The Evolution of Betty Boop
Film censorship sparked the beloved cartoon character’s mid-1930s makeover
In the 1930s, a major entertainment studio brought a German fairy tale about a beautiful princess, an evil queen, a magic mirror and seven dwarfs to the animated screen for the first time. It wasn’t the beloved adaptation you’re thinking of: The first animated “Snow-White” was actually produced by Fleischer Studios in 1933, four years before Walt Disney released his version. And Betty Boop, a charming, baby-faced flapper, was its star.
Created by brothers Max and Dave Fleischer in 1930, Betty—envisioned not as a cartoon version of any single performer, but rather as an archetype of Jazz Age culture—appeared in animated shorts throughout the Great Depression. She was an instant success. Publications compared her to such stars as Greta Garbo, calling her an “overnight hit” and “the most popular personage on the screen today.”
At a time when cartoons were largely opening acts before a featured movie, Betty’s stardom was an outlier. “She’s a big hit,” says Katia Perea, a cartoon scholar at City University New York, “and she’s a big hit in the same way that Felix the Cat is a big hit, where she was drawing audiences to the movie. … They would come for the Betty Boop cartoon.”
The enduring image of Betty is a flapper in a strapless minidress, with a garter peeking out above her knee and large hoop earrings in her ears. Beneath that iconic look, however, is a more complex story of aesthetic transformation, from what Heather Hendershot, a media historian at MIT, describes as a “flapper-secretary-adventurer” in the early 1930s to a “middle-class homemaker” by the end of the decade. Betty’s appearance continues to evolve today, with the character donning ripped jeans, joggers and sneakers, and overalls in merchandise and on social media. Her constantly shifting design offers an intriguing case study of how representations of women—including fictional ones—are shaped by censorship, the public’s response and changing conceptions of morality.
Initially, Betty was depicted as a dog with a button nose and floppy ears. She appeared in the Fleischers’ “Talkartoons” series as the girlfriend of main character Bimbo and was such a success that the studio promoted her to its star. After a makeover, Betty became the first fully human, fully female animated character.
At its height in the 1930s, Fleischer Studios was a giant in animation, rivaled only by Disney. The dueling studios’ styles were diametrically opposed. From its home in California, Disney was laying the groundwork for the idyllic, fantastical fairy tales that would soon dominate its oeuvre. In New York, meanwhile, Fleischer created a grungy, often dangerous urban world for its characters to navigate.
In the Fleischer landscape, anything was possible, and seemingly nothing was off limits. As Max’s grandson Mark Fleischer recalls, his grandfather’s motto was “If you can do it in real life, why animate?” Fleischer Studio’s seven-minute “Snow-White” short includes such surreal images as the evil queen’s face morphing into eggs in a frying pan; a tree stump fighting with Betty’s co-stars, canine beau Bimbo and his friend Koko the Clown; and Betty, interred in an ice block coffin, being led down a mountain by the dwarfs on skis. Halfway through the film, jazz legend Cab Calloway (a regular guest in Betty Boop cartoons) performs a spooky musical number, embodied first by Koko and then by a ghost.
“The Fleischer Studios had a really experimental and kind of Surrealist style,” says Hendershot. “In fact, they were inspirational to the Surrealists.”
Unlike her contemporary Minnie Mouse, Betty wasn’t a sidekick, but rather the star of her own show. “Betty has two leading men in every picture,” noted the News-Herald in 1932. “When that happens to most feminine stars they are flattered. But Betty Boop takes it for granted that Bimbo and Koko will form a background for her talents in each production.”
As the star, Betty played a range of roles. She was a circus performer, a racecar driver and a presidential candidate. But she was first and foremost a sex symbol. As the Film Daily wrote in 1932, “Mister Fleischer gave her a doll-like face with those baby eyes BUT also a mature figure with oo-la-la curves and a boudoir languor in her walk.” The News-Herald added, “Betty has another claim to fame. She is the only film star who wears fewer clothes than Jean Harlow.”
Though Betty was aware of her sex appeal and often used it to her advantage, her sexuality also proved to be a liability. Men were constantly chasing her down and forcing her into unwanted sexual interactions. “She Wronged Him Right” (1934) opens with a teary-eyed Betty telling her landlord that she can’t pay her mortgage. “Pay me or be my wife,” the villainous landlord demands, whispering in an aside that “I’ve got her in my power now.” In “Boop-Oop-a-Doop,” a 1932 short whose name references Betty’s scat catchphrase, circus performer Betty returns to her dressing tent to find her boss waiting to assault her. She escapes with Koko’s help, singing, “He couldn’t take my boop-oop-a-doop”—in this case, her virginity—“away.”
“The idea is that it’s inherently funny for cartoon women to be assaulted or chased,” says Hendershot. Though Betty was usually able to escape, these kinds of storylines depended on the entertainment derived from the chase. Hendershot sees this as a flaw in the way Betty’s character was conceived. “She’s a more developed character than other female characters at the time, but the development is not inherently positive,” the historian says. “It’s great that she’s an actual character, but it’s a troubling character.”
Fleischer wasn’t the only 20th-century studio engaging in this type of sexualization and crass humor. In Disney’s “Plane Crazy” (1928), Mickey Mouse tries to trick Minnie into kissing him aboard their airplane. When she rejects his advances, Mickey speeds the plane up, sending Minnie rocketing toward the sky and placing him in the ideal position to catch her. Believing that a terrified Minnie will be so grateful that she’ll concede to being kissed, Mickey tries again. When Minnie still refuses, Mickey forces himself on her.
By 1935, Betty’s heyday was nearing its end. Headline-making scandals in 1920s Hollywood had led to intense public scrutiny of the industry, with a slew of states enacting film censorship laws. Moviemakers decided they needed a trade organization to help protect their interests; in 1927, the resulting Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) created a list of “Don’ts” and “Be-Carefuls” for films to adhere to in order to avoid further censorship. That list served as the framework for the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code (commonly known as the Hays Code after MPPDA president Will H. Hays), which outlined how to approach subjects like sex, dancing, drugs, vulgarity and crime.
“Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures are not to be shown,” the guidelines declared. A section on costumes, meanwhile, forbade “[i]ndecent or undue exposure.”
The Hays Code came into full effect for live action films in 1934 and animation around 1935. For Betty, that meant changes to her look, personality and plotlines. She became taller and older, and her dresses started stretching past her knee to hide her trademark garter. Fleischer Studios had “revamped their star,” noted the Central New Jersey Home News in 1938. “She’s lost most of her curls, the jewelry—and the curves. She dresses more modestly—censors, you know.”
“Theoretically, these shifts in Betty Boop’s design represented an uplifting of the character’s ‘morality,’” wrote Hendershot in a 1995 journal article. As the Great Depression continued, men concerned about women supposedly stealing their jobs began directing their hostility toward working women. “Betty was a timely character not only because she was a ‘working girl’ sporting revealing clothes and bobbed hair,” Hendershot argued, “but also because cultural anxieties about such women could repeatedly be played out (and embodied in) her pre-Code narratives.”
Betty’s stories evolved from exciting, outlandish and dangerous to domestic and demure. Koko the Clown was replaced by eccentric inventor Grampy, and Bimbo was swapped out for Pudgy, a cuddly pet puppy. Instead of eluding unwanted suitors or getting giddy on laughing gas, Betty spent her days bathing an uncooperative Pudgy in “A Little Soap and Water” (1935) or serving an ever-increasing flood of demanding hotel guests in “Service With a Smile” (1937).
“With that kind of sanitation, there’s this compulsion to present … this normative representation of middle-class sensibilities, and that ends up taking away the joie de vivre,” says Perea. “It’s no longer something that’s exciting to see.”
Mark Fleischer says the Hays Code “really was the beginning of the end for Betty Boop. [A] lot of the spirit went out of it.” He theorizes that the studio was simply less invested in creating great cartoons after the guidelines took effect: “I wouldn’t be surprised if [my grandfather had just said], ‘Well, you know what, we’re not gonna let you ruin her. We’re just going to comply and then just move on.’”
In 1939, the Fleischers retired the Betty Boop cartoons. Soon after, the studio—acquired by Paramount and rebranded—shut down production. Betty lay dormant until 1955, when Paramount sold most of its pre-1950s shorts to a television syndicator. In the decades that followed, Betty was visible mainly through merchandise and some scattershot cameos. She was the star of a 1985 CBS television special titled “The Romance of Betty Boop” and made a brief appearance in the 1988 feature film Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Today, a revamped, family-owned version of Fleischer Studios is trying to bring Betty into the 21st century and keep her image alive. The studio memorializes her as a pre–Hays Code flapper; now, though, she’s also a biker and a champion of recycling. She hikes, practices yoga and uses TikTok slang. Last year, Mark’s wife, Susan Wilking Horan, collaborated on a self-help book in which Betty dresses in jeans and promotes values like independence, self-care and kindness.
Ultimately, Betty’s legacy is one of contradiction.
“On the one hand, Betty Boop was a creation of the heterosexual male gaze, with an endless parade of lecherous male characters trying to see under her skirt, yet on the other hand she wore power like a light shawl, her image an in-your-face depiction of unashamed sexuality,” wrote critic Gabrielle Bellot for the Cut in 2017. “... She was a stereotype, yet she also defied stereotypes of what female cartoon characters could do onscreen.”
Editor's Note, March 10, 2022: This article previously misspelled Heather Hendershot's last name.