A Powerful Case Study in Visual Messaging
In 1942, the makeup and goals of the American workforce were undergoing a change unlike anything seen since perhaps World War I. American men were absent from their production and assembly jobs as they fought to defeat the Axis war machine. To support the troops and win the war against totalitarianism, women across the nation stepped up and worked tirelessly.
In ’42, Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb wrote the song “Rosie the Riveter”. This song coined the term that would come to define the archetypal female patriot. However, the song isn’t what modern audiences think of when they hear “Rosie the Riveter”. We likely think of this image, produced in 1943 for Westinghouse Electric by J. Howard Miller.
Let’s take a look at this iconic image and consider its history, visual design, and more to discover just what made it so lastingly powerful, even to this day.
“We Can Do It!” was not intended for recruitment, but encouragement.
This is a crucial place to start in understanding the Rosie the Riveter phenomenon. Women were already in the workforce, masterfully performing the manufacturing and production jobs that were keeping crucial ordinance, armor, and other supplies flowing to our soldiers overseas. Women took this initiative on their own, not because of the “We Can Do It!” image. The image was a recognition of their efforts and an exhortation to keep it up.
With this historical context in place, we can turn our consideration to the image itself. What made “We Can Do It!” so iconic, and how has it endured as a visual message for so many decades after its debut?
“We Can Do It!” is a masterclass in visual storytelling.
It’s simple and straightforward. The image reinforces the text perfectly. And it expertly conjures the intersection between femininity and “masculine” work.
Looking first at the woman herself (I’ll refer to her as Rosie, though this name was more public shorthand than a planned character name by the artist), we’re stricken by her clothing and her pose. She’s rolling up the sleeves on her blue work shirt, causing her arm to bend into a bicep flex. On her head is a red-and-white polka-dotted bandana.
The pose would seem to be ‘masculine’ at first glance. Yes, she’s showing off her muscles, but really, she’s getting ready to get to work. Muscles and strength aren’t the hallmarks of masculinity: they’re the hallmarks of the tough, of the worker, of the dedicated. Artist Miller is using a recognizable, simple shape (the human form in this particular position) to make the audience think of machismo, and then quickly realize it doesn’t apply here.
The Impact of Color and Text
Rosie’s bandana, with its two-color design, pops out against the yellow background, blue of her shirt and text bubble at the top of the image. It’s a sort of polka dot accent color, signifying its importance through its novel colors. It seems to imply some degree of stereotypical femininity in its nice colors—until we remember why it’s there at all. It’s a safety tool, a part of her job.
Yes, she’s expressing herself with a little more color than we might expect to see on a stereotypical 1940’s male worker. But this isn’t about beauty nearly as much as it’s about commitment to the role she’s taken. Moreover, it reveals the “why” behind that commitment: taken with her shirt, Rosie’s clothing is red, white, and blue. Rosie isn’t bragging that she can do it—she’s reassuring her country.
Finally, the text: “We Can Do It!”
In a blue speech bubble that’s almost the exact hue of Rosie’s shirt, the text is large, white, and each word is capitalized. There’s no question here: no “We’ll do our best!” or “We’ll sure try!”
Since Rosie’s mouth isn’t open, she might be thinking this instead of saying it. As if she’s not trying to convince anyone, but simply remembering the facts with pride.
Then, there’s the colors.
Since the bubble is colored like her shirt, and the white text matches the white dots on her bandana, it’s as much a part of her as her uniform. She wears her confidence like her work clothes—effortlessly.
By employing the human form in a novel way, consciously employing colors that provide meaningful connections in the frame. Using the text to reinforce the image’s message of independence and confidence, the artist made Rosie a disruptor of stereotypes and symbol of patriotic commitment.
Rosie’s Iconic Status
In the years following the end of WWII, the role of women in the workforce went through numerous changes. Unfortunately, many of these changes were regressive, and rigid gender roles continue to be a problem for Americans today.
Rosie the Riveter, though, remained an icon, a reference image to a time when the nation’s circumstances forced it to reevaluate the usefulness of restricting career and lifestyle opportunities for women.
Rosie’s Relevance Today
Rosie’s invocation continues to be a powerful statement of strength in difficult times.
As the world combats the coronavirus pandemic, the image has resurfaced. Orlando nurse Kelly Barrett has dedicated hours to sewing hundreds of red-and-white polka-dot bandanas with buttons to make facemasks more comfortable for fellow nurses, who often have to wear them for over twelve hours.
“I realized that this icon was a World War II icon that would empower women in the workplace to complete jobs that were not meant for them or they thought would be impossible for women and Rosie the Riveter kind of empowered these women to show them that we can do hard things,” Barrett explained.
Rosie’s uniform might have changed, but her message has only modulated. Women’s efforts and abilities aren’t just helpful—they’re the first line of defense, across our country, combatting the spread of coronavirus with courage and tenacity. That’s how Rosie still speaks to us: she’s still ready, arm up, bandana on, reminding us that she and all women are already in the fight, and will never give up.
One last thought on Rosie’s iconic image. Above, we talked about the text’s relationship to the image in terms of color. Let’s focus instead on the first of its four words—“We.” Rosie isn’t saying “I Can Do It,” and she’s not telling you that “You Can Do It.” Her sentiment is about all women. There are no conditions attached. She simply knows that women, together, can do it—whatever it may be.
This might be as important as the brilliant design principles of color, the human form, and carefully incorporated text. Visual stories like that of Rosie the Riveter are meant to support their message, and that message has been well-retained in the American consciousness since its inception.
Today, we find ourselves in a new and different kind of struggle. The necessary tools have changed, as have the identities of those most at risk—but the spirit that keeps women like Kelly Barrett working tirelessly hasn’t changed. “We Can Do It!” wasn’t speaking so much about factory work as it was about unity, amongst women specifically and Americans as a whole. That message has never lost its power, or importance.