A short item promoting PBS’ Black History Month programming suggested the Betty Boop cartoon character was based on a Black performer of the Jazz Age. That’s not entirely true. Quicker action to retract the article could have kept PBS from being widely tagged on social media as a source of a revised origin story for Betty Boop.
On a star-studded broadcast this summer, acclaimed actress Taraji P. Henson accented her role as host of the BET Awards by changing into a number of costumes throughout the show, each celebrating an iconic Black entertainer.
One of the outfits was a black mini dress and a Jazz-Age bob of a hairdo, the signature look of Betty Boop, the cartoon character famous for her childlike “boo-boop-see-doo” vocabulary.
In her monologue, she said, “In New York during the Harlem renaissance, Black women like myself dressed up like her [motioning with pointer toward short black skirt and garter belt], ‘Baby Esther’ Jones, aka Betty Boop – she was Black! Y’all didn’t know that, did ya? Yes!” …and Josephine Baker were recorded shakin’ a little somethin’ somethin’. Later this evolved into the ‘Harlem Shake’.”
Betty Boop’s origin story is not that cut-and-dry.
But this alternative Betty Boop history may have come to Henson’s attention because of months of social media trafficking of an item on a web page promoting Black History Month programming by the Public Broadcasting Service.
Here’s the item:
Esther Jones Was the Real Betty Boop!
The iconic cartoon character Betty Boop was inspired by a Black jazz singer in Harlem. Introduced by cartoonist Max Fleischer in 1930, the caricature of the jazz age flapper was the first and most famous sex symbol in animation. Betty Boop is best known for her revealing dress, curvaceous figure, and signature vocals “Boop Oop A Doop!” While there has been controversy over the years, the inspiration has been traced back to Esther Jones who was known as “Baby Esther” and performed regularly in the Cotton Club during the 1920s.
Baby Esther’s trademark vocal style of using “boops” and other childlike scat sounds attracted the attention of actress Helen Kane during a performance in the late 1920s. After seeing Baby Esther, Helen Kane adopted her style and began using “boops” in her songs as well. Finding fame early on, Helen Kane often included this “baby style” into her music. When Betty Boop was introduced, Kane promptly sued Fleischer and Paramount Publix Corporation stating they were using her image and style. However video evidence came to light of Baby Esther performing in a nightclub and the courts ruled against Helen Kane stating she did not have exclusive rights to the “booping” style or image, and that the style, in fact, pre-dated her.
Baby Esther’s “baby style” did little to bring her mainstream fame and she died in relative obscurity but a piece of her lives on in the iconic character Betty Boop.
Here’s the problem:
In February, an observer pointed out a problem with the image accompanying the 3-paragraph item, which was part of a 10-item promotional “listicle” — a portmanteau combining a list and an article — on the PBS Black Culture Connections web page.
The image was a photograph with a 1920s patina, showing a stylish Black woman. The header beside it said, “Esther Jones was the real Betty Boop!” PBS digital editors received an email in February saying that the picture in all likelihood was not that of “Baby Esther” Jones, who died at a young age (no one seems to be completely sure when) and may never have been photographed as an adult. The image was simply removed from the item about Betty Boop, but everything else, notably the text, was left intact.
Hindsight being what it is, the email questioning the accuracy of the illustration image should have given pause to PBS executives about the overall accuracy of the item, which actually had been written almost six years before by a staffer who was no longer with the service.
The Betty Boop item, which should have been either corrected or removed with an explanation, went on to be posted and reposted online, sometimes as confirmation of white appropriation of a Black persona. As the item was passed around on social media, PBS became the quoted source for the news that Betty Boop was based on a real-life Black performer.
The grandson of Betty Boop’s creator Max Fleishcer became concerned that PBS had started a social media snowball, spreading an inaccurate version of Betty Boop’s origins and yielding unfair criticism of the illustrator. The grandson is Mark Fleischer. He wrote a letter to PBS in June asking for help from PBS in straightening out the beloved cartoon character’s origins. Mark Fleischer is president and CEO of a company that holds the rights to Betty Boop.
“I’ve been aware for some time of inaccurate theories circulating on social media and elsewhere concerning Betty’s origins, but didn’t know their source,” Fleischer said in a written statement to the PBS Public Editor’s office, after his June letter to PBS. “When I started to see some of these inaccurate theories appearing online saying that they had been confirmed by PBS, which PBS actually did, I became very concerned. It really troubled me that a source as trusted as PBS would repeat and assert conclusions without first ensuring that there was a factual foundation to support those conclusions. In this case, no such foundation existed.”
After the June letter from Mark Fleischer and an inquiry from the Public Editor’s office, PBS web editors took down the article, but left nothing in its place.
PBS Digital managers recently said they were not aware of the item’s replication on social media, and that they had initially treated the item as promotional copy, not journalism. But that distinction means nothing to average readers and audiences. If PBS Digital had followed established protocol for retracting or clarifying dubious content, Internet audiences would have found an explanation that the item had been taken down because of doubts about its accuracy.
Correct steps finally were taken after PBS’ Standards and Practices team stepped into the picture.
PBS Editorial Standards & Practices “are the cornerstone of our commitment to preserving the credibility and integrity of all content that PBS distributes,” said Talia Rosen, PBS Assistant General Counsel and Senior Director for Standards and Practices. “Editorial content should generally not be deleted without explanation, and the editor’s note or correction is tailored to each instance.”
The spot where the problematic item once stood now features the following editor’s note:
Retired: Ten Little Known Black History Facts
Editor’s Note (July 26, 2021): The post titled “Ten Little Known Black History Facts” originally published in February of 2015 has been removed from this site because we are unable to verify the contents of the post.
That explanation does help clean up the PBS process.
“(The Betty Boop item) is a contested narrative that has been publicly debated for some time,” said Amy Wigler, PBS vice president for multiplatform marketing and content. “However, we acknowledged that the Black Culture Connection listicle from years ago was not properly sourced, and we replaced the post with an editor’s note explaining the issue.”
But PBS’ belated action has not completely quieted concerns that a stronger action is needed to eliminate the notion that Betty Boop’s creator appropriated the stage persona of a Black singer. A studio representative suggested PBS should at least contact sites like BlackHistory.com, which attribute the new take on Betty Boop’s history to the PBS item.
This column is an attempt to explain what went wrong after PBS published the item, and establish a more thorough retelling of Betty Boop’s history for Internet search engines to deliver when someone looks her up on the web.
The correct history
Fashion and music trends used by a number of Jazz Age performers, Black and white, influenced for the cartoon’s evolution.
“The concept that Betty Boop grew out of and reflected the Jazz Age culture of her time is absolutely true, yet, as history shows, she was not modeled after any single performer,” Mark Fleischer said. “It’s important to distinguish the collective creativity of the Jazz Age and its style from the many individual Jazz Age artists who contributed to it. And the number of amazing artists and performers who created that great era and who are embodied in Betty Boop is so large that it’s impossible to single out any one great talent as her inspiration.”
Betty Boop debuted on August 9, 1930, in the Fleischer Studio’s cartoon short “Dizzy Dishes,” where she appeared as an anthropomorphic dog performing onstage at a jazz club full of other anthropomorphic animals. In that debut, she didn’t say anything, but her high-pitched scat-singing style and scandalous little black dress and a visible garter stole the show. Audiences demanded that she appear in more cartoons. Her puppy-dog eyes became smaller and rounder, and her floppy dog ears were replaced by hoop earrings. By 1932 she was starring in her own series of Betty Boop cartoons, produced by Fleischer.
That year, Helen Kane, a popular jazz performer, sued Fleischer and Paramount Pictures, then known as Paramount Publix Corp., claiming Betty Boop was a “deliberate caricature” of her “baby vamp” persona. Kane, who was white, said her voice, looks, and mannerisms were uniquely hers, and copied by Betty Boop. She added that Betty Boop’s appearance and her style of scat-singing — including the word “boop” — were also originally hers, even though scat-singing had been popularized by artists like Clara Bow, Little Ann Little and the Duncan Sisters.
By 1930, scat-singing had long been a staple for some Black performers. Clarence Williams, a Black musician, producer and performer testified in the Kane v. Fleischer trial that he’d been scat-singing since 1915. Throughout the 1920s, Black performers including Gertrude Saunders, Florence Mills, and Baby Esther Jones used the technique and mannerisms.
Baby Esther, who often had been billed as a “miniature Florence Mills,” was a popular child singer and did not testify in the trial. But her manager did, and alleged that not only had Esther been performing that style since 1928, but that he had seen Kane at a club in Manhattan that same year while Baby Esther performed. According to history.com, this claim was corroborated by Kane’s manager, Lou Bolton, who also provided sound recordings of Baby Esther’s singing during the trial.
The court ruled that Kane could not claim ownership of Betty Boop or her characteristics, since none were unique enough to her that they could be deemed her intellectual property.
Later in the 1930s a rigid enforcement of the Hays Code, a set of moral guidelines for film productions, triggered changes in Betty Boop’s character. Her dresses became more conservative to hide her famous garter, and her attitude and antics were adjusted to seem more demure and what was deemed “appropriate” for a single young lady.
Betty Boop remains an icon in American pop culture — her signature look and voice have evolved to fit with styles and standards of each passing decade, but she’s never lost the traits that made her so recognizable.
“Esther Jones was a truly talented young performer,” Mark Fleischer said. “What is so problematic here is that to mistakenly single her out — or anyone else — as the sole source of Betty Boop’s Jazz Age inspiration creates an untrue narrative that distracts from and potentially eclipses our appreciation and enjoyment of the very real contributions that those involved have made to our culture. … This would include Esther Jones … Esther Jones was a real person with her own real story that deserves to be heard.”
This more complete history shows us two things: Max Fleischer did not whitewash a Black character when he created Betty Boop. But Betty Boop was, partially, influenced by fashion and music whose origins can indeed be traced to Black performers.
If the original PBS item on that Black History Month listicle had been even a bit more nuanced and complete, it likely would not have become a viral source for the blunt assertion that Betty Boop was Black. We could have thus avoided this teachable moment.
“PBS.org is meant to serve as a curator of content, not a place for unique editorials,” added Amy Wigler, the PBS multiplatform marketing and content chief. “We gather relevant content from across PBS and the public media system and present it to our audience in an accessible way across our site. Moving forward, all editorial-style content will be reviewed to ensure it aligns with PBS Standards and Practices.”
Every bit of public affairs information that PBS puts on screen or publishes on the Internet, from promotional content to what its news anchors say, is a form of journalism; it must be factual and clear. To offer less than that undermines PBS’ standing as a trustworthy source of information.
Daniel Macy, PBS Senior Associate in the Office of the Public Editor, contributed to this article.