A Slice of Cheesecake

The notorious Bettie Page is just part of American pin-up history. Scott McLemee finds out the rest of the story.

April 19, 2006

If you order a DVD called “Bettie Page: Bondage Queen,” Amazon will make some reasonable, though nonetheless startling, guesses about other items you might enjoy. (So one quickly discovers.) But the online retailer’s algorithms aren’t quite finely tuned enough to account for the fascination that Bettie Page exercises. Whether posing in calender-girl mode, or wielding a whip in the somewhat paradoxical role of a cheerful dominatrix, she returns the viewer’s gaze in a way that challenges one’s stereotypes about the sexually repressive 1950s. She also represents, in my opinion, a definitive refutation of the American media's inexplicable erotic valorization of the blonde.

Her story is coming to the screen this week in “The Notorious Bettie Page,” written and directed by Mary Harron, whose film about Valerie Solanas, “I Shot Andy Warhol,” was an exceptionally smart and insightful biopic. But Harron isn’t the only contemporary feminist interested in Page -- or in the combustible mixture of sexist ideology and female agency captured in vintage erotica.

In Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture, forthcoming this summer from Duke University Press, Maria Elena Buszek, an assistant professor of art history at the Kansas City Art Institute, describes the mutations of the pin-up genre over the decades. It is a cultural history that crisscrosses with the succeeding “waves” of feminist activism.

The pictures of actresses that became popular in the 19th century marked the emergence of a new kind of “public woman.” (In the earlier sense of that term, it suggested, not the female equivalent of a public man, but prostitution: the sexual equivalent of a public convenience.) With the consolidation of the film industry’s role as arbiter of glamour and lifestyle possibility, the variety and quantity of pin-up imagery grew. One familiar response to all of this --- the attitude routinely stereotyped as “feminist” -- was to denounce the entire phenomenon as “male objectification.” But women formed part of the audience for pin-ups. The range of posture and demeanor captured in the images reflect the increasing options for self-assertion, libidinal and otherwise, explored by women.

A thumbnail sketch of its analysis can’t do justice to the book. It includes dozens of images from the history of the pin-up -- from the naïvely stagy publicity photos of the 1860s to the ironically stagy meta-pin-ups created by contemporary pomo artists. An excerpt from the book is available at Buszek’s Web site. I recently interviewed her about her work. The notorious Bettie Page has only a small part in the history that Buszek has reconstructed. I asked about her anyway. (It meant that watching those short films on DVD counted as research.)

Q: How did you settle on this as a topic for research? The images themselves are fascinating, of course. But there's a difference between that level of interest and the kind involved in investing so much time and energy in a subject.

A: Well, to be honest, this was a project that really originated in artists' studios. My Ph.D. is in contemporary art, and Pin-up Grrrls began as my dissertation, where I was trying to figure out the phenomenon of younger feminist artists gravitating toward pin-up imagery. Since I began my B.A. in 1989, I had noticed more and more pin-ups appropriated by young women -- not just in their gallery art, but in more street-level ways, in t-shirts and Riot Grrrl 'zines -- as icons of feminism. Not "femininity," but feminism.

My first instinct was to assume that this was a way for young women to take an image type that older feminists had held up as a symbol of women's sexual servitude, something antifeminist and -- in a typically postmodern gesture -- reappropriate it as a symbol of strength and sexual power for a new generation. And, considering how polarizing the "sex wars" of the 1980s were -- where the position of anti-pornography activists like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon was tremendously influential, and put forward by the mass media as "the" voice of feminism -- it seemed to make sense that this might be the first front on which emerging feminists might try to identify themselves as something different.

However, in my efforts to figure out what era or "type" of feminism this strategy was working to challenge, I quickly discovered that the pin-up was used by women since its very origins in the 19th century to mark a range of activist positions in the women's movement -- but all of them asserting that women's sexual expression deserves a significant role in the dialogues around women's sexual oppression. In retrospect this should have been a no-brainer, considering that (if I can paraphrase Carole Vance) feminism since Mary Wollstonecraft hasn't just been about decreasing women's pain and misery, but also increasing their joy and pleasure.

But (like most young feminists of my generation), I had kind of unconsciously swallowed the mass media myth that feminists of the women's liberation movement, or "second wave" of feminist history, were these angry, dogmatic asexuals -- and, naturally, with each decade I went back in my research, reading the actual texts of feminism's evolution, I found that the opposite was true.

I also discovered what was also true of feminism's long history is that these voices wanting to stress sexual self-expression as a feminist issue were usually those of younger women in the movement, and that their perspectives were generally dismissed by both older feminists -- who themselves were often "over" the whole sex issue, and had moved on to less dicey issues -- and the period's feminist organizations, which were almost always run by these same older, experienced feminists. So, the younger women turned to popular youth culture for places where they could "see" their ideals represented -- so that the way young women today hold up pop icons like Gwen Stefani or Coop's "devil girl" illustrations as symbols of "their" feminism, young feminists at the turn of the century used Sarah Bernhardt and Charles Dana Gibson's "Gibson Girl" illustrations as icons of their own.

And all this brings me back to your question: moving from recognition of a scholarly subject to following through on researching it. Naturally, my first motivating factor was the old-fashioned awareness that no one had documented this long, "secret" history of the pin-up before, so I had the rare ability to scoop my colleagues on this terrific story. But ultimately what made me stick with it -- from a 300-odd-page dissertation to a 600-odd-page manuscript -- was the responsibility I felt to illuminating, and ideally ending the vicious cycle of generational misunderstandings that have plagued the women's movement since its start. Each generation has consistently held itself up as the "next wave" of feminism, and then the minute that they organize and gain a certain amount of power proceed to both selectively address what came before them and try to suppress efforts at change by the generation that follows. I felt that if I perhaps took the longest view possible of a subject and image that has continuously divided feminists, perhaps I could help suggest some common ground -- not just in the fact that we "commonly" fight one another, but also the fact that, try though we might, sex just will not go away, especially if the movement keeps needing young women -- who have always been not only sexually preyed upon, but sexually curious and active -- to keep it going!

Q: You refer to stereotype of an angry, dogmatic, and anti-sexual feminism -- and you dismiss this idea, or treat it as a cliché. Well, yes and no .... About 20 years ago, I was part of a left-wing and very pro-feminist newspaper staff that was called upon in a "community meeting" to do self-criticism for some incredibly subtle crypto-patriarchal gesture or other. The whole experience was very strange. (It might have been traumatic, had we not all been so heavily sedated.) Anyway, you do realize that your book would have been bitterly denounced at one point in the not-so-distant past, right? There was often a sectarian rancor (a purist if not puritan quality) to some activist feminism very different from the pluralism of some academic varieties.

A: Oh, yes! Of COURSE! In my book, I certainly don't sidestep the fact that there is still a significant percentage of feminist thinkers who question whether any woman's sexuality under patriarchy can ever be truly under their own control. Indeed, I have no doubt that my book will be denounced in certain circles for that very reason. I also agree that younger feminists in our third wave of feminism -- which, by the way, I argue is a way to periodize our era rather than a generational label -- tend to be more sex-positive and look to feminist history for reflections of their own sensibilities. My book is an example of this!

However, young feminists in the second wave (and all generations that preceded them) were the exact same way. The fact is that if you go back to the very foundational texts that today's most sex-suspicious feminists are drawing upon -- Kate Millet's Sexual Politics, Andrea Dworkin's Woman Hating, Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex -- these works are openly calling for, and believing in, the possibility of a feminist sexual revolution to go with the political changes they are demanding. (To say nothing of Germaine Greer and Erica Jong.)

They specifically began writing their own "herstories" not just to document the movement in their own words, but to cherry-pick their predecessors -- a fact that Astrid Henry's book Not My Mother's Sister does a very good job of addressing. And by the time we got to the late 1970s and early 1980s, this fact was conveniently forgotten as many of these same authors began calling for more radical and less sex-positive definitions of feminism -- themselves sweeping their own earlier texts under the rug in the process.  

This is exactly what I'm talking about when I talk about the "vicious cycle" of selective memory as each generation of the women's movement evolves. One can argue that the exact same thing was frequently true of feminist leaders from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Betty Freidan.

And, as far as the grass roots of feminist activism, I have to disagree with you. I think that the activists "in the trenches" have always been the ones used to thinking realistically, negotiating for change. As Dorothy Allison has said, you can't be out there in the real feminist world without meeting the occasional African-American-ex-military-Republican-to-hell-with-NOW-lesbian feminist alongside the garden-variety Lefty-WASP-college-professor types -- largely because these are oftentimes the more vocal folks at the meeting. Pin-up Grrrls came out of this culture when I realized that there were distinct differences between what the women on the streets (and the bars and the clubs) living feminism and those writing about and teaching it had to say about how feminism was defined. I wanted to shore up all the ideas that these two groups might have in common, often without knowing it, and try to bridge this gap -- in large part because I myself was one of those caught in the middle.

I'm a working-class, Hispanic-American, Roman Catholic punk -- I wasn't supposed to go to college, much less become a feminist scholar. My scholarship has basically documented my journey to finding out why I did. I mean, I've been calling myself "feminist" -- much to the consternation of my parents -- since I was about nine years old, and I understood this term relating to "Charlie's Angels" on TV and the anti-nukes nuns at my school long before I knew who either Andrea Dworkin or Dorothy Allison were.

Q: Bettie Page is now something like the embodiment of the pin-up girl, the figure who normally comes to mind when the pin-up is mentioned. (The punning overtones of "embodiment" and "figure" probably can't be helped.) But unlike most of the earlier figures, she wasn't an actress or public figure of note before her image became known. The short films she made came later. How does she fit into the history of the form? How did she manage to become both anomalous and an archetype?

A: Yes, Bettie was one of the first pin-up icons famous for her pin-up work alone, rather than using pin-ups as a kind of necessary promotional tool to draw attention to something else that she did. And I think part of her success was that she looked at these pin-ups as her acting career -- she had a disastrous screen test, and a working-class Southern accent, and couldn't break into movies to save her life -- and clearly poured all of her love of the theatrical into these images and, later, Irving and Paula Klaw's film reels.

And I think that both this love and sense of make-believe are why she would go on to become so iconic and so groundbreaking a pin-up. The fact that she "performed" her typical cheesecake images with such hammy gusto wasn't new -- you see this approach in Hollywood pin-ups from the 1910's on. However, it was the fact that she performed in this same over-the-top, comedic style in her bondage images -- whether she was performing as a dominant or submissive -- in such a way that underscored the playful and performative potential of this seemingly perverse of shameful sexuality that made her unique. I'm making the argument that this wasn't just a radically new way of representing this particular sexual subculture, but more broadly that this was a radically new way of representing sexual womanhood -- particularly since Page was so popular in the 1950s, and beloved not for just one sexual stereotype, but the range of fairly extreme sexualities that she put out there.  In the age where one could pretty much be the overtly sexual naif, like Marilyn Monroe, or the eternal virgin, like Doris Day, this was pretty unusual.

Q: In addition to the standard cheesecake shots of Page (and far more memorable, in a lot of ways) are the bondage and fetish images. Does it make sense to include these in the category of "pin-ups"? Or are we talking about something else? They certainly are striking. You've got all these signifiers of decadence and solemn perversity -- and in the middle of it, there's Bettie Page with this easy going, happy look on her face.

A: I definitely include the fetish images as pin-ups ... if you look at them, even from the perspective of the 1950s, they are! The brother-and-sister photographers Irving and Paula Klaw took pride in the fact that they ran a "clean studio," and definitely approached even the B/D/S/M photos--which, by the way, were usually made-to-order for customers -- as just another theatrical corner of their cheesecake business. A different kind of "glamour" photography, really.  

The women had to wear two pairs of underwear, just to make sure they were properly covered up, and there wasn't even the suggestion of a sexual act in any of them. So if you go back and look at these images, the poses and situations might seem extreme, but these women aren't anywhere near naked or having sex. The Klaws were very careful that their images fit the social standards for what distinguished a "pin-up" from "pornography," and the amount of skin the subjects showed was kept to a minimum. What got them into trouble was that the same society that was keeping watch over how much skin was exposed was naturally appalled that the scenarios led back to a sexual subculture in an era where subcultures were held in great suspicion.

And, yes, in retrospect what seems crazy is how "threatening" these images were to the American government -- which subpoenaed both the Klaws and Bettie in the federal 1955 hearings on juvenile delinquency, regardless of the fact that the FBI ruled their bondage images weren't obscene by any legal definition.  Largely because of how chaste the images truly are, but also because of how silly Page's performances are. But part of why they are still so sexy -- and perhaps what was so threatening -- is how unfazed she is by the supposedly transgressive behavior in which she's participating; she's clearly enjoying herself, and not taking it too seriously. And I think that this pairing of pleasure and play is part of why her images aren't just so popular today, but also such a favorite of young feminists.

She seems to be breaking out of her period's expectations for women like her -- even if she didn't in her personal life, the images she created suggest otherwise in that she's flouting convention, even if just for that fleeting moment when the cameras snapped and the fantasyland of the studio seemed real. Indeed, this idea of the studio as a site where fantasies could be realized -- and where the pin-up could be performed as a theatrical construct of a woman's sexuality -- would be recognized and exploited by the second wave of feminism that followed in the 1960s.

Q: You've probably looked at more pin-up images than anyone. At some point in the research, I assume you learned to look at them in an abstracting and historicizing way. Leaving that aside for a moment: Of the various images you've inspected, which ones really fascinate or appeal to you? And why?

A: Well I naturally have favorites in every period, and from day to day those favorites rearrange themselves. However, I suppose the images to which I keep returning are those created by women with a real sense of ambivalence -- clearly feminist images that are sometimes resigned to the inevitability of complexity and contradiction when it comes to women's sexuality.

My discussion of Frances Benjamin Johnston in Pin-up Grrrls immediately comes to mind; she's known today primarily as either an early photojournalist or society portraitist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but she created some really compelling pin-up-style images of the "New Women" of her day -- like Ida Tarbell and Alice Roosevelt -- where we find all kinds of contradictory messages about what a woman is, and what a feminist could be, battling one another.

She also created some practically unknown self-portraiture; not just traditional pin-ups, but also drag self-portraits in a pin-up style, where we find this bisexual, independent, unconventional woman -- who refused to identify with either the period's burgeoning lesbian or suffrage communities -- working all the contradictions of her own identity into this range of images.  

Jumping forward to the present, I think that Cindy Sherman is extremely good at this tension, which I discuss at length in the book as well. Recently, one of my favorite contemporary photographers, Collier Schorr -- who, by the way, creates some of the best male pin-ups around -- recently wrote about how interesting it is that, while Sherman's feminism was challenged, sometimes angrily, in the 1980s as Barbara Kruger's work was held up as "correct," that today Sherman's often mournfully ambivalent self-portraits seem so political while Kruger's imagery is licensed out to the very commercial culture that the images were supposed to disdain.

Over all I am fascinated by pin-ups that acknowledge how hard it is to fight for making "the personal the political" when the personal is so wrought with contradictions -- yet demand that feminism take our personal contradictions into account.


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