by Stacy Torres
On its face the hidden camera show Betty White’s Off Their Rockers seems like a welcome break from the cultural penalties associated with aging for women. An NBC promo sets up the show’s premise as old people defying aging stereotypes: “Old People. Marginalized. They’re not even in the key demographic. Now they’re fighting back with the help of some hidden cameras and Betty White.” Opening credits roll by to the tune of Twisted Sister’s defiant metal anthem “We’re Not Going to Take It.” And yet, for all of the show’s promise in upending ageist stereotypes, a closer look reveals how far we still have to go in creating media depictions of old age that transcend cheap laughs and avoid instilling fear and repulsion of aging, which harm the young, the old, and everyone in between.
To investigate Off Their Rockers’ potential to challenge ageism and offer new representations of gendered age, I watched and analyzed the first two seasons. The show has a simple premise. Old people prank young people, and the jokes hinge on how these geriatric pranksters wink at stereotypes of the old as physically frail and non-sexual. Women play against cultural expectations of “feminine” behavior befitting a “mature” woman, grandmother, or “cute, little old lady”—they swear like sailors, yell at passersby, and make sexual advances towards younger men. In one skit an older woman asks two unsuspecting young women jogging if they “know where the rave is.” In another, a senior dressed in a nun’s habit nearly mows down a young couple while she whizzes by in a motorized wheelchair, ordering, “Move the hell out of the way, Ass Clown!” Afterwards she offers a sweet smile and a blessing.
The majority of pranks involving women focus on sex. Old women “shock” audiences and upset expectations with sexual innuendo and gags in which they make sexual advances towards decades-younger men. One cast member attempts to entice two young men in their twenties into joining her for a threesome. Another dressed in a bridal veil explains to couples on the beach that she’s on a bachelorette scavenger hunt and needs “hot guys to bite off my candies,” pinned to her cotton candy pink t-shirt. One man’s girlfriend volunteers him. The British version of the show goes further in capitalizing on the “comedic” value of older women’s bodies. An old woman confesses to a young fellow by a park fountain that she’s always dreamed of going skinny dipping and strips down to her birthday suit. He politely declines her invitation by saying that he doesn’t “have the balls” to go dipping. With each laugh, these pranks also implicate the audience for upholding persistent taboos about sexuality in late life. These portraits of gendered age reveal that while young women face expectations of hyper-sexuality, negating older women’s sexuality has its own negative consequences, such as invisibility.
Yet, old people in these pranks gain a level of control and agency in a way that runs counter to the losses associated with late life—of status, physical ability, friends and family members. “What I love is all our senior moments are funny and on purpose,” Betty White shares in a promo. It’s no surprise that White serves as the show’s host and executive producer. Betty White’s “comeback” took off in 2010 after a popular super bowl ad for Snickers in which she gets tackled in a muddy football game, leading to a successful Facebook campaign to get her a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live. The media soon christened her Hollywood’s “It Girl” on the strength of her naughty talk and feisty granny persona. At 92, she’s busier than ever with hosting and producing duties on Rockers and a role on Hot in Cleveland.
But how transgressive and boundary-breaking are the “shocking” antics on Off Their Rockers? The rise of Betty White and the show’s hidden camera gags also quietly reinforce the gender and aging stereotypes they seek to undermine. The pranks, though well-intended, always cut away before people realize the joke’s on them, and often close with the image of young people laughing at old people. The show’s over-reliance on joking about the undesirability and asexuality of older women’s bodies soon grows stale. And though women depict a greater range of “unladylike” emotions and “bad” behavior (i.e. anger, rudeness), it’s doubtful that these representations would really challenge others’ views in age-segregated settings where we typically encounter old people, such as the nursing home, the senior center, the hospital emergency room, or the doctor’s office.
This case also tells us something deeper about the intersection of gender and age. All of us face moments and contexts in which certain social dimensions become more salient to our identities than others. To some extent age’s fluidity as a social category allows older people to downplay age’s relevance to their identities. But while we have some freedom to fashion social constructs such as race, class, gender, and age, these comedic representations reveal the limits of “defying age.” For the women in this show, this means bumping up against prescribed, culturally accepted “grandmother” roles for those who fall outside a valorized femininity that is usually white, middle-class, young, physically fit and often thin. Though Off Their Rockers breaks ground in showing older women in a different light, it may inadvertently create new stereotypes while seeking to blow apart those already in existence.
Stacy Torres is a graduate student in sociology at New York University. To learn more about her research, click here.