When beloved sitcom actress Betty White passed away at age 99, she left behind much more than a show-stopping Hollywood career that spanned seven decades, beginning in 1949 and leading to the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” in the ‘70s, “The Golden Girls” in the ‘80s, and “Saturday Night Live” in 2010, among countless other roles.
Beyond her stardom, White also left behind a bold message for women around the world. By leading through example, she taught women that instead of hiding or fighting their age, they should embrace it wholeheartedly and use their life experiences to their advantage.
Indeed, White transcended Hollywood ageism by staying true to herself throughout all stages of her life, never taking herself too seriously.
“She was sassy, funny, playful, and her timing was amazing,” said Dr. Ken Dychtwald, founder and CEO of consulting firm Age Wave and author of “What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age.” “She didn’t deny her age; she led with it,” he added.
“When you think of Betty White, you think of someone having fun,” Dychtwald said. “She owned her age. She was old and proud of it and brought great playfulness, wit, and an open heart to that stage of life.”
White’s captivating presence filled a much-needed role in Hollywood, which is riddled by pressures to be young and to fit a certain mold. “In both film and television, the majority of female characters are in their 20s and 30s, while the majority of male characters are in their 30s and 40s,” said Dr. Martha Lauzen, founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. “Very few female characters are 60 or above.”
According to the latest “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World” study of on-screen representations in the top grossing films, over half (53 percent) of female characters are in their 20s and 30s. The percentage of female characters drops precipitously from their 30s (29 percent) to their 40s (16 percent). There are nearly twice as many male as female characters aged 60 and over. Some 6 percent of female and 10 percent of male characters are in their 60s or older.
“Betty White was ahead of her time,” Lauzen said. “She worked in both television and film well before many actors were crossing over. On television, she worked in a variety of genres and had her own production company,” she added. “She is iconic.”
So how, exactly, did White so gracefully sidestep ageism? “Humor,” said Mary Murphy, journalist and associate professor at University of South Carolina Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “I think when people age, it’s taken too seriously. She never took herself too seriously. She used her age—instead of using it against her—she used it for her career. I think she was brilliant.”
White never projected the stereotypical Hollywood image, Murphy explained. “She didn’t have to walk the red carpet as a size 0… She was always just herself,” she said, which paid dividends over time. “This is the lesson Hollywood should learn from this. She didn’t play by those rules; she wasn’t cast in those parts. She was simply herself.”
“When it comes to aging, more role models are needed—and Betty White started the parade,” Dychtwald said.