Bettie Page: Bangs, Bondage and Beyond

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How One Accidental Pin-Up Changed the Face of Feminism Forever

A perfect pair of pouting red lips, an electric smile, signature jet-black bangs and a magnetic personality that somehow managed to transcend the two-dimensionality of the magazines across which her image was plastered, launched the legendary Bettie Page, crowning queen of the pin-ups, into 1950s superstardom. Though her career lasted just seven short years, Page’s legacy as a model, sex symbol, fashion icon and preliminary pioneer of the sexual revolution has pervaded for over five decades and will continue to influence the face, form and image of femininity and feminism as it is re-imagined and re-appropriated by each new generation.

Page, who died on December 11, 2008, will be remembered not only for her striking beauty, and the thousands of photographs and film reels that exposed it to America en masse, but also for her unabashed willingness to allow the camera to truly access to her dynamic personality. Whether clad in high heels and a bikini, leather gloves and a ball-gag or nothing at all, the very image of Bettie Page became synonymous with sexual freedom, obliterating the boundaries of what is traditionally considered appropriate for mass consumption. In addition, while Page’s openness to exploring a wide range of sexual personae in the public sphere was revolutionary at the time, her image has been revived and reincarnated time and time again, acting as an inspiration, a vehicle through which future generations of feminists could define sexuality in their own terms.

In the course of her life, Page appeared in more than 20,000 frames for amateur photographers, or “shutterbugs,” in notorious camera clubs across New York City; graced the covers of countless magazines (she even landed one of the first centerfolds in Playboy Magazine) and inspired biographies, films, comic books and fashion lines. However, her fame and cult status was somewhat of an accident, brought about by a little bit of luck.

Page was born in 1923 into a poor family in Jacksonville, Tennessee, and grew up with five siblings. Her family life was somewhat unstable: her mother was stern and often scolded her daughters. Her father, after cheating on his wife and impregnating a 15-year-old girl, left the family only to return four years later, when he began sexually molesting his children. The family struggled to make ends meet, receiving welfare from the government. As a result of the hardships she faced as a child, Page decided at a young age that the key to a better life was education, and dedicated most of her time to studying and earning high marks in school. Page also performed in several school plays, though her family took little interest in her endeavors, forcing her to become independent early on in her life.

After high school, Page went on to attend George Peabody College, where she continued to pursue acting as an extra-curricular activity. By 22, Page had married and moved to San Francisco where she got her first shot at modeling, for local shops and businesses, while working a variety of secretarial jobs. After her husband, who was in the army, was shipped off, she landed a job that sent her to Haiti for four months. Afterwards, she moved back to Miami, then briefly to New York, back to Tennessee, to New York again, to Washington D.C. and then, at last, to New York once again, where she would eventually be discovered. Throughout her travels, she suffered through unfulfilling jobs, several brushes with sexual assault and a divorce, but when she finally landed in the big city she had no idea that what was to come.

One day, Page was sitting on the beach when a gentleman approached her and asked if she’d ever done any modeling. He introduced himself as an amateur photographer, and offered to create a portfolio for her, free of charge. He was the first to photograph Page, and helped her establish her signature look: he recommended that she cut her hair in bangs. He then introduced her to another photographer friend of his, who owned a camera club: a studio that would invite models to come and pose, and photographers who would pay a fee to shoot them. Eventually, Page became the most popular model in the camera club circuit, drawing crowds of 35 photographers or more to each of her sessions.

Camera clubs were a unique entity, pushing the limits of what was considered respectable and socially (and sexually) appropriate. Because the photographers were shooting the models for their own personal use and not selling the images to magazines, models were allowed to be much more scantily clad, and in more suggestive and compromising poses, than if they were participating in a magazine shoot, which had to operate under certain censorship laws. As a result, camera clubs cultivated a reputation of being sleazy, classless and somewhat unsavory. Hundreds of the frames captured in these clubs were the very images that made Page most famous, and most appealing to mainstream publications. Her agreement to model at the camera clubs—often wearing very little or nothing at all—suggested Page’s willingness to experiment and to push social norms and traditional femininity to its limit very early on in her career, paving the way for what would later make her revolutionary: her famous pin-ups, and her outlandish bondage photographs.

Word began to spread of Page as the hottest model on the scene. She soon landed covers of several men’s magazines, including Wink, Titter, Beauty Parade and Eyeful. Though these magazines were certainly considered to be scandalous, Page was never shown fully nude, and was often depicted in gag situations, setting her apart from other models as fun-loving, dynamic and adventurous, gracefully combining personality and humor with unabashed sexuality.

After gaining serious notoriety, Page began modeling for brother-and-sister team Irving and Paula Klaw, who catapulted her into cult stardom when they began integrating Page into fetish photography. They began making 8 and 16 mm films, starring Page in a variety of different dominant and submissive roles, often including whips, ropes, leather and, of course, very high heels. In these films and photographs, Page was often stripped, bound, blindfolded, gagged, and sometimes even spanked by other models. In one of her most famous stills, a cover of Bizarre magazine, Page was tied up and gagged while suspended on a pair of elevated steel bars.

While these photos brought Page much fame, they also landed her in the hot seat with the law. In 1955, a U.S. senator formed a Senate subcommittee to investigate the influence of pornography on juvenile delinquency. Page’s erotica was considered pornographic. She was taken to court and interrogated. In the years following, Page was continually harassed by the law and eventually left New York for Florida, never to model again.

Though Page’s modeling career was relatively short, she managed not only to redefine the very aesthetic of the pin-up (most, if not all, pin-ups at the time were blond), but also pioneer the process of breaking down the stringent barrier between traditional notions of femininity, womanhood and human sexuality.

The years spanning World War II offered women an opportunity to explore roles and personae from which they had previously been barred, however sexuality was still very much off limits. As they flooded into the workplace for the first time, women were allowed to occupy a public identity different from that of a housewife. Sex, however, was still very much off limits.

Pin-up images had become wildly popular during the war, but female sexuality was considered to be for the benefit of male onlookers, instead of a vehicle through which the women in the photographs were allowed to express their own sexual desires. The sexual icons of the era occupied very specific roles at polar opposite ends of the social spectrum. Marilyn Monroe, for example, perhaps the most famous of all pin-ups, portrayed sensuality, seductiveness and undeniable sexuality, albeit one of naiveté. Her brand of sex was seemingly accidental, pure and coquettish. On the other end of the spectrum was Doris Day, the eternally virginal figure, whose sexuality was safe, tame and appropriate. Feminist scholar Maria Elena Burszek, author of Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture, explains this as the “Doris Day/Marilyn Monroe Binary,” which Page would eventually defy, setting herself apart from all other pin-ups of her generation.

“Page presented a possibility of a range of female sexuality between the traditional binary of virgin and whore,” Burszek said. “The fact that she made such a profound impact with a career that ranged from underground S&M photography to silly gag magazines by doing the exact same thing in all of them, which was being herself, based on the range of personalities and identities she brought to those images.”

According to Burszek, in a time when one was either a sex symbol or a virgin, Page managed to create a public persona that encompassed both identities and everything in between. Her ability to pose for such a wide range of photographs, and to allow different aspects of her personality to penetrate each image, was a testament not only to her unwillingness to be typified in other people’s terms, but also her insistence on owning, defining and enjoying her own brand of sexuality that, as her photographs suggest, was varied and complex.

Though Page’s modeling career was over by the time the 1960s rolled around, her image and influence had a great impact on what would later be referred to as the “sexual revolution.”

“She was a pioneer in terms of how women could present their sexuality that is playful, self-controlled and very much about her own pleasure. She never disavowed those images because she so obviously felt that they were beautiful, the circumstances under which they were created was empowering, and that it was about play and the natural inevitability of sexuality,” Burszek said.

Since page hung up her high heels, her image has been constantly reappropriated by new generations of feminists, invoking several Bettie Page revivals. Page has become a symbol for the sexual agitator, refusing to play by socially constructed rules. Her image has become one of power, sexual liberation and ownership that has inspired comic books, fashion lines, characters in countless films and the re-imagination of the form, function and purpose of the pin-up.

Burszek sites an instance where a lesbian magazine, On Our Backs, ran a centerfold entitled, “Bull Dyker of the Month.” In this spread, founder and contributor Susie Bright posed as Page in one of her most famous shots: tied to a bed with a ball gag in her mouth:

“Here, as in Page’s classic bondage imagery, Bright shouts in mock protest while bound spread-eagle to a bed frame. The new twist to Bright’s sexual persona, however, is that unlike the original (who would have been dressed in appropriately seductive lingerie or bondage), the postmodern feminist version finds the subject wearing a T-shirt (promoting the butch lesbian folksinger Phranc) over a pair of cigarette pants, and instead of beautifully arranged makeup and hair Bright wears a facial mask and curlers.”

While her style might be constantly copied and her image published and republished and republished again, it’s safe to say that Bettie Page was certainly more than breasts, bangs and an impossibly perfect body (even though she had those too). She paved the way for the sexual revolution and liberation that would come after her, and her legacy continues to inspire women to define their own sexuality, and to be unashamed to show it.

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Juliet Linderman is the managing editor of the Greenpoint Gazette in Brooklyn, New York. This Rumpus Reprint originally appeared in Caravan.


Juliet Linderman is the managing editor of the Greenpoint Gazette in Brooklyn, New York. More from this author →