Television comedian and actress Betty White passed away on Dec. 31, just three weeks before her 100th birthday. Often nicknamed the “grandmother of America,” White had the rare quality of being beloved by all, regardless of generation or political stance. The actress leaves behind a spectacular legacy as a pioneer of television, with a career that spanned over eight decades, earning her the Guinness World Record for the longest TV career by a woman.
White first entered the spotlight as a radio host in the 1940s, until her television breakthrough in 1952 as the host of talk show The Betty White Show. Only one year later, she became the first woman to produce a TV show with Life with Elizabeth, which earned her the honorary title of “mayor of Hollywood.” After hosting and starring in various TV shows, White gained international success in 1973 with The Mary Tyler Moore Show. White’s brilliant performance as the sassy and salacious Sue Ann rapidly transformed her into a comedy icon. Ten years later, she joined the main cast of cult classic The Golden Girls as the sweet and naive Rose Nylund. She spent the last decades of her career proving that comedy has no age limit. White made history as Saturday Night Live’s oldest host in 2010, leading the show at 88 years old. Her appearance on SNL turned her into an internet sensation, allowing a new generation to discover the genius of her wit.
White’s impact on 1950s Hollywood makes her one of the most influential figures of contemporary entertainment. She had the bravery to dive headfirst into Hollywood’s misogynistic boy’s club as one of the first women to take on an executive role, breaking barriers for all women following her path. As a performer and host, her wit and self-awareness pushed back against the stereotypical portrayal of women as compliant housewives in the media.
Beyond her unmatched humour, what made Betty White such an iconic figure was the time and effort she dedicated to social causes and animal rights activism offscreen. She possessed a combination of empathy, warmth, and talent that is rarely found in Hollywood.
White was a vocal advocate for gay rights, even in the 1980s, when holding such an opinion could have destroyed her career. As one of the first sitcoms to tackle issues related to the queer community, The Golden Girls is often dubbed as a classic of gay television. White has always supported her queer fans, both by being vocally supportive of the community and by dedicating herself to the fight against AIDS. Years before the United States legalized same-sex marriage, White never hesitated to assert her support for the cause. She was also a long-time supporter of the Elton John AIDS Foundation and the Trevor Project, among other 2SLGBTQIA+ organizations.
Another one of White’s lifelong causes was advocating for the welfare of all animals. The actress produced and hosted a talk show called The Pet Set, which showcased celebrities and their pets in the 1970s, also discussing wildlife conservation. The organization American Humane was always present on set to make sure their animal guests were treated fairly. White remained involved with the organization until her death.
Upon hearing of her death, fans launched the #BettyWhiteChallenge to encourage people to donate money to their local shelter for Betty White’s 100th birthday, which was on Jan. 17.