Betty White, who passed away on December 31, was known as the first lady of television. And it was a title well-earned. Almost every American generation for the past century had a “version” of the actress/comedian/hostess/singer they knew and loved. For Baby Boomers, she was the queen of game shows and Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. For Gen-Xers, she was, of course, Rose on The Golden Girls. And Millennials know her from her appearances on various TV roasts, SNL, Hot in Cleveland, and The Proposal. Although, of course, anyone from any generation will likely enjoy all of Betty White’s work.
As for Gen Z? Well, they might just know her from online memes. But they know her. It’s hard to think of another performer who had as long-running a career as Betty White or who affected so many different decades of popular culture. She was perhaps singular in this regard.
But here’s something that many forget about Betty White, and they shouldn’t. She was an early advocate for women’s rights and civil rights. Of course, most people know that The Golden Girls promoted LGBTQ+ rights back in the ’80s. Back when things like that were all but unheard of on network TV. But Betty White was advocating for diversity in the entertainment business long before that. She wasn’t just charming and hilarious; she was also a pioneer.
In the 1950s, Betty White was a producer on her own television talk show series. The Betty White Show ran for two seasons, from 1952-54, and Betty went out of her way to hire women directors for the series. This was highly unusual for the times, as the rigid sexism of the era was practically ingrained and hard to fight. Women weren’t typically expected to have a real creative voice and were often viewed as props by the men in charge. By refusing to accept the status quo, Betty White slowly began to chip away at the ingrained sexism of 1950s Hollywood.
While The Betty White Show was on the air, its titular star took another important stand. She added African-American tap dancer Arthur Duncan as a regular cast member. The network affiliates in the South threatened to boycott the show, as they would years later when Nichelle Nichols appeared on Star Trek. But Betty didn’t buckle under pressure. In fact, their opposition only made Betty feature Duncan even more than before, something she shared more about in the PBS documentary Betty White: First Lady of Television. Her only note to all the TV stations in the South? “Live with it.” The show was canceled the show not long after. But Betty White had made her position clear.
Betty White’s story was one of kindness and resilience. It’s almost impossible to think of anyone who spoke poorly of her in the entertainment business. In a tough industry, Betty White persevered. In the ’50s, she went through several different shows, some with her name in the title. The ratings failures of some might have caused a lesser performer to pack it in. But Betty reinvented herself, as she discussed at length in her Biography Channel documentary. In an industry that often grants men a thousand chances and women far less, she persevered. And in doing so, became an icon.
Almost since social media began, a persistent existential panic set off whenever Betty White’s name started trending. Everyone shared posts like “form a protective circle around Betty White at all costs!” We all just fought against the inevitable happening, mainly because she was a beacon of positive energy through horrible times. Literally, decade after decade of horrible times. She even advocated for animals, sponsoring various wildlife foundations and speaking up for pet adoptions, for crying out loud. So when she left us mere weeks before her 100th birthday, for which massive celebrations had already been planned, it felt like a cruel joke. To be fair, though, thanks to the multitude of Leap Years she lived through, she did actually reach 100 years old. More or less.
Betty White used her star power and position in the entertainment industry to make positive changes in the world. And even though we love her for the nearly eighty years of laughs on the small screen, we love her for fighting to do the right things against difficult opposition even more. We will miss you forever, Betty White. Know that I speak for many people when I say, “Thank you for being a friend.”