On Bettie Page’s sex appeal

From a great piece by Juliet LInderman at The Rumpus:

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.”


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