(Editor’s Note: Yvonne is back!)
By Yvonne Frank
When I was maybe eight years old, my family went on an arduous search for a new couch. It felt as if we went to every furniture store in the greater Columbus area. The charms of fake food artfully arranged on coffee tables and remote controlled massage chairs inevitably wore thin. The one thing that held my fascination was the hideous leopard print high heel chair that you can find in the far corner of every furniture store. And I knew it was hideous, too; somehow, I was simultaneously disgusted by and magnetized to it.
When I was younger still, I felt the same polarizing attraction to a Frederick’s of Hollywood storefront just outside the mall food court. My family was alarmed, because what they saw (and what I would see now) was some kind of “Slutty Uncle Sam” monstrosity. But I was five, so all I saw was the unapologetic flamboyance of it, and unapologetic flamboyance is a pretty good imitation of glamour.
The most enduring aspect of my love affair with gaudiness is Betty Boop.
I have always loved Betty Boop and probably always will. I never owned any merch as a kid and my brother derided me for liking her, but now I have the damn coffee cup because I’m a grown woman and I DO WHAT I WANT.
Recently, though, I started wondering: Why do I love Betty Boop? Why have I always loved Betty Boop? Is it okay to love Betty Boop? Is Betty Boop just another problematic sexualized portrayal of women? Why do I love tacky things? Why do I so often have the thought, “Oh my God, that’s disgusting. I LOVE IT”?
The answer to these questions, I think, can be found in my upbringing. My mother was an extremely conservative Christian, which gave her some damn near Amish sensibilities. Everything I wore had to be Modest and Ladylike, terms that were never actually defined. I had to wear a dress or a jumper over the rainbow of leggings I owned. These weren’t the form-fitting leggings of the 2000s, either. These were the baggy, Kids R’ Us numbers of the 90s. There was no concern over panty lines or camel toe, so to this day I have no idea what made them “immodest.” The vague outline of crotch, maybe? IDK. When I was finally permitted to wear jeans at the ripe old age of ten, they were unforgivably bad, overpriced junk from Lands’ End with an elastic waist. I was dressed like a toddler into puberty.
What sticks with me the most, though, was one year when we were shopping for my Easter dress. Much care went into the selection of these dresses, as they would be seen in family photographs for years to come. We would pick through racks of completely shapeless, chiffon-y, floral, vaguely watercolor dresses and somehow pick which one was the “best.” It would then be paired with white Mary Janes, most likely with frilly socks for some awful reason, and a white, imitation wicker hat with a flower on it.
On this particular outing, I stated my preference for one of the more colorful dresses – something with some noticeable spots of orange on whatever nondescript pattern it had. My mother said no, because the color would “draw too much attention.”
Now, bear in mind that this dress was identical in all other respects to the other ones on the rack. The color was the only difference. It was the one I actually somehow liked, and I couldn’t get it because too many people would look at me. If you’re wondering about the logic of buying a dress to look nice, but not wanting to look too nice or having people notice that you look nice – good, because I am too.
The simple explanation for my loyalty to Betty Boop, I think, is that she is the opposite of my mother. I loved my mother, of course, but she wore Clarks sandals with socks (even in Ohio winter) with jersey knit sundresses, coke bottle glasses, and no makeup, ever.
Though she always had time to listen to me, the guidance she imparted was sometimes questionable: women shouldn’t ask men out on dates. Wives shouldn’t initiate sex with their husbands. You don’t need a bra until your boobs hang down over your ribs enough to hold something in place.
And then there was Betty Boop, pouting and winking on mud flaps, shot glasses, tin signs, and lunch boxes.
Betty Boop was a goodwill ambassador from a world where it was okay to be pretty, where it was okay to be noticed, where it was okay to care about yourself. She may well be a problematic sexualized female stereotype, but that stereotype represented possibilities of femininity and identity that were otherwise hidden from me completely (I wasn’t allowed to have Barbie dolls, either, or anything of the sort – but that’s a different story.)
It wouldn’t be a stretch, really, to say that Betty Boop was an inspiration to me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she was giving me hope that there was more to womanhood than growing up, having kids, keeping your head down, and giving up.
I’m aware of the irony. Somewhere out there, there is no doubt another woman who hates Betty Boop for the same reasons that I love her. There’s probably a woman out there whose skin crawls at the sight of her, who feels that Betty is just another unrealistic expectation, an oppressive, ultra-feminine gender norm. Betty Boop would be horrible as a template of the ideal female experience. But she wasn’t a template to me; she was an option.
My mother, with the socks and sandals aesthetic, was an option, too. The tightly-wound businesswoman with a blunt bob that pops up in every movie is another option. There are countless options, and I think it’s important for girls to see a lot of them. For me, Betty Boop filled a gap that no real person in my life was occupying.
What I find most interesting about Betty, though, is that as much as one could say she is sexualized – short, tight, strapless dress, bold lips, big eyelashes, hourglass figure, garter – she seems to have miraculously evaded the male gaze. As ubiquitous as Betty Boop merch is, I have never seen a man give it a second look (except for my brother, so he could mock it). Not even little boys. And I have no idea why. Lois Griffin has fanboys, and Betty Boop is way hotter than Lois Griffin.
I’m sure somewhere out there, someone has had lurid fantasies about Ms. Boop (Rule 36 of the Internet: “If it exists, someone has a fetish for it”), and I really don’t need to know about it – but by and large, against all odds, Betty Boop belongs to women, and I’m grateful for that. She modeled confidence and self-love to me when no one else did.