Entry from December 15, 2008

The New York Times obit told us she was “a legendary pinup girl whose photographs in the nude, in bondage and in naughty-but-nice poses appeared in men’s magazines and private stashes across America in the 1950s and set the stage for the sexual revolution of the rebellious ’60s.” The Times liked this formulation so well that it repeated it word-for-word in its helpful, illustrative “slideshow” of those “naughty-but-nice” poses. The Times of London must have been struck by a similar inspiration, noting only slightly more modestly that she “helped to set the stage for the sexual revolution of the 1960s,” while the London Daily Telegraph had it that “she emerged as a pivotal figure on the eve of the sexual revolution.” What journalistic instruments we have agree, it seems: the late Bettie Page was a progressive pioneer, a precursor if not the onlie begetter of the sexual revolution. Hooray!

But if you go so far in celebration, you have to go further, I think. Another of the New York Times’s captions tells us that “Bettie Page was the most famous pinup girl of the post-World War II era, a centerfold on a million locker doors and garage walls.” The other Times noted that “her saucy, come-hither image adorned the walls of countless student halls, garages, locker rooms and barracks,” while the Telegraph allowed as to how “provocative pictures of her in bikinis or sexy lingerie became hugely popular, tacked up on the walls of [what else?] locker rooms, student halls, offices and military barracks.” The Washington Post added that “Pinned on the walls of auto-repair shops, taped inside Army barracks footlockers or slipped between the pages of school textbooks, the come-hither photos of the raven-haired Ms. Page rivaled the popularity of blond beauties Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield.”

Um, excuse me for asking but is such catering to frankly expressed male lust for obviously commercial purposes a good thing then? In any other context, it’s hard to imagine that these highly respectable organs, especially The Washington Post and The New York Times — British journalists, more experienced at selling sex, are somewhat unreconstructed in this respect — would not have disapproved of this “objectivization” of a woman for sexual purposes. Yet it would seem that, as a stage along the way to a progressive development, just such objectivization becomes not just OK but something to be excited about. Maybe that pose in the altogether with a Santa hat for Playboy in 1955 was sexist by today’s standards, but at the time it was practically the shot heard round the world in a revolution that it is now OK, even mandatory to approve of.

And that, in turn, means that it is OK if not mandatory for us guys to admire 50-year old cheesecake, as they quaintly used to call it, as supplied by The New York Times — which, however, leaves out the Playboy pose along with (one supposes) some other naughty-but-nice ones that skewed to the naughty side. Even women are free to enjoy the stuff, so long as it is put in the context of a milestone on the road to sexual liberation. As Manohla Dargis, also in The New York Times, put it, “To look at these photographs is to enter another world. I don’t think for a minute it was a more innocent world, but it was one in which sexualized images of women, even trussed up in rope, seemed somehow, well, charming.”

Like the smash hit TV show, “Mad Men,” Miss Page’s “work” — a revival of interest in which during the last decade or so of her life gave her a comfortable retirement after some serious hardships — became an appeal to the sense of nostalgia of a generation raised on political correctness for a different sort of naughty-but-niceness. For the appalling “sexism” of “Mad Men” was part of a whole range of pre-revolutionary immorality or unhealthiness that for us is as much a forbidden pleasure as sex was for Bettie Page’s locker room fans. That show’s extra-marital sex may have been shameful but it was frankly enjoyed by both parties, as was their heavy drinking and smoking. We are excused to enjoy all three — and some other things as well — vicariously on the grounds that these people had not yet been enlightened, as we are enlightened, or had their revolutionary consciousness raised. The boundaries of the “transgressive” have been re-drawn for our time, but I wonder whether our enjoyment of crossing them with nostalgia as an excuse will ever prove as “charming” to our descendants as Bettie and her contemporary fans now do to us?

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