Yes of course Betty Boop is Jewish. What made her a star, however, was not Jewishness, but overt sexiness. When Betty Boop was introduced in 1930 by her creators. Max and Dave Fleischer, animation was for adults; she frequently loses her top and trades on sexuality. In one cartoon, “Betty Boop’s Ker-choo” (1933), Betty actually wins an automobile race with a sneeze/orgasm. When her small sneezes give way to a final large one, she blows herself across the finish line, coming in first and leaving the male-piloted vehicles in pieces behind her. Clearly, Betty is an early example of the large-breasted, round-bottomed, barely-clad heroine of male fantasy that persists even in the most contemporary cartoon art, but her equally apparent ethnic heritage makes her a unique character
From her first appearance, Betty’s milieu most frequently resembled Max and Dave Fleischer’s own, In films like “Mask-a-Raid” (1931) and “Betty Boop’s Trial” (1934), the Fleischers spoof urban types drawn from New York’s immigrant neighborhoods in familiar vaudeville stereotypes like the big-nosed, mustachioed Italian, or the gibberish-spouting Chinese. In others, Betty herself performs; she’s a showgirl in “Silly Scandals” (1931) and mimics fellow immigrant vaudevillians Maurice Chevalier and Fanny Brice in “Stopping the Show” (1932).
Even the looking-glass world of animation is not without its dangers, however, and Betty navigates the world of crowded, derelict tenement living in films like “Any Rags” (1931) and “Minding the Baby” (1931), where a clothesline strung between her apartment and Bimbo’s (the baby is his little brother) becomes a clandestine communications route. She negotiates splashing mud, crowded buses, and rude neighbors as she tries to make her way to work in both “Judge for a Day” (1935) and “Betty Boop for President” (1932). She also successfully foils rape in films like “Barnacle Bill” (1930) and “Boop-Oop-A-Doop” (1932), and does what she can to earn a living in films like “Betty Boop’s Big Boss” (1933) and “Betty Boop’s Bizzy Bee” (1932). Urban audiences could empathize as Betty encountered both working-class immigrant challenges and the special problems that city life dealt up for women.
Betty Boop headlined the “Talkartoon” series that also leave little doubt as her Jewishness. Ragman Bimbo serenades Betty as she hangs out of her Lower East Side tenement window in “Any Rags”; Betty’s native relatives in “Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle” (1932) greet Bimbo with a hearty “Shalom Aleichem!” before he carts her back to New York where she belongs. The Hebrew letters “kosher” pop up as a visual joke on a ham served to a patron sporting rabbinic features in “Dizzy Dishes” (1930), on a paddy wagon in “Big Boss” and on a thermometer popping out of Koko’s peplum in “I Know What You Did, You Rascal, You” (1932). In “Stopping the Show,” Betty imitates Fanny Brice performing as a Yiddish-accented Indian (later a Hollywood trope). Betty also encounters Yiddish-speaking characters including a fish in “SOS” (1933) and a kvelling worm in “Bum Bandit (1931). Finally, Betty’s Jewish parents are introduced in 1930s “Minnie the Moocher.” The zaftig elder Boops exhort their skinny daughter to eat, but Betty runs away, stuck between the expectations of the old world and the new.
A sexy, confident, financially independent young woman, Betty is a prototype for an especially pleasant version of the “ghetto girl,” known for her flamboyant modern clothing and for frequenting the cafes and dance halls of the Lower East Side. Real “ghetto girls” were suspected to be modem-day sirens concealing their real agenda—marriage —beneath a man-friendly, fun-loving exterior. In contrast, Betty’s sexual modernism has few consequences for herself or her male costars. Betty Boop even combines her modern sensibilities with the more traditional Jewish role of woman as breadwinner, not only able to support her own extravagances but to provide them for others free of charge (as she does for Bimbo in “Mask-a-Raid,” and for the entire city in “Betty Boop for President”). In a period that also saw a few Jewish women like Emma Goldman agitating for birth control and free love, Betty may have illustrated an ideal of consequence-free liberation for male and female audiences alike (though I suspect more so for the men). Betty was also not the only sexually liberated urban type featured in the Fleischer series; films like “SOS” (1933), “Any Rags,” and “A-Hunting We Will Go with Bimbo and Koko” (1932) present the studio’s first animated star, Koko the Clown, as a gay character.
These progressive characters were doomed (at least until the present-day resurgence of interest in Betty Boop memorabilia). When audiences opted for Disney’s child-friendly, clean suburbia in the mid-1930s, Betty was ill-suited to the challenge. Enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934 (The Hays Code) put an end even to animated bosoms and garters, and the code’s ban on negative ethnic material led most studios to conclude that nixing all identifiable ethnic or religious representations was the safest route. A more modestly drawn Betty is the most obvious result of the Code: her hemlines drop considerably, she wears blouses instead of a strapless top, and her trademark garter disappears. However, these new cartoons also eliminated nearly all of the ethnic markers evident in the earlier series: eventually, Betty (sometimes now without her trademark New York accent) moves to the roomy suburbs and Bimbo is replaced by the muscle-bound, golden-toned Fearless Freddie. In the final few years of the series, a less active Betty relinquishes screen time to the antics of puppy Pudgy and cute Little Jimmy or to the wacky inventions of eccentric Grampy. Betty Boop appeared in her final cartoon in 1939. A Jewish resident of the depression-era Lower East Side, Betty remains evidence of that specifically American time and place. In 1938, the Fleischer studio moved from New York to Miami; perhaps Betty wanted to retire where she could play mah-jongg with the rest of the girls.
Amelia S. Holberg is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at The Catholic University of America.
Sex kitten or role model?
by Amelia S. Holberg
Once, during a lecture on Betty Boop, scholar Riv-Ellen Prell, known for her work on the status of women in Judaism (Fighting to Become Americans: Jews, Gender and the Anxiety of Assimilation), remarked with a smile that she would have felt differently (implying: better) about being a Jewish women if she had known Betty Boop was Jewish. Is it possible that Betty Boop—with her short skirts and garter—is a positive role model for Jewish women?
In her favor, there are the cartoons that put Betty in control: “Betty Boop for President,” “Judge for a Day” and “Betty Boop’s Trial.” Story lines in these films placed her in positions of power in a world that looked much like the real one: urban, complicated, dirty and occasionally dangerous. (Her contemporaries, like Mickey Mouse and friends, existed in a world devoid of politics and the difficulties of real American life.) But weighing against Betty as an exemplary Jewish woman: her presidential platform advocating free jazz and cabarets, her frequent reliance on sex appeal to get what she wants, and the fact that her clearly Jewish parents are made distinctly unsympathetic. What’s more, almost all of her early adventures involved getting in trouble because of a man, and her later ones (post-Hays Code) show her making less-than-wonderful decisions about her future , often necessitating a rescue by her post-Code boyfriend, the strapping Fearless Freddie.
Still, through it all, Betty remains independent, single, and self-sufficient. She is clearly a male fantasy animated to show off her “tits and ass,” but like real Jewish women she exceeds her expected boundaries, performs roles unfamiliar for women of any creed, and does all this loudly and in front of millions. A glamorous, sexy, active Jewish woman who could be our grandmother—not such a bad ancestor after all.