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Remembering Bettie Page

01/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Karen Essex Author of award winning historical novels and a biography of Bettie Page

Bettie Page, the 1950s pin-up queen and pop culture icon who died on Thursday, will be remembered for her indomitable influence on style, fashion, and sexual expression. But as Bettie's biographer -- and the only one with whom she ever cooperated -- I can tell you that the underground bondage queen also had the unlikely effect of thematically shaping a series of biographical and highly feminist novels about powerful women in history.

In 1991, intrigued by the resurgence of Bettie's image in venues as diverse as rockabilly clubs, nostalgia rags, and S&M fashion gone mainstream, I wrote a cover story for the L.A. Weekly, "In Search of Bettie Page." For nine months, I had tracked down anyone who had ever known her or photographed her. But Bettie herself, the object of much speculation, remained elusive. Most people thought she was dead.

Then, as fate would have it, someone gave Bettie, who was living in anonymity and seclusion, a copy of the article. Imagine the shock -- a seventy-something senior citizen who ran away from it all forty years prior, suddenly finds that she is famous again.

But she liked it. Though she did not want to re-enter the public arena, Bettie sent me a letter praising the piece, calling us "kindred spirits." Soon, with co-author James Swanson, I embarked on the adventure of writing her biography, sitting down with her for hundreds of hours while she told us her story.

At the time, I was also trying to work out how to tell the stories of women in history who had been either dropped from the record or misinterpreted through the sexist lens of their biographers. I was to start with Kleopatra (the original Greek spelling), a victim of Roman propaganda remembered for the men with whom she slept rather than for her diplomacy, leadership, and the fact that she had mastered nine languages. How to present the stories of women who had been victimized without writing a victim story, I kept asking myself? How to give women in history who had been reduced to their sexuality the full breadth of their experience without diminishing or demeaning their sexuality?

So here was Bettie Page, a woman known only for her sexuality, who had been sexually abused by her father, sexually violated by a gang of strangers, and emotionally battered by a husband. In the years since she had gone underground, Bettie had become a born-again Christian working for the Billy Graham Crusade. Surely she would repudiate the work she'd done as a pin-up and bondage model. Surely she saw herself as a victim of the patriarchy that hijacked her beauty and sensuality and exploited it for its own gratification. Surely I was about to meet a woman who considered herself a victim.

I was wrong. Despite her more unfortunate experiences, Bettie never presented herself as a casualty of sexual abuse, and she never used that, or her religious beliefs, which were strong, to renounce the work she'd done as a model. Moreover, she never denounced sexual expression.

"God created us naked," she said by way of explaining her total lack of inhibition in the buff. She purported that bondage modeling "was such fun," even at times "hilarious," except for when the elaborate gear became uncomfortable. And sex itself, she assured me on many occasions, was for her, always pleasurable and joyful. Though she had at times suffered at their hands, she never expressed bitterness toward men. I know women who are resoundingly more hostile than Bettie Page just for having suffered a few bad dates. No, Bettie was not going to allow anyone or anything to diminish the joy she experienced when she put that corset on (or took it off) and felt her full-blown sexual power.

Since the publication of Bettie Page: Life of a Pin-Up Legend, I have published four historical novels with strong female characters. Each, in her own way, was a victim, either of the era in which she lived and its laws, or of individual abusers, or of the general abuses and oppressive nature of the culture at large. Despite the enormous consciousness-raising of the last few decades, we still see attempts to diminish today's female powerbrokers women like Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin by sexualizing them. Yes, in our porn-saturated society, people are still trying to shame women for -- what? Having sexual attributes?

At least we can point to one woman, Bettie Page, who wouldn't have it.

Bettie's obits paint a bleak picture of her later years. But I found that, despite her trials, she had retained a zest for life and always took pleasure in memories of the work that she'd done. I hope that Bettie is remembered for her sexual joy, and for the gleeful spirit she brought to sexual imagery, whether she was frolicking on the beach or being ball-gagged and spanked, rather than for being a victim.

A female friend of mine said this morning, "Bettie Page did more for sexual expression than Alfred Kinsey." Amen, sister. For all the countless (and valuable) mountains of scholarly and feminist writing that have influenced my thinking and my portrayal of women, I still look to a lady who said it all by looking into the camera and defying anyone to tell her she was bad or wrong.

Amen to you, too, Bettie. Rest in peace.

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