“Good Girl. Bad Girl. Sinner. Saint. Who is…The Notorious Bettie Page.” Mary Harron’s film, a feature-length rumination on feminist sexual signification, explores the ideological ramifications of a woman achieving independence through her sexuality in postwar U.S.. The poster’s caption encourages its audience to consider alternative, even conflicting, readings of its star.
Bettie Page was photographed by countless photographers. Her image and aesthetic can now be found on everything from postcards to tee-shirts to refrigerator magnets. Her likeness has been used in comic books and fine art prints. Original negatives, prints, and men’s magazines can be purchased on ebay for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. Page’s aesthetic has even inspired tattoos, lingerie and clothing lines.
Given Harron’s insistence that she must connect with her material, it is fitting that the film ends with her name next to footage of the real Bettie Page dancing.
Valerie Solanas (Lili Taylor): “The male tries to convince himself and women that the female function is to bear and raise children, soothe, relax and boost the male ego, when in actual fact, the female function is to groove, relate, love, be herself, discover, explore, and vent, solve problems, crack jokes, make music, all of love; in other words, create a magic world.”
Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale): “There is an idea of Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours, and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable, I simply am not there.”
The film begins with Page (Gretchen Mol) sitting alone outside a courtroom.
Harron returns to a similar shot of Page’s white gloves at the end of the film. Is this symbolic of Page’s well-documented “wholesomeness,” and her own understanding of her femininity?
By framing her film with the 1955 Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency’s hearings on Obscene and Pornographic Materials Harron connects the model’s life and image to the social and political questions raised by postwar sexual iconography.
While Gretchen Mol was known for her “cottony golden locks” and “gigawatt smile,” her transformation into Bettie Page was complete, right down to Page’s signature hairstyle.
The expression on Bettie’s face (bound and gagged for a photo shoot) underscores Mol’s observation that Page was “full of all these juxtapositions. She was very much a 50s woman and she was religious, but she was also so comfortable naked.”
Harron’s film is chock full of cameras; their inescapable presence underscores the film’s insistence on viewing Page’s image reflexively.
A young Bettie and her sister Goldie pose for their brother outside their family home in Nashville.
“The girls had fun doing this.” Photographer, and sister to pin-up mogul Irving Klaw, Paula Klaw (Lili Taylor) acted like a nurturing den mother to her models. In her first photo shoot with Page, Paula puts music on and dances along.
Former model and photographer Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson) produced some of the most memorable (and appropriated) images of Bettie Page.
A product of the feminine mystique, the “real” Bettie Page tried being a teacher, a homemaker, and a secretary — the three primary avenues open to women in postwar United States. None of these spoke to her "God-given talents," however.
Shortly after Page moves to New York City and begins working a string of secretarial jobs, she is introduced to modeling by African American photographer (and police officer) Jerry Tibbs.
A police officer shuts down the modeling shoot because of the ‘scene’ Tibbs and Page create. Through a kind of matter-of-fact direction by Harron, this sequence carefully layers and calls attention to the operation of social and racial taboos of the postwar era.
In addition to introducing Page to modeling, Tibbs suggests Page’s signature hairstyle.
The ‘pay off’ of Tibbs’s hairstyle suggestion is witnessed in Page’s appearance here.
Page’s trademark smile carefully frames the transition from phone operator to icon.
Pin-up queen Bettie Page was one of the most photographed women of the 1950s. In addition to posing for thousands of pin-up and cheesecake images, Page performed in burlesque features and cheeky bondage and discipline scenarios. Her modeling career only spanned a few years, from 1951 to 1957. Then, while her images and films continued to circulate, she fell into relative obscurity for more than twenty years. In the 1980s, Page resurfaced as a cult icon, spawning what comedian Buck Henry termed in 1992 the “Betty Boom.” [open endnotes in new window] Page became an inspiration to and cipher for artists, fashion designers, models, and feminists who appropriated Page’s aesthetic and claimed her as a proto-feminist icon of liberated sexuality. Writer and director Mary Harron’s interest in Bettie Page dates to this “boom” and, in 1993, Harron and Guinevere Turner began working on their script for The Notorious Bettie Page.
The Notorious Bettie Page (2005) is a multivalent construction. The film recasts and appropriates Bettie Page as a multifaceted representation of beauty and desirability that ultimately disrupts traditional understandings of female sexuality and identity. This is especially interesting when we consider the film and its relation to current feminist discourse. As an examination of Page and the social and political turbulence of the postwar era—an era which consumed a tremendous amount of sexual commodities—The Notorious Bettie Page affords us a way to understand the problems inherent in cinematically representing a female sexuality commensurate with current feminist schemas. By refiguring a postwar pin-up model in a third wave feminist light, Harron's film destabilizes a traditional male gaze and invites the audience to engage a dialectic of representational female sexuality. The Notorious Bettie Page embraces contradiction and draws attention to the complicated business of feminist sexual signification. Not only does Harron’s film appropriate and recover Bettie Page for a third wave feminist audience, it provides viewers with a challenging rumination and remediation of postwar ideology and femininity.
The “infamous” Mary Harron
Canadian filmmaker and writer Mary Harron is touted as one of the film industry’s few “high-profile female directors,” even though she has only directed and released four feature length films in the last fifteen years. The director’s measured output is the result of careful research, attention to detail, and a need to connect with her material. As Harron reveals in an interview with The Guardian’s Kate Bussman,
An Oxford-educated former journalist and critic for New York’s famed music magazine Punk, Harron’s discovery of Valerie Solanas’ radically feminist 1968 SCUM Manifesto led to her first screenplay (co-written with Daniel Minahan) and feature film, I Shot Andy Warhol (1996).
With I Shot Andy Warhol Harron diligently balances recreation of period with her deep affinity with Solanas. Dana Heller cites Harron who writes,
Many reviewers of the film took issue with Harron’s treatment of Andy Warhol, the Factory scene, and Solanas’ motivations and her unique brand of radical feminism. As Heller suggests, however,
Harron’s fascination with “blighted talents” and “vanished possibilities” is filtered through her interest in the shifting technologies of cultural memory and the complex nature of writing (and rewriting). This allows her film to supersede historical accuracy and eschew any straightforward feminist agenda. Harron’s depiction of Solanas’ radicalism has less to do with redressing societal wrongs to women than understanding Solanas’ inability to manage herself in an environment ill-equipped to accept her. Solanas begs for change, prostitutes herself, espouses radical anti-male feminism. When met with indifference she becomes increasingly agitated to the point where her shooting Andy Warhol is less the result of spiraling out of control than it is her extreme, final attempt to be heard, to be noticed. Warhol reads less as “an insult to level-headed feminism” than as a provocative rumination on the difficulty of managing personal identity and agency within the discursive forces of a patriarchal consumer culture.
Following Warhol with a screen adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, Harron again demonstrated her unique approach to period recreation and art direction, as well as her dedication to filming frustrated, misunderstood characters whose lives go terribly wrong. Like Warhol, American Psycho received mixed reviews, due in part to Harron’s unflinching treatment of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel and her commitment to presenting the story as razor sharp, period satire—as an indictment of 1980s empty opulence. And like her treatment of Solanas, Harron depicts Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) as a complicated, even loathsome character who begs not for sympathy, or identification, but for acceptance—to be seen and heard.
Warhol and American Psycho together highlight a battle between ideology and autonomy. Bateman and Solanas are both products and aberrations of their discursive environments. Solanas’ abject “butch” lesbianism and anti-male radical feminism, Harron demonstrates, are the results of both internal and external discursive forces. Patrick Bateman is not simply pushed to extremes by a 1980s culture obsessed with surface and consumption; he is also driven (and driven mad) by his own unchecked desire to be a successful part of that very culture. That he is finally met with utter indifference echoes the indifference with which Solanas is met in Warhol.
In his review of American Psycho, Roger Ebert cites Harron’s confession that American Psycho is a “feminist” film. While Ebert’s reading of Harron’s feminism is not particularly illuminating, Harron’s admittance suggests strong feminist ties between her first two films; it also reveals the director’s penchant for creating feminist works that play with surface and resist “level-headed feminism.” Reading Warhol as a feminist film requires looking through Solanas’ radicalism to see how Warhol’s fame and success represent a co-opting of his queer aesthetic by heteronormative consumer culture and its reinforcement of traditional, patriarchal gender roles. Solanas’ abjection is incommensurable, and so must be purged. Patrick Bateman’s devotion to surface and status reifies both heteronormativity and patriarchy. Harron’s biting satirization of Bateman’s desire exposes the hollowness of the patriarchal drive for dominance and wealth. Bateman’s proclamation that there is nothing beneath his surface aligns his mania with a psychotic fetishism born of rampant objectification.
Given Warhol’s interest in exploring the complexity of gender signification, feminism, and cultural memory, and American Psycho’s interest in surface, objectification, and patriarchal fetishism, it is not surprising that Harron chose to tackle pin-up queen Bettie Page. Page, a product of postwar ideology and the feminine mystique, eschews clear labels; her image vacillates between and collapses the good girl/bad girl binary. Harron’s treatment carefully navigates Page’s multifaceted iconography, and the film remediates the model’s life and image in a way that challenges traditional representations of female sexuality and dismantles rote objectification and easy consumption of sex symbols. In a way, The Notorious Bettie Page collects and extends Harron’s previous films’ interests and ranks as not only her most “feminist” film but as her clearest rendering of a multivalent third wave agenda.
The Notorious Bettie Page traces the life of Bettie Page through a series of flashbacks while she waits to testify before the 1955 Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Harron uses Bettie’s waiting alone on a courthouse bench to anchor the film’s narrative. And that narrative frames Page’s life and culpability with questions regarding sexual signification and the larger social and political questions raised by postwar sexual iconography. As with Warhol and Psycho, however, Notorious carefully balances the power of ideological forces and personal agency. The Bettie Page of Harron’s film is both a product of the postwar era and an active, if at times conflicted, agent in the trajectory of her life.
Notorious stars Gretchen Mol as Bettie Page. A graduate of the William Esper Studio in Manhattan, Mol was “discovered” by photographer Davis Powell in 1994. Her first film role was in Spike Lee’s 1996 film Girl 6. As Ryan Stewart notes,
That years later she would play pin-up queen Page seems fitting, though she would trade her golden locks for Bettie’s trademark jet black hair with sharp bangs.
Mol’s commitment to portraying Page survived the two years between signing on to the project and Harron’s securing of funds to start filming. The actress also spent considerable time delving into the pin-up model’s life and circumstances. Mol explains of Page:
Of her turn as the pin-up queen, Mol says,
Mol’s observations echo Harron’s, both in terms of cultural memory and aesthetic, and her portrayal of Page clearly reflects the actress’s connection to the material and the subject of Notorious.
Much like the reception of her first two films, many reviewers were disappointed with Notorious, complaining the film failed to evoke a real, emotional response. Chris Cabin notes,
Cabin also derides the film's "shallowness and distance." Roger Ebert, too, identifies "the tone of the movie [as] subdued and reflective." For Ebert, The Notorious Bettie Page is evocative of nostalgia and sadness; it embodies a longing for a forgotten, innocent era prior to the experiential rawness of hardcore pornography. While Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman praises some aspects of the film, he ultimately claims, "The movie doesn't probe [Bettie's] interior life in any revelatory way.”
That the film runs counter to expectations is echoed in comments Harron made in response to American Psycho (2000). Kaufman, in reference to Harron's thanking Lion's Gate for producing "a film that nobody would," asked the director what changes other producers required of her in order to produce the film:
Harron reveals a clear intention to eschew narrative tropes and psychological character development in search of something with "edges."
In an interview with Ann Hornaday, Harron admits,
Hornaday follows up on these comments by questioning, "What's your relationship to feminism?" Harron's response is telling:
Harron's insistence that she “[doesn't] make feminist films,” that she “[doesn’t] make anything ideological," is indicative of the double-bind represented by the multiple and often contradictory categories of contemporary feminisms. Speaking to these contradictions, Stephanie Genz opens Postfemininities in Popular Culture by noting that "the last decades of the twentieth century were characterized by analytical turmoil and popular disagreements regarding the conditions of feminism and femininity." Genz articulates this turmoil and disagreement with a personal qualification:
"For many of us coming of age around this time," she continues, "the sheer amount of possible interpretations and allegiances was confounding and downright confusing."
This confusion is most noticeable in the friction between postfeminism(s) and third wave feminism. Lise Shapiro Sanders cautions, "Postfeminism should not be confused with third wave feminism." Sanders cites Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake to articulate the differences between the two:
This characterization of postfeminism as conservative and oppositional to the second wave is the one typically forwarded by popular media, the claim being feminism has run its course, is "dead.” Postfeminism, as an anti-feminist stance, rallies behind an essentialized definition of “woman” and reinstalls it within a conservative, patriarchal tradition. Sanders adds that there are alternative uses of "postfeminism" not characterized by anti-feminist sentiment; however, she does warn that
Harron's comments demonstrate this conflict between celebration and condemnation of women and feminism; her denial of ideological intent, combined with her reverence for second wave feminism, is both feminist and not feminist. Such a contradictory stance is better characterized by the move from second to third wave feminism. R. Clair Snyder notes, “the third wave foregrounds personal narratives that illustrate an intersectional and multiperspectival version of feminism.” Furthermore, “third-wave feminism emphasizes an inclusive and nonjudgmental approach that refuses to police the boundaries of the feminist political.”
In Chilla Bulbeck’s encapsulation of the key differences between the second and third wave there is a clear distinction regarding sexuality:
While Harron denies a feminist agenda, her work is actually best viewed as a multivalent third wave feminism. A chameleon feminism, it at times looks like a conservative distillation of basic second wave principles. At other times it feels indicative of anti-feminist postfeminism. But ultimately it is characterized by the “intersectional and multiperspectival” qualities of the third wave.
Though written, filmed and released in a turbulent postfeminist era, The Notorious Bettie Page exhibits a third wave ethos in terms of its visual aesthetic. Harron confirms this aesthetic—one set in opposition to a normalized sexuality and traditional gaze:
That Harron presents a Page who is not just "sexy-sexy"—is not just a consumable sex object—prompts multiple readings. While Gretchen Mol’s performance of Bettie Page is aesthetically pleasing and channels Page’s own sexual appeal (both heteronormative and transgressive), Harron's direction also subverts erotic objectification. Bettie is the "object" who is gawked at, slobbered over, and almost continuously photographed within the narrative. This continuum of objectification doesn't seem to faze Page. Her performance is never about catering to her audience’s need for sexual gratification; rather, it’s about her own fun and liberation.
For Page (the “real” and the “notorious”), her modeling meant a liberation from the pressures and abuses of her life; for the audience watching the modeling, it means liberation from social constraints and the ideological trap of viewing female sexuality as a symbolic act of sexual oppression. As such, Page’s role as erotic object gets stripped away. The result of the film’s narrative—as well as its tone and construction—is to obfuscate audience desire theThe tepid reviews from male critics, combined with Harron's insistence that women (and gay men) "get her films," illustrates her ability to destabilize heteronormative viewing pleasure. Furthermore, as Jane Gaines notes,
In a sense, The Notorious Bettie Page takes the already written sex symbol that is Bettie Page and rewrites her sexual signification as a feminist act.
As Maria Elena Buszek notes, the challenge of third wave feminists to create a new sexual paradigm involves
Harron's film attempts this very thing by presenting the physically attractive and accessible Gretchen Mol as a good-natured and free-spirited Bettie Page liberated by the exposure of her sexuality. Page’s desirability is unquestioned—both by the filmmakers and the audience. However, Harron’s and Mol’s presentation of Page is ultimately presented as disruptive. Such disruption is most noticeable in the film’s ability to underscore Page’s sexuality with humor, to invite audience reflection instead of desire, and to present Page’s confidence in front of the camera as unwavering.