Bettie Page, the tease from Tennessee

Bettie Page, the tease from TennesseeWhere 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 her preparedness to strip off before the camera is given far greater attention in the film than the fact that she was a highly exploited individual.

Bettie Page, the tease from TennesseeIn addition to regular appearances in men’s magazines, Bettie Page was the most famous model working for Movie Star News, Irving Klaw’s infamous New York pin-up and fetish photography studio.

Page was by no means a naïve ingénue, but in the significant collection of photographs still in circulation, the model is tied up with ropes, blindfolded, spanked, and gagged – all the while attired in brassiere, knickers, stockings and perilous six-inch black leather heels. Klaw defended his product from charges of pornography by pointing out that his models were never nude. Viewed today, such photographs are a radical challenge to common perceptions of the fifties being a more innocent period.

Movie Star News was a family business, and Klaw's sister Paula styled and shot many of the photographs featuring Page. The two women formed a close bond, assisted in part by the ludicrousness of the situations they were asked to create and capture by Klaw’s customers. Despite her friendship with Paula, in several ways Bettie’s time as a model for Irving Klaw was personally detrimental to her physical and general wellbeing. Though her general recollections of the bondage and fetish modeling being hilarious and good fun are widely circulated, she recalls at least one instance of being truly frightened, when she was tied spread-eagled to a tree. Page also experienced several other injuries modelling for Klaw, including cuts from stilettos sustained while wrestling with other models, and a badly damaged knee after a heavy fall.

Some comments she has made also lead one to doubt whether Page was truly prepared and willing to perform in the bondage scenarios. As she recalls, Irving Klaw insisted that all his models do fetish work. During a three or four hour shoot, at least an hour would be dedicated to bondage. The final event that would influence Page to quit modelling and leave New York was being subpoenaed to appear before a senate sub-committee investigation into obscenity, led by Senator Estes Kefauver. Though she would never be actually called to testify, the experience was traumatic for Page and she never did any work for the Klaws again.

Bettie Page was popular in the fifties because her fans could fetishize and ultimately contain her. In the end the magazines in which her image was featured were shunted into the box under the bed or joined the pile at the back of the wardrobe, dealt with and out of sight. Now that she has been reclaimed and re-interpreted by a new generation of fans as an icon of rebellious female sexuality, the disturbing realities of her career, as evident in the exploitative, even dangerous aspects of her work, should not be likewise pushed out of sight and forgotten.



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