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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

question of the day: Should we be surprised at the resurgence of Betty White?

I’ve been a bit mystified by all the Betty White love that’s been going around recently, but I hadn’t given it too much thought because Internet memes like this one come and go and often remain inexplicable even after you try to analyze them.

But because I hadn’t been paying too much attention to the Betty White thing, I missed the fact that there might be a reason — if an annoying one — behind this. Says Sara Libby at True/Slant:

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.

Oh, no: really? Is that what it’s all about? Of course, White’s most famous TV characters — Sue Ann Nivens on Mary Tyler Moore and Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls — mined humor from the unexpectedness of, respectively, a perfect homemaker who’s obsessed with sex and a sweet yokel who’s naive about it. But Sue Ann and Rose were overt parodies of expectations about women. Today, it seems that the idea that older women aren’t actually interested in sex, therefore it’s funny when an older woman expresses such interest has become an easy go-to for a cheap laugh, and in a way that is not sending up audience expectations — as MTM and GG did — but embracing them and reinforcing them.

Libby runs down how the reappearance of the 88-year-old White on the public scene has been portrayed:

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.

Of course, women of all ages are not supposed to be sexual, as far as Hollywood is concerned, unless their sexuality is explicitly about pleasing men. And “naturally,” old women don’t please men, and so that’s what’s “funny” about anything even vaguely sexual or suggestive coming out of the mouth of someone like Betty White: Ha ha, the old bag thinks she’s sexy, but she isn’t.

In light of how elderly women are treated — when they aren’t ignored entirely by pop culture… Should we be surprised at the resurgence of Betty White?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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