Reimagining Strength and Femininity: A Visual Analysis of the Iconic “We Can Do It!” Image

Guest Post by Stacy Blaylock
Visit Stacy at www.stacyblaylock.com

 

“We Can Do It!” by J. Howard Miller is an image that can simultaneously be interpreted as a champion of women’s empowerment as well as a dictator of the nature of womanhood. It lays the foundation for what some see as an iconic feminist image with a strong, muscle-flexing woman as its focus point. Her physical gesture will carry the image through time and through reinterpretations. Even though the strong gesture of the woman seems to communicate empowerment, the woman herself represents a narrow definition of womanhood – white, slender, well-groomed. Since its release in 1943, “We Can Do It!” has been used by various parties to represent different causes, all of which challenge the original poster’s notion of womanhood. By redefining femininity, these challengers re-appropriate and reinvent the image’s meaning of womanhood to fit their own agenda of a more comprehensive movement. What results is an evolving cultural icon that grounds itself in a strong-armed gesture with aspirations of inclusively representing womankind.

 

Historical Context

Understanding the origin of Miller’s “We Can Do It!” poster is understanding the mythos of Rosie the Riveter – her strength, her patriotism, her femininity – and how she evolves into a representative cultural figure. As a direct consequence of World War II, thousands of women joined the industrial workforce to fulfill the labor demands left by the deployment of men overseas in 1941, just as war manufacturing began to emerge. The women workers soon filled traditionally male roles and birthed the cultural phenomenon of Rosie the Riveter. Miller produced 42 copies of “We Can Do It!” in late 1942 to be displayed in Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company factories in Pennsylvania for a brief time in February of 1943. Outside of the factories, the cultural phenomenon of Rosie the Riveter grew, inspiring songs and other works of art such as Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” painting for The Saturday Evening Post on May 29, 1943. “We Can Do It!” was simply part of a broader cultural fabric that encouraged homemakers to migrate into the work force and working women to move into higher-paying industrial jobs.

Kimble and Olsen quote Robert N. Bellah and others as they explain that the Rosie the Riveter figure in the “We Can Do It!” poster acts as a “representative figure [who] provides an ideal, a point of reference and focus, that gives living expression to a vision of life,” a vision of a working woman turned into that of an empowered woman (535). In this sense, the poster has become a pervasive influence and figure in U.S. culture. It has become a symbol in our collective memory, lending itself to re-imaginings by causes enraptured by the mythos of Rosie the Riveter.

 

Visual Analysis of the Original “We Can Do It!”

At initial glance, “We Can Do It!” appears bold and striking as an image easily relatable to factory workers, both women and men alike. Simple and appealing in execution, bright and bold colors draw the eye and stimulate the viewer. The saturated primary colors of blue, red, and yellow create a piece that is at once exciting as it is dynamic. The darkness of the blue balances the brightness of the red and the yellow, coming across as professional and industrial. The darkness of the blue places weight on the poster’s border, the woman’s shirt, and the shape of the dialogue bubble. A red polka dot scarf ties back the woman’s hair, simultaneously practical for an industrial worker and a sign of femininity. As a warm color, the yellow background contrasts with the blue and initially draws the eye, making the poster easy to spot from a distance such as across a factory floor. The typography of the piece is sans serif, easy to read, and typical of the painted sign style of the era.

The psychology behind each color further enhances the understanding of the piece. Yellow, often associated with optimism and self-esteem, evokes emotions of positivity and confidence (Hill). As the poster background, the color motivates workers to perform their tasks with cheerfulness.  In contrast, the blue inspires thought and a calm mind (Hill). Using the two colors together balances the cheerful optimism of the yellow with the cooler tone of the blue. In a splash of defiance, the red appears as masculine and enthusiastic, an interesting choice considering the scarf is worn by a woman (Hill).

Meanwhile, two major shapes appear in the image: the talking bubble as though the woman is initiating dialogue with the audience and the triangle between her shoulder, elbow, and fist.  The gesture of the raised fist, while creating the architecturally and mathematically sound triangle, is not without social relevance. According to Kimble and Olsen: “Westinghouse documents from the war years indicate that Rosie’s symbolic performance of raising her arm with a clenched fist was not the public display of a rugged, individualist woman. Rather, it was a routine, team-building gesture that men and women alike at Westinghouse adopted for rallies and community building” (551). Therefore, the gesture was originally intended for factory workers, men and women alike, not the general populace and not as a statement of feminism. It is this gesture that remains consistent through re-imaginings of Miller’s work.

Despite its roots in industrial messaging, the poster makes bold claims about womanhood dictating, whether intentional or not, how women should appear while doing their work. The woman depicted is small-framed, white, and groomed to have feminine characteristics with plucked eyebrows, exaggerated eyes, curled hair, and high cheekbones. Not only does the poster motivate workers to their tasks, but it also dictates how they should appear while accomplishing them. In other words, women can work in the factories if they do not sacrifice their femininity. As “We Can Do it!” becomes more popular as a symbol for feminist causes, more designers are challenging this narrow notion of womanhood. This paper will examine three examples of reinvention of Miller’s image, all invoking on the strong-armed gesture to lend credence and strength to their cause while re-examining and challenging the original’s notion of femininity.  One, an icon from an accessories line for black women with natural hair; two, a logo for a woman-owned cleaning company and; three, a painting to inspire another Mexican revolution.

“We Can Do It!” by Global Couture

“We Can Do It!” by Global Couture (www.globalcouture.net) is an example of intersectionality that challenges Miller’s original vision of femininity as a slender white woman. Global Couture, instead, depicts their Rosie as a black woman with her natural hair overflowing the classic kerchief.  The image itself loses the painted quality of the original, favoring a more two-dimensional look for a digital age. Global Couture’s image exists in the intersection of ideas – one, the strength and determination of Miller’s original poster and two, the space self-defined by black women that values a woman’s choice in self-expression. By existing in such an intersection, the image claims that an empower woman can be unapologetically natural, comfortable with herself, and unrestrained in her self-expression.

 

 

 

 

Maid to Clean

Another reimagined take on the “We Can Do It!” poster is the logo for Maid to Clean. The “Maid to Clean” image with the slogan “Remember clean? We do.” was released by a company of the same name in Washington, DC and Alexandria and Arlington, VA. Significantly, the company is owned by a woman who, by using the “We Can Do It!” image, is redefining her sense of womanhood and industry. Like the original image, the woman in “Maid to Clean” wears blue coveralls, but the red handkerchief has been replaced by a green one. This may be a reference to the “green,” environmentally-friendly cleaning products the company uses for its clients. Unlike the original image, the “Maid to Clean” does not have exaggerated eyes or lips, nothing inherently feminine has been emphasized in the woman’s design. What results is an image that defines womanhood as economical and practical as well as approachable and self-sufficient. The nature of the image suggests work independence, of women taking financial control of their lives, of reclaiming and owning traditional women’s work.

 

 

 

 

Rosita Adelita

Rosita Adelita was painted by Robert Valadez in 2010 and, according to the artist the Rosie the Riveter image is “combined with another fictional pre-feminist archetype, La Adelita, a character of song and story who represented all the women who participated in the Mexican Revolution of the 1900’s. [She is painted] here with hopes that she may inspire a new Mexican Revolution.” With Rosita Adelita, Valadez references the painted quality of the original “We Can Do It!” image and eschews the blue work coveralls in favor of a white dress. The painting is a beautiful balance between masculine and feminine. La Adelita’s feminine appearance – golden jewelry, dark eyes, rosy lips – contrast with the decidedly masculine presence of a bandolier and rifle.  By combining Miller’s Rosie figure with La Adelita, Valadez draws on two powerful feminine figures from two different cultures to create a powerhouse image that is as striking as it is motivating.

 

The Unifying Gesture

The unifying aspect of all four images – “We Can Do It!” by J. Howard Miller, “We Can Do It!” by Global Couture, “Maid to Clean,” and Rosita Adelita – rests in the crook of Rosie’s elbow of her strong-arm gesture.  As noted by Kimble and Olsen, the gesture was originally used in community building and rallies (551). It has since grown to signify a deep personal and communal strength. Whether it is used for a clothing line, such as Global Couture, or blended with another feminist icon as in Rosita Adelita, the gesture stands the test of time and culture.

References

About Me. Global Couture. Retrieved From. http://www.globalcoutureblog.net/about-me

Hill, N. (2013). Colour Psychology: The Four Primary Colours. Passion for Fresh Ideas. Retrieved

from http://passionforfreshideas.com/personalgrowth/colour-psychology-primary-colours/

Kimble, J. & Olsen, L. (2006). Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie the Riveter: Myth and

Misconception in J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It!” Poster. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 9(4), 533-570.

“Maid to Clean” Image. Retrieved from

“Rosita Adelita.” Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/0/21381059  

Robert Valadez Fine Arts. Retrieved from http://robertvaladez.com/artwork/

1137759_Rosita.html

“We Can Do It!” Retrieved from http://www.famouspictures.org/we-can-do-it/.

“We Can Do It!” Global Couture. Retrieved from http://www.globalcoutureblog.net/2014/01/a

womans-worth-naturally-revolutionary-2.html.