A “Tough Love” Message For Betty White

By Barbara Morris


Betty White

Betty White

I admire Betty White. Her energy and creative ability are inspiring. Long ago she could have joined those retirees who imagine they are living the good life, drinking, playing shuffleboard or endless rounds of golf, and reminiscing about what used to be. Instead, she continues to use her time and talent to give meaning to her life. Her vitality and competence assure every healthy midlife woman that chronological age is meaningless; that a joyful productive life, not just a passive dependent existence is possible regardless of age. 

Unfortunately, she is not doing old people a favor with her TV show “Off Their Rockers” with its premise “A troupe of senior citizens pulls pranks on unsuspecting folks.” The “unsuspecting folks” are usually embarrassed young people. The whole idea is embarrassing to a lot of us older folks, too. 

One must wonder why Betty can’t see how damaging it is to the image and psyche of her peers. It’s tragic that dementia strikes so many older people, rendering them incapable of rational behavior. It’s even more tragic when old people of sound mind deliberately engage in behavior that gives the impression advanced age is synonymous with ditzy lunacy. It’s disturbing to watch the cast of her show behave like irresponsible teenagers. Watching their often-obnoxious antics is akin to hearing a dirty joke that makes you giggle but at the same time you know it’s inappropriate and you feel demeaned by the experience. 

Why did Betty decide to do this show? Is it because she is so confident and so vibrant that she can’t understand that most of her audience doesn’t grasp that she is trying to spoof the pathetic stereotype of “old” and see it as confirming it instead? Or maybe she saw it as a way for older people to get more exposure on TV, or a way to get a few dollars in their pockets. Maybe she is so focused on getting a laugh that she doesn’t see the damage she’s doing. 

Regardless of her reason to create this misguided show and no matter how good her reason, it’s still damaging to all of us who ever get old enough to fall prey to the “old people eventually lose it” stereotype. She is undoing the very thing that we love her for–being vibrant and funny and “with it” in her 90’s. 

We appreciate and applaud Betty White. But she needs to give us respect in return. Participating in a show that’s demeaning to older people is simply not the right thing to do. In so many ways Betty could use her talent, energy, and experience to choose projects that more accurately reflect the caliber, talent and continued competence of old people. 

A positive change in Betty’s choice of entertainment projects may already be happening with her new show, “Hot in Cleveland” that has more to its premise than the horrid, longstanding stereotype of “old.” In the meantime, it’s time to retire “Off Their Rockers”. It never belonged on the air in the first place.

Comment by Mary Lloyd:

Thank you for bringing this up, Barbara.  That show has been bothering me since the first (and only) episode I watched.  It is a huge disappointment to have Betty White—someone the whole country loves for doing what she’s doing for as long as she’s been doing it—playing to ageist, stupid pranks to get a laugh. 

No one would dream of making a series based on racist jokes or even “dumb blonde” or other sexist jokes.  Why is this ageist garbage deemed acceptable?

But it goes a step farther.  She—and the show’s writers—have missed an important piece of advice I got from Jonathan Winters in a writers workshop years ago.  “Good comedy laughs with people not at them.”  Off Their Rockers  makes fun of young people and presents old people as self-centered, outrageous dingbats.  It’s wrong on many levels.  How tragic that it’s still on the air.

Comment by Doris Rutter: 

It’s downright disgusting and degrading. 

Comment by Eleanor Brownn

Los Angeles, CA 

The negative impact of stereotypes on the individual and society is so widely documented in academic research; I hardly know where to begin. Betty, just knock off. Good grief. 

I am a Behavioral Gerontologist, 62, female and African American. I know something about stereotypes! 

Comment by Lorraine Banfield: 

Until recently I admired Betty White.  Instead of retiring and going off into that good night and never heard from again, she is still working as an actress and entertaining people. I think that is great but I also believe she has a responsibility to be cognizant of what she is promoting with “Off Their Rockers”.
I believe that artists whether they are actors, filmmakers, television producers, or writers have an obligation, even a duty, not to perpetuate ideas and concepts that are detrimental to those they are portraying.

Off Their Rockers presents older people as having nothing more valuable to do with their time than to play practical jokes on unsuspecting “younger folk”.  This show makes older people look ridiculous and childlike.  As if becoming an older person means that you naturally revert to a rebellious teenager, saying and doing things that are shocking. It perpetuates the myth that as you get older you lose your intelligence, your skills and talents and become a caricature of your true self; that with age you are a doddering old fool with nothing useful to do but play silly pranks and make off color jokes.  
Here’s the deal:  Betty needs to walk her talk and use her own life as a model and not allow herself to be seduced into a shortsighted and uncaring portrayal of older people.  I hope she didn’t realize what this show would actually be saying to and about older people before she signed on the dotted line.

I am asking Betty to reconsider her involvement in this show.  If as we grow older, and may on occasion say or do something a bit outrageous, it does not mean we allow ourselves to be laughed at and ridiculed – no rational person does that, only those who see themselves as diminished  with age and who accept the stereotypical notion of “old” as portrayed in  “Off Their Rockers”. It’s time to take a stand and say no programs like this. 

Lorraine Banfield is the author of Second Act Soul Calls: Your Guide for the Re-Invention of Your Life at Midlife and Beyond with Passion, Purpose and Possibilities.

Comment by Barbara Morris Stewart

Columbia, MD 

Thank you so much for championing the rejection of the degrading and demeaning stereotype of older people as presented by “Off Their Rockers.”  Having such love, respect and admiration for Betty White and the manner in which she has chosen to live her life with vibrancy and purpose, it was a huge disappointment to watch the show in which she has chosen to participate.  Honestly, the characters horrified me!  The thought that I would soon be viewed in the same context as I viewed these characters terrified me.  

I am sixty-four years old and who, after raising four children as a single mom, is working full-time in a very unusual profession that requires ten-hour days on my feet, 5 days a week.  I captive-breed poison dart frogs and Chondropythons, animals that are considered endangered in the wild.  No kidding!  I feel vibrant, energetic and young-in-spirit.  My intention is to present myself as “ageless” for the rest of my life.  

It was so difficult to watch “Off Their Rockers.”  I found myself overwhelmed by the need to scream “NO.”  Not only is the show’s premise humiliating; these characters are nothing more than twisted caricatures.  They do not portray dignity and respect for the lives we have lived, the accomplishments we have achieved and the contributions we have made, and continue to make as older citizens.  Our society does not need more evidence to support the myth that older people are useless, non-contributing, senile and a burden on a young society.  It is inaccurate and unkind to a segment of our population that deserves so much more.  Is this what we accept as humor?  In this case, the joke is obviously on us and at our expense.  That does not work for me! 

Comment by Maria Smith 

I think it’s stupid and crude for the most part.  Don’t like it.




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