Bettie Page, the “pinup queen” of the 1950 and 1960s, died on December 11 at the age of 85. In case you’re not old enough to remember (or weren’t an adolescent boy in the Baby Boom years), Ms. Page was the well-built, scantily clad dream girl of thousands of posters, photos and short films. In an era when overt female sexuality was just becoming something other than lurid and shocking, Ms. Page unashamedly celebrated her curvy form. High art she wasn’t; the sensibility of most of the work that featured her winking image was more in the pulp genre, kissing cousins to the “naughty girl, hard-boiled detective” dime novels of the day. But she became something of an obsession to millions of young men.
But in her totality, was Bettie Page good for women? We could make a convincing argument that she did nothing but support a stereotype of women by posing in settings that were pure cheesecake: wearing a leopard skin swimsuit with two cheetahs, or posing with a black man in face paint and carrying a spear. Hardly the stuff of feminist dreams. But at the same time, a famous series of photos shows Page on the beach in a beautiful, informal style, often completely nude yet completely unashamed of her beauty and sexuality. In many of these photos, she’s absolutely childlike, like a toddler playing nude at the beach because, well, who needs a swimsuit anyway?
It’s these pictures that remind us, as we dwell on the constant meaning of beauty, that even though it’s easy to dismiss Bettie Page as a symbol of the objectification of women, she was also a symbol of the liberation of women’s sexuality. Remember, much of her most famous work was done at a time when it really wasn’t OK for a woman to be overtly sexual. If she did, and she wasn’t ashamed, then she was a harlot. Bettie Page didn’t care what anyone thought of her; she took joy in being a lusty person without a hint of apology. That’s what made people cherish her. If she hadn’t had that innocence and delight, she would have been just another nude woman.
In the end, we think Bettie Page was good for women. She reminded us that even as we work hard to be seen as more than our physical beauty, it’s OK to flaunt what we’ve got from time to time…and enjoy it.
Debi & Eva