Betty White’s History of Character Embodiment
The myth of the self-created person is a lie. Every person alive today has been influenced, whether consciously or unconsciously, by everyone they ever came into contact with. The personalities we build over a lifetime are made up of millions of pieces of life, from entertainment and language to the people we love and the moments that stick in our memory. Avatarism Ancestry will aim to explore the influences behind great thinkers, entertainers and creators and dive into the moments that inspired them to build a character that other people aspired to emulate.
The entertainment industry recently lost a legend. She was an actress, producer, singer and comedienne, but Betty White, like most people, cannot be defined by a few words or summed up by a phrase. Aside from working in the entertainment industry for most of her life,
White was an animal welfare advocate for decades, a lover of game shows and a fan of movie musicals. The eight time Emmy Award winner also holds the Guinness Book of World Records for “Longest TV Career for a Female Entertainer” thanks to her onscreen work for 82 years.
“Kindness and consideration of somebody besides yourself keeps you feeling young.”
– Betty White
Like anyone else, White became who she was thanks in part to the people in her life. She described her mother as a “cockeyed optimist” and as an only child, White said that she was “spoiled rotten.” Although she would go on to be a trailblazer for other women in the entertainment industry, White started out in show business by emulating another famous face.
Character embodiment does not always include physical emulation, aesthetic inspiration or vocal imitation. At some times, embodiment can simply come from the drive to step into someone else’s shoes and the desire to fill the role that they have carved out in the world. And in White’s character screensaver, there was an inspiration that stood out among the rest, actress Jeanette MacDonald.
“I didn’t like Jeanette MacDonald, I was Jeanette MacDonald.” – Betty White
MacDonald was an actress best remembered for appearing in musical films of the 1930’s alongside actor Nelson Eddy. White idolized MacDonald and personified her by imitating her hair, makeup and talents. White sung a song originally performed by MacDonald while wearing her best dress, the same one she wore for her high school graduation, during her first television screen test before she ultimately won her first job in entertainment. White explained in the documentary, Betty White: First Lady of Television, “She was my idol of all idols. [Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy] were as important in my world, almost, as my mother and dad.”
It’s hard to describe the magic that takes place here between ‘I like it’ and ‘I am it.’ Between obsession and assimilation lies a murky spot. You cannot possibly become exactly like your idols or perfectly imitate them, nor would you want to.
The magic of saying, ‘I am that which I seek,’ is powerful enough to break the spell of whatever darkness your character has held onto. Then you can enter a flow state and your embodiment will become part of your character. Your hope can turn into real moments of achievement.
These spheres of influence are not unique to entertainers or creatives. Putting on a costume and feeling a change in yourself is something that has been done in human society for thousands of years. When you embody another character or archetype, you can be more spontaneous. You suddenly have a unique perspective and you can feel as though you’re living in a slightly sharper reality.
“My answer to anything under the sun, like ‘What have you not done in the business that you’ve always wanted to do?’ is ‘Robert Redford’.”
— Betty White
Besides her talents in entertainment, White was also a pillar of optimism and endurance. After working her way up the ranks of television by appearing on low-paying TV shows, working behind the scenes on live shows and doing various bit parts, she produced her own daily talk show, The Betty White Show, in 1952 and became a staple of entertainment. Another constant in her life was her love of animals. Her work with animal charities started early in her career, and she once again thanked her parents for instilling a love of animals in her. Towards the end of her life, it is reported that White had as many as 26 dogs living with her. White showcased this love in one of her many television series, The Pet Set.
After the death of her husband Allen Ludden in 1981, she devoted much of her time to being an advocate for animal welfare, working with the Los Angeles Zoo, to which she donated nearly $100,000 in April of 2008. Her work with the zoo spanned more than five decades, beginning when White worked as a volunteer at the Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens in the ‘60s.
Some of Betty White’s fans on social media have created a challenge to honor the actress on what would have been her 100th birthday, January 17. Fans are encouraging people around the world to donate to animal shelters to honor the late actress.
“The future is up for grabs. It belongs to any and all who will take the risk and accept the responsibility of consciously creating the future they want.”
– Robert Anton Wilson
Even early on in her career, White stood up for people and upheld them beyond what most people expect of others. As Joseph Campbell wrote, “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.” And Betty White wasn’t one to think only of herself.
Tap dancer Arthur Duncan appeared on The Betty White Show in 1954, despite criticism among some audiences about a black person appearing on the show. White recalled threats from higher-ups at the show to take the series off the air “if we didn’t get rid of Arthur,” but White refused, saying, “he stays, live with it.” Duncan continued performing on the show until it was ultimately cancelled and continues to work in the entertainment industry to this day.
Among countless tales of her compassion, director Nancy Meyers took to Instagram after White’s death to recount that White was “the first person who made me believe I could be a writer.” Continuing the story, Meyers wrote that at the age of 23, she mustered up the courage to ask Betty White to read a script she had written for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. White accepted the script, read it that night and later showed it to the producers of the series, who encouraged Meyers to continue writing.
Although the two women never met again, Meyers recalled that this event was the catalyst that set her writing career in motion. Meyers went on to write films such as the Academy Award nominated Private Benjamin, Father of the Bride, and 1998’s The Parent Trap, which she also directed.
Rejection is possible in all walks of life and avenues of creation, but the courage to introduce yourself and share your creations is the only path to encouragement and acceptance. Seek out your heroes and know that they’re not untouchable.
Upholding is a never ending cycle. There is possibly a person who is still unknown by the world who will base their character on the blueprints of kindness and optimism that Betty White showed the world, or base their endeavors on the moments of laughter that she created for the world to enjoy.
Even Betty’s views on death showcased her kindness and tolerance of people from all walks of life. As taught to her by her mother, Betty White believed that death was an unknowable secret. “Growing up,” she said, “whenever we’d lose somebody, she’d always say, “Now they know the secret.””