On August 9, 1930, Betty Boop made her cartoon debut in the animated short “Dizzy Dishes.” Originally appearing as an anthropomorphic French poodle, Betty Boop transitioned into a human female character a year later, trading in her floppy dog ears for flirty hoop earrings. Unabashedly sexual while simultaneously innocent, Betty Boop was created by cartoonist Max Fleischer to both parody and celebrate the flapper. Throughout the 1930s, Betty Boop had to contend with Hollywood’s decency police as well as a 1932 lawsuit. To this day, Betty Boop is a style icon – look no further than the Hollywood red carpet – and one of the most popular cartoon characters in the world. In many ways, Betty Boop embodies America’s complicated history around race and sexuality.
From 1932 to 1934, Betty Boop strutted her unabashed sexuality in a series of animated shorts. Unlike the other female cartoon characters of the day, Betty Boop was all woman, with her high-heels, garter belt and perfectly applied lipstick. An ongoing trope throughout the cartoon involved Betty Boop, with the help of her dog Bimbo, constantly fending off pervy characters.
Then, in 1934, the National Legion of Decency, as well as the Hollywood Production Code, began to lay out morality guidelines for the motion picture industry. One of the many casualties of the censors: Betty Boop’s barely-there style and overtly sexual antics. As her character was forced to cover up, Betty Boop’s popularity began to wane. However, licensing deals allowed for the original Betty Boop image to resurface on everything from lunch boxes to make-up. She became an omnipresent fixture of American pop culture.
However, the backstory to who really inspired Betty Boop is tied to America’s complicated history of cultural appropriation. In 1932, singer Helen Kane initiated a $250,000 infringement lawsuit against cartoonist Max Fleischer. She claimed he stole her singing style as well as her “Boop-Oop-a-doop” catchphrase. Fleischer was ultimately able to prove in court that Betty Boop was a composite of multiple women.
Furthermore, it was revealed at the trial that a black female singer from Harlem named Esther Jones, known as Baby Esther, was the “original” Betty Boop. In 1928, Kane had watched Baby Esther perform songs at the Cotton Club, where she used phrases like “boop-boop-a-doo.” It turned out that Kane took the black female jazz singer’s schtick and presented it as her own creation.
Betty Boop continues to capture our attention and imagination. In 2017, M.A.C. launched a Betty Boop lipstick. That same year, Zac Posen released a dress collection in a new shade by Pantone called Betty Boop Red. He promoted his line with his very own Betty Boop cartoon. Eighty-eight years after her first appearance, elements of Betty Boop’s vixen-like style are still ubiquitous every season on the Hollywood red carpet.