[15 December 2008]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
The image of Bettie Page is living, persistent. Dark hair, the bangs, the gleeful smile, leather, stilettos. That Bettie has been with us photographically since the ‘50s and the likelihood that she will remain stretched out across Hot Topic T-shirts or reclining across the arm of a suicide girl seems likely for the foreseeable future.
On the announcement of the death of Bettie Page this month, or at least, the death of the woman who represented the image we’ve all grown so accustomed to, I found myself reading through blogs and other memorials that repeated a common observation about celebrities that die at a ripe old age: “Gee, I didn’t even realize that she was still alive.” Never has that phrase struck me as more profoundly true than with the death of a celebrity whose sole claim to fame was for her presence as an image. Bettie Page has been dead since 1957. Who could know that Page still lived to 2008 when her image had persistently replaced her self for over 50 years?
In 1957, Jorge Luis Borges published a short story called “Borges y Yo” (most often translated in English as “Borges and I”) that confronts the problem of the dual identity of public figures. Borges begins this story of fractured identity with a simple statement, “ To the other one, to Borges, is to whom things happen.” He goes on to then make observations about the interests and life of this “Borges”, the author, that has gained some celebrity for his short fiction and about himself, the speaker (who, perhaps represents some kind of essential self removed from the public eye that we as readers are unaware of), and the difference between the interests and life of this other person, “I”.
Ironically this “I” realizes that, by publishing the story, the “I” has been subsumed in some way on the page itself by the authority of the public version of himself, “Borges”. Thus, the story ends in a frustrated confusion about expressing a real sense of self at all: “I do not know which of us has written this page.”
Certainly everyone at times wears a ‘public’ and ‘private’ face. I realized this first as a child, when talking with my mother. The phone would ring and suddenly her “telephone voice” would emerge, sounding alien, formal, and quite distinct from the voice that I had just been listening to. She was no longer my mother, but someone else, and the transformation had taken place right before my very eyes. Lord knows the digital age, with its shifting avatars in various forums, its shifting identities on MySpace pages and blogs, makes Borges existential crisis seem these days to be positively simplistic.
Nevertheless, the core of Borges’ crisis is complicated despite its seemingly binary nature. Borges is struggling between a sense of a “real” self and the representations of self that emerge through our public personas. While he would like these separate selves to be seen as discrete, he struggles as he sees them collapsing into one another. Celebrities in particular may find Borges’ conundrum to be especially relatable. These are people who, after all, are better ‘known’ (or felt to be known) as their public selves by far more people than they are ‘known’ by an individual in a meaningful way.
Indeed, Borges’ fear that a public face might replace a private self is manifest in number of iconic figures’ lives. Consider the transformation of Norma Jean Mortenson into Marilyn Monroe. It wasn’t just the adoption of a new name that distinguished her “real” identity from the actress. Marilyn Monroe was a look, a walk, a way of talking.
My daughters and I were recently watching the 1952 Cary Grant-Ginger Rogers movie, Monkey Business, a film that co-starred Monroe. In it, Monroe plays a secretary and midway through the film my six-year-old said, “I thought Marilyn Monroe was in this movie.” I responded, “She was the secretary in the last scene.” “But when does she become Marilyn Monroe?” she asked. Indeed, Marilyn was the part that Norma Jean played. That person, Norma Jean, seemed long extinguished by a wiggling rear end, a recognizable signature hairstyle, a breathy voice, and some pretty good comedy chops.
In the case of Bettie Page the image, the extinction of Betty May Page the person has been physically based. Her images suggest for the most part a lack of personality. (While I realize that many read a great deal into Bettie’s smile particularly as an image of a unique sex positive approach to human sexuality for the time period, nevertheless, Bettie’s grin is fairly consistent with much of the pornography of the era. A sultry gaze may have been the dominant of the last few decades of porn, but a big smile is more likely than not the facial expression of a Playmate or other nude model of the ‘50s).
Whereas Borges was a writer and Monroe was an actress, Page was a body—as pure an object as the pornographer can manage. Page was never really asked to act (unless cat fights and bondage performance count as ‘acting’ at a level comparable to Monroe’s embodiment of a character). Page was merely asked to ‘be’. But to ‘be’ only as an object, subject to our gaze, subject to the whip, subject to an open handed spanking. Indeed, the binary qualities of bondage and domination are found in the subject-object relationship. Her ‘80s and ‘90s resurrection as a figure of interest was as an image to be drawn, dressed up, or otherwise consumed, which serves to further exemplify the prominence of Page the image as object to be manipulated or to be used as decoration. Her “life” was erased by the image that she had become.
Even Page seemed distant from the life of her represented self. In a 1993 interview with Robin Leach, Page claimed to have not even known about the revival of her image in popular culture especially during the ‘80s and ‘90s (she was in social isolation for most of that time, in a mental institution and later under supervision).
Even when not distanced by a lack of awareness of the use of her image, Page was aware of a distance in time between her own life and that of her iconic second self. In Page’s obituary from the Los Angeles Times, the Times recalls an interview with her from 2006: “She had one request for that interview: that her face not be photographed. ‘I want to be remembered,’ she said, ‘as I was when I was young and in my golden times.’” Certainly, vanity and a fear of aging explain Page’s concern about her contemporary image, but even so it would also seem a recognition of what her audience wanted, the image of Bettie Page, not Betty Page herself.
Thus, it is with some reticence that I think about the eulogizing of Bettie Page. Certainly, that slice of her life, or rather, the representation of that slice of her life, will be celebrated in pictures eternally, as celebrity lives are. I wonder what might be remembered of the life of a woman who was long ago replaced by her own representation?