We’ve already discussed that Betty White isn’t the only woman over 60 on TV. But she’s certainly the patron saint of older female television stars. Though White's long been a household name — her incredible career dates back to some of the first TV broadcasts ever, in the ‘40s — something special happened a few years back. In her late ‘80s, she suddenly became a hot commodity. The surge in her popularity was the result of a confluence of events: a scene-stealing role in the 2009 Sandra Bullock movie The Proposal and a funny Snickers commercial appearance that ran during the 2011 Super Bowl inspired a Facebook campaign to get her to host Saturday Night Live. Then she did, in the midst of launching a new show she happened to be in, TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland. Suddenly major magazines were doing profiles, and talk shows were vying to book her. People suddenly remembered: They loved Betty White.
The Golden Girls’ feminism is self-evident: Four outspoken, post-menopausal women live together and support each other through older age, dealing together with their grown kids, ex-husbands, and dating lives. And they are not the punchline—they make the punchlines. This show, against all odds, was a massive hit in the ‘80s.
When shows like this happen—groundbreaking shows that disprove network executives’ narrow views of what makes good TV—we tend to believe that everything has changed in one swoop. But we are usually wrong. When Golden Girls became a hit in the ‘80s, it was easy to imagine a whole spate of wonderful shows about older folks ushering in a new era of acceptance for stars of all ages.
Whenever I see a woman over 40—never mind 50 or 60 or 70—on my television screen, I relax a little. Without thinking too deeply about it, I’m processing a lot of welcome information: Oh, look, women do live past 40! They can often be funny, smart, successful, and wise!
Then, of course, my brain does all those other calculations it has been trained to do: How does she look? Does she look way younger than her age? Does she have wrinkles? What does that mean about my face?Do I look better or worse than she does? Is that good or bad? Am I shriveling away to my death?!
This second round of thoughts might explain part of why television continues to avoid what could be a lucrative and loyal audience to target: older women. They may be affluent and primed for high-priced wrinkle cream ads, but, gosh, they scare the other audience segments an awful lot.
In this two-month-long guest blog, Women of a Certain Age, I’ll be exploring the ways that women outside the target age demographic are a usually neglected on television.