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Remembering the smart, sharp, naughty Betty White

Betty White at the 41st Annual People's Choice Awards in 2015.
Kevin Winter
Getty Images
Betty White at the 41st Annual People's Choice Awards in 2015.

Something awful happens to the pop-culture take on smart, sharp-witted people when they have the audacity to age beyond some unspecified point. It seems especially true for women. There's a reason people still quote the speech in First Wives' Club when the character played by Goldie Hawn says that Hollywood recognizes three life stages for actresses: "babe, district attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy."

Betty White, who died Friday a few weeks short of her 100th birthday, raised her profile in the 1960s, in a cultural moment in which you could be a famously wonderful guest. A talk show guest, or — in White's case — a game show guest. Take the old show Match Game, where contestants would try to match answers with the ones offered by six celebrities. The celebrities filled certain slots: Some were bawdy, some were silly, some were young and cool, some were jaded, some were ... often drunk. (Allegedly. Seemingly.)

White was one of the ones who was sharp as a tack. When it really counted, when the contestants needed to match with a celebrity to win a lot of money, they'd get to pick which celebrity to try to match in a single, one-shot moment. And very often, if they really wanted to win, they would pick Betty White.

It happens in the clip above, near the end. The contestant has a chance to win $5,000. He can try to match answers with Joe Flynn, Brett Somers, Charles Nelson Reilly, Linda Henning, Richard Dawson or Betty White. Several of those are Match Game heavy hitters, but he chooses White. (Those who know know: After a certain point, most people picked Dawson or White.)

The contestant is given the phrase "penny [blank]." To win, he has to choose the same second word she does. After taking a moment to think, he chooses "penny ante." Host Gene Rayburn turns to Betty White. After a little teasing with other things she considered, like "penny candy" and "penny arcade," she reveals that she, too, came up with "penny ante."

She was just great on game shows.

It wasn't just because she had an eerie ability to know you were going to say "penny ante." It was because she had not only this voluptuous wit, this sense that she was always thinking of a dirty joke whether she was speaking it or not, but also a reassuring demeanor that told you that she was on it — you were in good hands if you made her your partner in the final challenge.

This is not to suggest White should be remembered mostly as a game show guest. She was, of course, a wonderful comic actress who found great success in two diametrically opposed sitcom roles: the voracious sexpot Sue Ann on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the innocent and often confused Rose on The Golden Girls. The fact that her manner as Sue Ann had always been so gleefully carnal and sharp-tongued was part of why it was so funny to people when she popped up as Rose. Here she is as Sue Ann auditions for a new segment called "News from a Woman's Point of View."

Sue Ann's relentless good cheer, particularly alongside the way she tells Ted Baxter to "stick a sock in it," is a sendup of the foolishness of there being such a thing as "News from a Woman's Point of View," since here, that seems to mean interpreting a mudslide through the lens of doing laundry.

Post-Golden-Girls, and especially after a surge of interest in her career that picked up when there was a campaign (ultimately successful!) to get her a hosting slot on Saturday Night Live, there was a kind of flattening of the appreciation of Betty White, until it seemed to coagulate around a central, regrettable, recurring idea about women over, say, 80: that she was adorable.

Maybe it's not "babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy." Maybe it's "babe, district attorney, Driving Miss Daisy and mascot."

Because while White received a lot of attention in her 90s — far more than most actors do, even if they live that long — a lot of it felt reductive to me, almost infantilizing. The same sauciness she had when she was younger was received like a stunt, like it's inherently funny to hear old women talk about sex, talk about lust, make dirty jokes. Not even the same way it was when Sue Ann talked about sex on The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Blanche, Sue Ann's spiritual sister, talked about sex on The Golden Girls.

It was patronizing at times: The way we appreciate older women is often to defang them, turn them into fuzzy little stuffed animals — and it's unfair to them. When White participated in the "Delicious Dish" sketch on Saturday Night Live, she didn't do that as a dotty old lady being baited into swearing. She had been doing sex comedy since before some of the members of that cast were even born. She was as in control of those jokes as any other host.

Part of the reason I like one of the clips of her goofing around with Ryan Reynolds that's been circulating today is that it sends up this precise idea. Reynolds says she seems like an "adorable, sweet old lady," but she isn't. The joke of the clip is that she's weaponizing the fact that everyone thinks she's adorable to be, in secret, demanding and mean. Now the clip is a joke, it's fiction, and you could certainly argue that all it's doing is using the gag that she's not so adorable to emphasize that — surprise! — she is. But the notion that a lot of people use the "adorable, sweet old lady" idea to drain the creative lifeblood out of their impressions of people like Betty White is real.

White was a star. She was a beautiful young woman who played Password with all of her smarts and wit, so charmingly and skillfully that the host, Allen Ludden, married her. She was a very funny actress who could be an innocent or a lustball, who could deliver a line like a syrupy-sweet cocktail that was spiked with enough hot sauce to make your eyes water. She loved animals, loved her husband, loved working (and was a regular on Hot In Cleveland into her 90s).

For people whose knowledge of White came only in her "spicy grandma" phase (and this is nothing against a spicy grandma!), the full range of her gifts might give way to some sense of her as more national treasure than legendary comedian, more beloved than brilliantly talented. But she had the goods all along: on game shows and talk shows, alongside other legends of television, in movies, and while sitting around a table with three other actresses — all gone now — telling them stories about St. Olaf, Minn.

Don't let the "protect Betty White at all costs" business fool you. She earned that affection by being great at her job — at her jobs, all of them — for decades upon decades, sending up generations of stereotypes of women: the happy homemaker, the sweet-as-pie wife, the Midwestern innocent, the poor little old lady who just wants to be protected from Ryan Reynolds. She was too formidable to be anything as harmless as "cute" or "adorable." She was too funny to be anything as passive as a cultural mascot or a protected resource. She was Betty White, who lived to be almost 100 years old, and who was making new plans as late as this week.

Perhaps one lesson is this: Never underestimate a woman who is practically unbeatable at games of wit and intellect. She will go and go, and work and work, until she's good and ready to rest.

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Linda Holmes
Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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