Random Thoughts On Bettie Page

(I wrote this while working briefly in the mainstream earlier this year. [See the series “Reality Bites” for more on my jaunt into these nether regions, if interested.]  As with everything else, it needs work, but I’m posting it today because there’s apparently a new movie on Bettie.  And because she deserves it.)

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.

 Bettie Page

Bettie Page was one of a kind, light years ahead of her time.  The quote above illustrates why I love her dearly.  Bettie was innocent, direct, uncomplicated, yet one of the edgiest and sexiest women to emerge during an era obsessed with good girl social mores.  Unlike the era’s most glamorized sexual icon, Marilyn, who used sex and persona quite smartly to lift herself from poverty and become the  quintessential sex product, Bettie’s sexual approach reflected a lust for life, simplicity, and, most important, to this writer, her free spirit.

Bettie really was no man’s woman, without even thinking about it.  Bettie was just Bettie, doing what she loved.  Marilyn became every man’s victim in achieving icon immortality, hitching herself to the most famous men of her generation:  the Kennedy brothers, DiMaggio, Miller.  She was for at least three of these men, a trophy.  Seemingly not much more, if you prod a little.  (Miller has said some pretty shitty and inappropriate things about her, leaving a nasty taste in my mouth for any of his so-called literary achievements.)  By most accounts, Marilyn’s career behind the scenes belied an intelligent if not shrewd woman who sold the illusion of innocent, helpless female sexuality, a deliberately played angelic persona that still besots most of us, and was famously worshipped by Norman Mailer.

But Bettie, who made her own fetish clothes and bathing suits for her photo shoots, lived freely.   She simply loved being nude and healthy, loved the camera, saw nothing wrong with the body’s beauty, didn’t use her own beauty with ulterior motives.  She exercised on the beach, every day.  She made her own clothes.  She modeled, and then she paid her bills, most of the time.  She lived with an open heart and free spirit, no strings attached.

Marilyn knew what to do with her gifts, and became their slave while writing herself in the collective imagination; Bettie enjoyed an off-beat dialogue with the fringes of culture, and overcame a painful personal history while remaining true to herself.  Bettie never played the victim, on or off camera.

Her life was beautiful, poetic, tragic, and quasi-heroic, though I have off-beat ideas of heroism.

I admire Bettie’s sweetness, her guilelessness, and her joie de vivre.  In front of the camera, she often portrayed the vixen, a smoldering cauldron of dark sexuality and all things forbidden, the fallen angel ready to escort you to the recesses of hell.  In fact, she never saw the same morality boxes as others, and she lived her life as Bettie, a beautiful woman who saw no shame in G-d’s creation, including her own.

In her later years, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.  She was unaware of her impact until much later in her life.  She lived quietly and anonymously, and only when a very persistent journalist managed to eventually track her down, did she learn of her popularity.  Her uncomplicated, straightforward egoless approach left a star less bright than many of her mainstream blonde contemporaries, but her personal life was just as riddled with pain and hardship.   Failed marriages, a gang rape, overwhelming financial difficulties, miscarriages.

In her later years, after discovering her cult status, she avoided having her picture taken, for fear of disappointing those who had come to know and love her as she was in her youth.  Vanity?  Perhaps.  But I think she really was afraid of disappointing her fans — it was a vanity of sentiment, a respect for those who held an image of her in their hearts that she didn’t want to ruin.  Not female vanity, but human generosity.

Bettie Page, an angel unaware.

Sex is a part of love.  You shouldn’t go around doing it unless you are in love.  —  Bettie Page



I Was Wrong. I Was Right.

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.  And that is why I succeed.  –– Michael Jordan


I spent last night being a good girl and relentlessly self-castigating over misreading David Trumble’s critique of the Disney princess sheroes.

I’ve read many business and professional books this past few months, including, Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” Louis P. Frankel’s “Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office,” and “Play Like A Man, Win Like A Woman.”  Of the many takeaways, I was able to apply one last night: professionally, women blame themselves for their mistakes and needlessly stay in that space.  According to female executives and entrepreneurs who’ve been looking at male and female behavior differences in the corporate world for decades, men brush themselves off, and, worse case scenario, project, blame, or deny (“I did not have sex with that woman”), or, best case scenarios, creatively move on with the wind, no worries.  Women call it the male ego.  Men call it life, shrug their shoulders, and say “no big deal.”

I was a very good girl, though, and spent most of the night berating the failings of my intellect, thinking myself a fraud for having made it through a graduate program, let alone, one of the world’s best, bemoaning my cultural illiteracy for not knowing who and what David Trumble is and why he did what he did, and consequently embarrassing myself on my fledgling platform, taking myself oh so seriously.  Because, as Ms. Sandberg correctly writes, “women are promoted on achievements, men are promoted on promise.”  As a writer who is building a platform, with multiple creative interests, I am convinced that I can’t make this kind of mistake, because I must get it all right as I go along.

Wrong, again.

So now I am putting on my big boy boxers, and acknowledging what I did wrong, and what I did right.  Creatively recasting, and making the points that serve my voice, because I am metaphorically wearing my Michael Jordan Hanes and exploiting the opportunity that a so-called failure provides.

First, as a responsible writer I should have taken a few minutes to Google Mr. Trumble’s name and learned more about his background, which is impressive.  I didn’t.  I wanted to post something on the blog, this seemed like content worth spending time with, and so I took the ball and ran, gender allusion by way of sports metaphor intended.

According to a brief bio on the Huffington Post:

Twenty-six year old David Trumble is an award winning artist, cartoonist and illustrator, working in diverse media from graphic art to caricatures. Critically acclaimed as a political cartoonist for Trevor Kavanagh’s column in the Sun Newspaper with a readership of eight million, he worked under the name: Trumble. David won the Dan Hemingway Prize for Creativity for his 265 page graphic novel, Climate: A Cinematic Novel in Three Parts, which was published by the Blake Project. Trumble’s work of greatest acclaim to date, are his illustrations for the upcoming Simon & Schuster publication, Random Book: About the Power of ANYone by Talia Leman—a guide for everyone who dreams of making a difference in the world. As the book’s illustrator, Trumble creates 200 unforgettable cartoons, making the art and the text almost inseparable in this publication that is expected to be a blockbuster in the U.S..

Courtesy the same HuffPo bio, I learned that Mr. Trumble’s also working on a

“[c]artoon & animated educational film curriculum” venture with Alec Urbach—social entrepreneur, filmmaker and Founder/Executive Director of the international organization Giving from the Ground Up. Together they are creating revolutionary animated science and math film curricula for elementary schools that are changing the way children are educated in developing nations. The curriculum will serve 80,000 children in Ghana by spring, 2012, and is then being translated into Spanish to serve Central and South America.

So, Mr. Trumble is one of the good guys, not merely one of the well-intentioned who don’t know better. Everything I wrote about Mr. Trumble’s work was spot on, and lies at the heart of his critique about Disney’s commodified, homogeneious princess machine.

But I didn’t read it as satire, and I erroneously accused him.  In fact, I did exactly what gets on my nerves when many feminists write on sex work.  They jump the gun about objectification, without really understanding the economic-relational-social structures that unnecessarily keep sex work stigmatized.  They don’t see that sex work is primarily an economic issue, the shame residing not in the work itself, but in society’s fears and socialized judgements.

Which leads to my second point of self-flagellation: why didn’t I see the satire?  I am adroit at irony, sarcasm, and iconoclasm. If not successfully employing it, at least seeing it and heartily respecting it.  Those who have known me since my Word Bandit days know that the Guthrie family rebel gene (Arlo and Woody, for the few who haven’t heard already) is unapologetically wired in my system.  Ambrose Bierce is also a relative — and I wear these DNA alliances with too great a pride for my own good.

Why didn’t I get it?  More telling, why aren’t so many intelligent and sophisticated women getting it?  Are we looking through a jaded lens that assumes the worse worst?  Perhaps.  But I think not.

Mr. Trumble has stated about his princess sheroes:

“The result was this cartoon, which earned equal parts praise and ire from readers. Some didn’t get the joke, some disagreed with it, others saw no harm in it at all and wanted to buy the doll versions of them… it was a polarizing image, but I suppose that’s the point. The statement I wanted to make was that it makes no sense to put these real-life women into one limited template, so why then are we doing it to our fictitious heroines?”

So while drowning in an ocean of personal failing and professional humiliation at 3:30 a.m. — SAD kicked in weeks ago, so I am ratcheting up every failed personal and professional interaction with healthy doses of drama until March or so — it occurred to me that my original blog post was as insightful as I originally thought it to be.

The knee jerk reactions to Mr. Trumble’s cartoons have merit, but not because he engaged satire. Women are used to being fixed and fixing themselves within a given set of social constructs, almost constantly.  We’re not seeing satire in these cartoons, even if it hits us upside the head.  If we’re filtering through a lens, it’s one that we wear daily, that is, we need “fixing,” a constant social adjustment here and there, to make everything better. On top of that, there’s the new bottom line for women: we need to fix that we don’t need fixing.  Yet, paradoxically, women must get it right, constantly learning new codes and rules to play by, because “women are promoted on achievements.”  Women who want to do well while doing good are constantly learning what the rules are in order achieve.  For example, we’re still schooled in the difference between assertiveness versus aggression.  Ms. Frankel writes at length on this, arguing that women in the workplace (or building a platform) must understand that aggression is still not a woman’s professional prerogative, period.  Similarly, Ms. Sandberg quickly assumes her responsibilities in outlining all she did “wrong” on her way to the top.  With her book, she’s emerged as a paradigmatic face of women’s accomplishment, for, unlike Oprah, Ms. Sandberg has always been successfully ensconced among the boys.  Her powerfully personal yet self-correcting narrative  suggests the constant social reading that women respond to daily — from the media, other women, men, the workplace, and the list goes on and on.

We need to fix that we don’t need fixing, yet those of us striving to develop our creative or professional voices find ourselves being told to adjust our behavior in order to “Play Like A Man, Win Like A Woman,” to state the problem simply and succinctly.

So it seems to this critic.

Sound exasperating?  There’s the knee jerk reaction, right there.

As Kay Adams-Corleone would say, “This behavior adjustment thing must end.” 

I wrongly accused Mr. Trumble yesterday.  But my knee jerk reaction to his satire belies what I believe to be a deeper social reality: women are tired of fixing themselves, and of being fixed in metacritical social narratives.   Perhaps it’s my all to early onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder here in the north, but it’s old and tiring, from all quarters.

Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting for the critique on Disney princes, thank you very much.

Role Models And Disney Princesses

There’s a big high-five circulating on the social networks about award winning artist David Tremble’s “World Of Women” collection.

Mr. Tremble’s taken high profile sheroes and made them user friendly for little girls by transforming them into Disney princesses.

The artist has received applause from women and men for saying:  “Fiction is the lens through which young children first perceive role models, so we have a responsibility to provide them with a diverse and eclectic selection of female archetypes. Now, I’m not even saying that girls shouldn’t have princesses in their lives, the archetype in and of itself is not innately wrong, but there should be more options to choose from. So that was my intent, to demonstrate how ridiculous it is to paint an entire gender of heroes with one superficial brush.”

I agree.  The princess motif in and of itself isn’t wrong (and I know plenty of men who want to be the beautiful princess), but it’s wanting.

Girls already have an extraordinary range of fiction, i.e., fable, myth, story, fairy tale, through which to read themselves.  The ones that Disney has historically preferred follow a familiar and narrow cultural consumer construct: a beautiful princess-woman suffers some calamity, her true royal personhood obscured by evil (usually an evil woman, so the good woman and bad woman are pitted against each other), and her prince comes and saves her.

These are powerful narratives — for love overcoming all obstacles is a fundamental human truth, one deserving to be planted in the young imagination.  “Love overcomes” is usually at the princess story’s heart, the cultural stereotypes, anachronisms, and oversimplifications of good versus evil are the unfortunate baggage that rides along.

Presumably, it’s smart and compelling to take the love conquers theme, exemplified in the princess trope, and do something relevant and meaningful for women. But do we really need to have Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Rosa Parks, Anne Frank, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Goodall, Harriet Tubman, Marie Curie, Gloria Steinem, and Malala Yousafzai cast as glamour girls (or “princesses”) to make them important in the youthful imagination?  Is superimposing the princess motif the only way for the young to understand the historical significance of these iconic women?

Isn’t the reason these women took their place in his-story was because they refused to be princesses?  Didn’t they essentially rescue themselves?  Didn’t they have to go against the powers that be — often alone — to become the hero of their own story?

Is his-story pulling her-story back by subsuming these women into more comfortable and familiar narrative forms?

Because while love overcomes in the princess narrative, in the real world, these women are icons of unflinching warrior-like bravery, justice, and intellectual superiority, historically, the realms of power and patriarchy.  So the icons of cultural power are thus folded into a powerful visual narrative asserting that love overcomes.  My guess is that for most girls, love already looms large, and perhaps justice, intelligence, and character strength are being surreptitiously subsumed into love’s pretty gowns.

I don’t know.

There’s another issue that seems to me even deeper and more problematic: why aren’t we fixing the conspicuously absent and uninvolved princes.

Why is a well-intentioned man stepping in and helping society redefine the way little girls see themselves, by throwing sparkles all over Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s SCOTUS gown, and portraying a Holocaust victim as a magical figure of feminine power?

I don’t have children.  I can’t speak to the efficacy of recasting these women as prettied up Disney princesses.  Mr. Tremble’s re-imagined cultural artifacts look to me more like Beyoncé or Kim Kardashian wanna be’s, appropriately cleaned-up for Disney consumers.

Here’s an idea:  I would like to see Mr. Tremble address that male role model problem, the one where the good prince does absolutely zero throughout the narrative but gain control of the kingdom and acquire the ultimate spoil, the beautiful princess.  I would like to see a visual narrative in which the prince refuses to pick up a sword and acts a catalyst for social change with his head and not violence.   A prince who falls for a less than beautiful princess, because he’s smart enough to recognize beauty as a social construct.  A prince who may not be charming, but is steadfast, supportive, and unwavering in his love.  Or something similar.  Reality is malleable, there is no formula.  Just fix the prince a few times.

What I think is fairly certain is that women really don’t need any more fixing.  Please.  No more.  Men fix us.  The media fixes us.  Photoshop fixes us.  Conservatives fix us.  Liberals fix us.  The feminists fix us.  Religions fixes us..  We fix ourselves.  It’s tiring, no matter how well-intentioned a good guy Mr. Tremble would like to be, and no doubt is.  But instead of educating men on the importance of male role modeling — that is, men looking at male behavior and reinventing themselves — we’ve got the well intentioned (read: prince) coming in and helping all his princesses.  Meanwhile, the prince is still charming, and instead of helping men, he’s fixing female iconography.

That’s a big chunk of the problem.

Or how it looks to me.


(Here’s a link to Mr. Tremble’s original Huffington Post article:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-trumble/ten-real-world-princesses_b_3275835.html)