A new populist movement is taking over the U.S. and I am not talking about one involving Tea Parties or Sarah Palin. The ever glamorous, funny, and spirited Betty White recently has become the inspiration for everything from a Superbowl commercial for Snickers to a Facebook group Betty White to Host SNL (please?) The call has been heard, and the news out in early March confirmed that she will be hosting on May 8, 2010. What is it about her that is drawing young and old alike to the rallying call?
She is described by the Museum of Broadcast Communication as one of television's most beloved and talented actresses and in a nearly 50 year career, has starred in some of the most popular shows of all time. In her personal life, she showed great resilience, emerging shortly after becoming a widow (from her third husband, gameshow host Allen Ludden) to star in such shows as the Mary Tyler Moore Show and, most famously, Golden Girls. She continues to star in movies; most recently she played with humor, charm, and elegance, the grandmother in "The Proposal." As USA Today notes, "This dame is still game."
Perhaps one key to Betty's popularity is her anti-stereotypic portrayal of the "little old lady." In her performance in the Superbowl ad, we hear a young man make the disparaging comment "You're playing like Betty White out there," to which Betty, in super-spunky mode, retorts: "That's not what your girlfriend says." The message this communicates is "don't mess with me!" This is a message that seems to have no age limit but it's particularly effective coming from someone who reminds people of their kindly and polite grandmother. There's even a poster, which I cannot reproduce here, showing her pointing a gun and saying "Betty White is sick of your #$%%^." That's not my grandma talking!
Betty communicates a positive message about aging in other ways as well. She has never been reluctant to go for the double entendre. TV Land refers to her as "a TV hottie." This image is one that clearly resonates with younger viewers but is also consistent with recent data on the sex lives of older adults.
In a survey of over 3,000 Americans, researchers at the National Opinion Research Center report among adults 57 to 64 years old, 84% of men and 62% of women report that they had sex with a partner within the past 12 months. This percent drops substantially in the 75 to 85 year-olds to 38% of men and 17% of women but that's if sex is defined as sexual intercourse. About one-quarter of the oldest men studied and over a third of the women engaged in oral sex. Generational differences seem to play an important role, however, and apart from health factors may account for the dropoff in sexual involvement in the oldest group studied. So there's hope for the "young" old who grew up in the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
Betty's image as a feisty, fresh, and possibly sexy older lady shows us that it's never too late to enjoy life's sensual pleasures. Her well-deserved Screen Actors Guild lifetime achievement award highlighted her rise to prominence in her 60s and 70s, and there seems to be no limit to what she will accomplish. Among her many inspiring observations, she comments that: "I was only 88 last Sunday, so I have lots more stuff to do,"
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010
Waite, Linda J., Edward O. Laumann, Aniruddha Das, L. Philip Schumm. (2010). “Sexuality: Measures of Partnerships, Practices, Attitudes, and Problems in the National Social Life, Health and Aging Study.” Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences. Special Issue.