The Legacy of Betty White
Updated: Aug 22, 2022
Betty White was one of the most iconic and beloved female figures of the century and lived a life filled with Hollywood success, television firsts, and animals. On December 31, 2021, White’s death prompted many to reflect on the legacy she left behind.
Holding the Guinness World Record for “Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (female)”, White was certainly no stranger in film. However, when her career first started up at 17 years old, TV did not necessarily have a strong foothold amongst the population just yet. This gave her the opportunity to experiment with a wide range of acting genres, and that is exactly what she did — talk, variety, sitcoms, soaps, game shows, drama, late night, comedy, etc. Her versatility and sheer innate talent was a major factor for her success in a new industry.
She made a name for herself on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Golden Girls and, in more recent years, she appeared on Community and Saturday Night Live (at 88, this made her the oldest host of the show). White’s influence did not end when the cameras stopped rolling. In fact, she accomplished great things behind the scenes as well. In 1952, she co-founded her own production company, becoming the first woman to produce a national TV show (CNN).
Seeing as Golden Girls played a significant part in White’s stardom, let’s take a look at this piece of work. First airing in 1985, it garnered a major audience and racked up a total of 68 Emmy nominations during its seven-season run. The influence of the show lies not within its popularity necessarily, but in the numerous societal issues addressed within the episodes. From poverty, to LGBTQ+ rights, racism, age discrimination, and disability potrayal (all told from the viewpoint of four women), Golden Girls was undoubtedly ahead of its time.
Though White’s accomplishments in the TV industry are certainly impressive, her genuine kindness and dedication to social actvism was commendable as well. On her show, The Betty White Show, in the 1950s, she hired a Black tap dancer named Arthur Duncan. Given the social context at that time, many were outraged at her decision and expressed their complaints, all of which she ignored by saying “I’m sorry, but he stays. Live with it.” In 2014, she spoke out in favor of marriage equality for the LGBTQ+ community on the Larry King show.
Her passion for fair treatment of communities extended beyond humans and into the animal kingdom as well. She had a deep love for animals, demonstrated by her 1970s TV series The Pet Set, the numerous pets she adopted, and her volunteer/charity work with animal welfare organizations. On January 17th, the day she was supposed to turn 100, fans organized #BettyWhiteDay on which people were encouraged to “pick a local rescue or animal shelter in your area and donate just $5” in her honor.
Betty White evidently had great power, and although she was fully aware of this fact, she never took it for granted. She used her influence for good and her legacy as the beloved “'Mayor of Hollywood” will live on.
Written by Fiona Wu