Low Culture Collection: Bicentennial Edition

Dr. Crepeau’s collection of “Bicentennial Junk” features a few rather distinct items in its collection, a few pornographic magazines and a novelty condom. While the magazines are bicentennial special editions and the condom is purely a novelty item, they all share a similar feature, purchase “raunch-culture” goods. To reference Tammy Gordon, these items are wholly “buycentennial” goods that grew out of the 1976 “sellebration” of the American Revolution. These items are of particular interest because, unlike other items in the collection, they are not a used good like a plate or cup, but they are also not things that one would display openly in their house, like a flag or a photograph. The collection of “low culture” goods provides an interesting insight into how pornographic culture functioned during the mid-1970s, and how that may have changed during the bicentennial.

A major point of interest when looking at this particular collection is its relationship with feminism in the 1976s. Differing views of pornography developed a split in in feminist thought in the mid-1970s. Ariel Levy’s work Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture discusses looks at the porn industry in the 1970s and how women perpetuated “raunch culture” during the time. She does this by discussing a “schism” in feminist thought that developed around 1976. According to Levy, feminists broke into two camps during the time, one that viewed pornography as a means of oppressing women, and one that viewed it as a means of expressing the female body. While the commemorative issues do not address the issue of women’s rights directly it is important to look at these items from the perspective of a political battleground centered on the porn industry.

Interestingly enough the cover imagery for two of these magazines can be used as support for both sides of the feminist debate Levy identifies. Anti-pornography feminists could simply use the July 1976 cover of Hustler as the basis for their argument of female objectification. This cover features a woman’s genitals covered by American flag underwear and nothing else. In the broadest sense this cover invokes the provocative and objectifying aspect of the porn industry that many Feminists stood against. However, the July 1976 cover of Playboy is drastically different. It features a woman wearing see through robes holding up the American Flag. While this image does objectify women in the sense that she is visibly nude, the model is not positioned in an overtly sexual way, and the cover does not make her nudity the center point of the cover. It is clear that the female body and sexual imagery are the focal points of each publication, the presentation of those qualities differed drastically from one publication to the other, much like the stance feminists took against the industry during the time.

While the condom is not historically viewed as the centerpiece of feminist debates, it still holds a similar value in its purpose as a celebratory good. The condom has no practical use and is simply a piece of ephemera that one would share with others. However, like pornographic magazines, the piece is not something that would readily be displayed openly. This shows that there was a market for non-practical, “raunch culture” goods during the time, providing a lens into American sexual identity during the 1970s. The condom is simply a great example of how pervasive the “buycentennial sellebration” was, and how deeply it permeated American culture during the time.

Upon further analysis of “low culture” products in Dr. Crepeau’s collection provide an understanding of feminist thought as well as American consumerism during the time. No matter which camp of feminism one supports, it is clear that these magazines are capable of narrating the drastic differences in the women’s rights movement and the complex issue of feminine empowerment. When combined with the novelty condom this collection as a whole shows how deeply rooted Bicentennial celebration was, permeating all the way into the American sex industry.

Referenced Works:

Tammy S. Gordon, The Spirit of 1976: Commerce, Community, and the Politics of Commemoration, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, (New York: Free Press, 2005).