Bettie Page: From Nashville to Immortality

In a world gone mad with more depressing news landing with a thud each passing day, this feel-good story, reported by The Tennesseean, offers just the sort of soothing salve some of us need right now:

“It’s taken them nearly a century, but Nashville is ready to officially recognize one of the city’s most iconic natives. The late Bettie Page — whose modeling work in the 1950s earned her title of ‘Queen of Pinups’— is set to receive a historical marker in downtown Nashville in late 2022 or early 2023.”

Okay, it’s a relatively minor story, but it’s good news nonetheless. You see, 2023 will be 100 years since Bettie Page was born (she died in 2008), meaning it’s perfect timing for Nashville to finally honor one of their most famous homegrown talents, and about damn time Nashville finally honors one of their most famous homegrown talents.

When it comes to twentieth-century American pop culture, only a select few women left as indelible an impact on us as Bettie. There’s Marilyn Monroe in the top spot, of course, but after those two, who else? Madonna? Sure, except much of Madonna’s style and schtick in her heyday was a reaction—ironically or otherwise—to the blonde bombshell persona that reached its zenith with Marilyn.

Bettie has stood tall in her towering high heels through history, due to her originality and pioneering work. She was truly a progenitor of multiple art forms, both lingerie and fetish modeling. She basically kickstarted those industries. Her glamour shots—whether in skimpy lingerie, form-fitting dresses, tight sweaters, or leopard-print bathing suits—have long been the yardstick against which all others are measured.

Her bondage and fetish work is equally revered. As wild as this may seem to some, Bettie brought a sense of dignity and humor to being hog-tied and ball-gagged. Okay, okay, she also brought an absurd level of sex appeal, and that was always the draw.

Her fetish photos and short films, mostly photographed by Irving Klaw during the 1950s, Bettie would act out fetish and bondage requests, either alone or with a partner. She played both roles—“dom” and “sub”—depending on the shoot. Whichever role she took on, she brought the same campy zeal for performance that has become her trademark. She was bursting with charisma, even while tied up and gagged.

Bettie’s pioneering contributions to fetish work seem fairly tame these days, and were often played for harmless titillation and some laughs, too. This is largely because, compared to the pornography industry and nearly the entirety of the internet today, Bettie’s unabashed playfulness and saucy style feel downright wholesome. Her nude photo shoots are as popular as any of her work and stand as healthy celebrations of the human form, but she was usually clothed (however sparingly) in lingerie for her fetish work. And her lingerie style is now coveted by an entire subset of fans who buy, sell, make, and wear Bettie-inspired undergarments. Those famous bangs aren’t her only huge contribution to the pop culture style canon.

If you have some time, I highly recommend reading Ellen Wright’s exemplary critical analysis of Bettie’s notorious fetish work. Wright’s examination of Bettie’s short films and still photos makes clear the performer’s own agency was crucial to her success. She was a woman in control, teasing and tantalizing her audience in a sweet and savory way. She was in on the fun, as evidenced by her unmatched dynamism and performative skills. As Wright notes,

Page’s knowledge and understanding of the nuances and conventions of the ‘specialty’ film and her awareness of her role within it is key. Through her familiarity with and mastery of this standardised product, Page as ‘craftsperson’ asserts her creativity and agency within the collaborative production process through a combination of compliance and subtle variation in her performance.

That’s exactly what Bettie was: a “craftsperson” whose particular skillset was expertly applied to her craft. The fact that polite society denies the importance of and artistry behind Bettie’s craft is more irrelevant now than ever. Bettie’s star stature has been ubiquitous in popular culture for decades now, and she’s only risen in the public consciousness over the years. In the 1980s, artist and writer Dave Stevens modeled the Rocketeer’s girlfriend Betty after “The Girl With the Perfect Figure.” Gretchen Mol played The Queen of Curves in Mary Harron’s excellent The Notorious Bettie Page (2005). Bettie is the star of a series of irreverent adventure comic books published by Dynamite. Beautiful coffee table books and biographies of her abound. Her image adorns t-shirts, posters, and even lunchboxes. She’s a popular tattoo choice, her face or full body is permanently inked on people’s arms, legs, backs, or elsewhere. Entire clothing lines are inspired by her alone. Her retro style—especially her legendary jet-black bangs—is literally everywhere now, and has been for decades.

Clearly then, Bettie still influences our world today. That’s why Nashville finally honoring her with a historical marker feels long overdue. Especially because Bettie’s life wasn’t easy. In the years after her modeling career she became an evangelical Christian, She married and divorced twice. She was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and eventually committed to a psychiatric hospital for a lengthy stay. During those years, a cult fandom grew around her modeling career, which Bettie was mostly unaware of, until later in life when she was able to see how beloved she really was.

For decades now, Bettie has easily defeated the competition, over and over again. Imitators might ape her look and style, but none can match her unique appeal. No pop icon has ever looked better in nylons, garter belts, and strappy heels. As the expression goes, they broke the mold after Bettie. Her modeling career lasted only a decade, but she was photographed thousands of times, leaving behind a treasure trove of mid-century Americana pinup gold. Besides Marilyn, few people have ever had a better relationship to the camera. She is the ultimate cheesecake model.

She oozed sex goddess appeal while simultaneously seeming down to earth and utterly approachable. You get the feeling from her photos that she didn’t take her otherworldly sexiness too seriously. From what I’ve read, her photo and film shoots were often fun and frothy affairs, and it shows in her mischievous smile and cheeky, doe-eyed innocence. Quite simply, she was extraordinarily talented at what she did for a living during that part of her career, and that’s why she’ll always be The Queen of Pinup and, more broadly, a top American icon of the twentieth century.

So, cheers Nashville, you’ve finally done good by your girl Bettie. Now, before you all leave, won’t you please help poor Bettie choose the least comfortable pair of sky-high heels for the big day when Nashville unveils her historical marker?

Oh wait, one last thing. Here’s some fan art from yours truly, just to prove my dedication to Bettie is for real. You know, just in case writing 1,200 words on her legacy wasn’t already enough to convince you.

Okay I lied, this is the actual last thing: a selection of Bettie’s artistry and talent, on full display for the camera lens and for our astonished eyes. None better. Total legend. Kneel before Bettie!

Classic Bettie.
All dolled up, as my grandfather used to say.
Leppard-print Bettie is on the prowl. Rowr!
Seriously spectacular summer vibes.
Horsing around and having a blast, or, how Bettie learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.
Bettie’s knowing smile is a key element of her appeal.
Bettie making friends wherever she goes.
Creepy doll is also one lucky doll.
No one ever lounged around on the floor in their lingerie better than Bettie.
Oh no, however will she escape??
At least she’s getting a good, solid back stretch out of the deal.
Laughing with frequent collaborator, photographer Irving Klaw.
Taking a breather from all that strenuous bondage work to enjoy a refreshing, carbonated beverage.
I’m extremely curious to know who won that date and why they didn’t write a book about it.
Bettie might be stranded by the sea, but she’s still BOLD.
Fishnet Bettie!
Scholar Ellen Wright described Bettie’s penchant for “vertiginously high heels.” Amazing that she did her job in towering heels like this, and effortlessly so, too.
“Are you broad-minded?” I see what you did there, Eyeful.
Dave Stevens drew a mean Bettie.
Bunny Yeager’s work with Bettie is artful, empowering, and absolutely beautiful.
Bye bye from Bettie.

2 thoughts on “Bettie Page: From Nashville to Immortality

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