COLA Connections Newsletter: October 2014

Dr. Tina Lent Illustrates American Gender Identity Crisis in WWI Posters

As World War I’s 100th birthday approaches, it’s important to remember just how much of a game changer it was for this country. In a time of economic and cultural turmoil, the war brought about “the beginning of the American century,” according to Dr. Tina Lent, the director of RIT’s Museum Studies program. It redefined our societal identity and role in the world, and its impact is still felt.

“The war changed everything,” Dr. Lent said.

Dr. Lent, who has been teaching and leading within RIT in a myriad of roles since 1981, has seen our university grow in countless ways. She was instrumental in the establishment of the Department of Performing Arts and Visual Culture and its Museum Studies program, which she currently directs. Dr. Lent was recently invited by Professor Martin Monsalve Zanatti of the Humanities Department of the Universidad del Pacifico in Lima, Peru, to serve as the keynote speaker for the inauguration of the exhibition “La Gran Guerra y la construcción de la ciudadanía en los EE.UU” (“The Great War and the Construction of American Citizenship”). The exhibition showcased WWI posters that had been previously been exhibited in the University Gallery during the spring 2014 semester at RIT. The posters are part of the collection of the Rochester Historical Society.

Dr. Lent delivered her lecture, titled “Mobilizing America: World War I Posters and the Construction of American Identity,” on August 21st, 2014, opening this esteemed exhibition, the first in a series of World War I commemoration activities planned by the Universidad del Pacifico in August and September.

The lecture was divided into three distinct sections, unified by the single thread of how these WWI posters helped construct American identity. The first section involved the production of these nearly 25 million posters. President Woodrow Wilson was in somewhat of a jam in 1917, needing to rally unified American support for intervention in a global war instead of maintaining neutrality. He was also struggling with vast social, economic, and cultural changes at home that unsettled traditional gender roles. His administration launched a publicity campaign with these posters, calculated to persuade Americans to support the war while simultaneously depicting gender roles in ways that would help resolve the crises caused by fears of female empowerment and male enfeeblement. This campaign was enormously successful as illustrators produced 700 different poster designs.

The second part of her lecture involved how Americans were depicted in the ad industry before the war, and how the war changed these depictions. Famed illustrator Charles Dana Gibson’s “Gibson Girl” came to define the New Woman at the turn of the century, with her increased freedom of movement in the public realm and her greater sexual aggressiveness. The illustrators who followed Gibson introduced a more youthful American “girl” in their magazine and advertising images, making her more playful and coquettish. Those same illustrators built on this imagery in their WWI posters, modifying it even further so she wouldn’t appear dangerous or threatening. Magazine illustration also depicted youthful men engaged in team sports, showing them as active and strong, helping to restore a vigorous dimension to American masculinity.

Lastly, the third part of the lecture detailed the new cultural identity forged during the war. The posters depicted the American “girl” turning her new energies and freedom to the altruistic purposes of serving the war effort. They also depicted the physical needs for strength and bravery on the battlefield as reinvigorating men who enlisted. The sexual overtones of the gender depictions in the posters are hard to miss, and were apparent at the time, when Freud’s work was already known in the U.S.

Wilson’s poster campaign achieved its goals, as Americans backed the war and were swayed by the iconography established in these images. America emerged from the war economically unscathed, with gender roles redefined and masculinity resolved.

Dr. Lent’s lecture was warmly received, and the local student body was likely thrilled to have been exposed to such valuable resources from such an esteemed scholar. We look forward to whatever project she undertakes next!