Not Really About Bettie Page

Laurie and Debbie say:

If you’ve been living under a rock somewhere, you might have missed the fact that legendary sex symbol Bettie Page died last week.

Bettie Page pinup picture on the beach

We both noted her death as of mild interest, and would simply have moved on if Laurie hadn’t read this New York Times article by Manohla Dargis. Dargis clearly cares about Page:

Whether entirely bare or decked out in garters, stockings and heels, a ball gag tucked in her mouth, [Page] always appeared to be having a swell time. With her encouraging smile, she didn’t just look as if she enjoyed being photographed; she looked as if she enjoyed your looking at her too. That smile and the ease of her poses — the way she seemed comfortable even when trussed up in rope so intricately knotted that it would have made an Eagle Scout gasp or take up new habits — were invitations to a party that I suspect most of her admirers were too fainthearted to attend.

Bettie Page in bondage

and it’s a good article until the last graf, in which Dargis says:

To look at these photographs is to enter another world. I don’t think for a minute it was a more innocent world, but it was one in which sexualized images of women, even trussed up in rope, seemed somehow, well, charming. I’m sure there are plenty of women and some men who would disagree, saying that one generation’s erotica is another’s pornographic exploitation. But the sheer volume of images that wash over us now have blunted our sensibilities, I think, and made us less alive to the beauty, the poetry and the mysteries of the naked body. We are surrounded by visuals that are far more explicit than any Bettie Page pinup, images of oiled and sculptured flesh that promise the universe and deliver so little.

She is wrong. Yes, Page did manage to be charming and welcoming in most (not all) of her S&M pictures, as well as her pin-ups. In some of the pictures with whips, for example, she looks downright dangerous. But people pick their icons for a reason, and Page is not emblematic of 1950s porn, which was neither “charming” nor focused on “beauty, poetry and mysteries.”

The 1950s were not the hopeful and prosperous era that they are often painted to be. In the United States, they were dominated by fear of the atomic bomb and the spectre of Senator Joe McCarthy, which left people aware that there was no such thing as free speech. An enormous amount of effort was devoted to continuous re-creation of the happy suburban family myth, pushing anything which might undermine that image into the depths of secrecy.

In an era which is afraid of free speech, sexually repressed, and expecting doom around the corner, pornography is not going to be joyous. The creation of porn was completely illegal (and not eyes-closed-go-ahead illegal either), which meant that the women who were photographed had absolutely no rights–much, much worse off than women who make porn movies now. What’s more, the basic cultural assumption that all sex (except perhaps for unadventurous sex between two married people) both was and should be degrading. Of course, women were more affected by that than men. When pornography is degrading by definition, the real women will be treated like shit and their representations will generally be degrading.

Laurie’s first job, in the late 1950s, was in a society band-leader’s office next to a pornographer’s office. She saw the occasional picture, and found them to be anything but joyous.

Page is so famous sixty years later because she doesn’t represent the norm of 1950s porn. Her cheerfulness and seeming delight is called into question by her history after her career, which included thirty years of bad marriages, mental health treatments, and seclusion. But even if she was, in fact, having the time of her life when these pictures were taken, she should never be mistaken for a typical 1950s porn model. That was not a time when people were “alive to the beauty, power, and mystery of the naked body.”

3 thoughts on “Not Really About Bettie Page

  1. I love how we can see a photo of a pretty woman tied in rope and gagged – an obviously violent scene for someone else’s violent pleasure – and think “ah remember the good old Norman Rockwell Days?”

  2. Even considering porn in the new millenium (rather than the 1950s), I couldn’t help but recall my research on the plus-sized porn business for A Ton of Trouble, the mystery I wrote using that setting.

    I was disturbed by the contempt the male actors showed in the films toward their plus sized partners. I asked one of my most helpful informants, a self-described “fat admirer” who had acted in at least one porn film about this, and he suggested that if I were to examine some mainstream porn, I would see that that hostility toward women is a major element in all heterosexual pornography.

    I admit, I didn’t and don’t have the stomach to make an exhaustive study but it rang a bell when I read Norah Vincent’s fascinating Self-Made Man,
    Lesbian columnist Vincent successfully masqueraded as male in many all-male bastions. One scene that stuck in my mind was her “undercover” visit to a lap dance club where she observed that many of the men who go there, even as they received lap dances, appeared to be detached and experiencing an almost unpleasant need for physical release rather than enjoying the sensuality.

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