To understand the specific angle of the pop cultural infatuation with Betty White, look no further than the magazine cover on which she poses in a leather bikini and knee-high boots, straddling a centaur. It’s a cartoon rendering, but still a perfect emblem of White’s current status as the poster girl for raunchy old ladies on television. Her sitcom, “Hot in Cleveland”—about a group of older women who move to Ohio after discovering that local men eye them like porn stars in Spanx—was recently renewed for a fifth season. The NBC reality show “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers” features senior citizens pranking unsuspecting youths. “Stop staring at my tits, you pervert,” one granny tells a mortified young man. White is the host, applying frosting to the chest of a shirtless Chippendale and dropping one-liners about her scandalous sex life.
Over the past few years, this sort of thing has won White a devoted following. She’s done guest spots on “Community” and “30 Rock.” Hundreds of thousands of Facebook fans petitioned to have her host “Saturday Night Live,” where her lines included “Many bakers from my era have dry or even yeasty muffins.” Other typical White bits involve references to crotch massagers, lap dances, squirting muffins (that muffin innuendo refused to die), suggestive hot-dog eating, and showering with Hugh Jackman. In one episode of “Hot in Cleveland,” her character, Elka, is on trial for some petty misdemeanor and sets out to acquit herself by seducing a juror. Emerging from a courthouse broom closet, she adjusts her blouse and declares, “Justice has been serviced.” May I suggest it hasn’t been?
White has always been saucy, but her dirty old lady act is a recent development. Even later in her career (she’s 91!), she got roles that made use of her deceptive innocence and acid wit. In her fifties, she stole scenes in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” as Sue Ann Nivens, a ruthless man-eater oozing phony charm. Rose Nylund on “The Golden Girls,” the sweet foil to Bea Arthur’s caustic Dorothy, was ditzy but also insecure in a fully plausible way. These characters, in other words, were layered and surprising. 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.
Granted, TV comedy has often struggled to represent the elderly as humans. This was a preoccupation of former Florida lawmaker Claude Pepper, who in 1977 grilled a group of network executives before the House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Aging: “Are we so victimized by our own stereotypes that we only recognize as elderly those televised characters who are toothless, sexless, humorless, witless, and constipated?” Women in particular have gotten a raw deal. Old men in comedies have long been allowed to occupy a broad spectrum of shtick, but for decades, old ladies were prudish nags: Take cranky Mother Dexter in the ’70s sitcom “Phyllis” and Johnny Carson’s clueless old-woman parody, “Aunt Blabby.”
Even in that bleak milieu, though, there were older women who were seditiously edgy. Phyllis Diller—the seminal stand-up comedian who briefly starred in an ABC sitcom, “The Phyllis Diller Show,” about the misadventures of a wacky, chain-smoking housewife—could seem like an affront to feminism, exaggerating her age and ugliness for comic effect. “My body’s in such bad shape, I wear prescription underwear,” she once cracked. But her hammy decrepitude was its own subversive statement about the culture’s squeamishness about female sexuality and old age. She was unsettling the expectations of her audience even as she played to them.
These characters aren’t actually exploring the sexuality of older women—they’re stunts to generate cheap laughs.
Then in 1985 came “The Golden Girls.” There has never been anything like it on television—a comedy about older women with complicated inner lives. All four women were single, and their forays into dating were played both for laughs and for pathos. In one episode, Dorothy asks, “Have you ever met a man who knows how to push all your buttons?” Blanche replies: “Just once. He was a cabana boy in Pensacola.” In another, octogenarian Sophia befriends an elderly man with Alzheimer’s disease, sitting with him patiently on a bench as he tells her again and again about his late wife.
White’s Rose Nylund was a key part of what made the show at once so tender and so funny. When Rose considers sleeping with a new boyfriend for the first time since the death of her beloved husband, Charlie (from a heart attack, while making love), her emotions—guilt, anxiety, embarrassment—feel crushing and real. There is nothing cheesy about the moment, no cymbal-clash joke when the deed is done. Loneliness, senility, death, sex: “Golden Girls” understood that there was comedy to be mined from all of it. Todd Milliner, executive producer of “Hot in Cleveland,” said the show was one of his favorites growing up. “To get someone to give a show like ‘Golden Girls’ a chance on a mainstream network today,” he says, “would be the toughest thing.”
And so that’s how we’ve ended up with shows like “Off Their Rockers.” Chris Coelen, its executive producer, told me he made a calculated bid to appeal to a younger demographic. “I think if this was a show that felt like it was specifically for older people, older people interacting with other older people, I think it wouldn’t do as well as it does,” he says. “But the fact that we have young people in bikinis, having fun, along with our older people—that helps.” One TV writer recently explained that networks increasingly like their shows to be “noisy,” whether by way of sex or violence: “There’s just that need to say, ‘Hey, look at me! Look over here! Watch this!’ ”
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.
Susan Harris, the creator of “Golden Girls,” has caught only glimpses of Betty White’s new shows. She finds them hard to watch. “TV should have grown up a bit more and a bit faster,” she told me. But it hasn’t, and it probably won’t. Fifty years from now, one can only imagine the indignities that our old ladies will have to endure on television. Zooey Deschanel naked on a centaur and Anna Faris managing a muffin shop, coming in 2060 to NBC.
Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic. Follow @lbennett