In a previous post I wrote about the difference between a sex object (like a pinup) and a person (like a model). I have been thinking about this again as I read the notices posted after the death yesterday of Betty/Bettie Page from a heart attack.
“Bettie” was the name she used as a model during the very early years of pinup and fetish photography (throughout the late 1940s and the 1950’s), and that became even more famous as an icon in the mainstream pop culture pinup revival that began in the late 1970s and continues today. And it is because of this, and under this name, that she her loss is most often lamented.
Bettie Page was a popular model because of her willingness to pose naked and in fetish scenarios at a time when erotic photography was legally suppressed and vehemently condemned by mainstream culture. Her distinctive appearance. versatility and the prolific availability of her work through several prominent early pin up photographers and magazines meant Bettie became a preeminent pinup model. She epitomised the suggestive, playful and occasionally kinky quality of early pin ups photography and colored the first commercial photo-fetish material. And it should not be overlooked that Bettie’s work in collaboration with these photographers was excellent. It stood out from the run of the mill material of the era–Bettie’s photographs show a woman at ease, often looking directly at the camera with an arch and unapologetic gaze.
In later years, when legal limits lifted and almost any kind of explicit pornography could be made and marketed many models and photographers looked back to the 50’s to try and recapture an age where an image could be both sexual and innocent, where it could be non-explicit and also extremely erotic. The pinup aesthetic was revived first in counter-culture album covers, tattoo and car art, and fine and fetish art homages–moving into the mainstream through kitch revival and now appears on everything from Christmas light to aprons. Right on the forefront of this revival was Bettie Page–her diverse and extensive modeling made her the perfect model for retrospective books and documentaries and the most recognisable model of her era to reference in a derivative work.
The Bettie images were powerful, sensual and had an wholesomely shamelss air that moved the pin up into the mainstream and opened the door to respectable careers in erotica. There is someone, however, who seems to slip between the cracks of our remembrances–and that is Betty. Betty was a girl who experienced state care, child abuse and rape. She grabbed the modelling opportunities she was given and excelled in that role. Despite strong education in art and acting, pin up modelling was her best option. She never really had access to ostensibly respectable career paths. Betty she crafted her excellence out of pragmatic necessity, and given other options, would likely have made different choices.
Betty was paid poorly for her work and some of her most iconic shots made the (male) photographer wealthy while she earn only a small flat fee–and modern collections of her work were mostly made without paying her even the courtesy of getting in touch (let alone money). Her pictures are of a powerful woman, spanking another girl, draped over wild animals, her eyes always dark and challenging–as she was simultaneously being manipulated and literally exploited by those standing behind the camera whose gaze we take on every time we look at one of her pictures.
Betty was a woman of strong Christian faith who married her school sweetheart, but divorced him. She left modelling and for many years tried to pursue missionary work, repudiating her former career and remarried her husband partly to remove the obstacle a divorce represented in pursuing her religious calling. Betty was a woman who divorced her husband again, went rhough marraige and divorce with another man, and came to be at peace and unashamed of her re-surging pinup celebrity. She had done it for the money, she said, and she eventually embraced the security it gave her throughout life that no husband ever did. In her later years she said: “God approves of nudity. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, they were naked as jaybirds.”
Betty was a woman best known as jungle queen and dominatrix–embodying extreme self-confidence–who almost never allowed herself to be photographed or filmed in her later years, embarrassed at her weight and the normal effects of aging. Speaking of her modelling years she always seemed bemused at her fame, citing average looks, unattractive skin and perceived dependence on heavily make up. Betty never thought of herself as beautiful. But she left a legacy of interviews that put her work in the context of her life and those times. She ensured that her voice and her story has also been preserved.
Pictures of Bettie from the 50s are iconic, historical, and pivotal artifacts in our culture–touchstones of the new feminism where sexuality is part of female character and female power. Sexuality without sin–sensuality with style–and girl-next-door normalisation of fetish. But the life of Betty is in many ways greater than that legacy. She struggled to reconcile faith with erotic employment. She would wield a whip and take part in the most exotic scenarios, but never showed her vagina and never took part in intercourse. Betty apparently struggled with mental illness, experienced poverty and had few enduring friends to offer support when it was need most. Every single relationship in her life was changeable and ambiguous–with her father, her husband, her God, her photographers, with money, with her siblings and even her own image.
Bettie is an icon. All across the media Bettie is being eulogized, appreciated and mourned–and that is as it should be. But Betty was a woman, and a lesson. She struggled, she was exploited, she excelled, she faced many challenges and she is in many way an archetype of normal female existence, albeit one writ large. She did her best and her best could damned good. But she experienced equal amounts of the worst in life, giving and receiving betrayal, violence and despair. Through sheer tenacity and talent Betty made it through all this over 85 years of an extraordinary life; a life that also deserves to be celebrated as much as the photographs taken during less than a decade of modelling work.
Rest in peace, Betty. A candle that flickered but burned right down to the base before it went out.