So, you might reasonably ask, what is it about Bettie Page? Why does her image still capture the imagination, while legions of her cohorts in the nudie modeling trade could barely sell a publicity still to save their pasties? Bettie’s fans tend to answer that question with the naughty-but-nice paradox. For Karen Essex and James L. Swanson, Bettie Page “embodied the stereotypical wholesomeness of the Fifties and the hidden sexuality straining beneath the surface…. Her fresh-faced beauty was the perfect camouflage for what lurked beneath her veneer–the exotic, whip-snapping dark angel. In Bettie Page, forbidden longings were made safe by an ideal American girl.” For Steve Sullivan, the author of a methodically researched history of the pin-up called Va Va Voom!, there’s a “fascinating duality” in Bettie’s photographs, “which run the gamut from sunny innocence to sinister darkness.” Truth is, though, that’s a gamut run rather often in pornography. The appeal of the sweet-faced girl with the bod for sin is as old as the oldest dirty postcard, and as common as guilt…Still, it can’t entirely explain her popularity, particularly today. To account for it, we have to go further afield–into the realm of nostalgia and the yearning for a vanished sense of the illicit, a sense of the illicit that was the other side of a sense of the innocent. We could do worse, though, than to start with her smile.
more from a 1997 TNR piece here. youtube bettie page here.