Will the real Betty Boop please stand up?


Willie Day writes of the origins of the Betty Boop character. Photo credit: Sydney Foster

As wonderful as instant media technology is today, the most significant downfall is the ability to spread myths instantaneously to large audiences of people who are inclined to believe them. Such is the case of a recent Facebook post of Gertrude Saunders as the original Betty Boop.

Is the cartoon icon “the real McCoy?” That phrase itself is fiction that bases its origins on Elijah J. McCoy, who invented lubricator pads for trains. Oddly enough, that phrase may have been used several years before McCoy’s birth.

As it turns out, Betty Boop is not “the real McCoy” of creator Max Fleisher of Fleisher Studios. She is a caricature of the 1920s era of singing styles, image, and sexuality gleaned from several icons of the genre.

Fleischer is not the originator of “boop-oop-a-doop” either. It was Gertrude Saunders aka “Esther Baby Jones” who first used the lyric during the origins of scat singing which she performed at the Cotton Club.

The lyric was made popular by singer Helen Kane who allegedly stole it from Esther’s singing style in her hit song, “I Wanna Be Loved by You.” Esther’s image, as it appears in the Facebook post is clearly Betty Boop. Helen Kane’s signature song, “I Wanna Be Loved by You,” is yet another component that created Betty Boop. Kane lost her lawsuit in 1932 against Fleischer Studios when it was proven that she had watched Esther Jones’s act.

Betty Boop’s sexuality may be have been influenced by Clara Bow.

The most significant contribution made by Bow was her introduction of sex to the movie screen. She was the first actress to “flaunt her sex appeal during that era,” indeed an early pioneer of the sexual freedom women enjoy today. With such a mix of images and ideas that make up Betty Boop, she seems to have suffered from no-personality disorder.

As early as 1950, Esther Jones was recognized as the originator of the lyric. Neither Fleischer or Kane created the image, but in fact stole it from Jones. In this case, neither of them received credit for Boop’s image, or the “boop-oop-a-doop” lyric.

Unfortunately, these types of stories pop up all the time, and they seem to serve racially biased self-interest of those who create them. I once attempted to read a black-owned newspaper. It was so radically slurred that I stop reading it.

History as it was taught when I was in grade school significantly and selectively excluded African-Americans. This was probably the driving force that eventually led to creating Black History month.

In a general sense, some African Americans don’t trust traditional history as it was taught. This same disbelief can also apply to current news stories as well.

A friend of mine coins history as “his story.” I find that his story is not confined to White America. Anyone can create biased stories.

In my home town Norfolk, Virginia, “Harborfest” is an annual festival that features tall ships from around the world. More than a decade ago, a story emerged that the festival celebrates the era of sailing ships bringing African-Americans to America during slavery.

The story is not true, but many African- Americans in the Tidewater area that includes the cities of Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Newport News, and Hampton, believe the story. Despite the disparities among Black and White Americans, I am not inclined to blindly believe in such stories. But, I am not immune to having disparities of my own.

It was my sister who told the story about the real McCoy. I didn’t believe her, so I looked into it and learned that the saying is not in reference to inventor Elijah McCoy. Now, when I hear stories that seems suspect, I look them up for myself before believing them.

I looked up Al Jolson as an example of a white entertainer who benefited by stealing from African American culture. I had always thought that his blackface act was demeaning for African-Americans, that it was degrading and it exploited black culture.

I was wrong. Jolson was very involved in advocating for African American rights in show business. He was also for African American rights “as early as 1911.”

There are, however, a few things about Betty Boop for which credit is due. She is the world’s first cartoon sex symbol. She may also be the world’s first “twerker” as in 1936’s, “Betty Boop’s Halloween.” But, as popular as the character may be with all her composites, Betty Boop is a fake.

As a student here at MCTC, I have the the opportunity to learn in a diverse environment. We can all learn to let go of hatreds and biases that cloud what we believe from social media. This holds true for official media as well, particularly in light of current events and ever-present racial disparity.

Find out the truth for yourself. Facebook is not the place to find that truth.