Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Is Betty Boop black or white? Yes and no. (another interracial romance post)


Just got this comment on Interracial romance in comic books:
Betty Boop is black, I think she and Freddie beat everyone here.
Which is an excellent excuse for a post. Your required basic knowledge from Betty Boop:
Betty Boop made her first appearance on August 9, 1930, in the cartoon Dizzy Dishes; the sixth installment in Fleischer's Talkartoon series. Although Clara Bow is often given as being the model for Boop, she actually began as a caricature of singer Helen Kane. The character was originally created as an anthropomorphic French poodle.
Clara Bow was a famous actress of the time:


But all she really tells us about Betty Boop is that Betty was a fashionable young woman.

Helen Kane was famous for this song, and it's the reason she unsuccessfully sued the Fleischers:



Helen Kane's style owed a great deal to a black singer, Esther Jones, known as Baby Esther, which came out in the trial:


Evidence was produced that Kane actually derived that singing style from watching Baby Esther perform at the Cotton Club several years before the creation of the Betty Boop character. Theatrical manager Lou Walton testified for the defense stating that in 1925, he coached a "young negro child" named Esther, teaching her how to interpolate her songs with scat lyrics which she later re-purposed into her trademark "boop oop a doop." Jones' manager testified that he and Kane had seen her act together in April 1928, and just a few weeks later, Kane began to "boop."

Paramount was able to prove that Kane did not uniquely originate or have claim to the Betty Boop style of singing or look. In addition to adducing Baby Esther's performances, they showed performances by actress Clara Bow, who also had the Betty Boop style of dress and hair.

Baby Esther herself was said to have since died. After a two-year legal struggle, Max Fleischer located a sound film made in 1928 of her performing, which was introduced as evidence. Judge Edward J. McGoldrick ruled, “The plaintiff has failed to sustain either cause of action by proof of sufficient probative force.” In his opinion, the “baby” technique of singing did not originate with Kane.
Here's a short bit of audio of Baby Esther (if youtube can be trusted in this case):



After Fleisher won, they released this Popeye cartoon, which includes a black Betty Boop singing at 4:26:

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Creepy racist historical footnote: the carnival event shown before she sings was an actual carnival event with names like The African Dodger, or Hit the Nigger Baby, or Hit the Coon.

When trying to decide whether Betty Boop is black, remember that in her black-and-white cartoons, she was usually shown with white skin. Here's the only color Fleisher video of Betty Boop:



However, having light skin and red hair does not mean you're not black. Malcolm X had light skin and red hair:


So I conclude Betty's a universal human character that we're all supposed to identify with, but if she has a race, she's black. If you want to include Betty and her white boyfriend Fred in lists of interracial romances, feel free, sez moi. But don't argue your case strongly, because the audience wouldn't recognize them as having an interracial romance. If the artist hides a fact about a character (yes, looking at you, JK Rowling), it doesn't count. Only what's in the work matters.