Notorious Bettie Page – a tale of pornography and innocence

On Kinkstarter, we are really big fans of representations of BDSM in movies and tv shows. And since the Kinktober post, we have also shown to be able to appreciate pin-ups. So it only makes sense to tell you about the 2005 movie Notorious Bettie Page. Introducing the queen of kinky pin-up!

The Notorious Bettie Page story

This movie tells the story of the famous pin-up model and of her most famous pictures. The narrative of the movie almost reads as a series of unfortunate events. (Which is not BDSM, but still a great book series/movie/tv show.) These events however, cause the innocent but courageous Bettie to get involved in a highly questionable (and illegal!) art form.

Bettie Page is a bookworm who grows up in the rural US South. She grows up protected from boys by her rather conservative mother. However, we do not learn much more about her childhood. (Except that she ends up marrying an abusive football player, whom she leaves rather quickly.) This might actually be for the best, as many BDSM narratives explain the interest in these practices by exploring childhood trauma.

In this film, however, that does not seem necessary. However “notorious” Bettie Page actually is, the film depicts her as not having any personal interest in BDSM at all. Rather, she grows up wanting to be a teacher. And after leaving her husband, she dreams of a career as an actress. Well, the latter she accomplishes, though not in the way she dreamed of.

It all starts to get interesting when this christian Southern Belle ends up modelling for a club of photographers. She learns to loosen up, at the same time we learn that she is completely at ease with her body. A trait most of us can learn from. One thing leads to another, and before you know it she gets paid to be the subject of fetish photography.

The Notorious Betty Page acts out a crop scene for the camera
The Notorious Betty Page acts out a crop scene for the camera

The Kinky Bettie Page

Bettie Page quickly becomes the star for a fetish publisher. They explain to her that there are some nice and well respected people (lawyers, a judge…) who are interested in a specific kind of pictures. Pretty much high heels and a stern facial expression. And sometimes props such as chains and whips. Now, Bettie does not see anything wrong with that. If that is what makes these nice men happy, than why not? One of the customers, decides to fulfill her desires for an acting career in having her act in what is essentially a light BDSM porn film. Again, she sees no problem. No-one gets hurt and she is not even naked!

The Notorious Betty Page ties up a girl in her first acting gig
The Notorious Betty Page ties up a girl in her first acting gig

Speaking of which, she (famously) does do nude pictures. And that is where the interesting defense of BDSM in this movie really begins. Betty is much more conflicted over the nudes than over the SM-themed photographs. When she asks God for forgiveness, or when she struggles with her prospects for the afterlife, it is over the nudes that she ponders. (Though she uses the sentence “Adam and Eve used to be naked until they sinned” as a mantra.) The idea that nudity is somehow “worse” than BDSM does seem a bit odd. But then again, for her this is a modeling job. She strikes the poses and wears the clothes that her employers request from her. It kind of makes sense that she would not experience it as sexual or erotic in any way. However, the law does not agree.

In defense of BDSM

Threaded through this movie of innocence and accidental notoriety , is the theme of the (il)legality of BDSM. This theme is brought up through the struggles of the fetish publisher Bettie works for. At first he is simply questioned and warned about the distribution of Bettie’s film. He defends this film by relating the images to other (mainstream) movies that were being distributed at the time. His claim is that there is not much difference between a person being tied up in a BDSM setting and a villain being tied up in an action movie. This defense, however, does not seem to help. Because before long we find both him and Bettie involved in a legal case.

The Notorious Betty Page gets gagged for pictures

The film keeps the specificities of the case vague. But we see enough of the case to learn that BDSM is linked to insanity and murderous impulses. The persecution pretty much claims that Bettie’s pictures are to blame for a boy’s suicide. With the lightheartedness and innocence of the character of Bettie herself, this theme provides the necessary drama. And, of course, it reflects the historical reality. However, this drama barely touches Bettie. And the movie continuously downplays the deviance of BDSM and fetish photography. This is visible especially in the end, when the notorious Bettie Page finds her way back to the church. She ends up publicly reading out loud from the Bible when someone recognizes her. When questioned, she repeats the now familiar mantra about Adam and Eve’s nudity. And the questioner replies that her work was really tame anyway. “You should see what they sell on the newsstands now!”

In conclusion

This is a slightly odd movie. It deals with huge issues, but seems to downplay them all. The pace is high and there are many changes in style. However, there is the absence of a big “Event.” The Notorious Bettie Page appears to be simply about an innocent girl who tries to live her life as best as she can. And who accidentally becomes a sex symbol and the focus of legal cases that do not influence her life at all. She seems to influence the world without being in it. This is an interesting claim for a movie to make, but again, it is suggested more than made clear.

However, it is great to see a movie dealing with the history of BDSM communities. And nice to see a lighthearted movie dealing with these heavy issues. So: definitely watch it. It will not pull you in, but will absolutely keep you entertained. And if there’s one girl who knows how to entertain, it is Bettie Page.

Betty practices her growl

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