RIP Bettie Page, who helped kick off the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Her soft-core porn look seems almost chaste today, but she was considered hot stuff back then. I know how depraved everything has become and that people like Page have been a part of it (and she went on to pose in Playboy, revealing rather more), but I confess to a fondness for the old-fashioned pin-ups. Because they left something to the imagination, they somehow managed to be both sexy and innocent at the same time. As Greg Beato wrote in Reason last year:
But at the exact moment when soft-core erotica was evolving from under-the-counter specialty item to news-rack staple, Page was willing to show more than any woman prettier than her, and prettier than any woman who was willing to show more.
It wasn't just her industry or her openness that distinguished her. Out of those 20,000 photos, how many show even a hint of boredom or fatigue, or anything other than complete commitment to the moment? While Page is often credited for normalizing kink, for showing how even sun-kissed girl-next-door types could have a secret taste for lesbian spanking action, what's most notable about her oeuvre is how little sexual heat she radiates. Naked, fresh-scrubbed, practically incandescing with exuberance, she looks like she's posing for a vitamin ad. Rarely can one detect any libidinal ache, or even a mild hunger for something carnal. Clearly, the camera excited her—but not in that way. Its promise of fame was what got her off, and ultimately the potential for celebrity overwhelmed anything more specifically sexual her photos were supposed to communicate.
One of my favorite wall pieces is a South Shore Railroad poster advertising day trips to the Dunes beaches. I found it in a shop in, I believe, Saugatuck, Mich., and it's been on my office wall for more than 20 years. I'm sometimes surprised nobody has tried to make me take it down in all that time. As you can see, it is clearly oppressive, and its presence in my office a bold statement by a patriarchal misogynist. Or maybe it reflects the unrequited yearnings of the high school boy still trapped inside me. Whatever.