Everyone loves Betty White. From her brilliantly dumb portrayal of Rose Nyland on “The Golden Girls” to her game show appearances and animal activism, she’s built a reputation as a respected actress who doesn’t take herself too seriously.
But it wasn’t until Betty reached her late 80s that she became a zeitgeist. An online campaign for her to host Saturday Night Live led to one of the most successful SNL episodes in recent memory. She landed a role in a big Sandra Bullock chick flick, starred in Super Bowl commercials, became the face of a hot new sitcom, and even developed a following on Twitter.
We love spunky old women, and Betty has spunk in spades. Her humor has an edge we don’t typically associate with old age, and as she enters her tenth decade on earth, she seems to speeding up rather than slowing down.
Everyone wants to be Betty White when they’re 90. The problem is, most of us are not even close to being Betty White in our 30s and 40s.
In her fantastic book, “Succulent Wild Woman,” the artist and writer SARK points out that the mere act of growing old does not magically transform us into fearless, fabulous older women. “We are studying now to be the old women we will be,” she writes.
The way we live as younger women determines the way we live as older women: grateful or bitter, adventurous or stuck, embracing or judgmental.
The first time my now-husband saw my video collection he commented on how much I love Hugh Grant. “I do?” I asked, looking at the DVDs on my dresser. “About a Boy.” “Notting Hill”. “Two Weeks’ Notice.” Sure enough, I had a thing for Hugh Grant and didn’t even know it.
Recently, I had a similar experience when looking at the themes in my writing. My upcoming novel, “The Name of the Game,” features a spunky-but-sweet elderly neighbor. My latest screenplay, “Stuck On You,” centers on an antique engagement ring given to the hero by his spunky-but-sweet Nana. And my work-in-progress novel focuses on two feuding sister coming to terms with the illness of their grandmother – who is, as you might have guessed, spunky but sweet.
These characters are a tribute to the older women I’ve been blessed to love in my life: my Grandma Good, my sorority house mother Mom Helen, and a handful of other women I met growing up in church and school. Like Betty White, all of these women were strong, outspoken, vibrant women long before they became cute little old ladies. Grandma Good dropped out of school in the eighth grade to support her family during the depression, but ended up a successful librarian who instilled in my entire family a love of reading. After working as a music teacher and missionary in India, Mom Helen decided she was up for one last adventure and moved into a sorority house at the University of Florida.
And now, as those women pass on, I see the next generation rising up and preparing to become the spunky older women we all admire: my Mom*, my Aunt Carolyn, my coworker Ann. I know it is not merely the passage of time that makes us admirable; it’s something that was always there, but the rest of us were too self-involved to appreciate.
So the next time someone tells you they want to be like Betty White when they’re old, remind them that spunk is not handed out with Social Security checks. It’s something we earn through years of living like to its fullest. Or as Betty herself might say, balls to the wall.
*No, Mom, I am not calling you old. I said “preparing to become.”