The journey of the first sex symbol in cartoon history. Sounds…interesting. But also weird, right? It’s complicated. Betty Boop was created by Max Fleischer and drawn by Grim Natwick in the early 1930s for an animated short entitled “Dizzy Dishes.” She was a nightclub singer, and an object of the attentions of lustful men (yep, it sure was the 1930s). Audiences loved her, and Paramount Studios took notice of the people clamoring for more cartoons “with that girl in them.”
Betty Boop was one of the most successful cartoon characters of the early 1930s. Even as the Great Depression cast the nation into decidedly unsexy times, Betty’s image could be seen on everything from playing cards to nail polish to cigarette cases. Her appeal was real, even if she was…well, a cartoon.
In 1934’s Poor Cinderella, Betty appeared in color for the first time, as a redhead:
That same year, the Hayes office (Hollywood’s official censor) introduced a new production code imposing rigid standards on sexual suggestion in film. Betty’s backless dress was replaced with a much longer dress with sleeves and a collar; her garter belt was never seen again. Betty was now portrayed as a schoolteacher, secretary, and babysitter…not so much as a nightclub singer. In 1939, Fleischer Studios released the swan song of the original Betty Boop series: “Yip Yip Yippy.”
But in the 1980s, Betty Boop returned (nostalgia was big back then). Check out “The Romance of Betty Boop” from 1985 — the full-length cartoon was set during the Great Depression, and even featured a Cab Calloway song as a throwback to the originals.
And of course, in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Betty makes a cameo in a sultry scene that we have to assume is the most meta homage to the sexualization of cartoons in film history.
So much for the Hayes office’s pearl-clutching censorship. So what does the legacy of Betty Boop mean today? Well, for one thing, it means we have a rich, complicated, and very Woolly cultural framework to ponder with our next show, Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops.
We hope you’ll join us. Boop boop a doop.