Bettie Page Died Today
Susie Bright has an excellent column:
But Bettie's story was different from the average Suicide Girl. She was doing fetish photography when the subject was completely removed from any sense of camp or fashion. The closet was shut so tight not even a filament of sex-positivity could be imagined. The damnation she faced must have been entirely without context to comprehend.
SB: You point a finger, without drawing a thick line, at her history of sexual abuse, incest, — and also, at her survival of a gang rape when she was a teenager, long before her modeling career.Bettie (not Betty, although that was her birth name) was an icon twice: post-War, when she was an iconic pinup; and her revival starting in 1976 with the publication of A Nostalgic Look at Bettie Page from Eros Publishing. She "inspired" pieces of two generations, the Silents post Korea and the Boomers in the 80s. Her exquisite combination of girl next door and fetish model was original and potentially unique.
How do you think women recover, sexually, from situations like that?
MH: The abuse by her father was the most damaging, because she was still a child. She was a traumatized person, but she did have an active sex life. Billy Neal, her first husband, told me they had a great sex life and I believe him -— it was clearly the motor in their relationship.
Sexual abuse, or rape, is an awful trauma but it doesn't mean you will never enjoy sex— although it may mean you become more sexually-identified, as the careers of countless porn stars will attest.
Many men who've seen the film complain that Bettie doesn't react much to the sexual abuse: she doesn't show more rage or grief. But most men have no idea how much sexual shit women go through, how many of their female friends, relatives, and co-workers have been raped or abused in some way. They don't know about it because the women don't talk about it, and just get on with their lives, as Bettie did.
SB: My interpretation of Page's "naivete," and her various personalities as model, missionary, etc., is that she was coping the best way anyone does when they are suffering from mental demons.
But if she had been homely — and crazy — or even just plain, what would have happened then? Sexual allure is often both the salvation and damnation of people who need to be seen more deeply than the surface....
MH: If she had been homely, her mental problems would have been spotted earlier. The people I talked to who knew her in the Fifties all talked about how sweet, friendly, unassuming she was— but at the same time, no one seemed to know her intimately.
Even her first husband, Billy Neal, found her a mystery. That suggests to me that she had sealed herself off: there was something blank and inaccessible about her. She was always late, often hours late, which implies that she would just space out.
Someone can be mentally ill, but if they are young and beautiful and their life is going well, people don't notice because at that point the cracks are almost imperceptible. I think it's significant that Bettie's breakdowns happened in her middle age.
There were a lot of things going wrong for her by then. Her fourth marriage had collapsed, and with it her hopes of happy family life.
There were the demons from the past, her father's abuse and the gang rape. You can't discount the traumatic effects of aging. By now she was a middle-aged woman, and she had spent her whole adult life as a beauty. Her identity, her finances, her social life, her sense of herself: everything depended on that, and it was gone.
The official obituary.
As one of Susie's commenters has it:
There's a ... little Bettie in all of us