culture and its ideology and the concomitant loss of feminist values. Her ruby lips, painted nails, bleached hair, and heavily shadowed eyes and her charm and allure all take precedence over the self-respect, individuality, and independence that early feminists had sought to promote.
Behind the visual and verbal strategies in many of these advertisements lie advertisers' often biased and ambivalent conception of a mass audience. In his extensive study of advertising in the 1920s and 1930s, Roland Marchand writes about the missionary zeal with which an elite corps of male advertisers planned to market modernity and bring a culturally enriched life to their audience and their growing dismay at the "vulgar and depraved" audience of common folk, hungry for tabloids, true confessions, and escapist movies. On the one hand, advertising's copywriters and artists learned from their audience; they recognized that movies often provided romance, adventure, or escape from what they assumed to be mundane lives. And they appropriated from popular culture such strategies as tabloid layout or the close-up (which, when used in an advertisement, could capitalize on the attractive features of an everyday object or demand self-scrutiny on the part of the viewer—the ad for Irresistible perfume is an example of both techniques, visual and verbal).
On the other hand, advertising men were often put off by what they perceived as a socially inferior audience. Though advertisers seldom made sharply drawn class distinctions, they nonetheless viewed their mass audience as culturally debased and intellectually inferior.
For advertisers, women were the most important members of an audience they eventually divided into "class" (meaning the upper class) and "mass" (a Saturday Evening Post readership that blurred upward toward the corporate executive and downward toward the shopgirl, while excluding the lower third of the population as "economically unqualified"). As countless surveys demonstrated, women were the major purchasers. In the increasingly problematic and competitive market of the Depression, advertisers reached a consensus that consumers were to be swayed by emotion, not reason. And with that observation they produced a discourse on the feminine based on a series of gendered oppositions that made women the target of specific marketing strategies. Since women were characterized by "inarticulate longings" rather than rational needs, advertisements had to portray idealized tableaux, and advertising copy had to be intimate, glamorous, and colorful to alleviate the boredom of women's lives. Advertisements, according to one Printer's Ink contributor, must be "the magical carpets on which they may ride out to love," so that they may "daily see themselves as femme fatales [sic ], as Cleopatra or Helen of Troy." Even though women's magazines showed women leading active and productive lives, advertisers stereotyped their audience as female moviegoers and True Story readers; frequently their depiction of women differed from their conception of their female audience. For advertisers, the feminine mass consumer was "capricious, irrational, passive and conformist," whereas they themselves were rational, productive, and creative (male) individuals.
Marsh's paintings of working-class women shoppers develop this theme depicting the female shopper as a glamorous, de-individualized icon among a mass of fellow consumers. Furthermore, densely cluttered settings, like those in Show Window (Fig. 5.2; Plate 4) or In Fourteenth Street (Fig. 3.19; Plate 3) exemplify the proliferation of detail that characterized advertisements by the early 1930s—a style called tabloid technique. In desperate straits as businesses folded, advertising agencies competed for clients by adopting a Depression era rhetoric. Needing to squeeze money out of increasingly cautious consumers, they shifted from an opulent, art deco style to one that was less dignified and more direct and featured cruder layouts. As Marchand points out, for the "hard sell" advertisers adopted a different, more working-class, style of masculinity, engaging in "shirt-sleeve" advertising. "Such images of working-class exertion and vitality seemed to provide catharsis for the hard-pressed, white-collar professionals of the advertising trade, struggling to regain a sense of potency."
I want to suggest that Marsh, in his Fourteenth Street paintings, provides one segment of his audience—white male advertisers with privileged backgrounds, like
his patron William Benton—with its conception of its "tabloid" audience, including the demeaning image of "women [who] don't like to think too much when buying." Paintings of stereotyped women dressed in lurid colors and flaunting their sexual wares, as in Ten Cents a Dance (Fig. 3.25), used purchased goods to mimic Siren-style desirability. Women fashioning themselves after mannequins, like the stocky Fourteenth Street girl before a cluttered window in Hat Display (Fig. 5.4) or her elegant, slender upper-class counterpart in Fifth Avenue No. 1 (1938; Fig. 5.14), would have reinforced the advertising man's belief in all women's capricious-ness and conformity. At the same time, such paintings, especially of working-class women, would have made an upper-class female viewer uncomfortable insofar as they caricatured her own chic self-image. For the most part, as one anonymous art critic stated, Marsh was "not a lady's painter." Because of the extremes of sexual display, when Marsh's paintings are read in the context of the advertisers' discourse, some of them become cruel parodies, locker-room jokes like those the advertising men exchanged in the hidden arena of their in-house journals.
Male art critics frequently participated in this talk about the Marsh girl. Thomas Craven's comment in the epigraph to this chapter reduces them to decorative consumers of pleasure. Adolph Dehn, a cartoonist and one of Marsh's close friends, spoke of "lots of attraction to the gaudy meaty girls of Fourteenth Street." His equation of women with meat may not have been so far from the mark; in Hat Display (Fig. 5.4) a sign for grilled country sausage at twenty-five cents is posted next to one of Marsh's most full-bodied and seductively twisting women. Marsh often used signage, newspaper headlines, and notices in similarly punning ways, as in his 1940 painting Dead Man's Curve or Dangerous Curves (Fig. 3.3). Marsh too recognized the effects of his work:
Maybe my pictures have too much shock in them for a lot of people—especially women—to hang on the walls at home. Not really shocking, just a kind of not-too-pleasant reminder of what they have shut out when they go home. . .. They don't want to be reminded in their living rooms and bedrooms of the people they see—or don't see—walking on the streets of New York. Makes them feel uncomfortable.
However the Marsh girl may have been read in the advertising discourse, historically the Siren on which her image was based functioned as a Depression era stereotype. Her look and persona flourished in a climate of social and economic despair, and her enormous popularity suggests that she satisfied deeply felt cultural needs. Beautifully groomed, expensively gowned, and elegantly coiffed, the Siren provided an illusion of wealth where none existed and thereby allowed the viewer to escape from economic deprivation into an image of plenty. Charming, alluring, and desirous of being kept, the Siren was more economically dependent than the flapper, whose bold, standoffish posture and mannish appearance were perceived as strident and assertive.
Depending on how the Siren was perceived, she might be a threat or a comfort. Marsh's working-class version might raise the specter of male anxiety about the sexual revolution. There is a simultaneous warning and allure in the forthright, aggressive sexuality of works like Ten Cents a Dance and Hudson Bay Fur Company (Figs. 3.25 and 3.26), where sexuality is also "at work." Here the Siren uses garish makeup and tight clothes as defiant challenges to the traditional complementary relationship between female passivity and male power. If she was a sexual threat, however, the Siren was not an economic threat to men who had lost their jobs; she could flatter and nurture male egos understandably damaged by the Depression era economy, no matter what their class position. With the onset of the Depression, women were pressured to remain at home and avoid taking jobs from male heads of households, and the question of working wives eventually developed into a nationwide controversy. A refeminized beauty who gave comfort and pleasure in exchange for economic subservience might allay cultural anxieties and perpetuate ongoing cultural myths about idealized womanhood—now in a less "sacred," more sexualized form. The Siren's overt sexuality, her striking femininity, moreover, reclarified sex roles that had begun to blur in the 1920s with the masculinized flapper image and the increase of women in the work force. Though a different image, the Siren satisfied some of the same cultural needs as the professionalized homemaker.
This homemaker's image developed as early as 1921, out of prosperity and a postwar desire for "normalcy." Nurturing and homebound, she was also stable and businesslike—less frivolous, less exaggeratedly sexual, mysterious, and provocative than the Siren. The emergence of the Siren in the late 1920s signaled not only a redefinition of woman's sexual role but also her loss of control over her body and her life as she was made (at least in films) a compelling object of consumption. The only nod to liberation was in the presentation of her power, which derived from her sexuality. Where the professionalized homemaker could manage the household, the Siren merely decorated it with her body.
The Siren stereotype was a product of discourses of consumer culture in the interwar period—specifically of advertising and the movies. But she was also the subject of sometimes critical discourses on consumer culture. Sociologists and psychologists in the 1930s and, more recently, historians have focused on the Siren as a behavioral model—a vehicle of socialization for the young working-class immigrant women who shopped on Fourteenth Street. They have argued that Siren-style behavior altered values or was seen by these women as a desirable means by which to achieve a better lifestyle.
Having argued that Marsh's paintings fashioned both a sexually charged and commercially motivated version of the revised new woman and a degrading image of working-class womanhood like that described by advertising's elite, I want to add a third category to the multivalent construction of gender that appears in these
works. As I suggested in Chapters z and 3, Marsh's images of the neighborhood also engage the more socially concerned forms of urban realism in the 1930s, addressing, as a consequence, a more liberal audience. Read from this angle, the paintings reveal an ironic ambivalence—perhaps the oscillation between disdain and dismay—toward consumer culture as a process of socialization and toward those, like the voluptuous shopper, who are manipulated by it. Through stylistic and iconographic devices, the paintings reveal tension and anxiety produced in a population that adopted values and patterns of behavior from myths like those underlying the Siren stereotype.
In several of his Fourteenth Street paintings, Marsh placed his voluptuous shoppers in a pictorial context that suggests his awareness of tensions in consumer culture. In Show Window (Fig. 5.2; Plate 4) the viewer looks through a display window filled with Siren-style mannequins at two window-shoppers looking over the cluttered array of goods. The real shoppers mirror the look of the mannequins and seem as passive and unreal as their lifeless counterparts. This similarity—the lack of textural differentiation—and the absence of a strong dramatic focus blur distinctions between real and fabricated womanhood. All the objects—the real women, mannequins, purses, hats, and scarves—line up parallel and close to the picture plane. All are treated with the same loose sketchy brushwork, a combination of the nervous flickering patches of chiaroscuro that define the forms, and Marsh's agitated strokes, drawn in and actually hovering above the solid forms they define. Surfaces are further unified by Marsh's limited palette, primarily grays, pale blues, rusts, and browns. Together the painting techniques and the packed, unfocused composition make a tightly woven surface matrix of objects and shapes. Within the overwhelming plethora of goods and surface detail, it becomes difficult to disengage one object from another, or the real women from the pretend.
The real women shoppers, moreover, are virtually out of the picture, compositionally relegated to the lower right hand corner of the image. Gazing upward, they defer to the mannequin, who beckons seductively to them from her commanding position. Even in their own Siren-style beauty, which the picture accentuates, the real women have succumbed to an advertised stereotype. Their reduction to sexual commodities is manifest in the fragmentation of mannequins into various body parts and the placement of a price tag over a mannequin's genitalia. Sex is for sale at the center of the picture. Given Marsh's treatment of these women of Fourteenth Street as powerless in the face of the institutions of consumer culture, it is no wonder that Marsh's close friend Laning characterized the 1930s Marsh girl as "an automaton—a tremendous fantasy."
The powerlessness of the voluptuous shopper and her fellow consumers is revealed more directly in Marsh's In Fourteenth Street (Fig. 3.19; Plate 3) through the link with Michelangelo's Last Judgment (Fig. 3.28). I have argued that the central hawker, whose pose inverts that of the judging Christ, tempts the unwary
consumer with fraudulent goods. The pose of the still Siren in the blue dress, though she is above rather than beside the hawker, similarly resembles that of the Virgin in The Last Judgment . The Virgin assumes a twisted, self-protective pose; Marsh's mysterious Garbo-like figure, withdrawn into herself, casts her eyes to the right. Like the Virgin who cannot overrule the judgments of her son, the Siren-shopper is powerless to control the chaos around her; and her appearance suggests that she too has succumbed to the temptations of the latest Siren fashions.
Other beautiful women in the painting stand out as angelic figures. A blond woman wears a heart-shaped sign that can be read as angel wings, inscribed with advertisements for beauty bargains. While she offers a bit of heaven to the eager seeker after beauty, she is also a fallen angel, burdened by her task. The most prominent voluptuous shopper, under the ladder, seems initially to stand out as a lone figure of redemption (Fig. 5.1). Fitted with a modern halo and angel's wings, she floats among the mass of urban types who spill down and away from her and lands daintily on one pointed toe. An isolated beauty, she promises salvation or at least the illusion of escape from the urban hell of lost souls swirling about her.
Though isolated pictorially to suggest her redemptive function, Marsh's Siren remains essentially powerless. Modeled on real Fourteenth Street women, she is represented as acting out the Siren's part. Marsh's characterization of her as a working-class version of the Siren stereotype makes this clear. And, though momentarily isolated as an angel under the ladder, as a Siren she can only be a fallen angel. She strides toward the picture's center, to join the other lost souls of Fourteenth Street in the confusion of the neighborhood's consumer hell. (Given her resemblance to Mae West, she may be a pun on the title of the Mae West movie Marsh had seen, I'm No Angel. )
Like the Siren, the souls in the crowd have lost their individuality. Marsh reduced them to urban and ethnic stereotypes, a strategy of simplification often used in advertising to short-circuit the buyer's reasoning process. In their coarseness, many are like caricatures who contrast strongly with the beautiful isolated Sirens. Plump dark-haired women shoppers can be identified as Lower East Side immigrants from eastern Europe or the Mediterranean. They mingle with blacks, and to judge from costume, the occasional eager tourist, like the light-haired young man in a short-sleeved shirt and spectacles to the right of the crowd. The only identifiable individual is Kenneth Hayes Miller, whose studio was but a block away and whose presence localizes the neighborhood. He is passing behind the hawker, the self-absorbed artist-intellectual, oblivious to tawdry seduction.
Through the act of consumption, the figures in the painting and the Siren have come to resemble stereotypes in advertisements. Furthermore, virtually none of the figures interact; instead they focus on goods or activities. Consumption has replaced human interaction as authentic experience, and figures like the voluptuous shopper lose their free will, autonomy, and selfhood to the mass activity of consumption.
Indeed the parallels to The Last Judgment suggest the substitution of consumption for religion discussed by Jackson Lears.
In a crowd scene like In Fourteenth Street Marsh takes the position of a distant observer looking down. In other works he gets closer to his subjects and through subtle arrangements of figures and body language reveals some of the covert meanings of the Siren image. Women on Fourteenth Street (Fig. 5.3) demonstrates the ironic gap between the Siren myth and Depression era reality for the average woman shopper on Fourteenth Street. The two shoppers, one in front of the other, stand so close that the figure in front and to the left seems to emerge from the figure in back and to the right. With their left arms in similar poses and their right arms concealed, they become pictorial complements or alter egos of a single women: one is self-assured, overtly seductive, and fashionable with directed gaze, feet firmly planted; and the other stands hesitant, tentatively balanced on one foot, arms self-protectively close to her body, guarding her purchases. This woman gazes absent-mindedly down at the pavement, neither pursuing the local bargain with the enthusiasm of a third woman, who bends over to read the sign, nor connecting herself to the world like her companion. She is also less chic. Her ill-fitting rumpled coat masks sexuality as much as the snug suit of the blond reveals it.
Pictorially enmeshed with the archetypal Siren behind her, the foreground shopper neither fully shares nor fully extricates herself from that model, at once a mythical and real support. The contrast between the two women foregrounds a question continually raised by advertisers: did they exercise power over consumers or derive power from them? Were women passive or in control?
Even as this picture blurs the distinctions between the condition of the Fourteenth Street shopper and the cultural fantasy, it points out the gap between them. Marsh's awareness of this tension-producing gap and his desire to explore its implications become evident in other works of the early 1930s. In Twenty Cent Movie (1936; Fig. 5.15), for example, young Sirens wait outside a theater boldly advertising sensationalist films. Both they and the men—a hip young black man and a Jimmy Cagney type—are so much like the film stereotypes they emulate that we feel transported into a film. In this painting (Marsh sketched the marquee advertisements from life, adding figures later) fact and fiction entwine inextricably.
Twenty Cent Movie has an ironic historical context. The title refers to the closure, despite generally high attendance, of movie theaters during the Depression and the resulting drop in admission prices from thirty to twenty cents. Hollywood producers offered increased sensationalism, melodramatic romance, and more titillating sex to lure patrons to the theater. In response, censorship forces, headed by Catholic clergymen, whose concerns were buttressed by new sociological and psychological reports on the powerful effects of movies on conduct, rallied to make Hollywood adopt self-censorship, beginning in 1934. The only new guideline was that story lines distinguish more clearly between good and evil characters and sit-
uations. Such a generalized and virtually unenforceable requirement indicated a recognition by producers and censors that sex and crime pictures were necessary to box office survival. In light of this less than clear-cut censorship strategy, Marsh's 1936 image suggests the survival and popularity of cheap sensationalist films and, more important, their effectiveness in promoting social stereotypes and inculcating their values.
In Paramount Pictures (1934; Fig. 5.16), as in Show Window and In Fourteenth Street , Marsh continued to explore the gap between Siren myth and Depression era conditions and to suggest the way alluring mass-cultural stereotypes exploited female consumers. In this picture, a young woman stands directly in front of a movie marquee, her image emerging from the breasts of a larger-than-life poster image of Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra. Where two "actual" women in Women on Fourteenth Street (Fig. 5.3) were pictorial complements or alter egos, here the "actual" woman's image is compositionally enmeshed in an advertisement. Her own appearance depends on the glamorous fantasy depicted in the poster. In facial
features, makeup, and hairstyle the two women clearly resemble each other, so that reality and fantasy, moviegoer and movie Siren merge. At the same time, they remain distinct. Colbert is the archetypal Siren, before whose alluring and all-knowing gaze an adoring Antony melts. The real woman, however, waits alone. Her tired red eyes, perhaps the result of too long a working day, show that the fantasy she purchased has failed to fulfill its promise. Mildred Adams's optimistic statements notwithstanding, she is far from free to go about the business of being a Siren.
Marsh's iconography combines film and fashion stereotypes and documentary elements with material from old master paintings; his style similarly takes devices from film and popular illustration and combines them with drawing, shading, and coloristic techniques that blur the stylistic boundaries between high art and the rough sketchy graphics and crayon drawings associated since the teens with a socially engaged "people's art." Marsh's sketchiness in these tempera paintings, however, differs markedly from that of the earlier Masses crayon drawings and from his own later crayon drawings for the New Masses (Figs. 3.30 and 3.36)—in part because these works address different audiences. Tempera is precious and fast drying; it allows little room for error and is thus often connected with ideals of careful craftsmanship. Moreover, it cannot be manipulated or "attacked" like either oil paint (as used by Sloan and other Ashcan painters) or crayon. Although Marsh uses the medium with facility, he applies tempera in a looser, more fluid, more rapid—in short, more "sketchy"—manner than is customarily associated with either the meticulous old master works of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries or with the group of artists who revived the medium in the 1930s, among them Paul Cadmus, Thomas Hart Benton (who gave Marsh his tempera recipe), or Kenneth Hayes Miller and Isabel Bishop.
By using a precious and craft-oriented technique of high art in a freer manner to portray his lower-class subjects, Marsh satisfied his own concern to address an audience with a broader point of view. Through his complicated stylistic and iconographic strategies, associated with the competing discourses on new womanhood, on advertisings' attitudes toward mass culture, and on a socially concerned urban realism, Marsh's paintings do much more than simply document Fourteenth Street life; they reveal how the Siren was created, how real women were socialized into Sirens, and how they were exploited by consumer culture. On the one hand, the paintings glorified Siren sexuality and thus shared the anti-feminist ideology of Mildred Adams and like-minded journalists. On the other hand, the pictures showed how media images in the Depression era entrapped women.
The paintings' multi-level exploration of the voluptuous shopper in a new consumer culture may be read, as I have suggested, as part of a larger attempt to comprehend how mass culture was altering modern behavior. If Marsh read a mass audience as vulgar and feminized, as advertisers read it, he also understood the
problematic effects of the consumer culture as contemporary social scientists, psychologists, and consumer advocates understood it in the 1930s as they studied and analyzed how advertising and film were changing patterns of behavior and creating new values. Some of these researchers, for example, examined effects of movies on conduct as revealed in fan mail written by women and in psychological interviews. Others debated the value of mass culture as a vehicle for assimilating the new urban immigrant population to American ways. Still others studied individual and crowd behavior, wondering if individual consumers could evaluate and control their environment. Although many of these studies were reasonably objective, others advocated a return to older ways and were critical of consumer culture, decrying the loss of individual will or personal autonomy as city dwellers succumbed to advertisements and movie themes promising a fuller life—a better personality and appearance through correct consumption. Some of the findings elucidate further Marsh's analysis of the Siren and consumer culture.
Excerpts from psychologists' studies of movie magazine fan mail and women's accounts of how movies influence conduct substantiate women's widespread adoption of the Siren ideology. A number of fans deliberately aped mannerisms and actions, fashions and lifestyles. One woman wrote, "For teaching me how to be graceful and attractive I would like to hand a well-deserved bouquet to Garbo. One could sit for hours and watch the exquisite grace of her bearing alone." Movies also provided models of etiquette. One female reader decided it was "correct to wear gloves with formal evening gowns after watching Mary Astor do so in the movie Ladies Love Brutes." Another suggested that movies were a means to realizing social aspirations, helping her "learn what to wear; how to dress; how a refined home should look into which my clever children could be proud to bring their friends. There is every opportunity in the movies for a keen quick eye to observe the better way of living."
For this viewer films offered lessons in conducting her life and elevating her social status. Modern Screen used the lives of stars as models for its readers; here movie fantasy reinforced the magazine story model, so that movies too played a significant part in suggesting values to women.
Movies also showed aspiring Sirens how to manage men. One nineteen-year-old regularly practiced a "look" from the movies on a gentleman friend:
When I discovered I should like to have this coquettish and coy look which all girls may have, I tried to do it in my room. And surprises! I could imitate Pola Negri's cool or fierce look, Vera Banky's sweet but coquettish attitude. I learned the very way of taking my gentleman friends to and from the door with that wistful smile, until it has become a part of me.
Another nineteen-year-old cited the movies as her source of information on how to act at parties and dances and how to achieve "success" over a competitor.
I decided to try some of the mannerisms I had seen in the movies. I began acting quite reserved, and I memorized half-veiled compliments. I realized my "dates" liked it. I laid the foundation with movie material. Then I began to improvise.
Of course I had a rival in the crowd. Every time she began to receive more attention from the boys than I, I would see a movie and pick up something new with which to regain their interest. I remember one disastrous occasion. She was taking the center of the stage and I was peeved. I could think of nothing to do. Then I remembered the afternoon before I had seen Nazimova smoke a cigarette. . .. I got one, lit it, and had no difficulty whatsoever in handling it quite nonchalantly. The boys were fascinated and the victory was mine.
If this Siren achieved her "victory" by adopting male patterns of behavior, like smoking, an unselfconscious fifteen-year-old reported how she had learned to defer to men in matters of "love" behavior: "When with the opposite sex I am rather quiet and allow them to tell me what to do. When they go to make love, to kiss or hug, I put them off at first, but it always ends in them having their way. I guess I imitated this from the movies because I see it in almost every show that I go to."
In each of these narratives the young woman takes narcissistic pleasure in looking at movies because she identifies with the Siren and makes herself an object of male desire or pleasure even as she fashions her own image. These examples from a large body of firsthand accounts provide evidence that the Siren's look and persona played an integral part in the socialization of young women who attended movies. As an endlessly repeated image, the Siren stereotype became the most pervasive and persuasive exemplar of American womanhood in the early 1930s, even where other widely publicized models existed. And in Marsh's paintings, although she is not the only kind of woman depicted, she is the one who is meant to be noticed.
In virtually all the literature directly or indirectly related to the Siren—journalistic celebrations, advertisements, firsthand accounts, fan mail, and expert studies—the ideology of charm and grace, "what every woman wants," was deeply entrenched. The sociologist Herbert Blumer, for example, observed in the conclusion of his scholarly study of movies that in adolescence the girl "in particular" has increasing "desires for beauty, for sophistication, for grace and ease, for romance, for adventure and for love." Blumer never mentioned what desires emerge for adolescent boys. Moreover, he could not recognize that the desires he assumed were "natural" were those promoted by the very institutions he studied. His assumptions were those of a widely held anti-feminist ideology of the interwar period. What was omitted from his list—self-sufficiency, independence, a good job, a sense of equality, self-respect—was absent as well from the literature and visual imagery surrounding the Siren.
Recent historians are divided in their assessments of the relation between working-class women and consumer culture. Kathy Peiss portrays consumption as one aspect of working-class women's new independence and their exuberant resistance
to bourgeois prescriptions for women. Joanne Meyerowitz sees these women as more independent and a source of new images of sexuality and womanhood. As a taxi dancer or a strip-tease store model, for example, the Marsh girl confronts the viewer with sexual assurance. Richard Fox and Jackson Lears see complex patterns of unintentional collaboration between consumers and producers while Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen examine power relationships and are less sanguine about the resistance and agency of women in the face of consumer culture. Along with several 1930s sociologists the Ewens have suggested that the women most affected by films and advertising were precisely those Marsh painted on Fourteenth Street: urban working-class women, some of them newcomers to the city from rural communities, others the first- and second-generation immigrants who lived mostly on the Lower East Side just below Union Square.
Those among them who wished to elevate their social standing came to the Fourteenth Street stores searching for bargain versions of middle- to upper-middle-class fashions and for the glamorous look achieved by the stars. All these goods were advertised in magazines that throughout the 1920s increased their "style conscious" copy. In 1918, for example, fashion advertisements made up 18 percent of all the advertising in Ladies Home Journal ; by 1930, they made up 30 percent. Thanks to mass production, cheap versions of movie fashions became available no more than a week after their expensive counterparts first appeared uptown at Saks Fifth Avenue.Modern Screen made dress patterns of stars' wardrobes available to its readers (Fig. 5.7), and in the early 1930s a nationwide chain store called the Cinema Shop sold copies of stars' gowns from specific movies at moderate prices. Everywhere the culture of consumption forged links with its two principal agencies of socialization, the movies and advertising. The psychologist Malcolm Willey, who studied the film mechanisms that instilled new values, recognized this collusion: "A commercial mechanism has been developed whereby manufacturers and retailers of women's clothing are acquainted in advance with the specific garments worn by popular stars in forthcoming productions, in order to be prepared to meet the demand that invariably follows the release of the picture."
Having created a demand and a role model for young women, through film and advertising, the commercial market met that demand with merchandise that further encouraged young women to become Sirens. In his 1933 study on movies and conduct, Herbert Blumer discussed the particular susceptibility of urban ethnic populations to the socializing effects of movies:
Where, as in disorganized city areas, the school, the home or the community are most ineffective in providing adolescents with knowledge adequate for the new world into which they are entering, the reliance on motion pictures seems to become distinctly greater. Where the molding of thought and attitude by established institutions is greater, a condition of emotional detachment seems to be formed which renders the individual immune to the appeal of much that is shown in motion pictures.
This susceptibility that turned the average Fourteenth Street shopper into the consumer automaton embodied in Marsh's voluptuous shopper has been documented by Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen in their studies of mass images, and the shaping of American consciousness. Their analysis of the twentieth-century immigrant woman's socialization by the movies touches on a phenomenon of Fourteenth Street that began as early as the turn of the century, during the largest wave of immigration. Moviegoing created a strong sense of community:
Visit a motion picture show on a Saturday night below 14th Street when the house is full and you will soon be convinced of the real hold this new amusement has on its audience. Certain houses have become genuine social centers where neighborhood groups may be found . . . where regulars stroll up and down the aisles between acts and visit friends.
The early silent films, moreover—which were about the immigrant experience—taught immigrants how to become Americans and how to find opportunities for a better life in the New World. These movies thus bridged the gap between immigrants' old and new cultures. At the same time, other agencies of the consumer culture provided "a new visual landscape of possibility." Although many of these visual forms—signs, advertisements, and "gaudy shop windows"—struck the new population as American, in the eyes of native-born middle- to upper-middle-class citizens (Marsh's own class) they were vulgar, distasteful, and even foreign. Natives who had grown up in a city unspoiled by the new visual forms of mass culture remained aloof, resisting and even mistrusting their effects. Immigrants, however, who arrived along with these new forms, accepted them as "beautiful" and their message as "true"; they were thus vulnerable to them as agents of socialization. In accepting these messages, immigrants also accepted consumer values—passively, as in Marsh's depictions of them in the 1920s and 1930s, when consumer culture reached its heyday.
Second-generation immigrant women who came to maturity in the teens and early 1920s and shopped on Fourteenth Street increasingly looked outside their traditional family units for leisure and for guidance on how to behave in the New World. American models of womanhood replaced traditional ones from their native cultures. As immigrant women entered the work force, often as factory workers or low-paid saleswomen, they frequently looked to film stars as models of fashion and behavior. By the early 1920s, as immigration subsided with the passage of restrictive measures by Congress, movies dealt less with immigrant life and presented new female stereotypes in new situations. The Vamp (played by Theda Bara), the Gamin (Mary Pickford), and the Virgin (Lillian Gish) provided models of behavior by which immigrant women could distance themselves from older family traditions. In Cecil B. deMille's extravaganzas featuring the glamorous Siren, the immigrant
woman found a model of seduction who could, as the Ewens have argued, rise above her class and economic status through consumption. Movies and advertisements with the Siren thus pointed to new roles for women in general at the same time that they were agents of both urbanization and Americanization.
Debates about the value of mass culture in assimilation and Americanization appeared before the war and continued during the 1920s. Among prominent academics, businessmen, intellectuals, and politicians who worried about the loss of what they perceived to be pure American values, Americanization was essential. Edgar D. Furniss, a social scientist from Yale, Marsh's alma mater, wrote in his 1925 study of labor problems,
Americanization is the paramount need, not only for the immigrant, but for the very existence of the Republic. Unless the millions of immigrants present and future are made an integral part of the population, understanding our institutions, sharing the standards and ideals of the democracy, the Nation itself is imperiled.
Some Progressive Era social scientists recognized the racist attitudes underlying the immigration restrictions passed in the early 1920s. In 1919 two American social workers satirized the melting pot, recognizing the centrality of consumption in making the immigrant an American:
Come on all you foreigners, and jump into this magic kettle. . .. Your clothes are ill-fitting and ugly. Your language is barbaric. Of course we do not hold you personally responsible; for you have come from backward and antiquated civilizations, relics of the dark ages. . .. Jump into the cauldron and behold! You emerge new creatures, up to date with new customs, habits, traditions and ideals. Immediately you will become like us; the taint will disappear. Your sacks will be exchanged for the latest Fifth Avenue styles. . .. You will be reborn. In short, you will become full-fledged Americans. The magic process is certain. Your money back if we fail.
In his works Marsh represented the ethnicity of the urban population, focusing on the leisure pastimes of the working class, like going to movies or amusement parks. Many of these pastimes were understood to help first- and second-generation immigrants assimilate to American ways. Marsh's pictures of crowds often combined references to ethnic appearance and practices with more characteristically American behavior, so that his crowd scenes reveal the ongoing existence of—and occasional antagonism between—Old and New World cultural traditions.
In a work like Coney Island Beach (Fig. 5.6), for example, some women wear bathing suits and display themselves provocatively in the foreground. Others are clothed more decorously in summer dresses, preserving a sense of Old World modesty. Several women participate in acrobatic stunts, which bring them into close physical contact with men. Other women, however, recoil, their combined expres-
sion of modesty and violation borrowed from The Rape of the Sabine Women , whose motifs Marsh uses in this and in his other Coney Island beach scenes. Discarded Nestlés and Love Nest candy wrappers lying beside a Hebrew newspaper in the foreground document the immigrants' simultaneous adherence to old cultures and acceptance of American products.
Apart from depicting the culture of consumption as heaven or hell, Marsh's In Fourteenth Street (Fig. 3.19; Plate 3) is also a melting pot. Urban blacks, young and old, dark and fair, healthy and helpless retain their ethnicity yet are assimilated to American patterns of behavior through the act of consumption, one of the most self-conscious ways of behaving as an American. Style too becomes a metaphor for assimilation, specifically the artist's all-consuming lively brushwork and tightly packed compositions that hold people together. With rapid strokes, the artist put his figures in motion and created a unified agitated surface pattern. These devices suggest both the assimilation and the deindividualization wrought by consumer culture.
Although the intense furor over assimilation had subsided by the 1930s, the process itself continued, and Marsh and his Fourteenth Street compatriots continued to observe it. Miller and, in their early works, Laning and Bishop homogenized the urban population to suggest that the American standard prevailed. In In Fourteenth Street , as in Marsh's other images of the shopper, the voluptuous shopper-as-movie-Siren is fully assimilated, fully Americanized. Whatever her ethnic origins, they have been masked by the accoutrements of the Depression era icon.
But as I suggested earlier, the urban chaos in this work—Marsh's borrowings from Michelangelo's Last Judgment —indicates the price to be paid for adopting the appearances and values of consumer culture: the loss of autonomy, selfhood, and identity. This loss of individuality and independence, though related to a historical muting of feminist demands for independence during the 1920s and 1930s, was also, as consumer advocates recognized, the lot of any consumer confronted by movies, tantalizing packaging, and advertising that provided inadequate guidelines for what to buy. Marsh's paintings of working-class new women appear at an important juncture in the battle between advertisers and consumer rights advocates. Advertisers contemptuous of the "feminized" mass audience for its irrationality and poor taste during the Depression increased the sensationalist, hard-sell, hyperbolic style and content of their copy to induce consumers to buy. At the same time, consumer advocates, also noting the irrationality of the consumer—but not contemptuously—hoped to increase consumers' awareness of their rights. By the early 1930s consumer groups reported rapid increases in membership. In August 1931 the magazine Ballyhoo , which lampooned the most exaggerated advertisements, became an overnight success both inside and outside the advertising world. By the mid-1930s, as consumer organizations threatened to ask the federal government to regulate advertising and as New Deal proposals began to take shape,
advertising trade journals called for greater self-regulation by the industry. In the rhetoric that often characterized advertisers' in-house discussions—what Roland Marchand has dubbed "the formulaic character of a halftime talk"—trade journals accused advertising men of being cowardly, weak-willed, and effeminate. Only the reinvigoration of hard labor, courage, and manliness could bring self-regulation and restore success.
The theme of most consumer guides was the consumer-as-victim, lost in a visually chaotic world. Stuart Chase and J.F. Schlink, for example, opened their popular 1927 book Your Money's Worth: A Study in the Waste of the Consumer's Dollar with a caveat: "We are all Alices in a Wonderland of conflicting claims, bright promises, fancy packages, soaring words and almost impenetrable ignorance." Consumer land was a fantasyland. Businesses and advertisers often ignored the consumer's real needs, by either distorting their claims or denying the consumer adequate information. For some consumer advocates, advertising was another form of social control: "Advertising is big business. Advertisers are not philanthropists who are out to make us happy, and secure. They aim to make a profit. "
In Marsh's Fourteenth Street pictures there is a tension between the voluptuous shopper's isolation as a powerful urban goddess and her helplessness and loss of individuality. The manipulation was engendered by agencies of consumer culture that, in dictating her appearance, objectified her and denied her any autonomy. Her only "power" came from choosing what to buy and, more broadly, choosing to participate in the consumer culture. The paradox of the consumer who is both victim and decision maker exists in Marsh's crowds, where stereotypes actively seek consumer goods or passively, even helplessly, fall by the wayside. On the periphery of the crowd in In Fourteenth Street , for example, a dwarf on crutches and a legless beggar turn away from consumption, which offers no solution to their problems; at the top of the crowd, a frail woman in ragged clothes looks dazedly down; and to the right, Kenneth Hayes Miller remains aloof as he passes by. Besides tension and paradox, there is a stylistic unease in Marsh's work. While there is pleasure in observing the dynamic crowds, compositionally the figures are uncomfortably close. The brushwork and chiaroscuro make a lively surface, but everything in the crowd seems agitated and confusing. Through its iconographic and stylistic mechanisms Marsh's painting simultaneously calls into question advertising's view of its audience and makes a position for the viewer concerned about the working-class consumer in a capitalist society.
Writings on individual and crowd behavior also filled consumer texts. By the mid-1930s a mainstay of social thought was that the "common man" in an urbanized consumer culture could no longer effect responsible social and political change. Though advertisers and social scientists arrived at their conclusions by different arguments and were opposed in their aims, both came to believe consumer
behavior had become irrational and impulsive—advertisers pointed to feminized emotionality whereas social scientists blamed advertisers' hold on the consumer population. In his 1931 article for President Hoover's Research Committee on Social Trends, Robert Lynd, co-author with Helen Merrell Lynd of the well-known study Middletown , reversed his optimistic belief in the average man's ability to change culture from within. Having observed the power of advertising in which merchandise was a panacea for "job insecurity, social insecurity, monotony, loneliness, or failure to marry," Lynd argued that consumers could no longer be perceived as "rational, soberly constant" individuals. Instead, they were "only partially rational bundles of impulses and habits shaped in response to an unsynchronized environment with resulting tensions." The social scientist Kenneth Haas went even further, seeing the typical bargain crowd as primitive men and women who had lost all powers of reason or critical thought. He suggested that "the crowd mind should be classed with delusions and dreams. . . They believe whatever the dominant idea of the occasion may be."
Marsh's paintings are thus part of a larger dialogue about individual (both female and male) and group behavior in the 1930s that took place in the social sciences, in advertising, and in the forms of urban realism that address a concern for the "common man." In his paintings, Marsh uncovered a growing consensus that the historian Richard Fox has defined as a central tenet of consumer ideology—that people are irrational and subject to whatever institution gets to them first." His paintings use the very forms and styles of advertisements and movies to show how these two institutions could be instrumental in the gendered construction of the individual—like the voluptuous shopper. As I suggested earlier, Marsh self-consciously trained himself, as he worked for popular publications, to observe changes in culture. From attendance at left-wing forums, he learned how capitalism was criticized. His teacher, Kenneth Hayes Miller, read widely in Freudian psychology and crowd behavior and shared these insights with his students. At several points in the 1930s Marsh underwent analysis himself. His close friendship with William Benton gave him insight into the ways of advertising and the thinking of advertisers—men of his own class and educational background who shared his competitiveness and concern for personal success, both colored by the anxieties of the Depression. Marsh was well schooled in human behavior and strategies in consumer culture but, as I argue in Chapter 2, like many members of his social class, he was anxious about his own place in the world.
What then of Marsh? Have I given him too privileged a view of his culture, his own position, or his female subject? Have I positioned him as a man fearful of both the class and the aggressive sexuality of his female subjects? Have I been too hard on him for an elite and disdainful male voyeurism that reduces lower-class women to unintelligent but sexually enticing commodities? Or have I let him off the hook by charting an alternative—a viewing position held by a socially concerned observer
of the systemic inequalities of capitalism—who finds in the disturbing surfaces and apocalyptic iconography no propaganda for social change but, instead, a pessimistic interrogation of commodity culture? Is his ambivalent oscillation between disdain and dismay or, as Laning asserted, between attraction and revulsion toward his subjects, quantifiable? I think not. Some of the energy and chaos in paintings of Fourteenth Street crowds, along with their powerful address to a male spectator, may reflect Marsh's desire to control an environment he found confusing, even unsettling. Sensing the progressive loss of selfhood in consumer culture, Marsh depicted its participants in an exaggerated, almost frantically active search for a new self within that culture.
Marsh's Fourteenth Street pictures can be seen to participate fully in the intellectual and emotional concerns of American culture in the 1920s and 1930s. They embody aspects of the history of women between the wars, the history of consumer culture, and the effect of the movies and advertising as agencies of assimilation and socialization for the working-class constituency that Marsh found in Fourteenth Street, at the dance halls, and at Coney Island.
Marsh's paintings are ambiguous and even contradictory because in them the ideology of a revised new womanhood—"what every woman wants"—intersects with the ideology of consumer culture. Both ideologies proclaimed their adherents' power and autonomy. Following enfranchisement, women were perceived to be so liberated that they could reacquire sexuality, charm, and allure as marks of their power and independence from men. It was widely held that they could control their destiny and ensure success by choosing a marketed look and behavior. The consumer in general was accorded the privilege of an improved lifestyle through correct consumption.
Because the promise of consumer culture and perceptions of the revised new woman were far from givens in the 1930s, both ideologies covertly required passivity and gullibility on the part of the woman consumer. These were needed to maintain capitalism's economic and social hegemony in the shift from a prosperous to an unstable financial climate. The beautiful, sexualized women whom advertisers and filmmakers used to promote the Siren look and persona were objects of consumption rather than equal participants in American life. The Siren as a role model was less threatening to men than a career woman, more effective in contributing to the economy and American society as a consumer. She offered an escape from present reality and the promise of a better life in a society where women would be traditional women, and men would be strong working providers. On Fourteenth Street, Marsh found a population whose receptiveness to anti-feminist myths and consumer ideologies led to their exploitation. Knowing and ambivalent, he watched their comings and goings through Fourteenth Street's consumer culture.