The comic character Betty Boop is enjoying a renaissance, with new cartoons, a new trademark red lipstick, and women’s fashions on offer. At New York, Gabrielle Bellot explores the original inspiration for Betty Boop—a black jazz singer named Baby Esther Jones, whose signature voice and scat-inspired patter inspired not only Betty’s look, but her signature phrase, “Boop-oop-a-doop.” As Bellot writes, Boop was far more than just a cartoon character—she was the first feminist depicted in animated film.
Betty Boop, it seems, continues to dance across the stages of media, makeup, and memories alike. 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.
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.
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.