Arts and Entertainment

(Almost) 100 Years of Betty White

For over seven decades, American treasure Betty White has been able to make a place for herself on television, speaking volumes about her inextricable link to the small-screen medium.

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By Chuer Zhong

A hallmark of the halcyon era of television, Betty White is an ubiquitous figure in American culture. Unlike other contemporaries of her time, White managed to waltz her way through the minefields of changing generations with relative ease, charming viewers from the era of antenna-bound boxes to that of touch-screen technology. White was a proud recipient of three Screen Actors Guild Awards, eight Emmy Awards, three American Comedy Awards, a Grammy, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and was a 1995 Television Hall of Fame inductee. Blessed with the je ne sais quoi of a true entertainer, a clever tongue, and an alluring smile to boot, her ability to effortlessly shift gears from a loveable, graceful guest to a quick-witted comedienne marked her as a true connoisseur of her craft.

Born as Betty Marion White on January 17, 1922, White got her first taste of the spotlight after starring on an experimental television transmission in high school. She officially kicked off her career on the radio, first landing a few gigs on popular productions and later receiving her own radio program. Despite these ambitious strides, her big breakthrough ultimately came in 1949, when she was named co-host of the live talk show "Hollywood on Television" (1949-1953) alongside disk jockey Al Jarvis. White began to host by herself in 1952 after her male counterparts left, becoming the first woman in the U.S. to be the sole host of a talk show.

Despite her limited opportunities as a woman in the industry, White was able to spin "Hollywood on Television" (1949-1953) into “Life With Elizabeth” (1953-1955), a sitcom starring White as the titular Elizabeth. A woman taking the reins of an original project was unheard of at the time, marking "Life With Elizabeth" as a prominent milestone in the gradual absolvement of gender restrictions in television media. With the success of the two-year sitcom, White also had the chance to produce her own daily talk show, “The Betty White Show” (1954), which aired on NBC. Granted creative control over the entire project, she was able to hire a female director, which marked another monument in the history of television.

After her run on “The Betty White Show” (1977-1978), White decided to build onto her impressive résumé with frequent game show appearances. Her appearance on shows such as “Password” (1961-1967), “Tattletales” (1974-1978), “To Tell the Truth” (1956-1968), and “Match Game” (1962) made her dubbed the “First Lady of Game Shows” after claiming the hearts of both the hosts and the American public alike. It was on these shows that White was able to hone her distinct public persona, one that would propel her to national acclaim like never seen before.

With popular culture dictating that they were undesirable afterpassing the ripe age of 35, no longer classifying as coquettish, fresh-faced sex symbols, women were consequently shoved into the "office worker" archetype: the pressed-collar, flat-wearing matrons you run into in at a secretary office or at the library counter. White took advantage of this stereotype to define her signature public mien, presenting herself as a clean-cut auntie with a devilish mind: amicably sweet on the outside, yet enticingly risqué on the inside. Betty White ultimately redefined the etymology of woman stardom, and in 1973, at age 51, when most women were kicked to the curb by Hollywood executives, her career reached new heights on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-1977).

On “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” White not only cultivated this persona, but also maximized these qualities to create the larger-than-life character Sue Ann Nivens. A catty nymphomaniac who wielded her winning smile like a rifle and deployed her chipper nature like a feint, Sue Ann was a representation of what American culture suspected the “modern woman” to be—a fox behind closed doors. Sue Ann was an enigma of unbridled femininity and a satire on the unbecoming of a woman: a so-called “Betty White type” polished into perfection. White breathed a new type of humanness into female characters on television, transforming them from shallow, simpering secondaries into three-dimensional figures that television had rarely seen.

Eight years after "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" ended in 1977, White took a pivot with her work on "The Golden Girls” (1985-1992), assuming the role of optimistic widow Rose Nylund. Rose was a slippery character and could have been whittled down into a dim, one-dimensional punching bag in the hands of the less experienced. For White, however, it was a match made in heaven: she molded Rose into a character of unexpected wisdom and strength, yet another protagonist saved by her natural ingeniousness. After the show's finale in 1992, White worked on a variety of other projects and continued to charm audiences around the globe. Her most significant appearance was in 2010 as the host of "Saturday Night Live" (1975), which marked her as the oldest host in the show's history.

So what exactly made White such a beloved figure in American history? While her raw talent and multitude of achievements were a presiding factor, her life of dignity and grace sets her apart from the crowd. When met with racist bigots who demanded the removal of black tap dancer Arthur Duncan from “The Betty White Show,'” White received threats from NBC, which threatened to cancel the production. Instead of complying, she rebounded by increasing Duncan's airtime, which ended her critics' spiel of polemics with a curt "live with it." White further established her progressiveness with her early support of same-sex marriage, advocating for the LGBTQ+ community and proving herself to be a trusted ally. In addition, White was also a major proponent of animal activism, serving as a trustee of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association and the Morris Animal Foundation. She volunteered tirelessly at animal welfare organizations, donated to numerous charities, and even won the National Humanitarian Medal from the American Humane organization.

Above all, Betty White is a class act for all the decades that have been graced by her presence. Along the course of her career, she broke countless barriers of American culture and paved the way for women on television, overcoming the limitations of old age with her remarkable sharpness while fighting for praiseworthy causes. For many Americans, White was a beacon of hope in Hollywood who channeled her compassion into the heart of her work, never once losing her “Golden Girl” touch.

Betty White passed away on December 31, 2021, just 18 days before her 100th birthday. Within minutes of the report, three generations of Americans flocked to all kinds of social media forums to mourn. For days to follow, the fragmented American masses came together in these social spaces to revel in her bounds of life––the same way audiences of generations gathered around the television to watch her on the small screen. With the cultivation of her work, she managed to stitch together the seams of America once again.

Perhaps the true magic of Betty White wasn’t her gleaming smile, her witty quips, or her lasting legacy, but her benevolent presence that enveloped us all in a communal blanket of pride, a display of a career in all its glory. It didn’t matter if you were not familiar with her name before the tragic announcement. Even if it was just for a second, we were all ushered into the collective embrace of honor and got to bask in the signature Betty White charm that lingered behind, the same magic that will fuel the veins of American television for years to come.

Rest in peace, Ms. White, and may your kindness continue to empower generations in the future.