Bettie Page, perhaps the most successful and intriguing pin-up girl in American culture, died last night at 85. Margaret Talbott wrote an essay on Page and her milieu called "Chicks and Chuckles" for TNR in 1997. It's a fascinating look at Page's iconic work and the pin-up subculture that made her so famous:
You might reasonably ask, what is it about Bettie Page? Why does her image still capture the imagination, while legions of her cohorts in the nudie modeling trade could barely sell a publicity still to save their pasties? Bettie's fans tend to answer that question with the naughty-but-nice paradox. For Karen Essex and James L. Swanson, Bettie Page "embodied the stereotypical wholesomeness of the Fifties and the hidden sexuality straining beneath the surface.... Her fresh-faced beauty was the perfect camouflage for what lurked beneath her veneer--the exotic, whip-snapping dark angel. In Bettie Page, forbidden longings were made safe by an ideal American girl." For Steve Sullivan, the author of a methodically researched history of the pin-up called Va Va Voom!, there's a "fascinating duality" in Bettie's photographs, "which run the gamut from sunny innocence to sinister darkness." Truth is, though, that's a gamut run rather often in pornography. The appeal of the sweet-faced girl with the bod for sin is as old as the oldest dirty postcard, and as common as guilt.
It is true that Bettie Page may have been especially gifted at conveying the naughty-but-nice fantasy. Hers was an era in which the expectation of female frigidity was still a widely accepted axiom of sexual lore. When it came to sex, explained an article in Life magazine in 1953, the female is "simply by virtue of her own physiology and through no coyness or stubbornness of her own, disinterested, unresponsive, and in fact sometimes downright frigid.... The average woman... can certainly take sex or leave it alone." She "considers the human body, if anything, rather repulsive." In such a context, the look of sweet sexual eagerness--neither too aloof nor too ravenous--that was Bettie Page's specialty must have gone a long way.
You can read the full article here.