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Male fans made Bettie Page a star, but female fans made her an icon
January 10, 2014 1:30 PM   Subscribe

“To me, Bettie was a gateway into subcultures like rockabilly and burlesque, which are very body-positive environments to women with ample curves who want to celebrate their bodies,” Pumphrey says. Her interest in Bettie led her to discover other pinup models, and then burlesque stars and showgirls. “I surround myself with images of powerful women and try my best to ignore what the standard of beauty is that other people or entities try to push on me.” -- Tori Rodriguez examines why fifties bondage icon Bettie Page has such a huge appeal to women even today, as a new movie about Bettie Page is released, which finally tells her story in her own words.
posted by MartinWisse (60 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Paige 'Paigey' Pumphrey

I've got a Paigey print on my wall right now! Yay Paigey!

The article is also awesome.
posted by The Whelk at 1:34 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


The article is also awesome.

Yes.

Today’s average fashion model is typically a size zero and several inches taller than Page, at just over 5’5” and fluctuating around a weight of 130 lbs., was. But even back then, she was rejected by a major modeling agency (Ford Models) for being too short and “hippy.”

The idea of people criticizing her on that basis is astounding to me.
posted by Dip Flash at 1:47 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


"Heterosexual men tend to love Page for obvious reasons, but for many women, Page symbolizes self-confidence, unapologetic sexuality, and bold authenticity."

I thought those were the obvious reasons to fall in love with Bettie. That was certainly the case for Dave Stevens, who arguably helped introduce her to a new generation with his artwork of her and made her the heroine of his comic The Rocketeer. He described her as "a real ball of fire." and went on, "I really admire her. She's been through a lot and still has tremendous faith in humanity."
posted by Doktor Zed at 1:48 PM on January 10 [4 favorites]


The idea of people criticizing her on that basis is astounding to me.

Robyn Lawley is considered "plus-sized" despite measurements of 36C/D-29-39.5, 6 foot 2, and 182 pounds or so at her heaviest. This is what she looks like in a swimsuit.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:53 PM on January 10 [3 favorites]


I thought those were the obvious reasons to fall in love with Bettie.

I think the point is that (straight) women could fall in love with her without there necessarily being an element of personal sexual attraction, which is what (presumably) is a fairly significant driving factor in most straight men's love of Bettie Page.
posted by scody at 1:54 PM on January 10


She was the original perky Goth. Love Bettie...thanks for the wonderful read...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 2:05 PM on January 10


I think the point is that (straight) women could fall in love with her without there necessarily being an element of personal sexual attraction, which is what (presumably) is a fairly significant driving factor in most straight men's love of Bettie Page.

Perhaps, although with the number of "men's magazine" models at the time, even in the underground trade, sheer sexual attractiveness wasn't hard to find. Page really did have a unique charisma that fueled her photogenic pin-up popularity and sets her apart to this day. Gretchen Mol couldn't capture it when playing her in The Notorious Bettie Page, nor could Jennifer Connelly as Betty in the movie version of The Rocketeer (Louise Brooks had similar qualities, in addition to ink-black bangs). I have to resort to quoting G. B. Shaw: "Vitality is as common as humanity; but, like humanity, it sometimes rises to genius", and Bettie Page "is one of the vital geniuses."
posted by Doktor Zed at 2:15 PM on January 10 [5 favorites]


Fashion models tend to have less curves, even back then. A smokin' hot bod, which Bettie Page had and no mistake, would have been a little too titillating for the runway. I can totally get the whole appreciating her for her unflinching and unashamed sexuality but to say she was an alternative to the set ideas of beauty is ridiculous. She would have turned heads in any era.
posted by Foam Pants at 2:36 PM on January 10 [10 favorites]


There is something about her that is irresistible.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:40 PM on January 10


I discovered BP when I was in high school. Pin up art, mostly cheesecake stuff, but I was taken by the bangs. Had she lived next door to me, she'd'a probably come over to play cards with me and mom. Well that's what I thought when I was fifteen. I freely admit that not all my little visions were, you know, safe to broadcast. Even in those days (of my emerging young chauvinist swine-hood) I thought she was more than just a boffo bod and lovely face. But I was weak, and I had not yet learned to dis-objectify the female body, and willingly became entranced with her superbly feminine tummy, shapely legs, and so on. I ain't like that anymore, though, and I now love her for her mind.

Go Betty.
posted by mule98J at 4:14 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


Page really did have a unique charisma that fueled her photogenic pin-up popularity and sets her apart to this day. Gretchen Mol couldn't capture it when playing her in The Notorious Bettie Page, nor could Jennifer Connelly as Betty in the movie version of The Rocketeer (Louise Brooks had similar qualities, in addition to ink-black bangs). I have to resort to quoting G. B. Shaw: "Vitality is as common as humanity; but, like humanity, it sometimes rises to genius", and Bettie Page "is one of the vital geniuses."

In addition to whatever her particular oomph was, she also had a magical lack of self-consciousness about her, which by its nature is impossible to reproduce on command. This is why I was never terribly interested in Dita von Teese after she tried to front like she was the next Bettie Page: A key ingredient in Bettie Page's magic is that she didn't know she was Bettie Page.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 4:16 PM on January 10 [3 favorites]


I bought a copy of Spin magazine in the 7th (6th?) grade in the '90s. It had a full page shot of one of her photos where she's on a beach wearing a leopard print bikini. I looked at that photo for a really long time and eventually thought, "...huh. I think I like girls."
posted by skycrashesdown at 5:04 PM on January 10


I think an element of Bettie's charm that might be lost on those who haven't fully invested quality time on 1950s pin-up culture is the zaniness of some of it.

I have in my possession one of the oversized early 50s girlie magazines with a Bettie Page spread. At this point most mags generally featured lots of legs, and bikini-style underwear, but no actual nudity. The photo spread is called "eat-iquette", and there's Bettie, sitting in a small tub full of suds, with a very silly expression on her face, injecting a comically oversized needle into her arm labelled "soup". She is, very clearly, in on the joke.

So, I don't quite, 100%, buy that she "didn't know she was Bettie Page". Yes to a certain extant it was innocent goofery -- she had no idea how iconic BETTIE PAGE would become -- but I believe that she knew she could sell a photo of someone injecting soup wearing nothing but a towel like no one else.
posted by the bricabrac man at 6:08 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


I don't think that Bettie Page is at all an empowering icon, but I do think that a lot of the appeal of pinup, rockabilly, and burlesque aesthetics is that they allow and celebrate a sexuality that does not demand qualification through a very narrow body-image aesthetic.
posted by Miko at 6:30 PM on January 10 [4 favorites]


Betty knew she was "Bettie Page" for sure; in a large sense she created "Bettie Page by making her own costumes and props. I think the quality that sets Betty apart is her empathy for those feelings she knows most of us find shameful. She knows we have those feelings, she knows we like those images, and she wants to show us that those things are FUN. And she sells it because for her it is 100% true.
posted by localroger at 6:33 PM on January 10 [4 favorites]


I don't see how she's empowering. Maybe the way that the Kardashian sisters are empowering icons for women.
posted by hal_c_on at 7:13 PM on January 10


I don't see how she's empowering. Maybe the way that the Kardashian sisters are empowering icons for women.

I imagine this is sarcasm. It MUST be sarcasm.
posted by FatherDagon at 6:59 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]


Hal_c_on, you read the link, right? Because, yeah, I'm also assuming sarcasm.

An abused girl, raised in abject poverty, who nonetheless flourishes, earning her college degree and creating a public persona that mirrors her (surprisingly healthy!) attitudes about sex and nudity, becomes, in a time of sexual prudishness, one of the most iconic women of her time. On her own terms. While battling paranoid schizophrenia.

Bettie Page is an empowering figure to me!
posted by misha at 3:10 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


Is she empowering only if you know about her childhood, which I presume most people who see her photos do not know? I drive past that huge mural of her all the time and don't feel at all empowered by it. Unless you know the story, she's just one more woman posing in her underwear. Which is fine -- but I don't see the empowerment.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:39 PM on January 11 [4 favorites]


Not sure what your point is there? Someone I know about is obviously going to be more empowering than someone I don't know about!

But yes, her healthy sexual outlook would still be empowering for sex-positive feminists like me, because she pretty clearly telegraphs the fun she is having when she is posing (which is also part of her appeal as a pin-up girl, I think), Bettie Page's body of work sends a clear message that women can feel good about their bodies and their sexuality, as opposed to ashamed and embarrassed.
posted by misha at 4:47 PM on January 11 [3 favorites]


Maybe I don't know what "empowering" looks like. If I just see Bettie Page as an image on a lunchbox or a tattoo or what have you, I don't feel like I have any more control over my life than I did before I saw the image.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:52 PM on January 11 [3 favorites]


While it is a cool memorial that mural doesn't really capture Page's innocent enthusiasm. It really comes out most in still photographs, because she had an ability to present it for the camera in a way few actresses ever could.
posted by localroger at 5:23 PM on January 11


This is my favorite photo of Bettie. It's a straight up portrait, showing off her lovely smile, that cute button nose and the perfect bangs.
posted by dabitch at 6:03 PM on January 11 [3 favorites]


Yeah that mural is horrible and doesn't in any way capture Bettie Page's magic.

Ugh, please paint your house again, terrible people.
posted by the bricabrac man at 6:47 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


Maybe I don't know what "empowering" looks like. If I just see Bettie Page as an image on a lunchbox or a tattoo or what have you, I don't feel like I have any more control over my life than I did before I saw the image.

Is there anyone whose image on a lunchbox would make you feel that way, though? I mean, I feel like you are hung up on this idea and I am still not sure what you are trying to say.
posted by misha at 11:14 PM on January 11


I think Bettie Page is pretty. I don't find her to be an empowering role model. But she sure is pretty, and the style of the 50s works so well with her looks - shiny black hair with perfect bangs. I first saw her as a cartoon character in Rocketeer. Her character, like so many other female characters, is not dressed much. But she has iconic hair.
posted by dabitch at 3:34 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


> Is there anyone whose image on a lunchbox would make you feel that way, though? I mean, I feel like you are hung up on this idea and I am still not sure what you are trying to say

"Hung up" is a bit much. I'm a feminist woman in my 40s, I was into punk, at one point it seemed like half the women I knew had that haircut. So eh, I'm just trying to figure out why so many of my peers are into this one thing that I'm not. I can see the ironic kitschy appeal, but I've never got why the photos are valued as anything beyond that.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:21 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


Ah, we're the same feminist generation. They forgot to send us the memo. Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does.
posted by dabitch at 7:38 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


Whooooo!
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:40 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Is there anyone whose image on a lunchbox would make you feel that way, though?

Yeah, absolutely. Emma Goldman or something like that.

It's hard for Bettie Page to even be taken as seriously empowering. Her rediscovery as an icon is something really related to the internet and its proliferation of imagery. Despite being in feminist polictical circles and involved in the music scene through college, I am pretty sure the first time I even heard of her was in a piece in Bust Magazine when I was a subscriber, so that wouldv'e been between 1996 and 1999. And then most people know about her now, I suspect, mainly because of the impact of the movie. It's not like she's always been with us or has any special claim to being a central figure of feminism (!). As noted above, we had the generally rockabilly/sex kitten style without needing the direct referent in her. She wasn't that important - or even that well known - when I was the age where I might have considered a sexualized model to be especially empowering. For me, she's about as important as Gil Evgren pinup. Those pinups were actually much more influencing on me...!
posted by Miko at 8:47 AM on January 12


And, of course, earlier than even my young adulthood, Madonna was the person who was the icon of female sexual empowerment at the time. She was cribbing from Page, but it's not like that was widely understood.

Not that you can't find her personally empowering, if you identify with her. But as an icon of general empowerment for women - I can't say that I see her as leading the way, in the culture, for healthy acceptance and expression of sexuality.
posted by Miko at 8:53 AM on January 12


I think people like the idea of her more than they care/identify with her as a person.
posted by girlmightlive at 12:20 PM on January 12 [3 favorites]


Whereas I wouldn't know Emma Goldman from Adam's housecat, so not only would I not be empowered by a picture of her on a lunchbox, I wouldn't have a clue who the picture was of!

I looked her up; she's not very photogenic, either. I am not being snarky. Obviously the reason Bettie Page ended up being a pinup girl was the camera loved her. I feel like people are being dismissive of that, like because she was a pinup girl she is beneath your notice or something. I have seen the articles parodying what women find empowering and I get that the word is often overused; then again, some of these writers were not even born until the nineties and are basing their opinions on little more than Wikipedia entries they read.

What is empowering is that she took control of her own image in a time when women and women's sexuality was a commodity exploited by men in power (and I know some young women probably think, "Like now?" But really, most of you have NO idea how much better things are for women now compared to even the seventies and the eighties, let alone in Page's heyday. You can read and learn about it, but you didn't live it).
posted by misha at 1:09 PM on January 12


I am not being snarky

Not snarky, just irrelevant - not to mention ignorant, but anyway.

I think the idea that someone like her, a person of ideas and political import, being well known enough to be on a lunchbox would empower me because I would understand that there are enough people in the society who value those things that I would be well supported in expressing my own power in those areas. I really don't care whether somebody's "photogenic" because that is really a pretty flimsy base on which to hold power. Let alone be on a lunchbox. E.T. wasn't exactly photogenic either, but my brother really dug him on his lunchbox.

I leave you to the rest of it, misha. I know you like to be a contrarian, and here you have identified another opportunity to distinguish yourself. We all look up to who we look up to and if Bettie Page is it for you, mazel tov. Personally, I'm glad I can draw on a wider range of inspirational role models than one pulp-magazine personality, and don't require that person's existence to feel empowered in a marvelously wide variety of ways, no matter how happy she was with her career choice. YMMV but I'd have to be running pretty short of heroes to put her very high up on my own list.
posted by Miko at 1:56 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


Also, this is only relevant to your last comment, but sometimes I wonder how old you are? Did you really live as an adult woman through the sixties and the seventies, or are you just trying to make a point about a time you have no personal perspective on, either?

I mean, maybe your profile picture is just very old, but I've always had the sense you were either around the same age as me or younger, and probably not much older.
posted by Miko at 2:00 PM on January 12


Not snarky, not irrelevant, though certainly an uaekward transition. The point was pretty obviously that one would not be,likely to see a picture of Emma Goldman on a lunchbox, because her looks were not an essential element of her fame, as they were with. Bettie Page's.

I don't know why you think I am saying things just to be contrarian, Miko. I was always a fan of art and vintage pinups were a part of that growing up for me, right along with my Boris Vallejo fantasy prints.

I was born in the sixties, since you are interested.
posted by misha at 2:17 PM on January 12


My profile pic is about a year old, if that. I'm 47.
posted by misha at 2:18 PM on January 12


I love vintage pinups, too. Just not the Page area. By the 50s the aesthetic totally loses me.

So given your lack of advanced age, I'd thank you not to lecture people about how their perspective might be different if they had endured what our sistren had to in the sixties and seventies. You don't know any more about that, personally, than many of the rest of us do; in fact, growing up in the bosom of the women's movement as I did, I do think I have a fairly strong sense of women's past experience and not just from "reading and learning" about it, but from living it and its extension into the next wave.

Again, if you admire someone, admire them, but I think you'd have to admit you are also responding more to the cultural role she's played in the last three decades, since you became an adult, and not during the height of her active career. I think she has been mostly retroactively reimagined as a hero, which is fine for some and can certainly be offered up as a potential feminist re-read of a past and a context which was decidedly antifeminist and a career which was constraint-driven at the time, but it's not as though it's not progressive for others to find other examples of people enjoying and embracing their sexuality in other places in the culture that are more meaningful, personally, to them. You are free to admire someone you admire, but not really free to tell other people they're wrong because of some historical experience they missed, when (a) you missed it to and (b) you have no claim to any sort of special insight here that has escaped others. It's a matter of personal taste. She's an icon to you and some other latter-day discoverers, so great; I haven't really found a major place for her in my pantheon.
posted by Miko at 2:28 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


> The point was pretty obviously that one would not be,likely to see a picture of Emma Goldman on a lunchbox

Will you settle for a water bottle?
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:41 PM on January 12


> What is empowering is that she took control of her own image

Did she? Did she ever own the rights to any of the images? Her Wikipedia entry makes it sound like she didn't get royalties until 1996 or so.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:52 PM on January 12


Diaper bag? Finger puppet? Lunch tote!
posted by Miko at 2:52 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Did she ever own the rights to any of the images?

That's a rather narrow and capitalistic interpretation of "control." I write software for a living. I am the whole shop; I lay out the spec for the quote, implement it, install it, and it's my phone that rings when it doesn't work. I've done this for thousands of customers. I don't actually own any of that intellectual property; I was paid to make it on a for-hire basis, just like Betty was paid for the use of her image. But I made all those things. Nobody else would have made them the same. I have a reputation that brings people back for more of my work. Is it somehow not my work because of how I get paid for it?

Betty had a lot of control over how her image was presented; she made her own costumes and props and had her own ideas about how she should look to her viewers. That's control. She wasn't a passive cog phoning it in and going home to forget about it; she very obviously thought it was fun and worth some effort above and beyond what most models are asked to do.

If you don't think that's control then I wonder what does qualify.
posted by localroger at 3:02 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Miko, are you the same age I am, then?
posted by misha at 7:32 PM on January 12


I'm 44.
posted by Miko at 7:51 PM on January 12


Emma Goldman is an interesting comparison because even thorough she's not a famous hottie now, a big part of her notoriety in her lifetime was from her open and assertive unconventional sexuality. She was hot shit back then, and I guess would raise eyebrows today if she was around.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:17 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Is there anyone whose image on a lunchbox would make you feel that way, though?

Well Mandela is empowering.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:51 PM on January 12


Back in the day when I actually carried lunch boxes, I would have thought Amelia Earhart was empowering. All I got though was the bionic woman. (*Makes that noise & jumps in slow motion*)
posted by dabitch at 3:47 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]


Yeah, she was the standard bearer for free love, advocating it as a principle of the left.
posted by Miko at 7:18 AM on January 13


So given your lack of advanced age, I'd thank you not to lecture people about how their perspective might be different if they had endured what our sistren had to in the sixties and seventies.
You don't know any more about that, personally, than many of the rest of us do; in fact, growing up in the bosom of the women's movement as I did, I do think I have a fairly strong sense of women's past experience and not just from "reading and learning" about it, but from living it and its extension into the next wave.


Lecturing is more your style and that's not what I said, anyway. I said that women who were not even born until the nineties could not know what living through the seventies and eighties was like for women, let alone what it was like during Bettie Page's time. Since you weren't born in the nineties, that comment didn't even pertain to you generally and certainly you have no need to take it as personally as you seem to have done.

And yes, thanks, I WAS a young woman in the seventies and eighties, which should even by your standards put me within the same "bosom of the women's movement" sphere as you as far as the age thing goes. Though I wouldn't say my only inspiration was, as you put it, "one pulp-magazine personality" (which is quite condescending, by the way), I have no problem having women of all kinds serve as role models for me and see no reason to demean any of them for their choice of profession.

And, finally, you are wrong yet again when you assume that my interest in Bettie Page is some kind of bandwagon appeal stemming just from the last three decades. The day I met my husband--I was fifteen at the time; we were both teenagers and went swimming with our best friends--I was wearing my own knockoff of this leopard-skin swimsuit (mine had two shoulder straps), though Bettie filled it out better than I did!

So, as you can see, I am not commenting here in this Bettie Page thread just to be "contrarian", despite your best efforts to paint me that way.
posted by misha at 11:23 AM on January 13 [3 favorites]


most of you have NO idea how much better things are for women now compared to even the seventies and the eighties

You weren't a "woman" in the 70s, so you don't either. You were under 18 that entire decade.

Anyway, misha, if people don't agree with you that Bettie Page was a transformative figure in their lives, so what? Why do you care? Why does it have to be "dismissive?" It's OK for me to find someone not important to me. It's OK to note that almost all of her pop culture fame results from the internet, not from her direct impact on women my mom's age. That's the part I find contrarian. You think she's the bees knees - great! Why does it matter much to you what others think?
posted by Miko at 12:08 PM on January 13


Miko, I never said I did. Please do not create strawman arguments or put words in my mouth.
posted by misha at 12:18 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


Uh, you have indicated that you think others are being "dismissive" and that this is bothering you.

I feel like people are being dismissive of that, like because she was a pinup girl she is beneath your notice or something.

most of you have NO idea how much better things are for women now compared to even the seventies and the eighties [to a group of women who lived through the seventies and eighties].

I feel like you are hung up on this idea


I mean, in my reality, reading your comments, it looks like you have concerned yourself with how other people view Bettie Page and what you think that says about them.
posted by Miko at 12:25 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


FFS. Miko, you are quoting out of context. Also, do not send me Mefimail to harass me. I notified the mods. That is NOT okay.

I did not say that people needed to make Bettie Page their personal icons or role model or find her empowering because I did. I said that disparaging her because she was a pinup model is dismissive.

Also, the "most of you" came right after I said "people born in the nineties" and "young women". If you consider yourself a young woman at 44, good for you. Still not born in the nineties, though.

Finally, the hang up came because the corpse in the library said several times that she did not see how anyone could be empowered by Bettie Page, and I had asked and answered that, hey, I do!
posted by misha at 12:48 PM on January 13


Why does that have to be a "hang up" that she has? Why can't it be her opinion, just as valid as your opinion?

This isn't out of context.

But really, most of you have NO idea how much better things are for women now compared to even the seventies and the eighties, let alone in Page's heyday.

I find the meanness toxic and the claims disingenuous. Hate to see it so repeatedly. Misha, you have a way of taking a topic under discussion and turning the lens on other individuals in a way that makes it seem as though the problem is with them. I find it odious, but perhaps you are unable to see it. Enough, though.
posted by Miko at 1:00 PM on January 13


[You two, this is just you arguing with each other in public. Please let it drop at this point.]
posted by cortex at 1:03 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


It's dropped. I'm disgusted, and I'm out.
posted by Miko at 1:04 PM on January 13


She sure knew how to take a picture. Those expressions. It's very hard to find a model who knew how to work it. To me, Bettie's expressions are very similar to Marilyn Monroe taking a photo. Candid or posed--they never looked bad in a picture.
posted by stormpooper at 8:17 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]


Yes! Olivia de Berardinis, who creates beautiful art, much of it inspired from Bettie Page's pin ups, said that Bettie Page was simply incapable of taking a bad picture.
posted by misha at 11:30 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]


That's one thing, at least for me, Marilyn had. That quality to compel a person just to stare at them. Not in a sexual way but in a way of "wow, how can someone be THAT beautiful." It's very rare to see someone who has that capability. Usually it invokes sexuality, but I"m just talked about pure beauty.
posted by stormpooper at 12:21 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Marilyn could turn on that gorgeous sultry face with the half closed eyes and the bright and/or inviting smile. But even before she perfected that look, she was just really pretty.
posted by dabitch at 12:48 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


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