Betty Boop was black.
In her first cartoon in nearly three decades, which appeared online in February, Betty Boop steps out of a car into a windy street, her short black dress flaring. She rescues the designer Zac Posen — who is ensnared in monstrous vines — with nothing but a glare, and turns men arguing on the sidewalk into grinning fools with a wink and a smile. She’s sexy, independent — and well aware of both, something that has made her iconic since her debut as a character 87 years ago.
The new cartoon is part of what Jennifer Wolfe of Animation World Network called “a larger Betty Boop campaign,” signaling that the character is experiencing a cultural resurgence. Last month, Posen also unveiled two new dresses inspired Betty Boop, one a flounce-hemmed mini ($250) and the other a floor-length mermaid gown ($550), both in Betty Boop Red; MAC Cosmetics released a sultry red lipstick on Valentine’s Day also named Betty Boop Red; the March issue of Woman’s Day features “Heroine of Hearts,” a comic by King Features starring Boop that promotes women’s health; and the famous flapper even stars in a new American play, Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops, featuring five different versions of the Jazz Age character.
Yet behind her there’s a ghost, a figure who follows her everywhere, but who’s hardly ever seen: The all-too-often-forgotten African-American cabaret singer named “Baby” Esther who, arguably, truly gave birth to the cartoon character, yet rarely receives credit for it, and whose story, in many ways, tells a larger tale about America itself.
Betty Boop began as both a parody and a powerful symbol of unabashed sexuality, a combination she would retain, to varying degrees, throughout her lifespan in the media. She first appeared in 1930 as an anthropomorphic cartoon canine in the short Dizzy Dishes, where she sang, danced, and wagged her ears. A year later, she had transitioned into a human character, her flappy ears morphing into her now-famous hoop earrings. At once ingenuous, gentle, and kind, she was a female figure who stood out in the world of American animation and comics; whereas early characters like Minnie Mouse were often largely just copies of male figures in women’s clothing, Betty Boop was unique. Unlike Olive Oyl in “Popeye” or Minnie Mouse, she wasn’t defined by her relation to a more famous male character; she was the main figure all on her own. Over time, she became more and more of an overt sex symbol in black-and-white and color alike, her cleavage and curves clear for all to see.
On the one hand, Betty Boop was a creation of the heterosexual male gaze, with an endless parade of lecherous male characters trying to see under her skirt, yet on the other hand she wore power like a light shawl, her image an in-your-face depiction of unashamed sexuality. (Indeed, in Posen’s cartoon, she uses her sex appeal almost like a superpower, and Posen even called her “the ultimate femme fatale and feminist.”) She was a stereotype, yet she also defied stereotypes of what female cartoon characters could do onscreen. An early promotional ad describes her as “the first and only feminine cartoon star.” In two 1932 shorts, Betty Boop, long depicted as a virgin, even has to try to fend off grotesque male characters who try to rape her, which she is saved from by screaming for help; these were among the earliest cartoons to depict sexual harassment so explicitly. And she could be subversive in other ways, too: In one episode, she changes clothes onstage from a dress to a man’s suit, a transformation all the more striking because it subtly suggests a possible queer context for the character.
However, her freedoms were short-lived. The National Legion of Decency — which was staunchly Catholic — and the Hays Code both appeared in the 1930s, and they defined and censored “objectionable content” in motion pictures; as a result, Betty Boop soon began wearing far less revealing clothing.
As if proof that the character was largely a sex symbol, she fell off in popularity after this enforced modesty. But she was too potent an icon to disappear, and she kept reappearing, adorning everything from candy bars to a Tokyo diner and making a colorful cameo in a 2012 Lancôme commercial for Hypnôse Star mascara.
Esther Jones sang in the 1920s, her beautiful, unusual voice a signature of the Cotton Club in Harlem. Boop-oop-a-doo, she would say as she performed in her flirtatious siren’s tone, her dark bob of hair fluttering. In a rare photo of Jones, she is smiling as she sits, her eyes penetrating and kind.
In 1970 in Time magazine, responding to a peculiarly tone-deaf question from a reader who wanted to know what America would look like without black people, Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man, argued that America would not, could not, be America without black people. The query was an “absurdity,” a “fantasy”; to varying degrees, Ellison declared, almost every aspect of the country — from slang to music to economic injustice to the existence of iconic American writers like Twain or Faulkner — is inextricably intertwined not only with the legacy of slavery but with African-American cultural production, yet these ties are all too often forgotten, if not deliberately obscured. That the white Kane took the black Jones’s style of singing and attempted to claim it as her own is one of the most common, frustrating narratives in America.
Silly as she can be, I love Betty Boop. That she’s still strutting her stuff in 2017, eyes as starry as ever, suggests she’s here to stay. In her way, after all, Betty Boop — with her confident sexuality, her innocence and experience, her contradictions, her interweaving racial history — is a symbol of America. Knowing the more complex story of her origins should only make Fleischer’s creation richer. I want to believe in an America where we can acknowledge our fraught racial pasts and still influence each other to create beautiful, disquieting art, no matter who we may be — a world where we never forget our phantoms, but learn from them, all the same. And this, to me, is why it’s only fitting Betty Boop reappear time and time again: She is us, in part. The next time she sings, we should listen not just for Kane, but for the ghost behind her, who should never have been a ghost in the first place