Betty White is a genius. The 90-year-old comedienne took NBC and the Internet by storm by using bawdy humor to turn an elderly female stereotype on its head. But lately, I'm not sure if her impact is doing women of a certain age any favors.
In a new campaign for Kraft Mac & Cheese, titled "Two Old Birds", Frankie, 87, and Dottie, 86, are starring in video spots and tweeting on behalf of the brand. So far they've tweeted befuddled messages about internet trends ("just learned about planking. anybody know what it means") and griped about Facebook ("Too much information!")
They've also been grappling with basic concepts of a wired world: "I don't have one of those things here that have you connect to a computer...you mean the Wi-Fi? Wee-fi?"
While Frankie and Dottie are certainly "lovable" as the Kraft campaign has described them, the term is a little condescending for two people who've lived through multiple wars, the women's rights movement and childbirth, to say the least.
"Two Old Birds" isn't inventing a comedy genre, but cleverly capitalizing a brand of humor zeitgeisting harder than a panicked heartbeat. The joke is on old women.
The light speed of technological trends are sprinting faster than most people over 35 can keep up with. The minute you've mastered Twitter, you've got to figure out Pinterest, reformat your Facebook page for timeline and synchronize your smartphone to suit it all. The computer generation has co-opted TV, books and general communication so holistically, even those just out of high school struggle to keep up with the virtual trajectory. Too proud to admit being left behind, we've collectively turned to a much older generation to reflect how many of us secretly feel. LOST.
But have our own insecurities turned into exploitation of older women?
See Marilyn Haggerty and her lovingly mocked Olive Garden review. After penning an earnest column on the new pasta joint in Grand Forks, Haggerty, 85, was interviewed by every major news outlet (including this one), brought to New York to review Le Bernadin and even landed a book deal. Though game for all the exposure, Haggerty never seemed to really understand what all the fuss was about. "I still don't get it," she famously said, referring not only to her new-found fame but the concept of "going viral" in general.
The freedom to claim to know nothing about the internet is so taboo in today's world, Haggerty's ignorance may resonate with the rest of us as secret envy. But it comes out, collectively, as a kind of "Awww, isn't she cute?" Like a baby using an iPad or a seal napping on a beach chair.
In fact, Haggerty is a woman who made an impressive career as a columnist at a time when being a "girl Friday" was a more easily attainable career path. She began reporting for local newspapers as a high school student in the 1940s and worked her way up eventually publishing a book of her columns about local history and community characters called "Echoes." While working full-time she raised three children including a daughter who would go on to become a judge. Her husband died in 1997, shortly after the couple evacuated their home during a flood. Though retired, she still writes five columns a week and has a had a profound impact on her son's career as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. I only offer this information as a counterpoint to Marilyn as cute-meme. She is no fool.
As Americans, we've always had a problem respecting our elders. Maybe it's born out of our identity as a young country, or maybe it's just a repressed fear of death. Let's leave that for our next psychoanalysis appointment. For now, what's clear is that as technology Benjamin Buttons our biggest power-players, it's not getting any easier for those over 70.
At this moment, elderly people's cultural relevance in our society means being the butt of jokes. For a generation of women, who have broken glass ceilings in politics, work and mothering, this must be particularly stinging.
You could argue that White, Haggerty and even Kraft's "Old Birds" are smartly profiting from the exposure, and ultimately throwing it back in all our faces. White's show "Off Their Rockers"—a kind of "What Would You Do" where elderly actors play pranksters—manages to call attention to our cultural stereotypes of old women. We're surprised when they're sexually frank. We're even more surprised when they're able to pull a fast one on those seemingly in-the-know kids.
Our ignorance of their savvy is funny, as White has proven. But watching two old women baffled by the internet is a very different punch line, and one that doesn't necessarily warrant laughter.
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