Bettie Page: Interpreting an icon

I hesitated to write about Bettie Page’s death because, frankly, I don’t know much about her. I saw The Notorious Bettie Page, and I know she is recognized as an icon by everyone from Reason magazine (which called her “one of America’s most enduring brands”) to Bust (which refers to her as its matron saint). Like anyone who has achieved icon status, her image is bigger than her biography, and how people (feminists in particular) interpret Bettie Page often is more about their personal view of the world than about Page herself.
So I was deeply curious to read other feminist bloggers’ reactions to the news of her death. And unsurprisingly, the reactions reflected the spectrum of feminist views on sex and sexwork.
Feminist sex blogger Carlin Ross, on the blog she shares with Betty Dodson, wrote:

She was just a pin up model but she broke barriers. Not many women had the nerve to be a fetish model in her era. Dita Von Teese never had to testify before Congress.
I remember finding one of my grandfather’s Playboy magazines and finding the image of Bettie wearing nothing but a santa hat pinning an ornament on a xmas tree. I sat there for hours looking at her. It was her joy and sexual confidence. She looked so different than the other women in the magazine. She was happy. She was sexually expressive. And she was powerful.

Kate Harding at Broadsheet wrote:

Page said she got into pinup posing because “I could make more money in a few hours modeling than I could earn in a week as a secretary.” In light of her status as a darling of third-wave feminists — between the sexual liberation and the cute bangs, what’s not to love? — it’s worth remembering that her fame came, at least in part, from a lack of options.

And Suzie at Echidne of the Snakes wrote:

In interviews, she said she wasn’t personally into bondage, but she enjoyed the photo shoots. She said she never thought of her poses as sexual. … When commenting about her, a lot of men confuse women’s sexuality with what women do to please men, to make a living or to get ahead. People talk about how she celebrated her sexuality, blah-de-blah, without noting that photographers paid her to pose in various ways. I wonder how people look at her photos and see only what they want to see.

Is it possible to be both an icon of sexual liberation and an icon of sexwork-as-a-last-resort? The answer, of course, depends on which feminist you ask. Of everything I read about Bettie Page, I think Amanda’s post comes closest to my own feelings on Page as an icon. Your thoughts?

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