Betty Boop’s Cultural Origins Reveal Links between Race, Gender, and New Media History

Call:  Madame Noire’s Featured Article:  Michelle Obama Still the First Black Lady?  Historical Figures You Didn’t Know Were Black.

Response:  This engaging article has its merits, but illustrates the problem with web styling data for an agenda. Recovering black history is VERY important to me, but sometimes this purpose poorly contextualizes facts and leads to inaccurate master narratives.

Was Betty Boop Black?

Betty Boop’s racial origins have created controversy for decades.  Some argue that her physical image has been “whitewashed,” and that she was ‘really’ a black woman (although she is a fictional character).  As part of popular culture and the vivid childhood memories of millions, Betty Boop is real enough for people to wonder about her creation.  Although race definitely plays a role in narratives about Betty Boop’s and cultural appropriation, it is actually related to the animated character’s voice not her image. Boop’s voice is inspired by Helen Kane, a plump white actress/singer whose famous song, “I Wanna be Loved by You,” was appropriated from the black Cotton Club singer Esther “Baby Esther” Jones. Baby Esther became part of the historical record of Betty Boop because Helen Kane sued Max Fleischer for copying her ‘unique style.’ However, she lost the case because Lou Walton, Jones’ theatrical manager, testified that Kane and her manager heard Jones’ signature “boo boo boo, doo doo doo,” style at a 1928 caberet. Walton produced a sound film of Jones, which caused Justice McGoldrick to conclude that Kane failed to prove that the song/style was original. Her $250,000 lawsuit was dismissed.  Despite Madame Noir’s attempt to clarify Betty Boop’s “black” origins, the image attached to Butler’s article is neither Jones or Kane. It’s a Russian model Olya, whose images are posted on Retro_Ladies’ Live Journal blog:


The Conflict between Appropriation and Ownership

I have always heard that Betty Boop was “black,” but wasn’t moved to verify that information until I saw this click bait article on my Facebook Feed. Furthermore, I’ve been teaching about the relationship between race and cultural appropriation discourses in a college argumentation course.  Our discussions about attribution, IP law, mimicry, minstrelsy, satire, ‘originality,’ viral videos, ‘twerking,’ capitalism, and the power of large music corporations suggest that creativity is undertheorized in American Culture.

Competing values of pop culture consumption and sole authorship/ownership reveals a racial subtext that connects the power of cultural representation to the capacity to both mainstream information and participate in the institutional structures and technological infrastructures that enable mainstreaming.  As contagion embodies social currency, the likeness of some person via their physical design and/or productions, accrues value based on the visibility, popularity, or virality of their creations.  Presumably, popularity is capable of generating monetary value.  We might assume that widespread visibility of some person and their production (even if this production is re-producing their physical image in artistic ways), implies widespread access to an image.  However, we may begin to find this connection troubling when we recall that image production and image circulation are systematically controlled by economic, political, social, and legal forces.

Although we frequently acknowledge that who gets to be seen is inextricably tied to limited access to technologies for image production and circulation, we readily accuse the dominant culture of marginalizing the rich epistemological, cultural, and technological contributions of historically oppressed groups such as women and people of color.  In adopting the language of dominant culture, and its discourses of power and politics–praising and blaming–we fail to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the reflexive histories of information technologies and cultural practices.  The consequence of failing to connect these histories is an obsession over racial attribution that comes at the expense of ahistorical accounts of technological development (and its legal consequences), which does not enable us to fully appreciate its tendency to expand the possibility of cultural contact and the documentation of alternative histories.

Betty Boop and the History of ‘New Media’

In sum, the Betty Boop Race Controversy offers a place to investigate links between race and cultural appropriation. The impulse to say, “Betty Boop was *really* Black,” comes from a genuine place.  It matters whether or not she was black or black-inspired because cultural appropriation is a major criteria affecting constructions of racial identity.  One way to recognize who is “white,” in addition to fair skin and light-colored eyes, was the person’s ability to successfully appropriate black aesthetics by converting its tendency to spread into the categories of “profit,” “sole ownership,” or “public domain.”  Either white people could literally own black cultural production, and financially benefit from it, or no-one owns it.  It’s just ‘for everybody.’  Jason Rodriguez’s ethnographic study, “Color-Blind Ideology and the Cultural Appropriation of Hip-Hop,” comprehensively investigates the way an explicitly black phenomena–the Hip Hop music scene–became progressively dominated by young white audiences, who felt they had a “right” to both consume and produce the music because it didn’t ‘belong to anyone.’  This race-neutral interpretation of property affects both land and intellectual property law (See K.Greene’s Copynorms).  As slaves, blacks’ categorical status as property and the subsequent struggle to be recognized by the law as a (property-owning) citizen, has excluded this group from attaining the access needed to ‘equally’ compete in American society.  Cultural recognition determines public opinion regarding your ‘right to access,’ (do you deserve to even be in this space?)  and the degree to which it’s ‘your own fault,’ (do you deserve nothing) that your social mobility is limited.  American history’s erasure of women and racial/ethnic groups such as blacks, Native Americans, Latinos, and Asians as CREATORS, HISTORY MAKERS, PHILOSOPHERS, and/or STORYTELLERS makes any critical person skeptical about the ‘originality’ or ‘authenticity’ of a mainstream image/phenomena.  On one hand, If Kane didn’t decide to sue Fleischer and Paramount, etc. for their use of “her voice,” we wouldn’t be able to delineate between disproportionate access to the legal means necessary for *owning* creativity and its exclusionary function (tied to its history of excluding).  The law leaked on its inability to recognize everyone as equal under the law.  Did Jones know that films of her would be used to prevent her appropriator from earning money from her productions?  Or did she just think it was cool she was being filmed at all?  Where was Baby Esther’s lawsuit against Kane?  Against Fleischer?  Was her right to own ‘her music,’ mentioned during the litigation, at all?  Nevertheless, the fight for ownership uncovered the fact of Baby Esther’s distinctive style.

After researching Betty Boop’s origins, her mystery led us to *both* the history of blueswomen and their cultural influence, as well as some of the ways in which technological politics influences rhetoric–the creative processes that make both innovations of language, history, science, and technology possible.  If film was not “new media” during the 20th century, we would not be able to quickly recover information about Esther Jones.  The fact of film as a ‘new media,’ situated within the context of popular print media (e.g. the newspaper and periodical) raises questions about the relationship between media development, cultural attitudes, and jurisprudence. The news article’s title, “Films Shown in Court,” seems provocative because it reveals a major conflict in judicial rhetoric–how credible were films as evidence? How would the film shape legal decisions? How would film technology affect historical records, and the logging of cultural memory? How would film intersect with a burgeoning music recording industry and its contribution to the enforcement (and growth) of IP law?

Sources: “The Boop Song is Traced: Witness in Helen Kane’s Suit Says Negro Girl Originated Style.” NYT (May 2, 1934) and “Films Shown in Court: Used to Help Justice Decide Kane’s $250,000 suit.” NYT (April 24, 1934) via Proquest Historical Newspapers.

Battle For The Net

A Note from Battle for the Net:

If you woke up tomorrow, and your internet looked like this, what would you do? Imagine all your favorite websites taking forever to load, while you get annoying notifications from your ISP suggesting you switch to one of their approved “Fast Lane” sites.Think about what we would lose: all the weird, alternative, interesting, and enlightening stuff that makes the Internet so much cooler than mainstream Cable TV. What if the only news sites you could reliably connect to were the ones that had deals with companies like Comcast and Verizon?On September 10th, just a few days before the FCC’s comment deadline, public interest organizations are issuing an open, international call for websites and internet users to unite for an “Internet Slowdown” to show the world what the web would be like if Team Cable gets their way and trashes net neutrality. Net neutrality is hard to explain, so our hope is that this action will help SHOW the world what’s really at stake if we lose the open Internet.If you’ve got a website, blog or tumblr, get the code to join the #InternetSlowdown here: else, here’s a quick list of things you can do to help spread the word about the slowdown: Get creative! Don’t let us tell you what to do. See you on the net September 10th!

via Battle For The Net.

14 Google Tools You Didn’t Know Existed

14 Google Tools You Didn’t Know Existed.

I appreciated this snapshot of various ‘lesser known’ Google applications.  Google’s generative greatness offers numerous pedagogical benefits.

Some of these possibilities include:

  • Teaching definition/evaluation
  • Teaching correlation/causality
  • Assessing Trends
  • Inventing markets

WikiLeaks Multimedia Presentation

Click here for a presentation I’m doing at 2:30 in IST 202.

This presentation began with a fictional narrative of WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange as a popular culture icon–a postmodern hero whose the center of intense deliberation over what should be private or public information within a context of ubiquitous surveillance.  Information management has become a subject of narratives produced within a contemporary landscape of man and machines.  This problem symbolized through WikiLeaks draws our attention to the fact that part of the world is living in a technocracy.  Julian Assange solidified hackers’ significance as a major political and cultural force.  Their ability to modify system architecture is motivated by the belief that ‘information wants to be free.’  We explored how this belief inspired the creation of WikiLeaks.  I offered students with a timeline of major events in the site’s history.

The site attempts to embody new media journalism by providing a digital safe haven for whistleblowers and supporting global anti-censorship initiatives.  Through WikiLeaks, whistleblowers could anonymously leak information published at the discretion of WikiLeaks.  WikiLeaks’ methods, especially how the organization (or more specifically Julian Assange) decides what should be leaked, induces anxiety and praise.  I discussed how government officials, legislators, and financial institutions have responded to WikiLeaks, and connected their panic over losing power to the Bradley Manning controversy.  I provided context about Manning, his upbringing, character, associations with both the gay and hacker communities, and his vulnerable psychological state that led to the leaks and his online chats with Adrian Lamo–the informant.  We also examined the significance of Manning’s leak–the biggest leak in history–250,000 U.S. Embassy cables and 500,000 Iraq and Afghanistan battlefield reports.  This massive leak represented a major shift in WikiLeaks’ tactics.  Whereas WikiLeaks served as a ‘neutral’ publication source for leaks from 2006-2010, the sheer volume of Manning’s data dump and internal conflict within the WikiLeaks/Sunshine Press organizations introduced an occasion for Assange to make history.  He gave the New York Times, Guardian, and Der Spiegel exclusive access to the cables and logs on the condition that they publish these materials on a timeline.  Assange created the conditions for an unprecedented international collaboration between newspaper outlets and enough secret information to keep them busy for several lifetimes.  Open Secrets and WikiLeaks:  Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy account for New York Times’ editor B. Keller and the Guardian’s editor A. Rusbridger’s reactions to Assange, Bradley Manning, the Leaks as well as excerpts of news articles about all of these subjects.  These books also help us understand the technical infrastructure these journalists created in order to redact such huge quantities of data and scramble names to protect identities of anyone whose lives might be at risk.  I acknowledged how Assange catapulted into pop star status when his handling of Manning’s leaks collided with rape and molestation allegations.

I closed the talk by giving an update on WikiLeaks’ latest news, which included Assange’s current habitation in Ecuador’s embassy, the upcoming Gitmo files leak, his talk show on the Russian Times, the U.S. Archive’s censorship of WikiLeaks, and Manning’s arraignment and trial date.

Students asked questions about how researchers are using the 9/11 text message leaks (2009), how WikiLeaks’ journalistic approach differs from traditional news, and how sources are protected.

Please feel free to use and adapt the presentation to suit your pedagogical needs.  It is protected by:

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Comments and questions are welcome!