When TMZ broke the news that Betty White had passed away on New Year’s Eve 2021, there was an outpour of grief from fans of all ages on social media. At 99, Betty White was a true pioneer. She had successfully navigated her way through an 80-year career while remaining as outspoken, witty and charming as ever.
However, many of the tributes to this much-loved star seem to fail on highlighting her tremendous impact on pop culture, instead rendering her a sweet, grandmotherly figure – despite the fact that Betty never had, nor wanted, children. While Betty was “blessed” and thrilled to become a stepmother in her marriage to Allen Ludden, this was not a title that she defined herself by – so neither should we.
Such generalisations are hardly surprising in a society that often defines women by any means possible – age, marital status, their ability to confine to social norms. But this very categorisation was something that Betty’s entire career and nature defied – and here is just a brief look into all that she achieved.
Before pursuing a career in entertainment, Betty wanted to become a forest ranger – but was unable to as women were not allowed to serve in this position at the time. While she was later made an Honorary Forest Ranger, her love of nature and wildlife was not lost at her denial into this industry, and she remained a passionate advocate throughout her life.
During the War, Betty was a member of the American Women’s Voluntary Services – before entering the entertainment industry through the rapidly-growing world of radio entertainment. Betty had initially tried her luck at various TV studios but was turned away due to the fact she “had square jawbones and all the things they tell you are not photogenic.” Despite this, Betty went on to have one of Radio’s most glittering careers.
In fact, her success in this area led to the creation of the Emmy-award winning sitcom Life With Elizabeth – for which Betty served as both leading lady and producer. In doing so, Betty became the first woman to produce a TV show in the US – one of the first to have complete creative control in front of and behind the camera.
In 1952, Betty launched her own variety show, The Betty White Show – in which she continued to make space for those denied occupancy in the world of Showbiz. For example, Betty hired a female director. Additionally, White regularly featured African-American tap-dancer, Arthur Duncan on her show – despite widespread criticism from some members of the audience. In response to threats to boycott the show, White famously responded, “Live with it”.
Following the cancellation of the Show – Betty White was involved in various projects, with one of the most notable being the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and later another project entitled the Betty White Show. In 1985, Betty took on what is arguably her most iconic role, Rose Nylund, on the hit-sitcom Golden Girls. A sitcom about four retired women living together, the show took a different take on the concept of ageing. In fact, the golden girls had more love interests than the ladies of sex and the city. (Rose’s character dated 30 men, Carrie 18).
In recent years, Betty’s career has continued to glisten, despite the fact that she claimed, “People take a very dim view of ageing not just in show business but in almost every business” (Harper’s Bazaar). For example, following a global campaign, Betty White became the oldest person to ever host SNL at 88. The episode drew in over 12 million viewers and earned her another Emmy Award. She was also described by comedian Seth Meyers as “the only SNL host I ever saw get a standing ovation at the after-party. A party at which she ordered a vodka and a hotdog and stayed til the bitter end.”
During her career, Betty won hundreds of awards. She is the only woman to have received an Emmy in all of the comedic categories relating to performance – and also holds a record for the longest span between nominations (1951-2014). Betty remained fiercely dedicated to her career and the causes that were close to her heart – refusing to bend to any of the rules or limitations that were put on her – and she did so, famously, with a smile.
And that is how we should remember her.
Image courtesy of Belinda Fewings