Harron creates a careful balance between the ‘safety’ of modeling in a suburban setting with the reality of a group of men gathered to photograph scantily clad women.
‘Fatherly’ figure Art, played by Joe Mosso and based on Bettie Page amateur photographer Art Amsie, polices the camera club sessions. When a photographer touches model Maxi, Art warns, “Hey! No touching. Do it again and you’re out on your ear.”
“Don’t forget us boys in the corner.” Harron introduces gender transgression into the camera club.
A nervous Bettie enters a quiet, anticipatory room. The silence emphasizes the immediate, nonverbal reactions of the men—ticks of surprise and excited, even comical sighs and grunts.
A sea of excited photographers. They adjust their cameras and begin shooting with looks ranging from disbelief to wonder to excitement.
“I saw it! I saw beaver!” Notice how this shot is framed: Page, at the center, is slightly out of focus. The childlike wonder of the horny photographer in the bottom right foreground is the clear focus.
“Look at that over there. Here we go again.” The nurturing environment of the camera club’s suburban locale is counterpoised by the wildness of nature, where nudity is ‘optional’ but expected.
Harron offers an attitude comparison: Bettie’s fellow model is clearly opposed to nudity; Bettie is intrigued by the prospect.
The Notorious Bettie Page’s carefully crafted version of Bettie Page begs its audience simultaneously to view Page as a sexual woman and interrogate this representation. By eschewing a reading of Bettie's psychological underpinnings and by presenting Page as unflinchingly good-natured in her sexual performance, Harron in a sense de-sexes a sexual icon. As Gaines points out,
By underscoring Page’s sexual performance with her harmless, even innocent, good-natured enjoyment, the audience comes to view her sexuality not as a performance for its gratification—a performance wherein Page reinforces a culturally naturalized sex—but one wherein she achieves her own satisfaction—a satisfaction that transcends rigidly organized (and contained) areas of sexual life.
After the real Bettie Page moved to New York from Nashville in 1950, she worked a number of secretarial jobs before being introduced to photographic modeling by policeman and amateur photographer Jerry Tibbs. Notorious includes this introduction and uses it to establish Page’s transition from secretary to model, a transition emphasized visually by Tibbs’ suggestion that Page cut her bangs to enhance her appearance in front of the camera. This establishment of Page as a model provides a backdrop to one of the film’s most interesting sequences—one which not only destabilizes sexual signification through humor but presents a provocative instance of gender transgression.
While the real Betie Page modeled extensively for professional photographers, she also posed for amateur photographers and camera clubs. These camera clubs were largely composed of men who gathered in houses and outdoor locations to photograph women hired to model in various stages of undress. While touted as clubs for men interested in photography, they primarily served as opportunities for men to ogle scantily clad and nude women. Shortly after the audience witnesses Bettie’s transformation from telephone operator to photographic model, Harron presents us with Page’s induction into the fifties amateur camera club scene.
In Notorious, a female photographer appears amidst the men gathered to photograph Page. Harron notes in the DVD commentary track to Notorious that women occasionally participated in these camera clubs. Harron’s female photographer is clearly presented as a challenge to gender expectations: She dresses like a man and refers to herself as a boy. This insertion of transgender coding countermands a predominantly male (masculine) context, one that places objectified femininity as its focal point. That this female photographer crosses gender lines without question (she is fully assimilated into the club; she is one of “us boys”) rearticulates an otherwise historically determined situation. Her inclusion suggests to the audience that viewing (and photographing) women is not the problem; the problem is patriarchal (masculine/ misogynist) control and the desire to consume women as objects.
This challenge to gender boundaries is underscored by the scene’s insistence on carefully policed separation of model (female) from photographers (male). In the same sequence, one of the male photographers—positioned directly in front of a model—reaches out to touch and pose her leg. This transgression of a physical border between photographer and model violates a contract and is met with immediate reprimand because it reduces the model to an object to be posed. That these two boundary crossings (one accepted; one admonished) are placed back-to-back in the sequence illustrates Harron’s attempt to separate acceptable viewing from objectification.
Harron also injects a considerable amount of humor into this scene, balancing enthusiastic male ogling with silliness. What might otherwise be creepy—a handful of middle-aged men photographing scantily clad women in a non-descript suburban living room—is presented with an air of safe and jovial naiveté. The humor—in particular, one excited photographer’s insistence that he saw “beaver”—exposes the collection of amateur photographers not as controlling, patriarchal objectifiers, but as silly, horny boys. The comedy exposes the difficulty of reading The Notorious Bettie Page as a film which traffics in female sexuality for the purpose of eliciting masculine desire.
As an audience of the audience of photographers, the film’s viewers are focused less on Page’s beauty (as erotic object) than they are on the photographers (on the humor and absurdity represented by the tableaux). While Page is placed at the center of the frame, the scene’s focus is actually at the edges of the frame, on how Page is viewed by the photographers. Instead of watching Page, we watch how the photographers watch Page. Harron emphasizes this by focusing on the photographers (with Page out of focus in the background) and continually returning to shots of them snapping away at Page. The comedy suggests reflexivity. It addresses the film’s audience and invites interrogation of audience pleasure in the eroticized object.
The “beaver” joke in this sequence hinges on what is not seen—or what is almost seen—trading historical accuracy for reflection. While Bettie remains clothed in Harron’s camera club shoot, historically, this was not always the case. Page’s authorized biography notes that
That this initial camera club sequence is played for comedy (instead of illustrating a challenge to conservative social mores) reinforces the separation between acceptable viewing and objectification.
In the first camera club sequence, Page remains clothed. In a later scene, she disrobes completely. Where the first sequence takes place in a suburban home, connoting a sense of shelter and safety, this later sequence takes place in a forest park, connoting a sense of wildness and provocation. This sense of provocation is heightened by the conversation between the models and the camera club photographers. In the earlier sequence, Art (Joe Mosso) acts as a father figure policing the scene, the models’ safety his number one concern. In the outdoor sequence, however, Art’s speech betrays a bit of cheek and sarcasm. While emphasizing that nudity is “optional,” Art qualifies, “If you’re feeling shy about that, bathing suits are just dandy with us.” His insistence is at once reassuring and suggestive; it is meant to convince both models that not posing nude in such a safe environment would be silly. The seemingly rote quality of Art’s speech about safety and choice contrasts with the jovial naïveté of the earlier camera club sequence. The unnamed photographer’s (John Ventimiglia) and Art’s conversation is marked by a knowing pessimism.These photo shoots are not about boys clambering for peeks at pretty girls; rather, they are constituted by men deriving erotic charge from looking at and photographing naked women paid to pose for their use.
Harron shifts gears, however, by quickly transitioning away from this conversation to a wide shot of a pastoral scene where Page walks down a forest trail with a young photographer named Charlie (Teddy Eck). Over this tranquil scene the audience is treated to an intimate conversation—one where Page talks about herself openly. The tableaux might easily indicate budding romance; this is reinforced by Charlie’s well-mannered boyishness enthusiasm. His innocence sharply contrasts the conversation at the picnic table. The unnamed photographer’s goading forces the viewer to read his observation that “there’s nothing more beautiful than nude modeling in open air” as ironic; with Charlie, such a statement could be proffered free of irony.
The attention drawn to nudity in this sequence foreshadows what comes next. After some playful banter regarding tan lines and the harmlessness of removing “one little piece of cloth,” Bettie removes her top for Charlie’s waiting camera. The camera holds for a moment on the topless Page, arms raised, before cutting back to register Charlie’s reaction. The young photographer is visibly stunned and speechless—mouth opened wide and hands motionless. After a small beat, Charlie sighs heavily and stammers out, “Oh… thank you.”
From here, the scene develops to a point where Charlie suggests Page completely disrobe. What is most notable is here is not Charlie’s continued boyish excitement but the subtle shift in Page’s attitude, from playful confidence to complete ease and tranquility. The effect of Page’s nudity is arresting—not only for the characters but for the audience as well. When the camera cuts away from the meditative Page back to Charlie, viewers find themselves contemplating (with equal wonder) the speechless young photographer looking at Page basking in the sun. Page and Charlie, the film suggests, are operating on two different planes. This event satisfies very different needs for Bettie than it does for Charlie.
The same can be said for the audience encouraged to vacillate between the two perspectives. In much the same way as Harron inserts a female photographer into the earlier camera club scene to destabilize our sense of gender roles in creating and consuming sexual representation, here Charlie’s innocence counterbalances patriarchal objectification with innocent heterosexual desire. The splitting of audience attention between Charlie’s boyish desire and Page’s meditative disrupts our simple consumption of Mol’s naked form as an erotic object. The audience’s voyeuristic desire is displaced in favor of their contemplating desire itself and the nature of sexual (self) expression.
Charlie breaks the spell when he finally regains his composure and calls out, “Bettie… If we show too much, I could get arrested… The top is okay, but you have to hide… that.” Charlie gestures with his right hand in the direction of Page’s pubic hair. When Page moves to put her bikini bottom back on, Charlie stops her, adding, “The backside’s okay.” Where the earlier scene plays “beaver” and “keister” for humor, Harron here draws attention to the arbitrariness of decency and social mores regarding female biology and sexuality. Charlie’s insistence that he could be arrested for photographing Page’s exposed pubic hair—even though photographing her naked backside is perfectly acceptable—illustrates postwar U.S. puritanical views toward female sexuality.
The joy with which the photographers photograph Page’s “keister,” however, clearly dispels any notion that denying the viewing of certain parts of female anatomy denies (or successfully contains) pleasure. This last point is emphasized by Harron’s choice of ending each sequence with Page turning her keister/backside to the camera and smiling broadly. This is punctuated even further by the second sequence’s overlaying of magazine titles on Page’s image. Adhering to the arbitrary social restrictions cited by Charlie is rewarded with the production of a commodifiable image.
Each of these scenes illustrates that Notorious functions in a way that fulfills Laura Mulvey's call for a truly feminist film, for a “counter-cinema” which actively disrupts the traditional, exhibitionist role prescribed to women.  While Nina K. Martin is right to point to Judith Mayne’s observation that “feminist film critics simply do not have the body of evidence to suggest how and in what ways female-authored cinema would be substantially different from cinema directed and created by men,” the call for a “counter-cinema,” for a “filmmaking practice that attempts to destroy the system of narrative pleasure that creates unequal gender representations within the cinema” is answered by the representation of Bettie Page in The Notorious Bettie Page. Harron answers the call for a counter-cinema by presenting a feminism which allows for the suturing of seemingly incompatible viewpoints.
Harron does this by decentering Page’s sexual signification as she turns the audience’s gaze to the photographers in the first camera club sequence. In the later sequence she juxtaposes Charlie’s heterosexual desire and Page’s meditative liberation through nakedness. Again, this sequences privileges audience reflection over fulfillment of voyeuristic desire. Reading Harron's film as a product of “the monolithic accumulation of traditional film conventions” results in dissatisfaction because the film “isn’t really sexy.”