Culture

Roped and Trussed Just Like Dear Bettie Page

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Bettie Page, '50s pinup star and witch-hunt target, has died at age 85. Greg Beato described her place in pop history in a reason story last year, explaining that "Before Page, porn was about sex, not publicity":

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[A]t the exact moment when soft-core erotica was evolving from under-the-counter specialty item to news-rack staple, Page was willing to show more than any woman prettier than her, and prettier than any woman who was willing to show more.

While Page is often credited for normalizing kink, for showing how even sun-kissed girl-next-door types could have a secret taste for lesbian spanking action, what's most notable about her oeuvre is how little sexual heat she radiates. Naked, fresh-scrubbed, practically incandescing with exuberance, she looks like she's posing for a vitamin ad. Rarely can one detect any libidinal ache, or even a mild hunger for something carnal. Clearly, the camera excited her -- but not in that way. Its promise of fame was what got her off, and ultimately the potential for celebrity overwhelmed anything more specifically sexual her photos were supposed to communicate.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in her fetish work. Plenty of Page's contemporaries could drain the sexual tension from scenarios where only sunny beaches were involved, but only she could turn ball gags, stilettos, and all the other totems of sex as a dangerous, primal, overwhelming force into mere props for picture taking. Wielding a whip, sheathed in black nylon -- none of it obscured her star-struck giddiness at the sight of a camera. Forever ready, it seemed, to break into a cheerleader's chant for deviance -- "Gimme an S! Gimme an M!" -- she reduced kink to kitschy fashion.

Later, Page would join the Billy Graham Crusade, spend a decade in a state mental institution, and give this assessment of her career to a Playboy interviewer: "When I turned my life over to the lord Jesus I was ashamed of having posed in the nude. But now, most of the money I've got is because I posed in the nude. So I'm not ashamed of it now. But I still don't understand it."