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Bettie Mae Page

Bettie Page

With the recent passing of Bettie Page, the kitschy 1950's-era pinup model, a lot of folks have felt compelled to explain the exact nature of her appeal. I'm no exception. While I recognize the fact that what appeals to one does not necessarily appeal to another, and that there are plenty who never saw Bettie's appeal at all, I think her importance goes beyond the issue of simple appeal.

It's a definite overstatement to assign her any sort of feminist ground-laying, even accidentally so - I think she would have been rather appalled by the thought, frankly. But, to me, the thing that makes her photographs so, well, appealing is the obvious fresh, unstudied joy in being who she was, naked and unashamed, as well as the innocent devilishness of playing with taboo sexual mores. She didn't appear to have an agenda, and when the men and women photographing her did, she seemed to be able to twist that agenda into something harmlessly fun by the sheer force of her ebullient personality. I think that it's overreaching to claim her as the foundation for the sixties' sexual revolution, especially since her work was largely underground until the 80's, and I can't imagine she had any thought at all about inspiring a generation of third-wave feminists who would attempt to embrace sexual archetypes on their own terms. But it's undeniable that she became a lovely icon for these movements, and, retroactively, the perfect representation of the sincerity and love of freedom they were trying to popularize.

Throughout the latter years of her life, through mental disorders, divorces, and born-again religion, she refused to be photographed, insisting that she remain in her fans' minds as she was then - proof that she understood the power in her images, and the power in people's identification and attraction to her images. With this she also insured that, come seclusion or death, she would never really go away. For which many of us are endlessly grateful.