Why Can’t We Take Our Eyes Off of Betty White?

All of the hullabaloo surrounding octogenarian Betty White right now has us at Glimpse asking: why is Betty White so visually appealing?

The sitcom veteran with the American-as-apple-pie grandmotherly countenance has received a tsunami of praise from the media for the several surprises she holds beneath her seemingly sweet exterior: Hank Stuever of the Washington Post calls her a lovable and “slightly dirty-minded meemaw with an unerring sense of comic timing.”

Sure, it’s easy to laugh at a sweet old lady that’s not afraid to say a few bad words or get in on the joke, but it certainly doesn’t account for White racking the most viewers for SNL since John McCain’s guest appearance on the show during the 2008 presidential elections. One NPR Blogger even remarked that White’s knack for raunchy comedy mixed with innocent delivery harkens back to her days on the Mary Tyler Moore Show; to put it simply, she’s been doing this kind of comedy long before she appeared as the oldest person yet to host SNL.

So what is it about White that makes it hard to take one’s eyes off of her? Are people her age so visually absent from our TV screens and our coffee shops that we now yearn to see them in any visual context that is not an AARP advertisement? In an odd way, White seems the epitome of what we want older people to be: accepting of her age (perhaps acceptably looking her age) but with-it enough to understand today’s cultural references, and even interpret them in a manner that also resonates with older generations.

Perhaps our perception holds the answer. Blogger Eric Calpin poses the idea that visual culture can give some reasons for why we laughed at Betty White getting pummeled by football players for this year’s popular Super Bowl Snickers Ad (see below).

According to Calpin, while rules of visual perception explain how we biologically receive the light emitted from the television during the Snickers commercial, these physical laws don’t explain

“why we laugh at Betty White getting [smeared] by her opponent or why we chuckle when she [rebuts] her teammate with a ‘your girlfriend’ joke…The theory of visual culture relies heavily on the concepts and influences of a certain way of life…If you didn’t know that older women typically don’t play football with younger men and that ‘your girlfriend’ jokes are quite common in America, you would be straight-faced.”

Perception and memory seem to serve as important forces in molding cultural humor. What is your perspective on the current Betty White craze and what it says about how we perceive the elderly, both onscreen and off?


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