An interesting cultural phenomenon will be taking place this weekend. Betty White, the octogenarian actress best known for her role on “The Golden Girls,” will be hosting “Saturday Night Live.”
Wow! Talk about a great career opportunity for an older actress. But is it going to be a step forward in changing attitudes about her age group? We shall soon see.
One long-term care group is hoping that her appearance will help to promote positive images of older people. The Assisted Living Federation of America this week sent a letter to executive produce Lorne Michaels asking him to use her appearance to fight ageism and hurtful stereotypes about the elderly.
“The fastest growing demographic are those over 85 years old with most as vibrant and active as Betty White,” Richard Grimes, president and CEO of ALFA, said in the letter. “Yet, these seniors are often portrayed as useless and witless by the mainstream media thus serving to perpetuate ageism in America—an ‘ism’ that robs seniors of choice, dignity, independence and quality of life.”
I’m not sure White, who is 88, has helped to change these perceptions of late. She recently made a comeback of sorts with an appearance in a Snickers commercials that aired during the Super Bowl. In the commercial, she is the alter ego of “Mike,” a guy playing football with friends. She gets tackled and her teammates aren’t happy. In fact, someone accuses her of playing “like Betty White.” When she eats Snickers, a younger man appears. (The legendary elderly actor Abe Vigoda plays a similar role in the commercial.)
The commercial endeared her to millions, and introduced her to those who are even too young to remember her as the naïve and sweet Rose Nylund in “The Golden Girls” television sitcom.
While such a commercial is fun and makes Betty White loveable, I’m not sure it does much to perpetuate a greater understanding of older adults.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s wonderful that people can make fun of themselves, but shouldn’t there be a place in entertainment for older actors who play smart, insightful and multidimensional characters?
One good role model is Elaine Stritch, a screen and stage star who has been performing one-woman shows in New York. I saw Stritch, who is in her 80s, in Chicago during a production in which she reflected on her life and career. She offered a glimpse into a woman who has experienced a lot in life and is still growing and learning.
Unfortunately, I don’t think we see enough of these characters on TV. We’d much prefer to laugh at older people’s shortcomings than celebrate them for their wisdom, experience and enduring talent.
But who knows? Perhaps “Saturday Night Live” will surprise us.