Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Denzel Washington and... Betty White? Aside from all being actors, what else could these four have in common? According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, they have been voted as some of our most trusted celebrities, with Betty White -- at 89 and decades older than the others -- winning the top spot in 2011. And should we be surprised? Betty has stormed the airwaves in the last 18 months, starring in a top Super Bowl ad in 2010 and the hot new TV Land sitcom Hot In Cleveland, hosting Saturday Night Live on May 8, 2010 prompted by a Facebook page supported by 500,000 people, and winning a Prime Time Emmy in 2010 and a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award in 2011 for Best Female in a Comedy Series. his most recent accolade occurred one year after winning a SAG Lifetime Achievement Award. And these are just some of her recent appearances and awards. After telling the audience at the SAG awards this year how lucky she was to be working at 89, the applause prompted White to quip, "You didn't applaud when I turned 40!"
Turning 40, it seems, doesn't have the cachet of near 90. Suddenly, not only is Betty White cool, but actually being old is cool. Whether it's the image of mud-stained Betty standing in the middle of a pick-up football game for a Snickers commercial, or shimmering, sequined SNL host Betty poking fun at Facebook (and at "poking"), or headliner Betty hosting and doing a can-can at a tribute for Morgan Freeman -- this old lady is cool! The growing recognition of Betty White as an American icon is major. Her image on television is nothing like the cute, crazy and kyphotic Clara Peller yelling, "Where's the Beef?" or a hobbling elder actor doing a last curtain call at the Academy Awards. In his final years as a previous poster elder, George Burns was certainly an active and beloved figure, but he was no Betty White. Old age here is different, and according to Betty, it's vital, full of humor and not going anywhere. As White declared last year, "I was only 88 last Sunday, so I have lots more stuff to do." Indeed.
My hunch is that Betty White's omnipresence on television is not simply a product of our adulation for her as a survivor or a historical relic, but is indicative of a growing shift in how both the media and greater society are perceiving the aging process. She represents a new model of aging, a baby boomer wish fulfillment first forged in Bob Dole's Viagra commercials and now more matured, unreeling a little bit more each time Betty White hits the stage. We see in living color a near 90-year-old who is physically fit, mentally sharp, busy pursuing her interests and funny to boot. And we're laughing with her and not at her! She has become a model we'd all like to aspire to as we age.
Not only are demographic trends pointing in the direction of living longer, but we are beginning to live better as well, more fit and sharp than our parents and grandparents and with the promise of age-related nemeses like cancer, heart disease and dementia seeming less insurmountable by the day. If in 30 or 40 years these great killers are essentially controllable (or curable!), most individuals will have decades of healthy, active living once they reach seniorhood, pursuing new interests, careers and relationships much like we see Betty doing today.
Our very final days, as the compression of morbidity hypothesis goes, will be short and at a much later point in the lifespan. We still face daunting challenges in old age, and the idea of a cure for aging is as foolhardy as a cure for death. But we can see in Betty a certain barrier broken, a possibility realized. Welcome the Betty White Effect, as I call it, where suddenly everyone younger than 90 doesn't seem so old anymore. And though a large part of this effect takes place solely in our perceptions of aging, we must admit that positive perceptions shape expectations and attitudes, jolt self-confidence and open doorways, turning perception into reality. Increasingly, Betty White -- actress turned oracle -- represents less an anomaly of old age and more its future.