Betty Boop’s Cultural Origins Reveal Links between Race, Gender, and New Media History

Image featured in Meg Butler's article, "Historical Figures You Didn't Know Were Black."


Call:  Madame Noire’s Featured Article:  Michelle Obama Still the First Black Lady?  Historical Figures You Didn’t Know Were Black.

Response:  This engaging article has its merits, but illustrates the problem with web styling data for an agenda. Recovering black history is VERY important to me, but sometimes this purpose poorly contextualizes facts and leads to inaccurate master narratives.

Was Betty Boop Black?

Betty Boop’s racial origins have created controversy for decades.  Some argue that her physical image has been “whitewashed,” and that she was ‘really’ a black woman (although she is a fictional character).  As part of popular culture and the vivid childhood memories of millions, Betty Boop is real enough for people to wonder about her creation.  Although race definitely plays a role in narratives about Betty Boop’s and cultural appropriation, it is actually related to the animated character’s voice not her image. Boop’s voice is inspired by Helen Kane, a plump white actress/singer whose famous song, “I Wanna be Loved by You,” was appropriated from the black Cotton Club singer Esther “Baby Esther” Jones. Baby Esther became part of the historical record of Betty Boop because Helen Kane sued Max Fleischer for copying her ‘unique style.’ However, she lost the case because Lou Walton, Jones’ theatrical manager, testified that Kane and her manager heard Jones’ signature “boo boo boo, doo doo doo,” style at a 1928 caberet. Walton produced a sound film of Jones, which caused Justice McGoldrick to conclude that Kane failed to prove that the song/style was original. Her $250,000 lawsuit was dismissed.  Despite Madame Noir’s attempt to clarify Betty Boop’s “black” origins, the image attached to Butler’s article is neither Jones or Kane. It’s a Russian model Olya, whose images are posted on Retro_Ladies’ Live Journal blog: https://retro-ladies.livejournal.com/351472.html.


The Conflict between Appropriation and Ownership

I have always heard that Betty Boop was “black,” but wasn’t moved to verify that information until I saw this click bait article on my Facebook Feed. Furthermore, I’ve been teaching about the relationship between race and cultural appropriation discourses in a college argumentation course.  Our discussions about attribution, IP law, mimicry, minstrelsy, satire, ‘originality,’ viral videos, ‘twerking,’ capitalism, and the power of large music corporations suggest that creativity is undertheorized in American Culture.

Competing values of pop culture consumption and sole authorship/ownership reveals a racial subtext that connects the power of cultural representation to the capacity to both mainstream information and participate in the institutional structures and technological infrastructures that enable mainstreaming.  As contagion embodies social currency, the likeness of some person via their physical design and/or productions, accrues value based on the visibility, popularity, or virality of their creations.  Presumably, popularity is capable of generating monetary value.  We might assume that widespread visibility of some person and their production (even if this production is re-producing their physical image in artistic ways), implies widespread access to an image.  However, we may begin to find this connection troubling when we recall that image production and image circulation are systematically controlled by economic, political, social, and legal forces.

Although we frequently acknowledge that who gets to be seen is inextricably tied to limited access to technologies for image production and circulation, we readily accuse the dominant culture of marginalizing the rich epistemological, cultural, and technological contributions of historically oppressed groups such as women and people of color.  In adopting the language of dominant culture, and its discourses of power and politics–praising and blaming–we fail to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the reflexive histories of information technologies and cultural practices.  The consequence of failing to connect these histories is an obsession over racial attribution that comes at the expense of ahistorical accounts of technological development (and its legal consequences), which does not enable us to fully appreciate its tendency to expand the possibility of cultural contact and the documentation of alternative histories.

Betty Boop and the History of ‘New Media’

In sum, the Betty Boop Race Controversy offers a place to investigate links between race and cultural appropriation. The impulse to say, “Betty Boop was *really* Black,” comes from a genuine place.  It matters whether or not she was black or black-inspired because cultural appropriation is a major criteria affecting constructions of racial identity.  One way to recognize who is “white,” in addition to fair skin and light-colored eyes, was the person’s ability to successfully appropriate black aesthetics by converting its tendency to spread into the categories of “profit,” “sole ownership,” or “public domain.”  Either white people could literally own black cultural production, and financially benefit from it, or no-one owns it.  It’s just ‘for everybody.’  Jason Rodriguez’s ethnographic study, “Color-Blind Ideology and the Cultural Appropriation of Hip-Hop,” comprehensively investigates the way an explicitly black phenomena–the Hip Hop music scene–became progressively dominated by young white audiences, who felt they had a “right” to both consume and produce the music because it didn’t ‘belong to anyone.’  This race-neutral interpretation of property affects both land and intellectual property law (See K.Greene’s Copynorms).  As slaves, blacks’ categorical status as property and the subsequent struggle to be recognized by the law as a (property-owning) citizen, has excluded this group from attaining the access needed to ‘equally’ compete in American society.  Cultural recognition determines public opinion regarding your ‘right to access,’ (do you deserve to even be in this space?)  and the degree to which it’s ‘your own fault,’ (do you deserve nothing) that your social mobility is limited.  American history’s erasure of women and racial/ethnic groups such as blacks, Native Americans, Latinos, and Asians as CREATORS, HISTORY MAKERS, PHILOSOPHERS, and/or STORYTELLERS makes any critical person skeptical about the ‘originality’ or ‘authenticity’ of a mainstream image/phenomena.  On one hand, If Kane didn’t decide to sue Fleischer and Paramount, etc. for their use of “her voice,” we wouldn’t be able to delineate between disproportionate access to the legal means necessary for *owning* creativity and its exclusionary function (tied to its history of excluding).  The law leaked on its inability to recognize everyone as equal under the law.  Did Jones know that films of her would be used to prevent her appropriator from earning money from her productions?  Or did she just think it was cool she was being filmed at all?  Where was Baby Esther’s lawsuit against Kane?  Against Fleischer?  Was her right to own ‘her music,’ mentioned during the litigation, at all?  Nevertheless, the fight for ownership uncovered the fact of Baby Esther’s distinctive style.

After researching Betty Boop’s origins, her mystery led us to *both* the history of blueswomen and their cultural influence, as well as some of the ways in which technological politics influences rhetoric–the creative processes that make both innovations of language, history, science, and technology possible.  If film was not “new media” during the 20th century, we would not be able to quickly recover information about Esther Jones.  The fact of film as a ‘new media,’ situated within the context of popular print media (e.g. the newspaper and periodical) raises questions about the relationship between media development, cultural attitudes, and jurisprudence. The news article’s title, “Films Shown in Court,” seems provocative because it reveals a major conflict in judicial rhetoric–how credible were films as evidence? How would the film shape legal decisions? How would film technology affect historical records, and the logging of cultural memory? How would film intersect with a burgeoning music recording industry and its contribution to the enforcement (and growth) of IP law?

Sources: “The Boop Song is Traced: Witness in Helen Kane’s Suit Says Negro Girl Originated Style.” NYT (May 2, 1934) and “Films Shown in Court: Used to Help Justice Decide Kane’s $250,000 suit.” NYT (April 24, 1934) via Proquest Historical Newspapers.


One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *