It’s hardly a matter of grave international import, but it needs to be said: Betty White is grotesque.
More precisely, the nonagenarian actress Betty White’s latter-day public persona as an oversexed hipster granny, which she has portrayed on TV in Saturday Night Live and Hot In Cleveland, and in the movies The Proposal (2009) and The Lorax (2012), is an insult to senior citizens and an offense to the rest of us. The stereotype of the dirty old man has long been comic fodder; now, we have the equally inane and equally crass stereotype of the horny old lady.
As the occasional character Sue-Ann Niven on the 70s series The Mary Tyler Moore show, White was often funny as the hostess of a G-rated kiddie program who, off camera, had an R-rated thing for Ed Asner’s Lou Grant. But in the later Golden Girls sitcom (1985-1992), this joke became the premise of every episode: ha ha, beneath their frail exteriors, elderly women can be as lecherous and as vulgar as their adult granddaughters! What yuks! So predictable was the gag that it was slyly parodied in The Simpsons, when a jailed Sideshow Bob (voiced by Kelsey Grammer) has to endure an unnamed show in which “Grandma” is heard cackling, “I’m haulin’ ass to Lolapalooza!” to gales of canned laughter. That’s Betty White in a nutshell. She may look sweet and homey, but she talks like The Sopranos and thinks like Sex and the City.
I don’t doubt that old people have sexual feelings, or even that some of them can be crude; after seven or eight decades of living, they’re entitled to speak and act as they please. But when played by Betty White, the audience is meant to laugh at, rather than with, these qualities. We see the same type of humour when chimpanzees are dressed up and made to do human activities (talking on the phone, driving a car, working a computer, etc.): the amusement lies in how obviously incongruous their demeanor is to the spectator, since the monkeys don’t know how silly they look. An even more cruel version of this comedy underlay the old minstrel shows, in which black people were made to seem ridiculous just by trying to be serious. Betty White’s granny-talks-dirty schtick carries the identical slur – here’s a hilariously imperfect imitation of something we all know the imitator can never truly be, in this case, young, sexy, and cool.
Aging can be painful, as bodies and minds deteriorate and contemporaries die off; not many real ninety-year-olds are enjoying an erotic bacchanal while being admired by young folks for their irrepressible wackiness. Imagine the outrage if somebody thought it would be a laugh riot to see an Asian person play sports (because of course Asians aren’t athletic), or to see a woman pilot a plane (because of course women aren’t mechanical), or to see a Native person operate modern technology (because of course Natives are primitive). So why aren’t we outraged when it’s supposedly a laugh riot to see an old lady behave like a skank? Because of course old ladies aren’t really human beings? Betty White, of course, has the right to take the parts she’s offered and to make what I’m sure is a good living from them. But someone should tell her that she demeans her whole generation, the vast majority of whom have grown old with modest dignity, when she allows herself to be typecast in a recurring role that reduces her to a geriatric Stepin Fetchit.