Monday, September 6, 2010

Why we need Betty White -- and Beth Weems Pirtle

At 88, she's achieved what we all envy -- yet another chance to be reinvented. Damn, I think this broad is a cat reincarnated, and only on maybe her third or fourth of the nine allotted lives!

When I first saw Betty as Sue Ann Nivens on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," her fierce brand of femininity was lost on me. At the time, I was a square-peg young lady trying desperately to fit into a very smoothly-rounded life, one with which I was unhappy, but told that I "should be" content. I was engaged to a "nice boy," and had a "nice job," and didn't want to admit how confining "nice" felt. Still, watching Sue Ann's antics was a guilty pleasure, by which I could vicariously tap into my inner bitch. She symbolized all the women friends who had betrayed me, and was a female I loved to hate. Still, I admired her acting out the same sexual boldness that men always had displayed with impunity. Her Rose Nyland role on "Golden Girls" showed us more of the same, this time with a little more ladylike fluff.

The context of Betty's life, which includes her long-time marriage to Allan Ludden, and her public animal-welfare interest, has diversified her public image and saved her from becoming a one-dimensional "dirty-old-lady" caricature.

With us boomers aging, thank goodness the concept of the "senior years" is being redefined by people like Betty. She is everywhere now again--commercials, TV (how about that SNL performance?), and the big screen. The sharply-timed wit puts Sue Ann's witticisms to shame. Such comments from a 33-year-old would elicit shrugs, but from Betty, they draw cheers. At a time when we think we may be past the need for an empowering role model, along comes Betty.

And then there's the 74-year-old beauty queen Beth Weems Pirtle. Funny, with the ebbing popularity of "Miss America," the news of Pirtle's success was just a little footnote. How regrettable, and why is that, anyway? Might it serve to remind us of our still-ambivalent view of seniors, especially women? If we take glamour for granted in a twenty-year-old girl, why then not celebrate it in an senior, who certainly reflects more life experience in every curve AND age-acquired line in her face. Again, we have another role model, one who defies the "old bag" inevitability.

As I continue my own journey toward 74, and then 88, I know people like Betty and Beth will be among my inspirations. Gray hair? Creases? An ache or two? Bring 'em on! Men have integrated the "distinguished" look into their aging process sucessfully, so it's up to us to do the same.

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