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The Notorious Betty Page October 10, 2007

Posted by Winter in film, pornography, reviews, sex industry.
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I really wanted to like this movie, but I didn’t like it. The more I think about it, the less I like it. It is a “feminist film”; I just don’t think it’s a very good feminist film.

In the first instance, Betty is represented in the way I least like to see women represented in films — the little lost girl, innocent, martyr-type of woman. But this film does something I hate even more, it raises a lot of profoundly disturbing issues and doesn’t address any of them in depth.

Gretchen Mol does do a great acting job with what she’s given, but I just don’t think she’s given enough to make this a good film. Betty remains an enigma throughout. We never really find out about the motives behind her actions. She just seems to fall into everything innocently, smiling, laughing, slightly surprised by it all, but passively accepting what comes her way. Now this is not a woman who had any reason to be “innocent,” “ignorant” or particularly sweet and jolly. She was sexually abused by her father as a child, lived in a children’s home after her parents’ divorce (not in the movie), despite which she was a straight A student who got to college on a scholarship. She had a bad marriage and was sexually assaulted, or raped, (we’re not sure) by a gang of men. But at no point in the film do we find out what Betty thought about any of this, or what affect it had on her own sexuality, or her motives for what she does later in life. We’re told that she didn’t like teaching and that’s about it. We see her crying in church after the rape. Then that issue is dropped and the next thing she’s happily posing for sexy pictures. Betty doesn’t seem to have any sexuality of her own in the context of the movie. She just happily does things for other people. Effectively, she is silenced.

We seem encouraged to believe that Betty had very little idea what she was doing when she posed for bondage photos and is devastated when her boyfriend rips the veil from her eyes, crying “It’s disgusting!” By presenting Betty as an innocent who just ended up taking what were, for the time pretty heavy bondage pictures, without much of a clue as to the implications, perhaps the film is trying to prevent the audience making moral judgements, but it removes all the depth and all the grit. This film manages to be totally unnerotic too, relieving the audience of any challenge on that front. I would much rather have heard that Betty did it for the money, or because she wanted to gain a kind of sexual power over men, or … just anything rather than the wide-eyed “oh dear me, is this bad then?” expression we get and her hope that God will let her know when to stop. I mean, Betty Page is an intelligent educated woman, a woman who really wanted to act and who with sheer sexual charisma became an icon, but didn’t achieve her dreams in the end. But we don’t get the interesting, complex Betty in the movie, what we seem to get is her cleverly marketed “naughty but nice” pin up persona presented as the real live woman and it just doesn’t work, because clearly Betty the woman wasn’t really Betty the pin up.

Betty wanted to be an actress and had talent, but by the time she’d taken her classes her notoriety had caught up with her and the film implies that the stigma of sex work prevented her success. Again a disturbing issue is raised and dropped as Betty walks off looking a bit sad, but we never find out what she really felt about having her dreams crushed. She tells us nothing. In fact she seems totally disassociated from her life, walking out on the boyfriend who sticks by her (despite being disgusted by the bondage pics), apparently without any feeling. Why? No reasons are given for her actions.

I think the ending is terrible. The film leaves out another marriage and fast forwards to Betty being born again as a Christian. Then we see her dressing modestly and becoming a preacher handing out tracts on street corners. But again, there’s no depth to it, Betty doesn’t tell us anything about the emotional, intellectual or spiritual reasons behind her conversion and it’s represented as really rather stupid; I can imagine the audience laughing at the religious Betty.

Also it’s dishonest to represent that as the end of Betty’s life. She did work for Christian organisations, but she also moved around, married twice more and is still going, recently hiring a law firm to help her recoup some of the profits being made with her likeness. Here again the film leaves out a serious issue, the way women in the sex industry in the 1950s got financially screwed over. That’s important and we should hear about it.

In denying Betty Page any real voice I wonder if this feminist film does what sex workers often accuse feminism of doing more generally, which is using sex workers as pawns in feminist debates without actually asking them what they really think or allowing them to speak for themselves. This film makes a few feminist points about the sex industry and limited options for women in the 1950s, but it doesn’t really let Betty speak. Why couldn’t she have been the narrator?

Perhaps they played it safe and represented her as her pin up persona because real-life (possibly not so sweet and innocent) Betty would sue their asses off if they delved any deeper, but then if you can’t make an honest biopic maybe you should think twice about making the film.

“I was not trying to be shocking, or to be a pioneer. I wasn’t trying to change society, or to be ahead of my time. I didn’t think of myself as liberated, and I don’t believe that I did anything important. I was just myself. I didn’t know any other way to be, or any other way to live.”

That’s the difficult Betty Page I’d rather hear more from.

Betty Page biography.

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