On Gender, Girlhood, and Norman Rockwell

Triple Self Portrait, 1960

Think of the words “queer art.” Several faces may be coming to mind already. Amos Mac. Alison Bechdel. Divine. Zoe Strauss. Betty Parsons. Every person mentioned in Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic.”

Norman Rockwell is probably not one of those faces.

Born in 1894, Rockwell would live through two World Wars, the Civil Rights Movement and the first steps on the moon. His art depicts those times in a small town that could be Anywhere, USA. Today, his best-known works are a series of family portraits mirroring President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, his Boy Scout manual illustrations, and a pictorialization of America’s favorite butch lady: Rosie the Riveter.

Rockwell’s paintings center around the political, the patriotic, and the traditional–all concepts that queer art enjoys ripping to shreds, restitching into something radical, and topping off with a glittering, sparking bow.

Yet his work is still undeniably…good. You don’t have love baseball and apple pie to appreciate Rockwell’s crazy talent. He was a wholesome storyteller who never had to utter a single word. Before color film became universal, Rockwell brought life to the American experience; each painting is a single priceless moment, freeze framed. As your eyes scan, picking up on little secondary details like a stretched-out sock or a intricate black eye, you feel as if you’re watching a movie instead of staring at hardened paint on a canvas. It’s magically cinematic. And if you look even closer, there’s some interesting commentary on gender. A decade before Rosie, Rockwell was painting the girls who were destined to become riveters.

Underneath all of the red, white and blue, there’s something a little queer going on.

Marble Champion, 1939

While Norman Rockwell’s primary subjects were men, he also painted a lot of boyish girls. He was given hell for this, especially from other male artists. Coles Phillips once snarked at Rockwell:

Young men and boys. Haven’t you got any guts? You’re young. Haven’t you got any sex? Old men and boys. For Lord’s sake.

As did cartoonist Clyde Forsythe:

You can’t do a beautiful seductive woman. She looks like a tomboy who’s been scrubbed with a washcloth and pinned into a new dress by her mother.

Home From Camp, 1940

As queer people, we get that gender is never easy. It’s slippery and elusive. One minute, you’ll have it pinned down. The next, it’s slipped away like one of those awkwardly phallic water snake toys you might’ve owned as kid. Home From Camp makes me wonder if I was more certain of who I am when I was ten–scabbed knees and all–than I am now.

Triumph and Defeat, 1953

According to The Saturday Evening Post, “Rockwell loved the idea of a smug schoolgirl who bested her opponent in a fight.”

Going Out, 1933

Rockwell was no stranger to juxtaposing adolescence with adulthood, but it’s really interesting to see this done with girlhood and womanhood. In Going Out, a grade school-aged girl and her puppy intently watch an older, unquestioningly feminine woman preen for an evening out. Is the girl looking at the woman with eagerness for the day she’s able to assume a similar role, or quiet desperation? Maybe she’s content with her life that consists of puppy dogs and pants. It depends on who you’re asking.

What one person might interpret as excitement for the trappings of womanhood, a genderqueer feminist might read as reluctance.

First Evening Gown, 1949

If any Rockwell portrait says, “I’m not a girl, not yet a [socially normative] woman,” it’s First Evening Gown. Part of art interpretation is projection, and I can’t help projecting all of my childhood memories of being made to wear a dress when I didn’t want to all over this painting; it’s the well-worn penny loafers the girl is wearing versus the crispness of the gown. Did the dress get thrust upon her? Did she beg and plead for the dress? It’s a coming-of-age story with no clear resolution.

Girl At Mirror, 1954

“The artist captures the ‘in-between’ age well between the cast away doll and the closer ‘necessities’ of lipstick and hairbrush.” The Saturday Evening Post

Rosie, 1943

During the war effort, it didn’t matter if you were queer or a woman. If you were of able body, you went to work. A lot of Rosie’s butching up was situational, but no less heroic.

Fixing a Flat, 1946

Perhaps Rockwell did have a sixth sense when it came to understanding gender. After all, at a gangly six feet tall and 140 pounds, the artist had firsthand experience with not fitting the mold. In the early 1900s, the “ideal American man” was a brawny guy with a farmer’s tan and crew cut. At 21, Rockwell was denied placement in the US Army because he was deemed underweight. When he was finally admitted, he was assigned artistic duties and never actually experienced the combat for which he’d yearned.

The Charwomen, 1946

In Anywhere, America, gay is becoming increasingly more okay. If he were still around, how would Norman Rockwell paint our button noses, rainbow flags, and alternative lifestyle haircuts?

Sarah Fonseca’s essays, book reviews, and film writing have appeared in Black Warrior Review, cléo: a journal of film and feminism, Posture Magazine, and them. Catch her obsessing over Eartha Kitt at sarahfonseca.com.

sarah has written 58 articles for us.

58 Comments

  1. My sister and I are taking my mom to the Norman Rockwell exhibit here at the Birmingham Museum of Art for her birthday- so excited! My parents have “Thanksgiving” hanging above their dining room table and I always liked to pretend that the man in the bottom right hand corner was looking at us…kinda creepy now that I think about it, but it was fun as a kid to look at all the expressions.

  2. That “Triumph and Defeat” picture reminds me of a photo my mom showed me of herself from her school days. It was a official class photo but she had a big bruise and was looking down because she was messing with a band-aid on her knee, which she had cut up from playing too rough the day before.

    Even more than queerness or gender issues, I am struck by the humanity of these pictures. The stories the pictures tell just seem very realistic, very human.

  3. On Home from camp :
    How is it that a free-spirited ten year old has more self-confidence than a thirty-two year old adult?
    I got up the nerve to ask a girl I had a crush on if she would be my best friend. I had a pair of boots that made me feel bad-ass when I ran around the yard with my forsythia-wood bow and arrows and my rubber band gun my brother and I fabricated with a coping saw off a pattern in a book of DIY depression-era toys. The swing in the apple tree was my own personal Centaur. I could drive a covered wagon and outrun wild horses. I had a real pocket knife. I didn’t cry when I cut myself. Our password to enter the Highland fortification was “Freedom from Tyrants.” Where did all that bravado go? Recently, I have been attempting to reclaim that self assurance and sense of adventure.
    Nice article. Thanks.

  4. Pingback: A break from the essays | works and progress

  5. The first time I saw Rosie was in person, at age 14. Until then I’d thought of Rosie the Riveter as only the woman from the “We Can Do It” poster, and seeing Rockwell’s massive portrait celebrating the daily routines of an undeniably butch woman made me feel a lot of things. I’d finally started to identify as not straight (as opposed to “not yet straight” which is basically what I did in grade school), and seeing Rosie was one of the first times I really believed it was possible for women to lead lives that were all at once fulfilling, unconventional, and down to earth. That painting represented historical precedent for women like me existing without being constantly at war with the world, and it was proudly displayed in the center of the room. It said that I wouldn’t have to spend my entire life either hiding or fighting: existing as a person with everyday joys and worries was finally presented as an option. In a lot of ways, seeing that painting represented the point when I realized I was going to make it through life as a queer person, and whatever that would mean would be okay.
    Of course a lot of those realizations just happened to occur around that point in my life, but that painting, and Rockwell by extension, mean a lot to me. Rosie symbolizes the realization that, as a queer person, I didn’t have to be at war with the universe. Norman Rockwell might not be terribly related to the rest of the content Autostraddle produces, but it seems like we’ve all got a lot of feelings about his work, and I’m glad I spent some time reflecting on my relationship with his work.

  6. I’m way late to the party, but I really enjoyed this article and can’t resist adding this link to an article that explores Rockwell’s sexual orientation, among other things.

    “Was Rockwell gay, whether closeted or otherwise? In researching and writing this biography over the past decade, I found myself asking the question repeatedly.

    Granted, he married three times, but his marriages were largely unsatisfactory. The great romance for Rockwell, to my mind, lay in his friendships with men, from whom he received something that was probably deeper than sex.”

    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/inside-americas-great-romance-with-norman-rockwell-22055/

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