MAXWELL:  Image of Betty reflects our ethnic health

3/24/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Have you heard the one about Betty Crocker? She backed into an oven and burned her buns. Just joking, folks.

All right, let’s get serious about Betty Crocker, an icon of the American kitchen. Have you seen her new look? That’s right. On the occasion of her 75th anniversary, America’s most-beloved baker has been recoiffured, tanned, face-lifted, nipped, tucked, liposuctioned and sartorized, as it were.

Today, instead of being “a paragon of white Middle America: a cheery homemaker with blue eyes, creamy skin and June Cleaver features,” as the Wall Street Journal calls her, Betty has been digitally “morphed” into the nation’s latest multicultural pinup. General Mills, Betty’s owner, re-created her using the best features of 75 real women _ from ages “18 to 118,” from many ethnicities _ who mailed in photographs of themselves.

Perhaps Betty’s new look is intended to measure the state of womanliness in the republic. I don’t know. One thing I do know, however, is that Betty’s image (along with that of Aunt Jemima, which I’ll say a few words about later) is a bellwether not only of the woman’s place, or perceived place, in America, but also a reflection of our collective ethnic health.

By studying Betty’s changing physical traits, we can ascertain which persona females assumed at any given time in recent U.S. history and, subsequently, understand American society at large.

The first Betty, ladled out in 1921 to answer customers’ questions about baking, isn’t represented in a portrait. She is a mere signature that, for a time, becomes as familiar as that of John Hancock. Betty is depicted in a portrait for the first time in the 1930s, as a somber, “motherly” figure who accurately reflects the strong, nurturing women of the Great Depression era.

In 1955 _ as the economy merrily sails along, as suburbia becomes the new Eden with the “housewife” as the new Eve, as President Eisenhower signs into law the $1-an-hour minimum wage, as television comes into its own, offering facts, fantasy and fun _ Betty is given her first smile, befitting an era of prosperity.

Ten years later, Betty changes again, reflecting the angst among the populous. Some highlights: The U.S. takes the offensive in Vietnam, causing Alice Hertz, a 72-year-old war protester, to sit down on a Detroit street and set herself on fire; an assassin’s bullets kill Malcolm X; Watts burns, baby. And how does Betty respond? Appropriately, she casts off her smile, ditches her white collar and dons a pearl choker.

In 1972, Gloria Steinem creates Ms. magazine, heralding a new age of freedom and entrepreneurship for women. And Betty? She wears business clothes for the first time. This makeover, her owners claim, symbolizes “American woman’s newly significant role outside the home.”

In 1986, the Supreme Court endorses affirmative action as a remedy for past discrimination against minorities and, of course, women. Betty _ recognizing the ruling’s significance to her sisters in real life _ sports a bow tie. Betty’s new power-attire, General Mills says, shows her as a “professional” who is “as comfortable in the boardroom as she was in the dining room.”

And now, on her platinum anniversary, the only things left of the original Betty are her red outfit and vaunted ability to bake unblemished buns. Barry Wegener, a General Mills spokesman, said the company wants Betty to reflect the nation’s diverse consumer population: “The ultimate goal is to have this picture represent all the women in America.”

The artist who painted Betty’s new image said: “I’ve portrayed a woman who is exceptionally knowledgeable, yet imminently approachable and genuinely caring.”

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Either way, the whole effort is noble, which brings us to Betty’s African-American counterpart, Aunt Jemima, who made her debut in 1889, as a fat, jolly, black, black woman wearing a kerchief wrapped around her head, a loose-fitting feed sack dress and holding a wooden rolling pin at-the-ready.

But Auntie J, too, has seen a few makeovers that directly reflect the nation’s evolving, albeit ambivalent, relationship with blacks. She has gone from being a slave cook _ a laughable creature lacking a Christian soul _ to a modern housewife with a bright smile, intelligent features, walnut-tinted skin and “good hair.”

When I place the new Betty Crocker alongside Aunt Jemima, I sense that they could be next-door neighbors who could prepare a multi-ethnic meal together that might include spareribs, tamales, pasta, chow mein, braunschweiger, apple pie, herring and cream sauce and so on.

Yes, I already hear the denunciations of General Mills for bowing to political correctness, for transforming Betty Crocker _ an identifiable WASP _ into Every Woman. I hear, too, the shrill voices calling me a damned liberal or worse. So be it, for I know that I would feel comfortable sitting any day at the table of both Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima for a meal.

Alas, though, I must confess that I draw the line when the fates of certain cultural icons are threatened. Take, say, the case of Ace Hardware. Remember their jingle, “Ace is the place with the helpful hardware man”? Well, Ace now advertises itself as “the place with the helpful hardware folk.”

Egad! What, pray tell, is a “hardware folk?”

And while we’re on the subject, what are they planning for Uncle Ben? Haven’t seen much of him lately. Has the Big Guy, along with his rice, been converted? And into what? Will he reappear sometime soon as a trash-talking dude with chiseled pecs?