Famed, fifties pin-up queen Bettie Page passed away this December. The Reverend Robert Schuller presided over her funeral, which was attended by Hugh Hefner and a host of admirers and imitators. Rather than waiting for Biola University to pay tribute to their former student, I thought I would consider Bettie Page’s curious combination of sex and salvation.
Born into an abusive family, Bettie still graduated near the top of her Nashville high school class. An early marriage ended in divorce and Bettie pursued an acting career in New York. Her deep Southern accent may have inhibited her dramatic prospects. But an invitation to model for a photographer led to her appearance in all manner of undress. Bettie Page eventually landed on the cover of Playboy magazine wearing nothing but a Santa hat.
Richard Foster’s definitive biography, The Real Bettie Page, chronicles her sad and surprising story. She attended the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (thanks to gracious loans) and also Moody Bible Institute and Multnomah. As a born-again Christian, Bettie worked for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Yet, amidst her missionary activity, Bettie also endured three divorces and several run-ins with the law. In 1972, she ran through the Bible Town complex in South Florida waving a gun and shouting about the judgment of God. Was she warning others of the torment she endured? Bettie even brandished a knife and threatened to cut her kids’ guts out if they took their eyes off a picture of Jesus. Eventually, Bettie was committed to a state mental hospital suffering from schizophrenia.
Did the gap between her famed photographs and her Christian convictions haunt her?Can we reconcile her black latex bondage shots with her black leather Bible? While battling her demons, Bettie developed a devoted cult following. From Madonna’s sensationalistic Sex book to Katy Perry’s black bangs, Bettie influence continues unabated. What makes her brazen photographs so appealing fifty years later? While many models conjured come hither looks to seduce potentially buyers, Bettie approached awkward photo shoots with unguarded aplomb. She seemed at home in the buff, remarkably comfortable playing around with images of power and passion. Bettie made smut seem fun.
We recognize the unhealthy attachments that arise from pornography. It dehumanizes and objectifies women. It can undermine marriages and bring down pastors. The xxxchurch ministry offers a monitoring program for those trying to curb their addictions. They also boldly suggest that “Jesus Loves Porn Stars.” Yet even with more willingness to discuss sensuality and spirituality, many still remain seemingly powerless to resist such obvious images.
Bettie’s divided life seems to reveal the disembodied nature of much Christian faith. An emphasis upon right thinking often leaves us hostile to the body and scared of our sexuality. Pornography exerts a strong hold over Christians who cannot reconcile their head and their hormones. Before she was a Christian, Bettie Page seemed at home in her skin, even when she flashed large amounts of it. She looked joyful in front of the camera, particularly in the natural, outdoors photography of Bunny Yeager. Her understanding and acceptance of her sexuality may have decreased during her Christian discipleship. May Bettie’s tumultuous life provide an ongoing reminder to reconcile our heads and hearts, our bodies and souls.