Everyone loves a comeback, the more unexpected the better--and no recent comeback was more unexpected than Betty White's.
Though White has been working steadily for over seven decades—a career that's included 5 Emmy wins and iconic performances on"Golden Girls" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"—she zinged back into the public consciousness in 2010, with a Snickers Superbowl ad and a successful grassroots Facebook campaign to get her to host "Saturday Night Live." She ended 2010 with a starring role on TVLand's "Hot in Cleveland," which was recently renewed for a fifth season. She published two books in 2011—If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't) and Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo—and in January 2012, began hosting hidden camera prank show "Betty White's Off Their Rockers."
White's comeback is unquestionably positive for female comedians and comic actors. Though female dramatic performers like Jessica Tandy and Gloria Stewart sometimes see a late-career bump, White's renaissance is a relatively new phenomenon for female comedy performers, with later-in-life career reinventions more common among male comedians like Jerry Stiller and Peter Boyle.
And yet, White's newfound popularity doesn't seem to hinge on her phenomenal showbiz skills, honed through decades of experience as an actor, writer, and TV show host. Rather, it seems dependent on the incongruity of the level of aggression White is able to play, in contrast to her sweet, traditional exterior. This push-and-pull is on view in the Snickers ad (where she plays a foul-mouthed male football player) or most of the pranks on "Off Their Rockers" (which count on the surprise onlookers feel when they catch older people doing things like swearing, drinking, or causing big public messes). Even her book's title implies a charming faux confrontation.
This works as a gag because White's aggression comes off as an act, rather than an authentic aspect of her personality. In her memoirs and interviews, she appears self-effacing and thoroughly humble—in a 2010 Ad Age interview about her comeback, White responded to the question of whether she knew what Facebook was before the SNL campaign with, "Oh, I didn't have a clue! But that's just my own stupidity." The same interview referred to her as "America's Sweetheart" in its headline, and an Oprah.com article noted that "Now, at 88 years young, Betty White is again Hollywood's "it" girl." Of course, there is an element of comedy in referring to any 91-year-old woman as a "girl"—but there is also an implication that one can stay young and appealing forever, through being able to ape the aggression of a young person while retaining the inner sweetness we expect of older women.
While pondering this, I found it impossible not to think of Joan Rivers. Like White, Rivers has been in show business for longer than I've been alive, beginning as a comedian in the early 1960s Greenwich Village stand-up scene. Turning 80 this June, Rivers, like White, also never really went away—she appeared for decades as a red carpet fashion critic, and turned up in the 90s and early 2000s in places as diverse as "Nip/Tuck" and the QVC home shopping channel.
But Rivers gained attention as the 2008 winner of "Celebrity Apprentice," and a re-evaluation of her work by a new generation—thanks in part to the 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and a very heartfelt 2011 episode of the show "Louie" where she appeared as a professional mentor and sexual partner to the (much younger) title character—pushed Rivers back into the forefront of popular culture, where she too now has a TV show (E!'s "Fashion Police," which is currently at the center of a labor dispute) and New York Times-bestselling book (2012's I Hate Everyone…Starting with Me).
However, unlike White, Rivers's career has always depended on her ability to act aggressive. I Hate Everyone, just as the title implies, is a book of one-liners about all the things Rivers loathes, from baby talk to rubber wading boots. But before getting to that, Rivers notes in the introduction, "For those of you thinking, Jeez, Joan, you seem a little angry, you're half right. I'm not only angry, I'm fed up…[b]ut being fed up and angry is better than being depressed."
I was marginally familiar with Rivers' work before reading her book—I'd seen her red carpet critiques from time to time—but had only been aware of her insult humor aimed at others. I was intrigued by this revelation of the rage behind it (and far more entertained than I had ever been by her red carpet work, parts of this book are damn funny), as well as struck by how unusual it was to see an expression from anger from an older woman. This is where Rivers' career trajectory veers so sharply from White's—her rage is real.
Even when older women become political agitators and activists—Granny D, for example—they are often most valued for their calmness and sagacity. At best, they're permitted to show sadness, or anger on someone else's behalf. Elderly people—and especially elderly women—are just not supposed to be that fucking angry. That's why "Off Their Rockers" or the Snickers ad can succeed—that kind of aggression in an older woman is supposed to be a flight of fancy, something as silly and absurd as a frog that croaks out "Budweiser."
Elsewhere in the book, Rivers rags on White for beating her out for "sassy grandma" roles in movies, but I believe that it is Rivers' rage, not White, that keeps her from landing those "rapping granny"-type gigs. She reads to the American public as strangely ageless because of her rage (as well as her outspoken sexuality)—if you placed her in the Snickers ad, the joke wouldn't be that an old person was acting surly; the joke would be that Joan Rivers, a professional comedian, is in your Snickers ad telling jokes.
A Time article about White's comeback lamented that "White's moment—like Susan Boyle's last year—is one of those feel-good stories whose subtext is the feel-bad reality that celebrity culture usually doesn't work this way." But Rivers' case proves that celebrity does sometimes work that way—just not for women who maintain their cultural role as sweet, demure, and appealing. While White's ability to play angry but remain sweet has made her seem "forever young" to fans, it's condescending stance. That designation is society's to give to her, and society's to take away (just like when the title of "It Girl" is bestowed on a very young woman).
Though White the performer has a lot of agency in her comeback, the comeback itself seems predicated on White the character having none—even the passive nature of the Facebook campaign to get her on SNL confirms that. Rivers, meanwhile, doesn't get to host SNL, have a network TV show, or be America's sweet-anything. But she gets to signal real anger and discontentment.
The Rivers and White career revivals are both important, in that they outline a new kind of career for female comedians—the kind with the peaks and valleys over the course of a lifetime that many male comedians have enjoyed (though this kind of career still seems out of reach for almost anyone but white, heterosexual-appearing women). But perhaps their comebacks will also help change some of our ideas about the range of emotions older women are culturally permitted to express. Sure, we need some sassy grandmas—but we also need some angry, hilarious 80-year-old jerks.