She turned the world on with her smile, and opened the door for generations of women to come.
Back in January, when television pioneer Mary Tyler Moore died at age 80, I remember being saddened, just as anyone is when a celebrity dies. As the old soul that I am who loves old sitcoms, I’d seen a few reruns of her iconic 70s comedy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but only after watching a marathon on Comedy Gold the weekend after she died did I really start to understand what was so groundbreaking about her series, and I appreciate it now more than I ever did. I took an odd sense of comfort in the opening theme song, “Love is All Around”, which even gave me a sense of hope as Sonny Curtis repeated the line, “You’re gonna make it after all.” Sometimes it bugs me when people only discover a celebrity’s body of work only after they die, but other times I’m just glad that it gives people renewed interest in something that was always good or important, and gives people an excuse to talk about what made or still makes it important.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show is/was just so groundbreaking, and that’s even clear to me, a person who was nowhere close to even being born when it originally aired on CBS from 1970 to 1977. Moore starred as Mary Richards, an independent working woman who, after a breakup, moves to Minneapolis and gets a job as a producer at a local news program. Valerie Harper famously co-starred as her comical friend and neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern as well as Cloris Leachman as their landlady Phyllis Lindstrom, Ed Asner as Mary’s boss Lou Grant, and later, Georgia Engel as Georgette Franklin and Betty White as the one and only Sue Ann Nivens. The series also sparked three spin-offs; Rhoda starring Harper, Phyllis starring Leachman, and Lou Grant starring Asner. It’s said that Mary was originally written as a divorcee, but CBS execs were vehemently against that, believing that viewers would think Mary had divorced Dick Van Dyke—as she had previously starred as his wife, Laura Petrie, on the classic 60s sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show. The series as well as the couple were so popularly associated in the public’s mind that the network was genuinely worried of implying any sense of divorce between them on Moore’s new series, even though it was completely and positively unrelated to Dick Van Dyke. So, it was rewritten as Mary rebounding from a breakup by moving to Minneapolis and being completely independent, and the rest is history. In fact, it seems that having Mary merely single again after a breakup was more of a feminist statement than writing her as a divorcee: in the pilot episode, after her ex visits her in Minneapolis and she gracefully rejects his offer to get back together, he tells her to take care of herself and she says, “I think I just did.”
Mary Tyler Moore also had the privilege of being a part of an era of 70s sitcoms that rejected previous ideals of everyone getting what they want and being happy before the final commercial break—a phenomenon that started with the conservative conformity of the 50s and began to break down in the 60s before series like All in the Family and women like one Mary Richards began to express previously taboo feelings of alienation, anxiety and a fact of life that life is not always perfect, and maybe that’s okay. While Time magazine included The Mary Tyler Moore Show on a list of television series that “changed TV” in 2007, it originally proclaimed the series a “disaster” when it first started, just as the St. Petersburg Times condemned it and labelled Mary Richards a “spinster.” But as the years went on and Mary worked her way up at WJM-TV in Minneapolis, attitudes quickly began to shift and before long she forever became a role model.
The series’ premise of having a working woman as the lead character was obviously new and eye-opening at the time, but it continues to be relevant now. To me, it’s still a believable premise for a sitcom even in the 21st century. Sure, we can watch it and say that it’s obviously dated in many aspects (the 70s still were a considerable amount of time ago), but one thing about The Mary Tyler Moore Show will always transcend the time since it originally aired: feminism.
As I sat and watched old reruns of a sitcom from over 40 years ago, even I could feel a sense of comfort and empowerment, so I can’t even begin to imagine how some people, more specifically some women, felt while watching Mary Tyler Moore in the 70s, when counterculture had already taken over and movements like women’s liberation were becoming mainstream and starting to be taken seriously. It was no longer appropriate to view women as solely machines that should move to the suburbs and find fulfillment as wives and mothers, and while it would still be several more decades before these views would be deemed “outdated,” one can’t deny that Mary Richards and The Mary Tyler Moore Show played a pivotal role in tearing down those walls. In a third season episode, Mary and Rhoda notice that Georgette (Georgia Engel), the girlfriend of Mary’s co-worker Ted (Ted Knight), is being taken for granted by her significant other; she’s doing his laundry (even though they don’t live together), and she passively accepts him when he blows her off when they’ve made plans. Mary and Rhoda come in to say that she needs to have more self-respect, and ask her to name something she feels is positive about herself. Soon after, Georgette asks for more from Ted in their relationship, and does so with confidence. This was 1973, and it could have easily been the 90s, the 2000s, or even present day. Men still treat women like they are beneath them, even if they don’t think or believe that’s what they’re doing, and this was obviously more rampant in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Mary Tyler Moore just had the guts to point it out. Even in present day women are subconsciously put into outdated roles of wife and mother who are in charge of things that require a woman’s touch, but the difference now is that there’s a cultural knowledge that women are worth more than that. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was to television and popular culture what Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was to feminism. Another third season episode sees Phyllis attempting to set her brother Ben up with Mary but, in a turn of events, he ends up with Rhoda. Phyllis is horrified to think of her brother possibly marrying Rhoda one day, which eventually leads to Rhoda telling Phyllis that they’re not involved because Ben is gay. From what I’ve read, this was one of the first times the words “he’s gay” were said on network television, and you best believe it was on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The series remained just as strong in social leaps as the years rolled by, and I think their feminist agenda becomes more obvious with the introduction of Betty White as Sue Ann Nivens, a homemaker who hosts a show called “The Happy Homemaker” on Mary’s local network. On the surface, Sue Ann is everything society at that time wanted a woman to be; delightful, slim, elegantly dressed, and skilled with housekeeping skills and cooking/baking tips. But, as viewers later get to see, there was more to Sue Ann than the image they portrayed on “The Happy Homemaker”; often times, she was anything but happy. Off-screen, she was man-obsessed, snide, often rude, overly competitive and cruel to anyone she saw as a threat, and was said to have a tumultuous home life. This was an image viewers at the time had never been exposed to; women who were housewives and homemakers were supposed to be always pleasant and happy to help the men in their lives, yet on Mary Tyler Moore, we see a distinct downside to being this type of woman. And that, in my opinion, was the whole reason Sue Ann Nivens was even introduced. For several seasons, viewers had gotten to see that a woman like Mary Richards could have a career, a job, live alone, be without a man and still be perfectly happy with her life. Then we meet Sue Ann Nivens, who has the life that society and media told women was the more acceptable route, yet viewers get to see the very real and true downsides to being the type of woman Sue Ann was.
In a fifth season episode, Mary and Sue Ann go to a convention in Chicago for the network. Sue Ann wants to go out with some men, whereas Mary wants to have a quiet night in her hotel room. After Sue Ann convinces her to go out with them, the men end up becoming much more interested in Mary than Sue Ann. Back at their hotel, Sue Ann lets Mary in on what it’s truly like to feel rejection, and one line in particular stuck with me; “Spending hours making dinner only to have the guests cancel, that’s rejection.” And Sue Ann says it’s happened to her many times. Maybe being a housewife does have its perks, but it seems that television viewers never got to see that it might not be what it’s cracked up to be before Sue Ann Nivens. It makes the life Mary Richards has all the more acceptable for young women to choose. But, even then, Sue Ann herself never let go of her now-conservative views on roles for women; in another fifth season episode, when Mary is left to produce a newscast all by herself for the first time and an argument had ensued with her boss Lou Grant, Sue Ann walks into the office, having seen an upset Mr. Grant before off-screen, and says to Mary that she’s sure she’s “heard the murmurs that she’s [Mary] scarified her femininity for her ambition,” to which Mary says to her that she’s pretty sure no one is saying that, and Sue Ann is delighted to hear that she’s the first to say it. The introduction of a conservative non-working woman as a foil to a liberal, career woman was not so much for comic relief, but to truly emphasize and elevate the liberating aspects of Mary Richards’ character.
What is truly undeniable about Mary Tyler Moore’s success is that Mary was an easygoing and likeable protagonist, something that tied her closely to matriarchs of previous family sitcoms that depicted women as solely wives and mothers. While the likability of women on television merely because they’re depicted as easygoing and compassionate is a separate issue, it seems that The Mary Tyler Moore Show also used that to their advantage: they knew that women who were compassionate and easygoing were much more likely to be likable, so they wrote her as a compassionate and easygoing independent career woman, and sure enough, people caught on and wanted to be like her than perhaps a housewife in the suburbs. Part of what made Mary special was that she was groundbreaking and broke down walls for other women, but also was that she was normal: she interacted with her co-workers, dated the occasional man and encountered the odd trouble in life as we all do, but was likable and easygoing about it. It made her just as loveable as the matriarch of her own series as Carol Brady was as the matriarch on The Brady Bunch.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show was not only a groundbreaking program for Hollywood, but also for women both in front of and behind the camera. They never shied away from a topic considered taboo, whether it was equal pay for both genders, birth control pills, or abortion. The series singlehandedly proved that women could become something else than what society expected of them. They had a record-breaking 25 female writers out of a writing staff of 75, a blaring rarity at the time. Its impact is still ever so evident and relevant today: just turn on your TV. You see more and more women every television season as doctors, lawyers, activists, CEOs, vice presidents and movie directors, and arguably they all have Mary Tyler Moore to thank. Even former First Lady Michelle Obama acknowledged the never-ending impact of the series. She told Variety in 2016 that Mary Richards was “one of the few single working women depicted on television at the time,” stating: “I was probably 10 or 11 when I saw that, and sort of started thinking, ‘You know what? Marriage is an option. Having a family is an option. And going to school and getting your education and building your career is another really viable option that can lead to happiness and fulfillment.’” Following Moore’s death, actress and screenwriter Lena Dunham told The Hollywood Reporter that Mary Tyler Moore’s “humor, style and vulnerability have had a profound influence on [her] as a television creator and on every woman [she] know[s] working in television to upend expectations of traditional femininity.” Without The Mary Tyler Moore Show, there would have been no Designing Women, no Murphy Brown, no Roseanne, and certainly no Sex and the City. The series is as relevant now as it was 40 years ago, and I only hope it will continue to enlighten and give hope to future generations. Moore, who was known to take heat from feminists like Gloria Steinem for not being vocal enough on feminist issues or for having a more conservative take in real-life, knew about her series’ impact and was often modest about it. But, when asked by People magazine how she would like to be remembered in terms of her television legacy, she stated, “As somebody who always looked for the truth, even if it wasn’t funny.”
Are you a Mary Tyler Moore fan? Do you think the series will always remain relevant for its feminism? Sound off in the comments!