As a professional sex educator, I cover a lot of territory. And as kink and BDSM have gotten more mainstream, this content has become more popular – especially on college campuses. About six years ago, I was teaching Kink 101 in a local college’s human sexuality class. My powerpoint slides were filled with images of Bettie Page. I was met with blank stares. Bettie who? I had never felt so old.
So who was Bettie Page?
Bettie Page is often called the “Queen of Pinups,” and, according to The Atlantic, is “the most-photographed model of the 20th century.” In 2012 Time Magazine even named her one of the 100 most influential people in fashion. And yet, somehow, this absolute icon has slipped from common knowledge.
Bettie’s heyday of the 1950’s was a very different world. Rather than the content of our dreams being a simple google search away, “camera clubs” were a common way around anti-pornography laws.
At a camera club, models and photographers would meet up for an afternoon of shooting, and, as the photographers were creating their own content, they didn’t run the risk of buying/selling/trading images in ways that could run afoul of the law.
Bettie was ‘discovered’ by an amateur photographer, and invited to one of these clubs, with the promise of helping her put together a pin-up portfolio. Her cheerful demeanor, good looks, and skill with makeup and costuming quickly made Bettie a favorite model at these events.
Through these events, Bettie met brother & sister team, Irving and Paula Klaw. The pair got their start by opening a bookstore, and soon expanded to images of movie stars, before transitioning into the pin-up field. Much of the content they produced, especially the bondage and fetish images, was by request of the customers. It was Paula Klaw who was responsible for the bondage rope work. (She later took up photography as well.) (https://americansuburbx.com/2013/05/interview-about-irving-klaw-interview-with-paula-klaw.html)
The Klaws were subject to criminal charges on several occasions, and they were also central to The Kefauver Hearings of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irving_Klaw) which ultimately led to Bettie Page cutting ties with the Klaws. By the end of the 1950’s, Bettie Page retired from modeling. And for 20 years, her image was rarely seen.
Then, in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Bettie Page was back in fashion. Perhaps key in this resurgence was a Bettie-lookalike included in Dave Stevens’s The Rocketeer in 1980. Before long, Bettie started to turn up all across pop culture. Eventually becoming a staple on everything from t-shirts to posters to lunchboxes — the kitch you’d find at Hot Topic.
Coming of age in the pre-internet era of the 80’s and 90’s was a tricky thing for those of us who didn’t fit the mainstream mold. (Though certainly easier than in decades before.) Any term that signified queerness was hurled as an insult in the halls of the high school,and knowledge about kink was hard to come by. Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns, many people’s introduction to Kink and BDSM, wasn’t published until 1995. And, in the late 1990’s, we still had to find munches via listings in the back of the newspaper.
However, what we did have was Bettie Page.
Bettie was being reclaimed, and this time, her fanbase skewed female. What makes a heterosexual pin-up model from the 1950’s a feminist or queer icon? Perhaps it takes a bit of projection. Either way she’s become a symbol of a woman owning and enjoying her sexuality. Posed solo or with another woman. Vanilla or kink. The charm of Bettie Page is that she appears to be enjoying herself. “This is fun,” her smile seems to tell us, whether she’s tied up, or the one wielding a hairbrush over another model’s behind. Her poses suggest a fluidity and freedom to sexuality many of us aspire to.
“‘I want to be remembered as I was when I was young and in my golden times,’” she told The Los Angeles Times in 2006. ‘I want to be remembered as a woman who changed people’s perspectives concerning nudity in its natural form.’” (https://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/12/arts/12page.html)
I think it is safe to say that her wish has come true.
Stella Harris, Certified Intimacy Educator and Coach. Author of Tongue Tied: Untangling Communication in Sex, Kink, and Relationships and The Ultimate Guide to Threesomes. Learn more at: