Monday, August 9, 2010

The Notorious B.E.T.T.I.E. (Page)

Unlike Bethenny Frankel, I am not a Skinnygirl.  Never have been, never will be.  I'm a dance and yoga enthusiast, and I heart steamed broccoli (really), but when it comes to body type, I take after my dad's side of the family.  Essentially, I'm built like a football player with tits.

Maybe that explains my recent interest in pinup culture.  I hope this doesn't make me a bad feminist.  I know, objectification and blah blah blah.  But damn, those ladies were sexy and they totally flaunted it.  They weren't physically big by any stretch of the imagination, but they had curves and rocked them.  Plus, the bathing suits were really cute.

So this weekend I rented The Notorious Bettie Page.  Living in a fairly hipster neighborhood, I was vaguely familiar with this individual (I mean, you can't escape the iconic haircut), and I remembered Gretchen Mol from the late nineties when she was supposedly the "it girl" and then her career never really went anywhere.  (Granted, she annoyed me at the time, but I felt kinda bad for her when all the hype petered out.)  Less shallowly, I was curious to see what made this lady such an icon, as she was hardly the first pinup.

Disclaimer: most of what I know about Bettie Page was gleaned from this film and from Wikipedia.

So Ms. Page was rather interesting, to say the least.  She was a Christian girl from Nashville with a college education (the latter was not super-common among women in the 1940's and '50's).  She wasn't racist: the first man who took her photo was African American.  (One of my favorite parts of the film, in fact, was Bettie's reaction to gawkers at her first Coney Island photo session.  "They're prejudiced!" she realized out loud.  Then she reprimanded the onlookers: "I used to be prejudiced too, but I learned!")  She was also a survivor of incest, marital abuse, and gang rape, all before she hit 30.

Bettie rarely drank or cursed, but she willingly doffed her bathing suit top and bottom when a photographer asked her to ("it's just a piece of cloth!").  She worked for a brother-and-sister photography team, who had her pose in what would now be called dominatrix gear, with ropes, whips, chains, you name it.  (Granted, she wasn't nude in these shots, and there was no sexual content.)  And she had fun posing for these pictures--but how much she was aware of what the photos meant remains unclear.

See what I mean by interesting?  Wow.  You have a woman who survived all sorts of horror at the hands of men she should have been able to trust: her father, her husband, a seemingly nice guy who approached her on the sidewalk.  Despite all this, she loved Jesus and had a sort of childlike joy in her work.  And again, I don't know the whole story, but it didn't seem like she was exploited by her employers.  They were kind to her.  They made the work fun.  By all accounts she was paid fairly and not forced into anything.

Oh, and then the government got involved.  Because these photos and movies were poisoning the collective American mind (and I must say, it's funny to see what was considered "dirty" a scant 50 or 60 years ago.  Compared to the stuff you can find on the Internet now, these pictures were tame, tame, tame).  Never mind that many of the most horrifying things that can happen to a woman take place behind closed doors, and still aren't 100% reported in 2010.  Never mind that, as one photographer points out, Taming of the Shrew contains a lot of violence, but because it's Shakespeare it's considered "classic."  Never mind that Page herself waited patiently for a full day outside the courtroom in D.C., but was never called to testify about her experiences as the It Fetish Model of her time.  Because who cares what the stupid woman thinks?

The Notorious Bettie Page wasn't a perfect movie: as much as I liked seeing all of the drama unfold, I wanted to hear more of what Bettie herself thought and felt, how much she was aware of the sexual nature of her work.  (Granted, Page herself eventually became a hard-core Bible-thumper, spent time in a mental institution, and was stingy with interviews as she aged, so it's possible the filmmakers didn't want to make too many assumptions.)  But what I did enjoy was the exploration of issues: as long as it's not hurting anyone, what's so bad about fetishes?  Or pictures/movies taken in what looks to be a pleasant work environment?  Is fetish/pinup modeling a feminist act, or the very opposite?  I couldn't fully answer any of these questions after finishing the movie, but I was pondering away.

At any rate, The Notorious Bettie Page is a thoroughly thought-provoking film I highly recommend, and judging by her performance,  Mol should have a way better career.  Also, True Blood and Mad Men geeks will nearly pee their pants, as I did, to see Sheriff Andy Bellefleur and Lane Pryce in the same scene.  (Geeky girl squee!)  Perhaps my favorite part, however, was hearing Lili Taylor's businesswoman character (yes, Lili Taylor--the casting in this movie is awesome) describe why she and her brother do what they do: there are respectable people who are under a lot of pressure in their day-to-day lives.  Certain things make them feel good.  Even if we don't quite understand, what they like doesn't make them bad people.

I think this summed up a lot of fetishes and sexual preferences.  Don't get me wrong, I am NOT advocating child pornography or any sort of exploitation or rape.  But if a fetish is consensual and gives someone their jollies, well, why not?

It takes all sorts to make a world, y'all.


  1. I love Gretchen Mol, and I, too, wanted to see her make it big. She's super talented, smart, good-looking and not arrogant about it all (a la Angelina Jolie. I effing can't stand her.). This movie's been on my list, but now I *have* to see it sooner rather than later. Thanks for the post!

  2. EB, you will LOVE her in this! She does a great job and really commits to the part. Back in the '90's, she was basically only given the "girlfriend" roles (and this is when she was supposedly the Next Big Thing!). Shame, because she is very talented.

  3. This is one of those movies I've always meant to watch, but never quite got around to doing. Maybe it's time to add it to the old Netflix queue.

  4. I thought it was an okay movie, but not really all that eventful. Naked pictures were taken, the government just didn't get it...the overall message felt a little preachy. Sort of that, "People back then were repressed!" vibe that I get from SO many movies made about the forties/fifties/early sixties.

    I also thought it would have been interesting had they shown more of her bible thumping which got kind of intense. She was also institutionalized for schizophrenia in the 80s, which I think would have made for a much more fascinating story.

  5. Nikki--if you Netflix it, let me know what you think!

    Sadako--as I said in the post, I wish they would have dug a little deeper into Bettie herself. I think speculation is okay even in a biopic. I mean, we know it's not a documentary. And I agree, I think it would have been fascinating to show more of her life afterwards. She definitely had some issues.

    What I found interesting, however, is not the naked pictures (because there have been naked pictures since the beginning of time), but how the powers that be reacted to people seeking them out. And many of those pictures didn't even have nudity.

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