More people watched Betty White host Saturday Night Live than have tuned in since election-era glory. And it's prompted the most-solid analysis of White's resurgence we've seen yet: the Grandmother Effect, but better.
The 88-year-old White also did brilliantly among 18-49 year olds, which also hasn't been matched since the election. And, writing in The Washington Post, Hank Stuever has a good working theory as to why:
Our society has this thing about old ladies and sauce. A little, but not a lot; a wink, and not more. It's this idea we like to mull over, that there might be whips kept somewhere in the spare closets of retirement condos....
She is the stand-in for the ideal, hilarious matriarch. Because, in real life, our own mothers and grandmas (and fathers and grandpas) tend to have all these problems — bill collectors and diverticulitis and demands to see the president's birth certificate. How much easier to pretend Betty is your grandma instead, to pretend that all of life is merely a process of working from one snappy retort to the next, filmed before a studio audience that's been primed to laugh.
He also puts her in the context of other public figures like Bob Barker or Helen Thomas who are endearing or hilarious in an ironic way because they're old. They realize it, and they work it without appearing too conscious of being in on the joke. But there's a paradox to all of these ironic reclamations, illustrated by the fact that the guy who started the Facebook campaign to get White to host doesn't even really watch Saturday Night Live. "That's like someone who never mails letters asking that there be a Betty White postage stamp," Stuever says.
Citing the writer Jaron Lanier, Stuever notes that
"for all the talk about the future, the Web is too frequently put to the uses of nostalgia. It has a become a tool we use to call up clips of TV shows we thought we'd never see again, commercial jingles we thought lost to time; to look up ex-lovers we'd vowed to wash right out of our hair; to remake or mash up songs we loved 20, 30, 70 years ago. It is a device by which we vote to have our surrogate TV grandma honored by putting her through the grueling pace of an improvised, live comedy sketch show."
Given my own nostalgic proclivities, though, I wonder whether all this recycling — which doesn't replicate those mass representations, but mashes them up, re-evaluates them, or remixes them — actually offers the audience a better, fairer experience, and even more of a participatory hand than we got the first time around. The current permutation of Betty White — plainly liberated, having a ball and making money doing it — is a perfect example of these micro-interventions making mass culture that much better. Which is actually a pretty good thing.