The Myth of Rosie the Riveter (model abstract)

James J. Kimble and Lester C. Olson, “Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie the Riveter: Myth and Misconception in J. Howard Miller’s ‘We Can Do It!’ Poster” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 9.4 (2006): 533-570.

Kimble and Olsen expose the inconsistencies and inaccuracies between the present ‘truths’ about J. Howard Miller’s iconic “We Can Do It!” and the poster’s era’s actual contextual use and view. They systematically debunk four troublesome misconceptions: that Norman Rockwell created the original “We Can Do It!,” that the U.S. government generated the poster, that it was meant as a labor recruitment mechanism, and that the image was famous during World War II. In reality, “We Can Do It!” was actually a Howard original while “Rosie the Riveter,” a completely separate image, was a Rockwell design. The U.S. government did not commission it for war labor recruitment, but Westinghouse management did in order to increase motivation and productivity within Westinghouse factories. Finally, “We Can Do It” was not famous during World War II, as it is now, because it was confined within Westinghouse walls and only viewed by in-house employees for a mere two weeks. Kimble and Olsen contrast today’s projected ideals of feminism and patriotism with the poster’s original intentions as a ways to unveil the actual contextual meanings. They examine two areas: the connection between visual elements and displayed words, and the “cohesive method” (549) of an image when analyzed as a part of a whole series, using Peter Burke’s ideas. These two analytical techniques bring to light the poster’s “mixed verbal and visual messages in their original communicative use, circulation, and placement in his [Howard’s] series of shop posters” (549). In terms of the visual and verbal elements, they survey the use of “We,” “It,” and the flexed-and-fisted arm gesture. The combination of the three suggests that Howard meant to target Westinghouse’s employees specifically, not the entire nation, therefore negating the idea of pure intended patriotism. As for the feminist side, “We Can Do It!” was part of a 42-poster series, composed of only ten others portraying women and which, instead of epitomizing feminism, depicted women as the paragon of home and family, therefore negating the modern belief that it was meant as a feminine empowering device. Kimble and Olsen illustrate how society has projected romantic ideals of feminism and patriotism onto Howard’s image therefore creating a visionary, yet false, representation of the poster’s original use, and consequently of the period’s actual attitudes, resulting in an unfortunate event: that this beloved poster now represents “a past that never was” (562). [392 words.]

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