What’s Wrong With the Dirty, Old Betty White?

Betty White has become a national treasure in the last few years, possibly because, despite her age (she’s currently 91), she seems to have the presence of mind to deliver lines and, you know, stand upright on her own. It’s a rarity for an elderly performer to achieve such hero status (especially a female entertainer), which is what makes White such a refreshing actress: she appeals more to female and gay audiences then your typical white, straight American males. Moreover, her most frequent bits as of late — the ones that are written for her, of course — are heavily sexualized, featuring tongue-in-cheek innuendos and double entendres. But is the sexualization of the nonagenarian evidence of our culture’s exploitative obsession with turning sex into a big joke?

The New Republic’s Laura Bennett seems to think so. In a piece that ran yesterday, Bennett examines the popularity of Betty White specifically in terms of the sexual humor she so often delivers. “The story of how such a versatile actress was reduced to an adorable receptacle for penis jokes is also the story of the condescending way we treat old people on television today,” she writes, alluding to White’s previous television work on the groundbreaking series The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls (she earned Emmys for both shows). Bennett argues that White’s recent resurgence — as a host of Saturday Night Live, as the star of the TV Land sitcom Hot in Cleveland, and as the host of Betty White’s Off Their Rockers — has changed the way older people (particularly women) are depicted in the media, but it still reduces them to the butt of jokes.

I’d agree, but only to an extent. It’s easy to claim that the elderly, often not in powerful creative roles in network television, may be as marginalized as any other minority group who are underrepresented at the executive levels in media. But I’d argue that Betty White’s sexual humor is hardly a new comic ploy. Take a look at Golden Girls. While Bennett applauds the sitcom for depicting “older women with complicated inner lives” and identifying that “their forays into dating were played both for laughs and for pathos,” she’s largely underrepresenting the sexual humor. Rue McClanahan’s Blanche was, well, oversexed. Her sexual proclivities — of which there were many — were generally used for laughs, albeit in a way that revered the character for taking control of her sexuality. (She became a prototype of sorts for Kim Cattrall’s Samantha on Sex in the City.)

While Bennett doesn’t touch on The Golden Girls’ use of sexual humor, she does point out that that elder female characters currently on TV TV are typically buffoons and the targets of snark:

Apparently, in the network TV imagination, nothing is quite as outrageous as the female body in decline. Maw Maw on Raising Hope is a senile grandma (played by the great Cloris Leachman) whose observations include “I couldn’t have an orgasm unless he choked me.” The lecherous bisexual matriarch Evelyn from Two and a Half Men swigs martinis and preys on wealthy men. In Hot in Cleveland there are more jokes about breasts — flaunted, sagging, surgically altered — than the laugh track can possibly handle.

This comes just a few paragraphs after Bennett alludes to Phyllis Diller, describing her comedy as “hammy decrepitude” and claiming it “was its own subversive statement about the culture’s squeamishness about female sexuality and old age.” (Sample joke: “My body’s in such bad shape, I wear prescription underwear.”) I don’t see how the sentiment of Diller’s joke is much different from anything on Hot in Cleveland or the line from Raising Hope except that it’s more tame and of-its-time. The case Bennett actually ends up making is that network TV comedy is more dumbed down and dirtier than it used to be, rather than more exploitative of its elderly characters, particularly those of the female persuasion.

Of course, it seems unlikely that anyone would look to Hot in Cleveland or the prank show Off Their Rockers for any thoughtful commentary on the AARP-age experience. And while Betty White is certainly the most famous working actress in her 90s (she has little competition), I doubt she lacks the self-awareness to be in on the joke, and it’s a bit patronizing to judge her lines on Hot in Cleveland as undignified but not her work on The Golden Girls or the sexual pun-heavy Match Game. After all, the rules of what you can do and say on television have become incredibly relaxed, and it only seems appropriate that what’s fine for a man is just as suitable — and funny — for a woman. As long as the Dirty Old Man can be a hilarious stock character, there should be no reason why the same can’t be true for the Dirty Old Woman. At least Betty White seems to be having fun playing the role from here on out.