Bopping with Betty Boop
The dark, coiffed bob. Peepers the size of bagels. Shapely legs. Pouty rosebud lips. Helen Kane's Bronx baby doll voice. Teeny feet in teeny heels. Coke Bottle curves. A scandalously tight red dress. A habit of breaking out into song and dance routines at any point in time.
As a little girl, I did not fall for Betty for the same reasons that instantly attract her male fans. I fell for her cute quirks, genuine nature, vintage glamour, and the fact that she belonged to Max Fleischer's cast of flamboyant characters.
My earliest memories of Betty Boop go back to my parents' blue Mazda MPV. My mother would prop up a small TV between the console and the back passenger's seat so my sisters and I could all watch the cartoons together on long car rides. During daylight hours, my sisters and I read and drew, but once darkness fell, we fled from the Information Age to the '30s and '40s, thanks to the magic of VHS tapes.
Those VHS tapes often showcased a hodgepodge of creations from Fleischer, Warner Brothers, Paramount, and Disney. Along with Betty, my sisters and I got a healthy dose of “Felix the Cat,” “Popeye the Sailor,” “Looney Tunes,” “Superman,” “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” and “Little Lulu,” among numerous others. Yet for every “Bugs Bunny” or “Little Audrey” cartoon I enjoyed, I still preferred Betty. She has spunk and something I could not articulate at the time: sex appeal. Gags, great music, and an overall decadence of visual detail helped me connect not only to Betty but to her world.
Betty cartoons I will never forget include “Bimbo's Initiation,” “Bimbo's Express,” “Boop-Oop-a-Doop,” “Betty Boop's Crazy Inventions,” “The Old Man of the Mountain,” “Poor Cinderella,” “When My Ship Comes In,” “Betty Boop and Grampy,” and “House Cleaning Blues.” My favorite Betty cartoon remains “Snow-White” (1933), which famously features the music of Cab Calloway and the kooky animation of one-man-band Roland C. Crandall.
Despite the campiness apparent in many of these cartoons, when I was a child, Betty seemed like a better version of Barbie. Betty, though highly sexualized, is relatively independent. She lives her own life without a man, working various jobs and continually re-inventing herself. Betty could be a showgirl or an aunt or a princess or an anthropomorphized canine. She can flirt and she can dress, too. My elementary school self admired her racy get-ups, right down to Betty's heart-shape necklines and exposed garter straps. I never casted moral judgement. I only wondered why more women did not embrace her jazzy flair.
Even today, almost two decades later, my relationship with Betty Boop continues. I occasionally return to my favorite cartoons and read up on her in books and blogs. A couple of years ago, I found an eccentric store in Alexandria, VA that sold classic comic books and venus flytraps. In addition to buying Archie and Casper the Friendly Ghost comic books, I bought a few pages from different Betty calendars printed in the '80s. One print shows Betty as a geisha; another shows her as a Parisian at an outdoor cafe. I also have depictions of Betty in Venice, Spain, and the Middle East.
Today the pages hang in my bedroom on their very own wall. They remind me of the thrill of being Betty Boop—beautiful, sophisticated (but never snobby), and full of heart.