Bettie Page, Peep Shows, and Their Impact on 1950s America

Peep ShowsOne of the most famous icons of erotic cinema is, of course, Bettie Page. In the chapter “Pages of Sin: Bettie Page — From ‘Cheesecake’ Tease to Bondage Queen,” from Peep Shows: Cult Film and the Cine-Erotic, Bill Osgerby examines Bettie Page’s career and what she represented to politically and sexually repressed 1950s American culture.

In the chapter, Osgerby discusses Page in the context of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique:

While it is folly to cast Bettie Page as any kind of figurehead for 1950s feminism, the prevalence of her image across the panoply of American popular culture certainly flipped an irreverent middle-finger to the nation’s puritanical moral guardians. More importantly, Page’s traits of burlesque parody and pastiche served to reveal the artificiality and performativity of gender identities. And, while these elements were always a significant facet to her ‘Good Bettie’ cheesecake pin-ups, they were even more pronounced in her ‘Bad Bettie’ bondage work.

As Page’s fame grew in the 1950s with her career being guided by Irving Klaw and his wife, concerns about pornography intensified. Osgerby writes:

Throughout the 1950s the terrain of sexual politics was continuously contested and contradictory. But authoritarian “containment” was always a force to be reckoned with. By 1955 Joseph McCarthy’s political witch-hunts hard run out of steam, but Estes Kefauver’s cultural crusade was just getting in it stride….

Though he struggled hard, Kefauver could never prove a link between pornography and juvenile delinquency. But the Klaws and Page were subpoenaed to appear before his Subcommitee. Ultimately, Page was not called to testify, but Irving Klaw was hauled-up for a fierce grilling…. The Kefauver hearings also had a traumatic impact on Bettie Page. In 1957 she quit New York and never returned to the big city or her modelling career. As her personal life became increasingly unstable she drifted through a series of failed relationships and succumbed to the ravages of alcoholism [and] mental illness.

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