Click here, or on the image above, to read Gwendolyn Audrey Foster’s new essay “Life with Betty White: Performing the Authentic Proto-Feminist in Pioneering Early Television” in the latest issue of Film International.
As Foster notes, “Betty White has always been ahead of her time. This has been both a blessing and a curse. Most people, even scholars who specialize in television history, have little to no knowledge of the importance of Betty White in early live television, in the invention of the television sitcom, and as a pioneering television writer, producer, and actor. At 91, Betty White couldn’t be much hotter. As of February 20, 2013, her television “Q” score – her “likability quotient” – was the highest in the industry. Her popularity amongst all different markets, regardless of age, race, and demographics, is truly staggering, giving the Kardashians a run for their money.
White currently appears in two first-run TV programs, the network series Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, which she also co-produces, and Nick at Nite’s Hot in Cleveland, a show worth watching primarily to catch White stealing scene after scene and to watch her inventively breathe life into a character (Elka Ostrovsky) who is a strong, smart, unapologetically sexy elderly woman like none other. White won a Screen Actors Guild Award for her portrayal of Elka (Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor) in 2011. And she is considered to be the most popular and most trusted celebrity among Americans according to a 2011 poll conducted by Reuters.
But being ahead of her time has not always best served the interests of Betty White. Back in the nineteen-fifties, both playing and living the life of an independent and very capable funny and pretty woman in charge of her own sexuality, Betty was arguably too far ahead of her time, and she was eclipsed by the dim-witted, clowning, simple-minded character portrayed by Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy. It’s fascinating to compare the trajectories of Betty White and Lucille Ball in early TV history, and even more interesting to think about how female gender roles on television may have had an entirely different influence on American women had Betty White’s Life with Elizabeth (1952-1955) and Date with the Angels (1957-1958) stayed on the air and enjoyed the success and seemingly endless syndication of I Love Lucy. Lucy was still in reruns when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s and even now enjoys legendary popularity, despite its retrograde and sadly influential characterization of the female comic as sexless, clownish, childish, stupid and ever dependent on men, most significantly her husband ‘Ricky.’
Few note that well before Betty had success with Life with Elizabeth she had actually begun her TV career as early as 1939, when, only three months after graduating high school, Betty appeared on an early experimental Los Angeles TV station, singing songs from The Merry Widow. She did modelling, and during the war she served in the American Women’s Voluntary Services. She was very active in radio, in programs such as Blondie, The Great Gildersleeve, and This is Your FBI. She even had her own radio show, The Betty White Show. Even before White developed Life with Elizabeth, she rose to prominence as a beautiful, confident, intelligent, quick-witted comedic actress and eventual writer/producer known for her writing skills, her business acumen, her comic timing and her ability to ad-lib and write for television.
After an early career in radio and modelling, White was one of the first recognized early TV stars. White starred in the live five and one half hour ad-libbed variety show, Hollywood on Television, which was shown six days a week on station KLAC in Los Angeles from 1952 to 1956. This grueling trial by fire afforded White a platform to hone her skills as a writer and actress noted for both her audacity and her authenticity, the same elements she is celebrated for today. Hollywood on Television taught White to think on her feet, and connect with her viewers, most of whom were women working at home. They identified with White’s independence and resourcefulness. They enjoyed her intellect, her delicious sense of humor, and her ability to create a woman of both intellect and sensuality, especially in the repressive environment of the nineteen-fifties.
Betty had a mind for business, and in 1952, the same year she began solo hosting Hollywood on Television, she co-founded Bandy Productions with producer Don Fedderson and writer George Tibbles. The three of them created the comedy Life with Elizabeth. Betty was not only the star of the show but one of the producers. Life with Elizabeth enjoyed national syndication, and White was one of the only women in TV at that time with full creative control both in front of and behind the camera. In 2010, White won a Screen Actors Guild award for Lifetime Achievement, in recognition not just for her work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Golden Girls, but also for her early pioneering work on Life with Elizabeth and [her other pioneering television series, discussed at length in the Foster's article] Date with the Angels. It’s truly a shame that most people are not as familiar with Life with Elizabeth or Date with the Angels, because in these very unusual programs, Betty White created and performed a very modern version of what I’d call a proto-feminist visionary in the 1950s.”