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Apr. 30 2010 - 10:26 am | 792 views | 0 recommendations | 18 comments

The case against Betty White mania

Betty White at the 1988 Emmy Awards.

Image via Wikipedia

For months, fans of all stripes launched a fervent Facebook campaign to have 88-year-old Betty White host Saturday Night Live. They got their wish – and before the episode has even transpired, people are calling it a success; promos that ran during this past week’s Gabourey Sidibe-hosted episode had TV critics and watchers alike declaring that in just 30 seconds, White “stole the show.”

When White finally takes the stage, it will be he zenith of the fever pitch surrounding her celebrity, which has far eclipsed the level of fandom she enjoyed while starring on “Mary Tyler Moore” or “The Golden Girls.” “Twilight” heartthrob Robert Pattinson called White his “crush;” MTV has similarly professed: “We Have a Girl Crush on Betty White.” And while I loved her sweetly, absurdly naïve Rose Nylund, I have to admit: I might be the only person on the planet who simply doesn’t get White’s career resurgence.

Rather, it’s not that I don’t get it. No, it’s more that I’m creeped out by the fact that despite being a gifted comedic actor and seemingly a great-natured human being, the hysteria over White seems to stem entirely from the fact that she is an old woman who jokes about sex.

Her SNL promo inevitably involves White addressing rumors that she’s a “cougar.” As the Los Angeles Times recently pointed out, “In the space of one recent week, Betty White hopped in the shower with Hugh Jackman on ‘The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,’ watched a Chippendales dancer gyrate for her on ‘Ellen.’” A recent Snickers commercial in which White plays football with a much younger pack of guys had a burly man end up on top of White, post-tackle, in a mud puddle. When promos from her recent movies show scenes involving White, they inevitably focus on scenes like the one from The Proposal, where she offers Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds a handmade blanket that she has proclaimed “the babymaker.” While playing herself in a guest spot on “Ugly Betty,” White declared that she loves her fans; “Except for the few sickos who write lesbian fan fiction about me and Bea Arthur.” In the new, yet-to-air original series on the TV Land network, White’s character is described as a “salty caretaker” for whom “nothing” is “off limits” – even prostitution.

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SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels talked up the timing of White’s appearance, writing on his blog: “I can’t think of a better way to spend Mother’s Day weekend than with Betty White.” And yet, rarely are White’s roles focused on motherhood or grandmotherhood; rather, her being a grandmother is simply a means for her to talk start making raunchy sex jokes, to the discomfort of the much-younger people on-screen.

For all the talk of how girls are being exposed to sex in the media at alarming rates, and how sex-crazed Hollywood drives young girls to develop eating disorders or subject themselves to plastic surgery, isn’t it just as offensive that apparently the only way an elderly actress can re-enter the big-time is by playing the uncomfortably sex-obsessed grandma? I’m glad that White, of the razor-sharp wit, deadpan delivery, and impeccable timing, is enjoying success; but it should be precisely because of those things, not because she’s willing to crack wise about subjects we consider off-limits for old people.


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  1. collapse expand

    Someone sounds jealous. Why can’t you just let Ms. White have her success? What has she done to you that you begrudge her?

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    Amen. There’s no easier laugh in comedy than the uncomfortable one you get with the oversexed-granny beat. (Close seconds: The rappin’ granny, although those two often overlap; fat jokes; dick jokes.) It’s a cheap and unimaginative way to get laughs you don’t have to earn, and it’s really, really tiresome. When the SNL gig was announced I was hoping they’d would resist the temptation. Clearly, that was naive of me.

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    I don’t see what the problem is. Lots of comedians use sex as a basis for their jokes. I would suggest that her age is a very good reason for her to focus on sex jokes, for the exact reason that it challenges social conventions and taboos.

    There may be a point to be made that by making a joke out of being a raunchy old woman, White reinforces the idea that sexually active old people are abnormal, rather than challenging it. But I don’t think that’s the point you’re trying to make.

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    “I’m glad that White, of the razor-sharp wit, deadpan delivery, and impeccable timing, is enjoying success; but it should be precisely because of those things, not because she’s willing to crack wise about subjects we consider off-limits for old people.”

    Completely agreed. It’s one of the worst pop culture traditions and incredibly demeaning to elderly people–women get the worst of it, but remember Artie Johnson’s dirty old man in the park? (Same general idea–i.e., see the horny guy with the cane.) Re “Golden Girls,” the wisecracking elder pretty much ruined what could have been a charming and touching show. Now Betty gets to assume that role–sad. Nothing, allegedly, is funnier than children, elderly people, pets, etc. who can do clever things. So much for progress.

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    Agree with Savio and Bill Barol. As an old broad myself, I find the jokes just as demeaning as Carol Burnett’s old ladies who show their underwear when they sit down or who fall over their own canes. I especially hate Maxine, the cartoon old lady who runs the gamut of wisecracks and bigoted remarks.

    There must be some writers somewhere who can get beyond the cliches of dirty old men, feisty old ladies, penis jokes, fat jokes, Bill Clinton jokes. But they sure aren’t in evidence on SNL or Jay Leno.

  6. collapse expand

    Ms. Libby,

    You wrote:”For all the talk of how girls are being exposed to sex in the media at alarming rates, and how sex-crazed Hollywood drives young girls to develop eating disorders or subject themselves to plastic surgery, isn’t it just as offensive that apparently the only way an elderly actress can re-enter the big-time is by playing the uncomfortably sex-obsessed grandma?’

    I think that you answered your own question. Ms. White’s performances is not going to play any role in encouraging inappropriate or self-destructive behavior among young girls. In MTM, her character Sue Ann Nivens was a razor-sharp, man-hunger wild woman, not too very different from what she does now. The gag worked so well because of the contrast between her off-screen persona against her on-screen her character was the dainty “Happy Homemaker” (thinking of the contrast between the two very different Sue Ann Nivens’ still busts me up). What she is doing now is not very different for what she was doing in her 40’s. Even when her character in the 1950’s “Life with Elizabeth” was kind of naughty, at least by the standards of times. So she clearly sees nothing demeaning about it, it is her life’s work.

    The problem you identify is that people are often presented with the message that unless you are thin or look a particular way, you have no value as a human being. Ms. White does not present that message. No one is going what Ms. White and come away feeling about how they look.

    Humor is all about upsetting our expectations. It is everyone’s expectation that an 88 granny is not interested in sex. That Ms. White, like others before her, might create humor by turning that expectation upside down and get us all to laugh at our own prejudices is not all demeaning to her or us.

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      Obviously, if seniors are required to play sex-hungry types, then an expectation is being met. That expectation being that, on TV and in movies, seniors are not allowed to simply play seniors–we expect them to flatter our youthful egos by mimicking us (or, if you prefer, their younger selves), just as we expect the seal at the circus to mimic human tricks. Elderly people are little more than objects for humor in our pop culture. Re thin, I note that Betty is not heavy a la some other aging actresses, none of whom would be allowed on SNL for that very reason.

      And shouldn’t Ms. White be allowed to depart from type, now that she’s clocked up so many decades? You know, out of respect for her age, experience, talent, continued career–things like that?

      “Humor is all about upsetting our expectations.”

      Really? I thought it had something to do with sharply commenting on aspects of the human condition. Back in 1960, “Psycho” upset everyone’s expectations big-time. Was “Psycho” a comedy?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Hello Savio,

        You asked:”Obviously, if seniors are required to play sex-hungry types, then an expectation is being met.”

        Who is requiring Ms. White to do anything? At 88 and having starred in any number TV shows going back to 1949 as well as having produced a few shows as well, she does not need to do anything. Beyond that, it is not like every single actor over 60 is “required” to play that role. Most commonly and happily play to the expected roles.

        You also ask:”And shouldn’t Ms. White be allowed to depart from type, now that she’s clocked up so many decades? You know, out of respect for her age, experience, talent, continued career–things like that?”

        Why is it that you are assuming that Ms. White is taking these roles against her will? There is no indication that she is destitute and forced to take on these roles or under some sort of duress. She has been playing roles like this for decades, probably before you we even born.

        You wrote: “I thought it had something to do with sharply commenting on aspects of the human condition.”

        Well, not necessarily but it could be. What better way to comment on aspects of the human condition that standing the expectations of that condition on its head. Moreover, the “Theory of Incongruity” is a very old and widely held notion that humor is about humor and comedy. Our concept of a certain situation or object and contrasted with a incongruous reality. Francis Hutcheson was the first to advance this in his piece “Thoughts on Laughter”. Thinkers such as Kant, Hagel, Schopenhauer, and Freud all held to variations on this idea.

        You wrote:”Back in 1960, “Psycho” upset everyone’s expectations big-time. Was “Psycho” a comedy?”

        I do not think it was in the required sense. The movie was about a psycho killer, who, well killed people. That the audience was shocked by who the killer was does not upset the expectation that a psycho killer kills people.

        That being said, it sure could have been a comedy. I think that musical comedy called “Psycho” has some real potential.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Didn’t know comedy was a branch of philosophy and psychology–thanks for clearing that up.

          Okay, we’ll review. Betty is required by pop culture conventions to lampoon the elderly. That’s why they have her doing just that, and that’s why they (the SNL writers, actors, etc.) will–I’d bet the farm on it–do just that during her SNL appearance. No is forcing her to act, no. But that’s not what I’m saying, actually. You see, there’s a difference between saying that 1) if someone wants to act, he or she must conform to certain conventions and between saying that 2) that person had better act OR ELSE. See the difference? Devilishly subtle, but there. Maybe Kant can help you.

          Re expectations: Dirty Old Ladies being a tired staple of comedy, they conform to expectations because WE EXPECT THE STEREOTYPE. When we expect something, then it is not, by definition, unexpected. Tired staples of comedy wouldn’t be tired staples of comedy unless they’d been around for a while (yes, even before you were born, or close to).

          “That the audience was shocked by who the killer was does not upset the expectation that a psycho killer kills people.”

          I was referring to the bumping off of the star halfway through the movie–that was a major departure from convention for the time. Maybe that was before your time.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
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    I completely agree with David. If you take the long view, White has always played characters with a wholesome facade, but weren’t so wholesome underneath. Rose Nyland frequently broke with her farm girl identity, revealing in bits and pieces that she had enjoyed many a romp in her lifetime.

    Yes, horny granny jokes are easy and cheap; I have always gotten the sense, though, that White is in on the joke, rather than the butt of it. I would also argue that it’s potentially empowering for an elderly woman to be able to claim her sexuality, as we’re often quick to tell seniors that they don’t deserve/aren’t able to enjoy the flesh.

    As for the resurgence, I think it’s very much nostalgia and admiration. Are we all so cynical that we can’t believe there are people who actually love what White has done and want to see more of her?

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    Or maybe its just one of those things that doesn’t really require much analysis and just happened. Good for her. I’m betting she’s enjoying it. As for everyone else…c’mon…lighten up!

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      Let’s not forget that it’s not like Betty White just discovered sex or just started joking about it. Sue Ann Nivens, the character that made her a star, was an oversexed harpie, and the entire premise of the The Golden Girls was that older women have sex, too.

      So in a way, White isn’t really doing anything she hasn’t been doing for years. And if you look at what she’s been doing in recent years, particularly her guest spots on various prime-time shows, sex hasn’t even entered into the equation. I guess what I’m saying is that while sex is a big part of White’s act (and isn’t it a big part of everyone’s?), there’s a lot more to what she’s been doing. I don’t really understand what sex had to do with the Super Bowl ad. It seems to me that the biggest joke was having a huge football player tackle an old lady. I didn’t really see the sexual innuendo there. As for The Proposal, romantic comedies are filled with sex jokes, so there’s no surprise there. And White’s centerpiece scene, the rain dance, had nothing to do with sex. The SNL promo about sex at all. At the end, she announced that she was married to the guy, which, to me, is more a joke about how older women can get the young hotties just like older men can. I say more power to her!

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Nice anti-intellectual attitude, Rick.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  9. collapse expand

    @Rick Ungar–Why is analysis of pop culture so often discouraged? After all, the unexamined culture is not very interesting.

    “Lighten up”–or, in other words, just go along with the stale old stereotypes of old folks. Thanks for the concern.

    • collapse expand

      Hello Keuka56,

      I do not think that Ms. White is playing the “old stereotypes of old folks”, rather it is she who is breaking the stereotype. Ms. Libby thought this somehow in appropriate and Rick suggested “lightening up” since Ms. White was in fact playing against the stereotype.

      Rick is not discouraging the analysis of culture but rather participating in it.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    I'm a Los Angeles-based writer and editor focusing on pop and politics, race and culture, and where Gen-Yers fit into it all. My writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, WashingtonPost.com, the San Francisco Chronicle and People magazine. Among other things, I'm Oregon-born, hip-hop-addicted, and weirdly optimistic that the journalism business will stay alive.

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