Remembering Betty White (npr.org)
I’ve mentioned before that for all my love of books and libraries when I was younger, a lot of what propelled my autodidact tendencies from an early age came from my fandom of early-1980’s game shows, and how I needed to learn things like basic math to help me understand why people got happy or sad on shows like The Price is Right. My appreciation of daytime television shows of this era can be seen in everything from the look of my Twitch channel to my not-infrequent arguments that the 1970’s incarnation of Match Game may be not just the greatest game show of all time, but the greatest television show of all time. When I’m down and I need a surefire laugh, clips of those shows are often the first thing I’ll pull up on YouTube when I go on a binge there.
It should go without saying, then, that I’ve been a huge Betty White fan for as long as I can remember. The Mary Tyler Moore show was still a staple of television reruns when I was very young, but I knew her best from her regular appearances on so many of the game shows I watched back then. The Golden Girls was the anchor of a very solid Saturday night NBC lineup that I watched religiously (and not just because Amen was part of that block as well), and one of the strangest things I’ve experienced these past few days, reading through all the Betty White tributes that have been popping up, is looking at how many people feel that White’s turn as Rose Nylund was what elevated her to that most exalted plane of media “legend.” That role may have been White’s biggest by some metrics, but she was already a legend long before The Golden Girls first aired.
I didn’t watch more than the first couple of episodes of The Golden Palace, since the show just didn’t have the same spark as its predecessor, and Betty White was never on more than the periphery of my radar after that. It wasn’t that I didn’t still love the heck out of her, but I just wasn’t watching as much television as I used to, and my day-to-day life was demanding a lot more of my attention. More to the point, the appearances that I was aware of were on shows and in movies that just didn’t interest me; you’d have to pay me a lot of money to sit through an episode of Boston Legal, but I could binge Match Game or even The Golden Girls any day of the week.
When Betty White hosted Saturday Night Live a decade ago, close to her ninetieth birthday, I started getting flashbacks of my old television-watching back in the eighties. Television was an old enough medium by that point to have its own legends, who would keep getting their own specials once or twice a year in prime time (to say nothing of regular appearances on The Tonight Show) to tickle everyone’s nostalgia bones. In particular, as icons like George Burns and Bob Hope neared their hundredth birthdays, there was always speculation of how the occasions would be marked. Burns had even promised to do a show on his birthday, but although he and Hope both lived to that age, neither of them were well enough to make even a token public appearance, and both passed away shortly after they turned one hundred.
The possibility of Betty White joining that club was something that brought me a modicum of comfort, and it helped that new generations continued to discover just how amazing she was, both on and off the television screen. I probably taught students this past semester who spent a good part of their early years watching reruns of shows like The Golden Girls, or maybe even Hot in Cleveland when it first aired. At the same time, my parents would be in their mid-seventies if they were still alive, and Betty White was a part of their childhoods as well. Over the past few weeks, seeing posts about her upcoming centenary on social media was a needed break from links to news stories about all the bad stuff going on in the world right now. I couldn’t remember Betty White making a public appearance in years, and I’d figured that she was probably too infirm to do so, but just for her to reach that mark was one bit of good news that I knew would lighten the hearts of pretty much everyone I knew.
She didn’t make it, though, and as irrational as it is to blame the year 2021 for taking Betty White from us on its last day, that was a sentiment I quickly saw echoed all over the Internet. It almost feels like it would have been easier to deal with her passing away a few months earlier, or even a year or two, because for her to get so close to that big number, only to die unexpectedly (or at least as unexpectedly as anyone in their late nineties can pass away), honestly kind of feels like some cosmic force twisting the dagger they’ve already plunged into our backs over the past couple of years. Memes of all stripes, of course, were quick to pop up to put a different spin on things — Betty White going out heroically and taking the whole miserable year with her — but as much as we all know that Betty White would want us to keep smiling and laughing, this is a passing that has hurt a lot of us deeply, perhaps as deeply as we can experience the death of someone we only know from television.
Bill Cosby served as a surrogate father for a lot of people my age whose biological or adoptive fathers were monstrous, and I’ve written before about how that was absolutely the case for me. Even though Cosby had been dead to me long before he went to prison, suffering through what he’s made of himself over the past twenty-five years has still been incredibly painful, because those memories of watching Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids and The Cosby Show when I was very young, as sullied as they’ve become, still hold a lot of very deep meaning for me. I wouldn’t have traded Mom for any other mother in the world, but I can’t deny that I thought a lot as a child about how cool it would have been to have Betty White as a mother, and these past few days have proven that I was far from alone in thinking that way.
I don’t know if I could explain this to my students in a way that they could understand, not just because they’ve grown up in a much different media landscape than the one of my youth, but because our culture has become so much more cynical and distrusting of people who seem so fundamentally, for lack of a better word, good. Maybe the one bit of comfort I’ve been able to take from the past few days is reading and listening to so many other people eulogizing Betty White as one of those people almost universally recognized as a good person. I’d like to think that this world is still capable of creating more people like Betty White, even if I’m not around to silently cheer them on to their hundredth birthdays.