PBS Confesses to Publishing False History Facts About Betty Boop

Often eclipsed by Disney, Fleischer Studios made a name for themselves, adapting comic characters like Popeye the Sailor and Superman in the early days of animation. Their most recognizable original character remains Betty Boop. However, her actual history has been muddied by misinformation online. PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, admitted to publishing this information around six years ago.

Betty Boop figure
Betty Boop figure | MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

Fleischer Studios, from Betty Boop to Superman

Despite Fleischer Studios not having as recognizable a name as some studios, they’ve affected the film industry immensely.

In addition to creating Betty Boop, they were responsible for the first animated adaptation of Superman in 1941. Another popular comic, Popeye the Sailor, and his cast exploded in more popularity thanks to the Fleischer series.

Anyone who’s walked into a vintage shop knows exactly who Betty Boop is. The big cheeks, red dress, and curly black hair are iconic Hollywood imagery.

However, outside of the screen, Betty Boop’s life has suffered several lawsuits and false claims.

PBS retracted their article claiming Baby Esther influenced the studio’s design

The misinformation in the PBS article was not new. In fact, the false information originated from a 1932 infringement lawsuit.

Actor Helen Kane claimed that Betty Boop was a caricature of her and her acting style. Max Fleischer asserted that the character was purely from the imagination of him and his team.

During the lawsuit, African-American performer “Baby” Esther Jones was cited as having a similar style to Kane. The case favored Fleischer as Kane could not provide enough evidence, nor did the “baby” acting style originate from her.

Jones’s involvement led to the false claim that Betty Boop was based on the performer.

Cartoon Brew confirmed that “PBS…has issued an in-depth mea culpa acknowledging that they misled the public by falsely claiming that the Fleischer Studios character Betty Boop was based on a Black child performer named Esther Jones.”

The news site noted how PBS’s status as a trusted source led to the false story “spreading like wildfire.”

PBS took six years to retract the article

Historians refuted the PBS article, but the article and misinformation continued to spread.

Cartoon Brew goes on to report that PBS admitted “that it did not follow established protocol to retract the story in a timely manner since the PBS Digital team that produced the piece believed it to be “promotional copy, not journalism.”

The real reason comes from the grandson of Max Fleischer, the co-founder of the studio. In a letter, he confronted PBS about the misinformation.

It was only after this that PBS removed the article. While Fleischer Studios had titles like Popeye the Sailor and Superman under their belts, the history of their films and characters are not as closely scrutinized.

Honoring lesser-known Black figures in history remain important, but creating false narratives only leads to issues down the road. While Esther Jones may have been important in developing the style Betty Boop drew from, she did not directly influence the character.

Unfortunately, as the creation myth has long cycled around the internet, the correct information will likely have difficulty bubbling to the surface.

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