Betty White Syndrome

betty white flashing the devil horns

We’ve already discussed that Betty White isn’t the only woman over 60 on TV. But she’s certainly the patron saint of older female television stars. Though White’s long been a household name — her incredible career dates back to some of the first TV broadcasts ever, in the ’40s — something special happened a few years back. In her late ’80s, she suddenly became a hot commodity. The surge in her popularity was the result of a confluence of events: a scene-stealing role in the 2009 Sandra Bullock movie The Proposal and a funny Snickers commercial appearance that ran during the 2011 Super Bowl inspired a Facebook campaign to get her to host Saturday Night Live. Then she did, in the midst of launching a new show she happened to be in, TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland. Suddenly major magazines were doing profiles, and talk shows were vying to book her. People suddenly remembered: They loved Betty White.

There are, of course, loads of good reasons for us to universally adore White. If you see her interviewed, it’s clear she’s 100-percent kind and generous, and people who really know her back this up. (One of my former colleagues at Entertainment Weekly once ended a phone interview with her by saying, “I love you.” He was a little embarrassed once he hung up that such a genuine expression of emotion had popped out of his mouth unbidden, but such is the effect of Ms. White.) She also happens to be crazy talented, with some of the best comic timing in the business. Watch her first appearance on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. to see a sitcom performance nothing short of transcendent. Her wit remains quick now at age 91. Longevity, talent, and a good heart make her a wonderful role model.

But we seem to have only one slot in television for a woman this age to be this popular. What does White represent for us that, perhaps, others don’t? She’s sweet, which gives her a gentle grandmother vibe—albeit the coolest grandma around. Most of her jokes now depend on poking fun at the idea of her own sexuality, which is fun, but also non-threatening. (We get bawdy humor without truly contemplating older women’s sexuality.) And she’s still busy, with-it, able-bodied, and funny, which helps bolster our misguided belief that immortality just may be possible—perhaps our biggest obsession as a society. She’s ever more appealing in a nation that finds its life expectancy stretching longer, but many of its elderly minds dwindling inside still-functional bodies.

None of this is to say, of course, that she doesn’t deserve every bit of the attention. It’s simply to wonder: Do any other retirement-age actresses have a chance at such success without White’s magic formula?

A hopeful sign came in the form of another Super Bowl commercial, this one a Taco Bell ad from this year featuring a group of unknown older folks breaking out of the nursing home to party down late at night. Viewers loved it, and it somehow managed to show the seniors having a grand old time dancing, making out, and getting tattoos (before hitting up a Taco Bell, of course) without (at least in my opinion) making fun of the seniors themselves. 

by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
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