I don’t know how to write this. I’ve been struggling to formulate words since I heard about Betty White’s passing on New Year’s Eve Day. In fact, I was drinking coffee out of a Rose Nylund mug when I heard the news. My husband’s favorite show is The Golden Girls, so it is always playing at our house–whether we hunt for a channel playing it or we pop in one of our well-worn DVDs of the show. It is difficult for me to separate my feelings when writing an obituary, because Betty White meant the world to me.
Betty White was television. I don’t define that because she was on screen since the late 1940s, but just imagine how much change she has seen with every sitcom and special that she has been a part of. Two of her biggest roles, as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Nylund on The Golden Girls, changed the landscape for women in television. Go back and watch those shows and you will see how they hold up better than a show that premiered later and was canceled sooner.
There is a sickly sweetness to White performance as Sue Ann, and I am tempted to wonder why she’s not more of a gay icon. With her passive aggressive tone and that smile plastered on her face, she has the type of presence that makes you uncomfortable when it should be soothing. Sue Ann knows she knows more than you when it comes to keeping a home tidy and in order, especially on a show where Mary is trying to do everything on her own.
In her first episode on the James L. Brooks comedy, Cloris Leachman’s Phyllis thinks that Sue Ann is having an affair with her husband, Lars. When Phyllis confronts Sue Ann by making her soufflé fall, there is a small moment where Sue Ann kicks the oven closed. It’s those moments where she allows the façade to fall that makes her so funny. She puts on a mask of perfection, but she doesn’t think that we know she puts it on every day.
The role that White is probably most synonymous for is Rose Nylund. The Golden Girls remains one of the sharpest, funniest shows ever written, but the cast makes the great material sing. Any other actor would make those St. Olaf stories too repetitive or hokey, but White makes every single one of them different and realistic. I believe there was a herring circus. I believe there was a battle to be Butter Queen. I would buy a ticket to the all-chicken production of A Christmas Carol.
I never saw Rose as dumb–I considered her kind. Naïve? Yes. Overly trusting? Of course. Rose would probably agree that it’s better to be dim and nice than to be smart and cruel, and she lived more honestly than Blanche and Dorothy, in a way. Rose didn’t filter her thoughts as much as her roommates did, and it makes her more endearing. That sweetness makes it all the more affecting when Rose had to deal with something emotional. Some of White’s best dramatic work came in episodes like when Rose was scared after a burglary and bought a gun or when she thought she might have contracted AIDS. Her brief monologue about seeing a homeless woman her age is still devastating. I could list so many moments or episodes, but we have been talking about them since the episodes aired. If you are not familiar with The Golden Girls, you deserve to discover the brilliance of it on your own.
Not only is her television work timeless, but her work with animals is very admirable. There were several times that Rose interacted with animals and dogs on the show, and the way her face lights up is something I will never forget. Whether it’s because I am a recent dog parent myself, but White’s dedication to animals and how she understands their dignity is as big of a loss as her acting is. After she died, someone suggested that everyone should donate $5 in Betty’s name to a local animal shelter, and that would mean more to White than any Emmy or lifetime achievement award she could receive.
With a titan like Betty White, it is impossible to capture the love she gave us. I implore everyone to consider a little more kindness, because it is what Betty would’ve wanted. That and a vodka on the rocks with a hot dog. If you have a pet, give them a few extra scratches and watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show or The Golden Girls. Betty will be doing the same.