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Bettie Page, the tease from Tennessee

  • 02 April 2007

Where I live in the inner city, there is a particular hairstyle that is very popular amongst local young women. For edgy rock babes with penchants for tattoos and dark red lipstick, the 'do' du jour is black and shoulder length with a short blunt fringe. In their retro self-styling these women evoke and pay tribute to the subject of the just-released film, The Notorious Bettie Page.

Bettie Page experiences an equal, if not greater, level of popularity today than she did during the peak of her career as a pin-up model in the early to mid 1950s. Hundreds of websites are dedicated to disseminating and celebrating images of this icon of fifties femininity; thousands of biceps sport tattooed tributes to the curvaceous queen of the pin-ups, and millions of dollars are made annually by savvy entrepreneurs supplying an eager market with DVDs, books, t-shirts and mouse pads featuring the endlessly reproduced images of the 'Tease from Tennessee'.

This resurgence in popularity has been explained as a symptom of the nostalgic yearnings sweeping the West for the past decade or so, in line with an apparent booming desire for lounge music, vintage automobiles, and retro-styled toasters. Bettie Page, it is assumed, is simply a symbol of a time when life was easier. Amid the casualization of work today, disruptions to family life, challenges to traditional roles, and the overwhelming, polymorphous images of sex dominating the mainstream media, Miss Page apparently symbolizes a more innocent, non-threatening period of history to which her fans long to return.

I doubt very much that the women sporting the Bettie Page hairstyle support this interpretation of their idol’s recent popularity. Rather, I would suggest they see Page as an icon of rebellion and agency pushing the boundaries during an era of sexual conservatism and, as such, claim her as a post-feminist heroine. Yet how deserving is Page of this mantle? There are several disturbing aspects of the former model’s brief career that contradict this post-feminist interpretation.

The Notorious Bettie Page does not address adequately the problematic aspects of Page’s career. While it reveals abuses she endured during her early life, the exploitation she experienced as a model is so glossed over that the impression we are left with is that Bettie was a gal whose exhibitionist tendencies happily complemented the commercial interests of her employers. The internal battle Page experienced reconciling her religious beliefs with