Jul 13, 2016

The Gay Symbolism of Betty Boop

Around 1980 or 1981, the PBS tv series Matinee at the Bijou, which tried to recreate an old-time moviegoing experience, broadcast an old black-and-white cartoon, "Minnie the Moocher"  It starred a squeaky-voiced, big-headed girl named Betty Boop who runs away from home, along with her pet dog or maybe boyfriend Bimbo.

They seek refuge in a spooky cave, where a swaying, backwards-dancing walrus sings to a series of disturbing images: skeletons drink poison, collapse, and become ghosts; ghost inmates are sent to the electric chair, and die; pupil-less kittens suck the life force from a dour mother cat.

What sort of cartoon was this, I wondered, to so adroitly combine a morality play with the stuff of Freudian nightmares?  To so disturbingly disrupt the images of life and death, human and animal, male and female? And then I wondered: could it also have some gay symbolism?

Matinee at the Bijou eventually broadcast a few more Betty Boop cartoons.  There weren't many.  Introduced by Fleischer Studios in 1930, the stylized flapper with the baby-doll voice roamed her crazy, nightmarish world until 1934, when the Production Code forced her to settle down to more conventional cartoons about kids and dogs.

During her heyday, Betty had gay friends -- a "pansy" appears as one of the guests at her party, and at her diner, another lisps "Pass me the cold cuts -- they look delish."  But was there any other gay symbolism?

1. The fluidity of identity, men becoming women, animals becoming human, boys becoming men, suggests that desire, too, is fluid, not merely male desiring female.

2. Betty incites a transformative, healing desire that can heal broken bones and make old men young again.  The transformative power of desire is a palliative for gay people told over and over that their desire is wrong, abnormal, or doesn't exist.

3. The cartoons are run through with men desiring men as well as women.

Most blatantly in "Bimbo's Initiation (1931).  Bimbo is kidnapped by a secret society of men with melted black faces and candles on their heads, suggesting the transience of life.  They sing "Wanna be a member?" Bimbo refuses, so they torture him with sinister pit-and-pendulum devices, a sword that pops out of the wall, symbolic doors that open to skeletons and mirrors (self-knowledge, perhaps). The men turn out to be an army of Bettys, so Bimbo agrees to become a member.

The men want Bimbo, and pursue him lustfully.  Even the sword licks its lips in anticipation of his flesh.  The fluidity of gender, male as female disguise, only adds to the homoeroticism.