Betty White and Contemporary (Female) Stardom

10 05 2010

In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Betty White said “If I’m this sick of the words ‘Betty White,’ I can imagine how the rest of the world feels.” Yet it’s pretty clear that the rest of the world (read: America) can’t seem to get enough of Betty White. And why not? She’s amazing. In a celebrity culture that overwhelmingly rewards youth and beauty (often over talent), the public lovefest with Betty White is quite refreshing. Her recent resurgence into the popular consciousness has me thinking about the longevity of stars, particularly female stars, in contemporary media culture.

Betty White: National Treasure

1. Don’t call it a comeback/She’s been here for years/Rockin’ her peers and putting suckas in fear (apologies to LL Cool J, but I couldn’t resist)

This moment in White’s career is not really being framed as the famed “second act” or “comeback” commonly attributed to stars in these moments of resurgence. In contrast to moments like John Travolta’s Tarantino-driven comeback in the 1990s where we wondered where he’d been all these years, the attention Betty White is firmly grounded in the fact that she never really “went away.” She starred in her first television sitcom starting in the early 1950s and has been on television, in some form or another, ever since. She’s won multiple Emmys, played two iconic roles in two important television series (Sue Ann Nevins on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls …more on these below), and been a reliably good guest star on a range of popular sitcoms and dramas (and even had a guest spot on soap The Bold and the Beautiful! ). Combined with her recent film roles (most notably The Proposal ), Betty White has hovered at least at the periphery of popular consciousness for over sixty years. She may not have always been the media and audience darling she is right now, but she’s always been a presence based on her talent. But the fact that she IS a media darling right now actually tells us something about the changing nature of stardom.

2. The importance of the internet to contemporary stardom

Betty White is not an internet celebrity (i.e. one whose persona is created by and/or tied to new media in some explicit way), but her current popularity/high visibility is closely tied to the internet and social networking in several ways. It is a crucial mode of circulating the star image. On one hand, the availability of MTM and The Golden Girls (which has also been a staple of Lifetime’s lineup for years) on internet streaming sites like YouTube and Hulu mean a new generation of fans can be introduced to White’s classic performances. The internet has been played an important role in circulating her extratextual image. For example, White’s Snicker’s commercial was the top commercial from the 2009 Super Bowl and quickly went viral. This clip references Betty White as herself, highlighting the “real” person that is the site of the star image.

I also highly recommend the hilarious (and popular) Funny or Die spoof (which I cannot embed because of WordPress restrictions on their free accounts) of the behind-the-scenes drama on the set of The Proposal. These are not “real” moments, but their comedy centers on the idea that we are seeing the “real” Betty White, not the performer or one of her characters.

The most obvious influence of the internet on White’s image is Facebook. Her hosting gig on last Saturday’s Saturday Night Live has been attributed to a Facebook group “Betty White to Host SNL (please?)” that accumulated over 500,000 fans. Though SNL producer Loren Michaels said White had turned down three previous offers (dating back to the 70s) to host the show, the overwhelming online support from fans compelled the show to make another offer and her to accept. The Facebook group demonstrates the way the internet enables the audience to participate in the circuit of celebrity production. Of course, the fact that this group’s existence got a lot of mainstream press didn’t hurt. Nevertheless, SNL has never had a host “chosen” by the fans in this way, which is a pretty interesting moment in the show’s history as well. White also clearly acknowledged the Facebook group’s role in getting her the hosting gig in her monologue, while also (characteristically) using it as a way to poke fun at the fans and herself. The White hosted episode earned SNL its highest ratings in 18 months, cementing the audience interest in White’s image. Though these ratings were likely also helped by the return of several former female cast members (Tina Fey, Ana Gastayer, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, and Amy Poehler) for this particular episode, the reason they returned is because White was the host, further illustrating White’s popular and iconic status.

3. She’s America’s (Bawdy) Grandma

Instead of being a reason to ignore her, White’s age is actually central to her current star image. She’s America’s Grandma with a bawdy yet innocent edge. The conceit of the Funny or Die spoof, for example, is that underneath this lovable grandma façade lies a diva who tells Ryan Reynolds “When Betty White says she wants a cup of coffee, you get her a f—ing cup of coffee!” Nearly all of her sketches on SNL centered on sexual double entendres with the real core of the joke being that an older woman is the one saying these subtly raunchy things. For example, the NPR Muffin sketch .

This is an interesting moment to me because it illustrates the importance of history to understanding a star’s image as well as a challenge to typical notions of older women as stars. Stars have histories, and White’s previous performances/textual personae certainly inform her current star image. Though she has been on television in a variety of roles, her first major iconic role was as Sue Ann Nevins on The Mary Tyler Moore Show . Sue Ann was openly and actively interested in sex and usually had a cutting word for good girl Mary. Crucially, Sue Ann also maintained a cheerful and lovable façade that contrasted her lusty and sardonic nature. In the world of MTM, Sue Ann was the host of the “Happy Homemaker Show,” thus giving her a wholesome image that was routinely broken down for comedic effect in the show. Though she was obviously much younger when she played Sue Ann, there are clear parallels between this character and her current bawdy grandma image. I highly recommend full episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show , but here are a couple of quick clips that illustrate Sue Ann’s sneaky wit:

I think this is particularly interesting in light of her other iconic role, Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls. White was allegedly first offered the role of sexpot Blanche Devereaux, but lobbied for the role of Rose in order to not simply repeat her Sue Ann Nevins character. Rose was pretty much the opposite of Sue Ann. She had a similar cheerful and sweet nature, but (in the narrative of the show) this was not a ploy to hide her true cutting wit. Rose was naïve and trusting where Sue Ann was worldly and sardonic. The humor came not from the reversal of a façade, but from the fact that it was constantly upheld:

The Golden Girls itself has experienced a recent resurgence in popularity amongst younger audiences that also plays into White’s current popularity. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there seems to be some sort of ironic or nostalgic interest in this show among younger audiences. For example, there’s all sorts of “hipster” t-shirts featuring elements of the show that seems aimed at an audience that was likely not even alive when the show originally aired.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great show and I think the fact that a show about four independent older women who openly discuss their sexuality (among other social issues) continues to be popular with audiences is a good thing. I just can’t quite explain it other than to say it has a certain “cool” cache with younger audiences that MTM does not. For example, when White mentioned her previous acting credits during her SNL monologue, the audience was silent (not even perfunctory applause) until she mentioned The Golden Girls. Then they erupted in cheers. I think this nostalgia is relevant to understanding Betty White’s current star image as an interesting mix of these two character personas. You get the sweetness and grandmotherliness of Rose with the much more explicit and sardonic nature of Sue Ann. Not that White hasn’t had a certain bawdy side to her persona all along, I just think it is interesting when you look at her two most iconic characters in light of the current interest in her star image.

I think Betty White and the current interest in her is important because it makes an older woman visible and valuable in the media. She’s not a sex symbol in the way that a younger actress would be, but sex is certainly not scrubbed away from her image. Her bawdy humor centers, in part, on the fact that an older woman has sexual knowledge and (gasp!) even desire. Or, sex jokes aside, that an older woman has cultural value beyond making cookies. Most importantly, White is always the active agent in her jokes, not the butt of them. Even when she’s playing naïve, she’s winking at you so you know she’s in on the joke.

At the same time, she also can get away with a lot of these jokes precisely because she is an older woman. In fact, this is crucial to the image working. She can play the eccentric or doddering old lady as a way to temper the raunchiness of her humor. She’s playing with the stereotypes of age in general and older women in particular in interesting ways, not just being a vehicle for “that old lady said something dirty!” Her talent as a comedian has always been rooted in her ability to work on these multiple levels, mining humor out of moments of contrast. Her star image (the result of her performances and her extratextual self) reinforces this contrast and makes her relevant to a new generation of audiences. Her image also challenges stereotypes about women, age, and stardom in important ways. Sandra Bullock says it best in the Funny or Die clip: “She’s a g–damn national treasure.”




One response

12 05 2010
An Admirer

Your post really got me thinking about why the resurgence in popularity of The Golden Girls among the “younger set.” Like you note, it’s not just some blanket embracing of all sitcoms of that era or genre; there’s something about *that* show (or maybe, the negotiations between new audiences and the texts of that show blah-blah-blah …). I suppose the broader question is: how do things become cool/popular (and then uncool, and then cool again)? Yes, I know, if we could answer that with a single formula, we’d be RICH :o).

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