Some Thoughts About Betty White

January 3, 2022
Brush pen and watercolor sketch on Strathmore 400 Series Vellum Bristol. Sketch made from a Fair Photo from Earth’s World.

Actress and comedian Betty White died on December 31, 2021, just short of her 100th birthday.

Dick botched the notification system we have in place yet again. We are having a serious re-think about the current system.

I had to point out that “we are not OK.” 

When your life spans the 1960s to the present and all the TV that was on offer through those years, and you are, as I was and am, a devoted TV viewer, you can’t escape having feelings for Betty White.

Mine are positive, in recognition of all that she accomplished. 

I think that the character of Sue Ann Nivens, that she played on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” from 1973 to 1977 is one of the great iconic comedy characters. She was the character you were happy to be most annoyed at—for her duplicitous demeanor, for being superficially cheery, for never being able to resist a chance to undermine others with veiled comments, for her unbridled competitive nature, and of course for her man-obsessed behavior (especially in regards to “Lou Grant).

She was at once funny, and pitiable, and memorable. A cautionary tale of what women answering a call to feminism weren’t supposed to follow as a role model. 

But she was human—successful at her job, and deeply flawed.

That made her interesting, and it made the jokes hit home harder. White walked a tightrope of nuanced balance and made it look effortless.

I was never a devoted fan of “Golden Girls,” though I’ve probably seen all of the episodes. I’ve only seen a string of episodes of “Hot in Cleveland” because by the second season I was caught up in the sweep of “Game of Thrones” and starting to go down the path of “Zombies.”

Whenever I did see her on TV however, I would stop and watch, and enjoy. 

I loved seeing her guest star in other TV shows and pop up in movies. I still love the 1999 movie “Lake Placid” only because of Betty White.

She made every performance, even small ones, count, because she had the ability, with her facial gestures and those dancing eyes, to sell the character. 

I’m glad our lives overlapped and I was able to enjoy her career.

She also taught me, among other things, that if your eyes twinkle you can get away with saying a lot of shit. And if you hit on a hairstyle that works for you early in life you’re good to go!

So Roz Why Aren’t You Sketching Betty?

If you have bothered to really look at Betty White you’d have realized that she is stunningly beautiful. Symmetrical features, the whole bit. She has been since she was a young woman. She still was even in advanced age. Look at her press photos and you can see it when she had dark hair as a young woman, all through life. She had an actress persona to keep up. A face to give to the world. 

While it is pleasant to see, when looking at her in later years that she has many smile lines streaming around her eyes (which let us hope she enjoyed her real life as well as her work), it still doesn’t make her any easier to capture on paper.

And I exaggerate features, it’s how I draw. I typically don’t draw women because their features are too symmetrical, too made up and covered by make up, or too lost and guarded in their view. It doesn’t interest me to draw any of those things.

In White’s case I like her too much to crack that face with bold brush lines or lose the light in those alert-like-a-bird’s eyes.

So I declared it opposite-day and drew a woman Earth’s World captured at a Fair—someone who wasn’t symmetrical and didn’t have a good skin care regimen.

Contrast helps us see things more clearly. Just like Sue Ann Nivens helped us see so much more clearly in the 1970s.

Update January 8, 2022

I just received an email from the New Yorker listing some recent articles to read. It included this link to a wonderful short tribute to Betty White by Susan Orlean.

It’s a short but wonderful tribute that captures White.

  1. Reply

    My B-Dub love story is much like yours – I was a big Sue Ann Nivens fan and have seen many more of her other appearances rather than Golden Girls, although I appreciated her in that one. I loved her talk show appearances and her roast of William Shatner was hilarious. She and my mother were the same age and quite similar in appearance, and as my mother got older she was much more flirty and her sense of humor darkened a bit. Whenever I saw Betty, I also thought of Mama. Thank you for writing this.

    1. Reply

      I loved the bit about “explore the galaxy not fill it.” And Shatner’s good humor about it. That’s the fun thing about roasts, everyone having a good sense of humor about it. I’m glad Betty has given you continued thoughts of your mom. I hope they both stay alive in your heart.

    • Jeanne Long
    • January 4, 2022

    I think it’s sad that the culture worships duplicitousness and hypersexuality. I think putting this behavior in the realm of comedy gives both men and women the license to do things that will only harm them and others. Laughing at harmful behavior makes it seem less hurtful and that’s what keeps it going. I realize that these statements will be unpopular because people don’t want to consider how our culture is devolving and how we all play a part in its demise.

    1. Reply

      Jeanne, obviously you haven’t seen The MTM Show or White’s work in it or any of her work on TV or you wouldn’t have led with “the culture worships duplicitousness and hypersexuality.”

      The show did nothing of the sort and showed the harmful and uncomfortable way those things played out in the workplace. It did so in the vehicle of comedy through which magnifying glass everyone can learn.

      Comedy can provide a way to heal people and society by looking at all the foibles of all people in that society, and all groups. And when we stop using comedy to give ourself “checks” then we lose a vital tool for society and are forced to splinter into the types of antagonistic, insulated groups we see everywhere in society today all concerned with what is politically correct.

      It might be useful for you to watch old videos of comedian Bill Hicks and his difficult but on-point social satire to understand the essential need for humor in society however “right” one group thinks its opinion is.

      I am reminded of an interview Robin Williams had with a German TV host. The host asked Williams something like, “Why is it do you think, that we have no stand-up comedy in Germany today.”

      Williams didn’t even hesitate a second but said, “Well you killed all the comedians.”

      That pretty much says it all. We need comedy as an essential part of the society.
      [update—I tried to find a tape of an interview where he discussed this and instead found this clip of video where he worked it into his routine. You might want to watch it.

      We need those people standing there saying, “The emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.”

      We need people like Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Bill Mahr, Bill Burr, Eddie Murphy, Richard Prior, Jerry Seinfeld, Kevin Hart, Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, Joan Rivers, Jon Stewart, Ellen Degeneres, Patton Oswalt, Tig Notaro and hundreds of others that I’m sorry aren’t jumping to my mind right now.

      They voice what is uncomfortable in a way that can bring realization of shared humanity, and through that change.

      The culture I live in worships the craft, honesty, and fearlessness of the people of comedy. I’m thankful for their presence everyday. And I honor Betty White for her place in that culture, and will miss her.

    • Georgy
    • January 4, 2022

    Thank you for this marvelous post.
    love & love

    1. Reply

      Georgy thanks for letting me know that you enjoyed this post. Did you see the update I added to the post this morning? I got a email/newsletter from the New Yorker and there’s a link to Susan Orlean’s wonderful tribute. Check it out.

    • Jeanne Long
    • January 4, 2022

    You say obviously I haven’t seen her work and you are totally wrong. I watched all of those shows–being the sheep that I was. I did see that in those types of sitcoms there was often the role of the hypersexual woman and I stand with my statements that laughing at that state perpetuates it. It cheapens sexuality. And it even glorifies misguided sexuality by using an attractive woman in the role of someone who seems to be living for her next sexual (and loveless) encounter. They often choose the attractive ones for those roles. If they put unattractive ones in the roles, it wouldn’t get the message across as well that the deviant behavior is desirable. The culture isn’t learning anything good from laughing at her desperate behavior. They’re releasing some of their tension over their own addictions and weaknesses. I’ve seen clips of her later roles that are being shown now and she got worse as she got older. And the writers also have the other women characters enjoying the sick double entendres that she loved to cleverly deliver with that beatific smile (phony of course). That puts women in collusion with her, which leads to their own destruction. An aware woman would have nothing to do with sick sex jokes for she would know that it cheapens the sex act and that cheapening will affect her and other women by the devaluing of true intimacy and replacing it with impersonal physical sex–sex for sex sake, rather than sex as an intimate expression of affection. Look what’s happening to people today where hook-ups are the rule. And duplicitousness is standard. Do you really think the media has had nothing to do with that? Laughing at the misuse of sex makes the misuse of sex seem acceptable. It is true also that the laughing at inebriated people perpetuates the addiction of drunkenness by making it seem laughable rather than as dangerous as it is.

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