Most of us are aware that there are two types of old these days. There is Baby-Boomer old, an audacious, aspirational sort of old. Common depictions include couples sky-diving for their 40th anniversaries; Richard Branson doing all manner of macho rich-guy nonsense; and the woman of a certain age on a seashore holding a fluttering piece of voile toward the winds of freedom.
Then there is old old, a realm often belonging to the parents of the baby boomers. This is nursing-home old. This is prunes-for-breakfast old. This is “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up” old.
It would be easy to make the mistake of thinking new interest in the aged exists simply because the boomers, still the largest generation in the Western Hemisphere, are now careering into seniorhood . But it’s worth remembering that, notwithstanding their aging, the boomers are still the generation that gave us the famous boardroom credo “Nobody wants to see old people on TV/in the movies/in advertisements.” “The Golden Girls” was what it meant to be acceptably ancient on prime time. Rue McClanahan was a fit 51 when she took the role of Blanche Devereaux on that show.
So it’s not the new old who are driving this fascination. It’s the young.
It is from this cultural interstice that Betty White’s late-career renaissance was made possible. The White phenomenon can be cast largely as a youth-culture one; something that never would have happened if it weren’t for the 2010 Facebook petition, driven by under-30s, asking White to host “Saturday Night Live.” Today White fits in a truly novel category of fame: a giant star with cult cachet among people who could be her great-grandchildren.
The twilight years thus appeal as a time when a kind of paradoxical freedom can be located, a time thought to be beyond the petty concerns of hotness and coolness, where you can finally, truly, really be yourself.
Today, college graduations, weddings, 30th birthday parties, Christenings, brises — these sorts of events are regularly blessed with multiple Grannies, Papas, Yiayias, Zaides, Nanas, Nonnas, Omas, Abuelitos. They stand up; they take bows. In the true fabric of experience, this is not some invisible stitching.
Source: The New York Times Magazine, April 28, 2013