Bettie Page died after spending 10 days on life support in Los Angeles. She was 85 years old.
If you’re a feminist with an oft-uneasy relationship with pornography (pro the idea of erotic materials, anti the flagrant sexism that marks most of them) and you’ve got any relationship whatsoever to the hipster culture of the past, oh, 20 years, then it’s hard not to have mixed feelings about Bettie Page. Or, not Bettie Page the actual human being. That’s easy. I’m saddened that Page spent most of her life in despair, distraught that this is the fate society hands so many women, and glad that she finally started to see financial gain from the resurgence in popularity of pictures taken of her throughout the 50s. And skeptical that she made even a fraction of the money owed to her, especially since her fate was in the hands of men like Hugh Hefner who knew that any amount was more than she was getting before.
No, it’s her image that is hard to wrap your mind around. It looms extremely large for a woman most people know almost nothing about. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I don’t see the appeal, from the playful look in her eyes in most pictures, to her refreshing lack of shame, to the way she squares her shoulders, and of course her kitschy style that seamlessly adapted itself to punk rock reimagination decades later. She is very rock and roll, compared to Marilyn Monroe, who was very bachelor pad. I’ve got the straight-cut bangs like she does, and the fact that she inadvertently made them popular decades after she gave up the business no doubt contributes to why I’ve got them. (Well, her and Audrey Hepburn.)
I have no doubts about why she’s popular at all. The image overload has diminished the power of her image, but for a lot of the kind of rock music loving weirdos who felt alienated from the standard cheesecake middle American version of sexuality—Playboy, Hooters, blond bimbos who all but say, “You want to put what where? *giggle*”—the Bettie Page pin-up pictures offered something genuinely fun. She’s not playing stupid in these pictures, and it’s genuinely hot. She’s naughty without seeming to have an ounce of guilt to her. They cater to the fantasies of men who want something more interesting than cheesecake. But it was women (well, women like me and a lot of women I know) who put her popularity over the top. I suspect a lot of women see her picture for the first time and think, shit, I can actually be sexy without getting breast implants, dyeing my hair blond, and adopting a cloying posture. For real. Not the consolation prize sexy, where you’re not the hot cheerleader but you’ll do. Genuinely sexy, sexy in a way that Hooters and sterile Playboy spreads doesn’t even come close to reaching. And that’s a powerful thing to think for anyone, but if you’re a woman and a disproportionate amount of your worth is based on your sexiness, it’s huge.
Of course, Bettie Page is still thin and white and conventionally pretty. So the profundity of this to the women that have felt probably sounds weak and whiny. Like, “Ugh, I’m a tall brunette who trips over her own feet, but Bettie Page made me feel like I can be sexy.” I’m not putting that out there to garner anyone’s sympathy, or suggest that the sexiness problems of women who are close to the mainstream ideal but just a little out of it are major issues. They’re not. I’m just explaining why she mattered to the people she mattered to. Page isn’t really an alternative in any radical way, and to be fair, I don’t think anyone really is suggesting she is. Hers was just an image that was the same old thing, but with a little more brazenness and a little more rock and roll.
Pin-ups are an interesting phenomenon. They’re hardly considered pornography anymore, especially if the naughty bits are covered up, but they are undeniably fantasy. They’re incredibly sexist—a pin-up is all about using a woman’s body and never a man’s as a stand-in for sex. (Beefcake exists, but isn’t near the cultural phenomenon.) But a lot of pin-ups are really appealing to women, because they show women in playful poses and just generally seem fun and relaxed, and not as fraught and depressing as so much other porn is. If we’re going to use women’s bodies as a stand-in for sex, we should at least show said women smiling, having fun, and looking confident. The best Page pin-ups were definitely of this variety. Certainly you contrast the one I have above with images like these that are weighed down with racist and imperialist subtext, and the one above feels downright innocent. It’s hard to even imagine there was any intent behind it at all but having fun.