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Life with Betty White: Performing the Authentic Proto-Feminist in Pioneering Early Television


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By Gwendolyn Audrey Foster.

Betty White has always been ahead of her time. This has been both a blessing and a curse. Most people, even scholars who specialize in television history, have little to no knowledge of the importance of Betty White in early live television, in the invention of the television sitcom, and as a pioneering television writer, producer, and actor. At 91, Betty White couldn’t be much hotter. As of February 20, 2013, her television “Q” score – her “likability quotient” – was the highest in the industry. Her popularity amongst all different markets, regardless of age, race, and demographics, is truly staggering, giving the Kardashians a run for their money.

White currently appears in two first-run TV programs, the network series Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, which she also co-produces, and Nick at Nite’s Hot in Cleveland, a show worth watching primarily to catch White stealing scene after scene and to watch her inventively breathe life into a character (Elka Ostrovsky) who is a strong, smart, unapologetically sexy elderly woman like none other. White won a Screen Actors Guild Award for her portrayal of Elka (Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor) in 2011. And she is considered to be the most popular and most trusted celebrity among Americans according to a 2011 poll conducted by Reuters.

Hot in Cleveland

Hot in Cleveland

White also has a clothing line of T-shirts and hoodies, part of the proceeds of which go to animal health organization. She has a closet full of Emmy awards. In 2012 she won another SAG Award, this time Best Actress in a Comedy Series and she appears regularly on the talk-show circuit. Her mere presence guarantees good ratings. She has a video single entitled “I’m Still Hot” which she performs with Luciana, while surrounded by a bevy of muscular beefcake dancers who worship at her feet. Betty White is even more popular on social media. People love adoring Betty White, chatting about Betty White, searching her extensive catalog of YouTube clips from her myriad TV appearances. Betty White is so celebrated that she has inspired a playful and popular web meme, “Betty White’s Sex Tape.” Erotic images of White are so sought after that CNN’s The Buzz Today reported that a secret sex tape of Betty and her late husband Allen Ludden had allegedly been discovered, but later admitted the story was false; nevertheless, the rumor spread like wildfire. Audiences are hot for Betty White.

There is even, on YouTube, a mash up of a phony “Betty White sex tape” that features a clumsy, if hilarious, reedited version of her iconic Snickers ad in which it is meant to make it appear as if she’s having sex in the mud, rather than selling Snickers bars. I find it amusing that even as Betty White reinvents herself and works harder than many celebrities at remaining in the spotlight, it never seems to sate the appetite of her fans. The fact that there is even a meme of a supposed Betty White sex tape demonstrates that audiences co-mediate her star personae, and actively work to promote and define her as rapidly and efficiently as she redefines herself.

So omnipresent as a media figure is Betty White that she is asked her opinions on all sorts of issues, as if she is a former figure of state. It is well known that White frequently uses her public platform to raise awareness on animal welfare. In the 2012 Presidential election, she came out as a Democrat, even though she knew she might have lost half of her fans. She threw her support behind same-sex marriage well before many other megastars and before the Supreme Court ruling to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, again throwing caution to the wind with regard to any fans she may have offended. Her comments in a interview with Jeremy Kinser in the Advocate on the topic typify her quick witted humor: “I’ve always portrayed characters that were humorous, but also weren’t afraid of speaking their minds […]. I think this struck a chord with the LGBT community. We both share a very strong love for animals. When you combine the two, it’s a very strong match” (Kinser 2011).

The Proposal

The Proposal

White has always been way ahead of her time, but even after a long career in television she had the surprise of her life when her career and media presence suddenly took off in the past decade. White appeared as an offbeat environmentalist in Steve Miner’s eco-horror film Lake Placid (1999), but she really got noticed for her role as a hippie, sexually uninhibited grandmother in Anne Fletcher’s film The Proposal (2009). After her career took off because of her infamous super bowl Snickers ad, a social media campaign to make her host of Saturday Night Live of roughly half a million Facebook members led to a very highly rated appearance on the long running show. Neil Patrick Harris is one of the most enthusiastic Betty White fans, kidding frequently that Betty makes him “physically aroused,” and eventually the two pretended to “make out” on Live! With Kelly after Harris begged her to appear in a cameo on his sitcom How I Met Your Mother.

Though White was reportedly slightly annoyed at the reports floating around about her alleged sex tape, she took it in her stride when tabloids reported that four “lost” photographs had allegedly emerged that featured Betty and her husband, Allen Ludden, in bed having sex. Betty responded tastefully through her agent, “This has come up over the years, people claiming they have photos of Betty and Allen, and it’s simply not true. And Betty is laughing. She can’t believe people are still talking about this” (Ufford 2010). There are, however, several vintage “cheesecake” nude photos circulating on the web that are allegedly supposed to be a young fetching Betty White posing in the manner of Bettie Page at her most innocent. They are adorable and sweet, in the manner of most fifties pinups. It is impossible to tell if they are really photos of Betty White in her early modeling years, but it hardly matters if they are. Who cares? What matters, I think, is that White is never apologetic about having an active sexual imagination, and sex life. Indeed, a significant element of her self-image is that of a sexually active older woman. Despite the efforts of many, especially those male critics she defied in the fifties, it is impossible to destroy the power of Betty White as a proto-feminist, a comic with amazing timing, and a sexually empowered female star.

Allen Ludden and Betty White (1963).

Allen Ludden and Betty White (1963).

While popular culture tends to deny that aging women are sexy and sexually active, White works very hard as an unofficial sex-positive, age-positive spokesperson. In all of her many interviews she emphasizes the need for female independence and she almost always tethers independence and gender equality to her active sexuality. She has said on many occasions, “You are never too old for sex,” and she frequently states that if her husband Allen Ludden were alive (or if Robert Redford would date her), she’d have a very active sex life (Heller 2010). I mention this because I note that many of the anonymous posts on Betty are positive, but many anonymous posts also betray an active hatred for the aging female body and for sex among the elderly. Here is an anonymous web comment in response to one of White’s pro-sex remarks. It is one example gynophobic and misogynist example among many:

“Ms. White is very wrong, very wrong. Sex is for young people, and only for young people. I cannot think of much that would be more visually disgusting than two old people having sex. Sex between old people should be banned!”

White is perfectly aware of this sort of sexist and ageist discrimination in American culture, but instead of responding defensively, or being the butt of jokes at her expense, she simply responds by continuing to talk about her sexuality as she actively promotes healthy attitudes toward female sexuality and sex among the elderly. This may not seem surprising, considering how Betty White manages to change with the times.

But being ahead of her time has not always best served the interests of Betty White. Back in the nineteen-fifties, both playing and living the life of an independent and very capable funny and pretty woman in charge of her own sexuality, Betty was arguably too far ahead of her time, and she was eclipsed by the dim-witted, clowning, simple-minded character portrayed by Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy. It’s fascinating to compare the trajectories of Betty White and Lucille Ball in early TV history, and even more interesting to think about how female gender roles on television may have had an entirely different influence on American women had Betty White’s Life with Elizabeth (1952-1955) and Date with the Angels (1957-1958) stayed on the air and enjoyed the success and seemingly endless syndication of I Love Lucy. Lucy was still in reruns when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s and even now enjoys legendary popularity, despite its retrograde and sadly influential characterization of the female comic as sexless, clownish, childish, stupid and ever dependent on men, most significantly her husband “Ricky.”

Lbines-RetroVisionTheaterPresentsLifeWithElizabeth904Few note that well before Betty had success with Life with Elizabeth she had actually begun her TV career as early as 1939, when, only three months after graduating high school, Betty appeared on an early experimental Los Angeles TV station, singing songs from the Merry Widow. She did modelling, and during the war she served in the American Women’s Voluntary Services. She was very active in radio, in programs such as Blondie, The Great Gildersleeve, and This is Your FBI. She even had her own radio show, The Betty White Show. Even before White developed Life with Elizabeth, she rose to prominence as a beautiful, confident, intelligent, quick-witted comedic actress and eventual writer/producer known for her writing skills, her business acumen, her comic timing and her ability to ad-lib and write for television.

After an early career in radio and modelling, White was one of the first recognized early TV stars. White starred in the live five and one half hour ad-libbed variety show, Hollywood on Television, which was shown six days a week on station KLAC in Los Angeles from 1952 to 1956. This gruelling trial by fire afforded White a platform to hone her skills as a writer and actress noted for both her audacity and her authenticity, the same elements she is celebrated for today. Hollywood on Television taught White to think on her feet, and connect with her viewers, most of whom were women working at home. They identified with White’s independence and resourcefulness. They enjoyed her intellect, her delicious sense of humor, and her ability to create a woman of both intellect and sensuality, especially in the repressive environment of the nineteen-fifties.

At first, in 1949, White had a co-host, Al Jarvis, for Hollywood on Television, but when Jarvis left in 1952, White hosted the show by herself. Ad-libbing over 33 hours a week of live TV for six days a week must have been gruelling, but 27 year old Betty was more than up for the challenge. She was a “natural” for variety skits, and she also sang several songs during the broadcast. In 1950, she was nominated for her first Emmy Award as “Best Actress” on TV. This was the first award and category in the Emmy history designated for a female on television. She won an Emmy in 1952.

Date-W-AngelsBetty had a mind for business, and in 1952, the same year she began solo hosting Hollywood on Television, she co-founded Bandy Productions with producer Don Fedderson and writer George Tibbles. The three of them created the comedy Life with Elizabeth. Betty was not only the star of the show but one of the producers. Life with Elizabeth enjoyed national syndication, and White was one of the only women in TV at that time with full creative control both in front of and behind the camera. In 2010, White won a Screen Actors Guild award for Lifetime Achievement, in recognition not just for her work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Golden Girls, but also for her early pioneering work on Life with Elizabeth and Date with the Angels. It’s truly a shame that most people are not as familiar with Life with Elizabeth or Date with the Angels because in these very unusual programs, Betty White created and performed a very modern version of what I’d call a proto-feminist visionary in the 1950s.

Beneath the smiling, charming expression of the early Betty White in Life with Betty and Date with the Angels is a trickster figure, a woman in charge and a woman who takes every opportunity to skewer the authenticity of outmoded fifties gender roles. Early in her career, White took on issues one might expect to find examined in The Feminine Mystique; she explored issues with a light touch, but she always made her point evident and clear. Life with Elizabeth was structured with three seven-minute vignettes for each half-hour episode, which often served to demonstrate how to be an equal partner in a marriage. Elizabeth is clearly the brighter partner in the marriage, but she’s patient with her loving, sometimes slow-witted husband, played by Del Moore.

The show is unlike modern sitcoms in that this couple doesn’t make snide or mean-spirited remarks to one another; they love one another, and Eros is not dead between them. But, like any marriage, life presents problems, and even simple problems can become complex. It is these situations between the couple that present Betty with an opportunity to teach her audience, especially her female audience, ways to handle marriage, patriarchal attitudes, and how to survive the fifties as a woman in America.

The character of Elizabeth is unlike more well-known and influential role models of the period. She’s not at all the submissive, dim-witted wife presented in most 1950s TV and popular culture, and I would argue that, as in the case of Date With the Angels, this is the main reason her fifties TV shows did not achieve the length of time needed to fully develop the audience that they deserved, nor was her work syndicated and widely celebrated as I the case of other TV shows of this period.

Life with Elizabeth

Life with Elizabeth

In Life with Elizabeth, Elizabeth, when faced with a problem, relies less on playing dumb, and more on her ability to think things through analytically, get ahead of a situation, and simply get things done. I note that many times the camera just stops on White’s face as she thinks; we watch and hear a studio audience laugh, perhaps a bit uncomfortably, or perhaps a bit knowingly, as we simply watch a woman use her mind in the fifties. This may not seem like anything revolutionary, but it is very unusual as a televisual trope for the post-war period. The simple act of watching a woman really think through a situation was a feminist act in the early 1950s. Betty White also has an uncanny ability to use facial expressions to convey her female subjectivity, or that of her characters. White is so completely at home with the camera that her acting in Life with Elizabeth seems quite relaxed and modern, even postmodern and self-reflexive.

Indeed, Betty, as Elizabeth, frequently breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience, winking and nodding at us, and frequently making smart aleck cracks to the off-screen narrator, Jack Narz. This breaking of the fourth wall establishes an intimacy and mastery that displaces or disrupts the camera’s objectifying gaze. Nevertheless, White seems to have been quite aware of the sexual politics of her to-be-looked-at-ness. She embraces her good looks, sexuality, and smarts, but she owns them and shares them with the audience on her own terms. Clearly, Elizabeth is almost always in charge and usually way ahead of her husband, Alvin. It’s altogether such an unusual TV show for fifties America that it’s as if it exists in a different social structure altogether. Elizabeth/Betty is never shrewish, and seems capable of handling any issue. Significantly, Elizabeth is never punished by the narrative for being an independent woman, and she seems very much to enjoy herself. Unlike most women of the period, she is quite happy with her appearance and her abilities.

It’s such a pleasure to see a woman behave independently in the fifties, because she seems to be a lot more like the women I knew in my family who lived through the fifties, especially my grandmother, Audrey Mills Jennings, who capably opened her own business, and juggled marriage, family, and even parented her grandchildren, doing this all with a great sense of independence, and a great sense of humor. My grandmother was quite aware of gender inequity, and she carefully inculcated her feminist ideals and her liberal politics in both my sister and myself, as she raised both of us without any help. She was nothing at all like Lucy, or June Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley), Beaver’s mom, or even Elizabeth Montgomery’s Samantha on Bewitched or Barbara Eden’s submissive imp on I Dream of Jeannie. I suppose that ultimately I am drawn to Betty’s Elizabeth because she represents strong women like my grandmother, who are usually marginalized in pop culture history.

Life with Elizabeth

Life with Elizabeth

Betty White as “Elizabeth” not only masters the problems that come up in life and marriage, but she clearly masters the TV audience, who are “in” on her plans and schemes, and with whom she shares a Brechtian closeness by breaking the fourth wall. A contemporary review of Life with Elizabeth, written by Terry Vernon for the journal The Independent in 1954 is a fascinating glimpse into the reception of Life with Elizabeth. Vernon is clearly excited to report that the show is about to get wider viewership as it “shifts to exploitation minded KTTV” and moves to a better time slot in April 1954. Vernon notes that he’s been lauding the show since its inception, adding that, “it is too good a show to be buried away and unrecognized,” and “[we’ve] cheered the loudest when [Betty] received the Emmy from the Academy of TV Arts and Sciences.” Vernon directly contrasts Life with Elizabeth with I Love Lucy, remarking that,

“It is refreshing in that the situations are all true to life and could happen in any couple’s wedded years. After seeing Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy get covered in paint, hit with pies, or using costumes for laughs, it is nice to see some realism.” (Vernon 1954: 22)

Vernon also singles out the performance of Del Moore. “He keeps his role very true to life,” adding “you may even see some of your own foibles exploited capably in experiences you may have had” (ibid.). The story includes a large photo of Betty White holding her Emmy Award, and lavish praise for Life with Elizabeth, followed by a cursory plot summary for the I Love Lucy and Burns & Allen shows. Clearly, Vernon singles out Life with Elizabeth for special praise, as he lauds New York Times critic Jack Gould for his “astute rave review” of Life with Elizabeth.

One of the most fascinating elements of Life with Elizabeth is that it somehow manages to not feel formulaic. The unusual three-part structure allows the writers more flexibility; sometimes the parts connect, but more often they don’t. Yet one of the most intriguing signature taglines used throughout the show is also arguably the most feminist and postmodern. At the end of each segment, no matter what the plot, the narrator always asks Elizabeth directly, “Elizabeth, aren’t you ashamed?” as if to take her down a peg, or make her behave in a more submissive manner, perhaps standing in for the fifties audience, but more likely serving as a paternal figure of authority.

One of the biggest pleasures of the show is watching how Elizabeth always replies with a strenuous shaking of her head, “no,” indicating that she is not at all sorry for stepping outside gender norms. Indeed, it is with considerable degree of jouissance that Betty and Elizabeth are absolutely not at all ashamed. Rather, this proto-feminist unapologetically enjoys her independence, is comfortable in her own skin and perfectly in control of her own destiny and behavior. In this way, both Betty and Elizabeth not only defy the patriarchal voice of authority, but also recognize that their behavior would not be received as the “norm,” implicitly acknowledging the twisted sexist norms that prevailed on other TV series of the time period. It is a slight of hand that astounds and delights me every time I see it, even though it is formulaic, maybe even because it is so formulaic. Life with Elizabeth demonstrates how Betty White created and developed a decidedly female-centered fresh and modern “take” on post-war America, love, marriage, and gender roles, thus revealing and exposing the lack of authenticity of most TV visions of home life in post-war suburbia.

Betty White on the set of Date with the Angels.

Betty White on the set of Date with the Angels.

In addition to Life with Elizabeth, Betty White appeared in a number of other early television shows, including an early incarnation of The Betty White Show. Yet perhaps the most fascinating of these shows is White’s short lived situation comedy, the radically innovative Date with the Angels, which aired on ABC from May 10, 1957 to January 29, 1958, after a nearly two year gestation period. What is most fascinating to me about the program is that it offended male critics, audiences and even its sponsor precisely because half the show was a dream sequence from the point of view of the main character, wife Vicky Angel (Betty White), in an unusual example of female fantasy that departed from the repressive cultural “norms” of the 1950s. Date with the Angels was geared towards a female audience, and women working at home during the repressive fifties responded enthusiastically to the show specifically because of the inclusion of female fantasy.

Episodes of Date with the Angels ran the standard half-hour sitcom length, but half of that running time was given over to an escape from the Cold War mentality, and women were enthralled with the gift of a mere quarter of an hour of pure comic and romantic female imagination, a televisual écriture feminine, so to speak. Not only did Date with the Angels offer female fantasy on a TV sit-com, it also included several songs sung by White, usually with the word “angel” in them, foregrounding elements of fancy and joy associated with the feminine, as they were imparted by a particularly smart, funny, successful and well-know television personality, clearly the center of the show at all levels.

Yet for all that, White insisted that in creating the series, “we decided to stick to the tried and true. The Angels are designed for audience identification – cliché situations which the audience can appreciate, since they’re real and normal and believable” (qtd. in Nesteroff 2010). Yet one wonders if White wasn’t trying to disguise the radical structure of the series with her comments, and perhaps forestall negative criticism, slipping the show under the noses of the male audience, while aiming directly at female viewers. There’s really nothing even remotely “clichéd” about the Angels at all, particularly not by the standards of the 1950s. And women responded to the series with unbridled enthusiasm.

But it was not to last. The rapturous female response, the corresponding male backlash, and the sponsor’s ultimate destruction of Date with the Angels is truly astonishing, but speaks volumes about gender bias in the earliest days of American TV. Most male critics were vicious. One stunning example is John Crosby, reviewing Date with the Angels in The New York Herald Tribune on May 17, 1957, and comparing Betty White unfavorably with, of all people, vaudeville comic Eddie Cantor. The entire tone of the review is unremittingly hostile, but Crosby’s use of the term “aggressively feminine” strikes me as alarmingly gynophobic. Almost literally foaming at the mouth, Crosby wrote that,

“Just when I felt reasonably sure that we had all the husband and wife comedies the human system could reasonably stand, ABC-TV comes along with a new one called Date with the Angels, which has all the worst qualities of all the other husband and wife comedies without, as near as I can find out, any of the virtues. Date With the Angels teams up Betty White, an aggressively feminine young lady who has dimples that ought to be against the law, and Bill Williams, who is very much the straight man of the team. They resemble every married couple you’ve ever met about as closely as a Mack Sennett cop resembles Jack Webb. That is, hardly at all. Their conversation is a series of two line jokes and pretty bad jokes. She smiles more than any wife since the dawn of time and there is more plot in two minutes of the Angels’ marriage than the average couple has in a lifetime. We are all familiar with canned laughter but not in my memory has it been so conspicuously misplaced as in Date With the Angels. It sounds, in fact, as parts of The Congressional Records reads, those parts with the built-in stage directions (laughter) and (applause) […]. I remember in the dear departed days of radio comedy when there were a lot of complaints about the idiotic audiences who laughed on cue whenever someone would hold up a card advising laughter. But, by George, those people were laughing. Frequently the reason they were laughing was terribly obscure to those of us at home. But there was no gainsaying the fact that Eddie Cantor got the laughs credited him.” (Qtd. in Nesteroff 2010)

The implication here, of course, is not only that White is not funny, but that she is also relying on the laugh track as a prop, when the decision to use the laugh track was the sponsor’s, something over which she had no control. But leaving that aside, I have to ask, how can one be “aggressively” feminine? Does he mean she is too pretty? Too soft? Too sexy to be funny? Castrating? It’s hard to say. But I think it is clear from his choice of words that Crosby was threatened by the female-centered nature of the show, or any show that offered even the merest passing glimpse of female empowerment or desire for something beyond the status quo. How dare this pretty young woman have fantasies? Crosby is also demonstrably uncomfortable with the role of Bill Williams as Gus Angel. In Crosby’s words, he is “very much the straight man of the team,” as if it is implicitly demeaning to play second fiddle to a woman.

I suggest that Crosby sees Gus Angel as Vickie’s “punk” in the way Joe Friday sees his partner as his own “punk,” a mere extension of his male fantasy of empowerment. In addition, Crosby takes issue with the very notion of a television show that is a female fantasy. Crosby seems frightened by the fact that the Angels are not like the married couples he knows in real life, even though the specific point of the show is to escape the repressive marriages of post World War II reality, and enter into a female fantasy of free association. Female fantasy and even dreams of female mastery are deeply disturbing to Crosby, who exemplifies the early Mad Men sensibilities of the time period.

Jack Webb as Joe Friday.

Jack Webb as Joe Friday.

In retrospect, it’s clear that Crosby’s work is a vicious screed designed to destroy the program, rather than an objective review. He seems personally furious that the Angels “resemble every married couple you’ve ever met about as closely as a Mack Sennett cop resembles Jack Webb.” Curiously, in invoking the names of Mack Sennett and Jack Webb, Crosby conjures up the male centered cops-and-robbers comedies of Mack Sennett and the macho posturings of the almost robotic Joe Friday, played by Jack Webb in Dragnet. Crosby’s rants seems to have a great deal in common with the famous “Come to Jesus” diatribes of Joe Friday, the ever-angry patriarch of patriarchs. Clearly, Crosby is aghast at a show that does not conform to strictly assigned gender roles, a proto-feminist concept that has the audacity to play down the importance of the husband, an unassuming insurance salesman, and focus on the interior fantasy life of White’s character.

Date with the Angels is the antithesis of Dragnet. Dragnet is a police procedural, in which women are of little significance. In Jack Webb’s world, any type of pleasure, including humor, fantasy, or daydreaming is associated with weakness, indecision, and a lack of masculinity. Crosby, like the show’s sponsor, Plymouth, hated the idea of a woman even having the freedom to dream in the fifties. How dare women dream of a better life? A different life? A funnier life? A life in which a woman’s dreams and flights of fancy are valued and prominently featured? As historian Kliph Nesteroff accurately concludes, “it was enough to make John Crosby vomit.”

And, of course, Crosby’s attacks were effective in killing the series. The sponsor, Plymouth, after seeing a ratings drop when the show went up against Schlitz Playhouse on CBS and The Thin Man on NBC (in the fall of 1957) suddenly insisted that the dream sequences be entirely removed from Date with the Angels. That meant the death of the show as a vehicle of proto-feminist fantasy and wish fulfilment, and the establishment of a more quotidian sense of “reality” for the series. As White recounts,

“much as we enjoyed the concept of dream sequences, Plymouth did not share our enthusiasm. Making the sweeping generalization that ‘fantasy never works with an audience’ they gradually leaned on us to phase out the imagination segments in favor of at-home situations […]. Without our dream sequences, our show flattened out and became just one more run-of-the-mill domestic comedy.” (Qtd. in Nesteroff 2010)

The change was drastic and radical, using a format that employed hastily written sketch comedy bits featuring well-known guest stars such as Basil Rathbone, Buster Keaton, Boris Karloff and Nancy Kulp. But the magic was gone, and everyone associated with the show knew it; Date with the Angels was now just like everything else on TV in the 1950s, an unrealistic image of American society during the Cold War, in which women obeyed their husbands, and life was lacking in imagination or daring. Unsurprisingly, the revamped show rapidly died. But White survived, taking any job she could to pay the rent, from game shows, to commercials, and even to a small “serious” role as a United States Senator in Otto Preminger’s film Advise and Consent (1962). She took home too many television awards to mention, and her constant presence on shows such as Password, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and later The Golden Girls is well documented.

In her 90s, and in the twenty-first century, light years away from the repressive 1950s Cold War era, Betty White is still pushing the envelope in terms of gender, sexuality, and aging. She doesn’t preach feminism; she lives it. She doesn’t come out and say ageism is ill advised; she simply works against it. Betty White’s entire life has thus been an active rejection of negative stereotypes about women, marriage and sexuality. She takes a television appearance that may look to “other” her as an elderly female and somehow she always wittily turns it around and makes fun of the people trying to make fun of her. She is still playing the trickster figure. Maybe this is why she enjoys the highest Q rating in TV across all demographics.

Saturday Night Live

Saturday Night Live

For example, in her appearance on SNL, she used the metaphor of a “muffin” to talk about her own sexuality in ways that are both hilarious and empowering, using the same thoughtful poker face that she developed in her fifties TV shows to demonstrate that she is a woman involved in thinking. She is completely adroit at handling jokes based on her sexual anatomy and she handles material that may start out as smutty writing and turns it into feminist comedy because she refuses to partake in a manner that degrades her. In fact, Betty is always better than anyone in a scene with her, she’s always quicker and more clever and she has much better comic timing. She can be devious and mean, but she delivers mean with a grandmotherly smile, and she demonstrates an uncanny ability to rise above the snarky vapid comics around her. In Hot in Cleveland, she’s the most sexy and sexual, the most “in the know,” and the younger women look to her for advice. She’s much more “in demand” by her numerous male admirers on Hot in Cleveland and demonstrates the resilience, joy, and wisdom of an aging, capable, smart and very funny female.

Similarly, she’s demonstrated her ability to live fully as an independent woman in Hollywood, and she’s never been reserved about the difficulties she’s had balancing career and family. In interviews, she always says her first marriage didn’t work because it was simply based on sex, not full friendship and equality. Her second marriage didn’t work because her husband refused to allow her to work. Her third marriage, however, was ideal. She always describes Allen Ludden as “the love of her life,” and emphasizes that they were very romantic and sexual, and they enjoyed a life of working together and playing together. So Betty’s construction of Elizabeth in the fifties is not an aberration for her, even though it may seem like an aberration in fifties television. Betty White offers us a role model for a working independent female, and she’s been doing this since the 1950s. It’s about time we catch up with her.

This essay is dedicated to the memory of Audrey Mills Jennings, 1920-1994.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is Professor of Film Studies in the Department of English, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and an Editor of the journal Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Her books include 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011) and the second, revised edition of A Short History of Film(2013), both co-authored with Wheeler Winston Dixon; as well as Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture (2005), Identity and Memory: The Films of Chantal Akerman (2003), and Women Filmmakers of the African and Asian Diaspora: Decolonizing the Gaze, Locating Subjectivity (1997).

Works Cited and Consulted

Coontz, Stephanie (2000), The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, New York: Basic Books.

Gregory, Mollie (2002), Women Who Run the Show: How a Brilliant and Creative New Generation of Women Stormed Hollywood, New York: St. Martin’s.

Heller, Caroline (2010), “Betty White Says She Would Have a ‘Very Active Sex Life’ If Late Husband Was Around”, OnTheRedCarpet.com, 10 July. Accessed 2 March 2013.

Horowitz, Susan (1997), Queens of Comedy: Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett, Joan Rivers and the New Generation of Funny Women, Amsterdam: Overseas Publishers Association.

Kinser, Jeremy (2011), “Betty White Explains Her LGBT Appeal”, The Advocate, 10 October. Accessed 2 Mar. 2013.

Nesteroff, Kliph (2010), “The Early Betty White 1947-1973”, WFMU’s Beware of the Blog, 4 April. Accessed 2 March 2013.

O’Neil, Tony (2010) “Betty White Reflects on a Golden Career”, Los Angeles Times 17 June. Accessed 2 March 2013.

Tucker, David C. (2007), The Women Who Made Television Funny, Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Ufford, Matt (2010), “HAWT! Betty White Nude Photos!”, Uproxx, 18 May. Accessed 2 March 2013.

Vernon, Terry (1954), “Tele-Vues,” The Independent, 12 April, p. 22.

An earlier draft of this essay was presented as part of the panel “Authenticity and Social Identities in 1950s/1960s American Television,” at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies National Conference, in April, 2013.

8 Comments for “Life with Betty White: Performing the Authentic Proto-Feminist in Pioneering Early Television”

  1. I love this article. There is something completely authentic about Betty White that you can’t help but love. The discussion of the contrasts between her and other female stars who might be considered her peers could go on forever, but I just wanted to comment on Lucille Ball. People loved Lucy, and still do. However, the person on screen was this zany, playful, deliberately obtuse character–and then you cut to her off-screen interviews. It was as though she could break the uptight feminine stereotypes of the time on screen, but not anywhere outside the context of the show. Betty White isn’t entertaining or funny because she’s a woman, or because she’s older, because she’s open about sex, or because she’s a sexy older woman. She’s entertaining because she’s herself on and off screen–a truly wonderful person that has managed to transcend all labels. To me that’s really what real feminism is about: not taking something back, but simply being ourselves, refusing to acknowledge ways of thinking that never should have existed in the first place.

  2. Betty White is a curious figurehead when it comes to television, perhaps even more so in recent times since her re-emergence into the spotlight. It’s strange being 22 right now, and just a little while back living in a college apartment with people who were all familiar with her. One of my old roommates, a graphic artist, even opted to draw up a picture of Betty in pointillism for one of his drawing classes. That drawing, which was quite good, became a centerpiece in our shoddy apartment. In a lot of ways, she really does break down the infamous “fourth wall,” in more ways than one. I, like most, have never met her. Probably never will. But there is some connection she is able to make with all of us. We are entertained by her humor. I find her proto-feministic outlook to be appealing, in that she never carries herself as inherently superior to anybody (man or woman), and never seems to divulge into that sort of shady feminism that comes in the form of overly defensive behavior and anger. She is a delight because she seems to take everything in stride. This is an amazing quality in someone who has reached superstar status in many pockets of the world. She is someone I would enjoy getting to know, and the age gap would matter little because she showcases how age is just a number. Her ability to adapt to the present world, with all its tech advantages and cultural shifts is impressive, commendable, and allows her to be continually appealing to a diverse group of people.

    Overall, I loved this article. It is extremely informative and looked deeply into her life. An interesting life filled with meaning. There are few people in Hollywood I think I appreciate as much as Betty White. The world could use more ageless, sex positive, and fine actresses in the world.

  3. To me, this article can be archived as Betty White’s biography. Very well written about the actress. I personally love her as Elka :) I opine that no one has ever managed to be the most likeable tv star as Betty White. She has been an influential television actress in her generation as well as ours. She has a personality that never goes unnoticed especially because of her witty humor. White redefines feminism in her own language, on-screen appearance and sexual appeal which is worth an accolade. So what if she is sexually active at this age? It just doesn’t matter. I completely support White in her promotion of female sexuality among elders. Through the ages, people witnessed how male chauvinists try to suppress an overpowering female figure or counterparts. Betty white stood as a challenge to all such men and deserves an ovation here.

    I love the way she is described in this article as a woman who embraces her good looks, sexuality and smartness; yet shares them in her own style with her audience. I totally agree. This is the most charming element of White’s character.

    P.S: I would love to have a granny like Betty White from ‘The Proposal’ ;)

  4. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

    Thank you all for your comments. It appears that Betty White engages in a personal connection with her audience, no matter what the demographic, age, gender or race.

    One thing I neglected to mention above is that beneath her winning smile, Betty White suffered from terrible depression. (What woman with a brain would not suffer from depression in the toxic atmosphere of the fifties, during a time when women were being told to be quiet docile housewives and behave.) Her answer? WORK. She just kept herself busy working as much as humanly possible.

    I am kind of sorry she did not take more film roles in the 60s, based on her strong performance in Advise and Consent, but because of her depression, she hated standing around all day waiting for a ‘take,’ so she preferred to work in TV.

    If you read her self authored books you learn that White is also a very well informed and politically active person and always has been. Her home, particularly in the 50s and 60s, was a popular hangout for authors and thinkers, many of them blacklisted for their political beliefs.

    Among other things, Betty is an avid animal rights activist. She twists the arm of anybody with whom she works to partake in animal rights efforts. I don’t think she is somebody who takes ‘no’ for an answer, either…. maybe that is why she reminds me of my Grandmother, another strong single woman and animal rights activist and early environmentalist.

    Now that the article is published, I can see that what really draws me to Betty White is something deeply personal. I can see beyond her smile because I recognize that smile. That is my Grandmother’s smile. They were both women who didn’t really fit in with the women around them in the 40s and 50s: both were creative and very ambitious. Both suffered from depression and threw themselves into their work. Both women lost the love of their life at a young age. Both rejected female roles and neither of them had any interest in being submissive housewives. Neither had any role models in terms of feminism or career ambition. Both women soldiered on through work but neither of them ever lost their sense of humor and zest for life. And neither apologized for their beauty or tried to hide their intellect or sexiness. Like Betty, my Grandmother could keep me in stitches. Smart women can be damned funny.

    I find it ironic that Betty was NEVER a housewife but she PLAYED a housewife so well, and smiled so effectively, that people actually believe that this was her “authentic’ self…..but I know that smile. And I know that Betty is indeed acting, especially in the fifties….just as my Grandmother often had to “act” in real life in order to get along in the world.

    Betty always had an uncanny knack, as you say, though, to break the fourth wall. It is as if she is both acting, and also commenting on her own performance (spoofing the norms of femininity) at the same time. She was postmodern before postmodernism and proto-feminist before feminism.

    I found a few absurd articles that argue that Betty is perhaps not a feminist, mainly because she doesn’t like the term. One author finds it problematic that Betty prefers the company of men, for example. But Betty says she did not have anything to talk with women about….just like my Grandmother….she was a working woman and not a housewife…neither had any interest in lace doilies, fashion, recipes or that sort of thing.

    And truth be told, both my Grandmother and Betty White preferred the company of animals over people.

    As far as her White’s early career, there is much more that I don’t discuss here. If you are interested in an article on White’s early career, a good starting place is the carefully researched article by Kliph Nesteroff. Perversely, as much as I enjoy reading her glowing reviews, I enjoy reading the vicious reviews of Betty White even more. Why?

    Well, look who is having the last laugh – a half decade later!

  5. I so enjoyed this article. I wasn’t familiar with the specifics of White’s early television career, and had no idea how progressive her work was. I was in high school when “The Golden Girls” was on the air, and I remember being pleasantly surprised that a show about four older women presented their romantic lives as natural and normal. (And I remain surprised that “Golden Girls” remains one of the few shows that does present a normal part of life as normal.) I always thought White was the funniest on the show. Her character was a little limited, as “the ditz,” but her timing and delivery was so sharp. Now I know how she honed her technique.

  6. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

    Thanks, Will. Most people DON’T recognize how these early Betty White TV vehicles were progressive. I’m not sure even Betty White herself recognizes that they were indeed progressive; considering the time period in which they were made. I found an interesting clip of a Betty White interview that speaks volumes about this issue on the Archive of American Television. Towards the end of the clip, Betty talks about an incident about five or ten years ago in which a group of women at an awards ceremony angrily took Betty to task for “doing damage to women,” by playing stereotypical housewives in the 50s.

    White says in the interview that she was “really ticked” off that womenin the audience judged her early tv work by contemporary feminist standards. Sure, Betty played housewives, but she always found a way to subvert those gender stereotypes, even if it was simply by breaking the 4th wall, or daydreaming about a different life, and people (including Betty White) really need to recognize this as both feminist and subversive. Here’s Betty getting “ticked off:”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OloriIaUgLM

    I didn’t watch The Golden Girls often, but I am glad that an 80s TV show normed older women having active sex lives, romantic imaginations, and close female friendships. In 2013, it is very hard to find shows with women who are such close friends, of any age. Women are usually pitted against one another, of course, in competition. The active fan following of Golden Girls speaks volumes about the need for older women, indeed ANY women of any age or race, to have people on TV with whom they can relate. (I enjoy a TV show called Two Broke Girls because, despite many smarmy jokes, it is one of very few shows in this regressive era that feature a strong friendship between two women.) It is even worse in movies these days though, where female protagonists OF ANY KIND are almost completely ABSENT. There was a good article by Linda Holmes in NPR on this:

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2013/06/14/191568762/at-the-movies-the-women-are-gone

    As far as Golden Girls,I bet it was hard for Betty to play a ditz. She is bright as all hell, but she clearly had a blast playing that part. It strikes me that she subverted the ditz female stereotype here too, though. As an audience member, you can always tell Betty is both playing the role and commenting on it…we all know her character is playing dumb half the time simply to get her way…and Betty camps it up so heavily that we all know she is making fun of the silly stereotype of the dumb blond. As usual, Betty walks away with the show….she is so smart and funny that she simply cannot help herself. Decades later, she does the same thing now on Hot in Cleveland. The other actors are really very funny, especially Wendie Malick and Jane Leeves; but Betty is just so good that she steals every scene. Even sitting there not saying anything, she commands your attention. She is very generous to the other actors; but let’s face it, nobody can keep up with her in life or onscreen.

    Thanks again, Will. Your point about what was presented as “normal” in the Golden Girls is a great one. I cannot imagine such a show airing today, much less finding such a huge audience and such strong success on all fronts.

  7. What a great article! So much I didn’t know about her, but I have even more respect for her now. I’m always baffled when someone says they don’t like her, but to each his own. Such an unpretentious, authentic woman… something very rare with celebrities.
    I know it’s hardly her best work, and it may sound silly, but I always get a kick out of her role in Lake Placid. Totally unexpected, filthy language coming out of Betty White’s mouth – my jaw was on the floor from shock, yet I thought it was the greatest thing I’d seen in a long time. Only Ms White can get away with this!

  8. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

    Thank you, Nora.

    Betty White is even more important as age discrimination against women in the media gets worse with every passing day. The age at which women are supposed to “disappear” keeps getting younger and younger. What next? “Miley Cyrus still hot at 21?” “Elle Fanning: still hot at 15?”

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