The Sensuality of Depression: Betty Boop and Cultural Amnesia

In our collective cultural narrative few cartoon characters exude the sensuality that Betty Boop does.  Resplendent in monochrome, generously affectionate and graced with a devoted following of fans, she is has become an eternal American idol.   And yet, despite her ubiquitous presence–on license plates, keychains, “vintage” tin lunch-boxes, commercials, fleece pajamas worn by the young and old alike– I had never watched a single episode of Betty Boop.  I knew only of her myth and legend.

While looking for Nick Park’s claymation on Youtube I came across a clip from “Minnie the Moocher,” an episode that revels the surrealism and psychologically terrifying aspects of Max Fleischer’s animated Betty Boop.

Cab Calloway’s performance introduces the audience to Betty/Minnie’s story.  The music is sensual and haunting– evoking the dark underworld Betty and her dog-boyfriend Bimbo fall prey to.

We first see Betty at the dinner table, being yelled at by both parents but that quickly devolves in to comical banter. Young Betty flees the scene crying in a fit of typical teenage melodrama.  Wishing she was dead she writes a farewell letter to her parents. Her rational: “my parents are yelling at me therefore they don’t love me; the only solution I see to this is to run away with my boyfriend who is an anthropomorphized dog.”

This is something any teenage girl can relate to– bad parents and the desire to run away with your dream dogman.  Who’s name, by the way, means loser.

As night falls Bimbo and Betty find shelter in the mouth of the underworld. Ghosts and skeletons, dancing to Calloway’s trudging bass line, reenact death by electrocution and alcoholism. The background eases into macabre images of skulls, faces distorted with pain.

Calloway’s mournful crooning, embodied as a phantom walrus, guides Betty and Bimbo through the underworld.  It is a story of sex, drugs and delusions.  Her boyfriend Smokey, who happens to be into cokey (a clever allusion to cocaine!) brings Minnie to Chinatown to smoke opium. Her opulent dreams of a loving boyfriend who gives her shinny things and lots of food, scatter as Calloway sings “Poor Min, Poor Min!”

As the music becomes raucous the ghouls, goblins, devils and witches chase Betty and Bimbo out of this cave of illusions.

After watching this for the first time my jaw was on the floor– it was far beyond anything I ever imagined Betty Boop to be.  A quick poll of my friends (real scientific, I know) revealed that none had seen a Betty Boop cartoon either, although all had quickly identified who she was and summed up her physical attraction.  How was the legacy of Betty Boop reduced to a sexpot with a curiously large head and no brains to fill it?

The obvious answer is sex. In American pop-cultural pantheon Betty Boop embodies two distinct fantasies: the innocence of an absent-minded girl and the  sensuality of an experienced woman.  This fantasy effectively over-rides the complexities of Fleischer’s work.  Not to mention Betty’s own personality– at times she is depressive and self-effacing, an attitude that is never hinted at on the treasury of Betty Boop ephemera.

But even in Betty Boop’s own era this made sense. She premiered during the height of the Great Depression.  As a figure, she harkened back to the good ol’ days of flappers, pleasure, an openness to adventure and promiscuity.  Betty Boop was always intended as an escape into fantasy.

This is where Calloway’s “Story of Minnie the Moocher” becomes that much more interesting.  Here Feirscher and Calloway debunk the fantasy. Minnie’s living her life on an opium bed, and the afterlife is a grim hall of tortured souls who either 1) drank themselves to death several times, 2) were imprisoned and then electrocuted or 3) were sucked dry my greedy moochers.

Drawn Together hints at this sort of depravity inherent in Betty Boop, but their

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