News of Mary Tyler Moore’s death today hit a lot of women of a certain age in the gut, a double punch if they also work in journalism. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran from 1970 to 1977, blazed trails while it entertained: three decades before Sex and the City, the TV show stripped stigma from single life, portraying it as desirable and satisfying. As Mary Richards, Moore played a woman working in TV news who was competent and attractive and likeable and vulnerable and strong and professionally ambitious, which was then a radically complex concept in network TV.
There’s a nice irony of sorts that Moore jumped into public consciousness as Laura Petrie, the perky, capri-pant-wearing wife on the Dick Van Dyke Show that aired from 1961 to 1966. Viewers couldn’t have known, but the character—who gave up a promising career as a dancer to marry, move to the suburbs and become a mother—was on her way to becoming a cultural relic. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, was about to jump-start the “women’s movement,” which, combined with the arrival of the Pill, and shifting economics, saw women leaving the house, entering the workforce in record numbers, and even (gasp!) choosing not to marry if Mr. Right did not come along.
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The Mary Tyler Moore Show tapped into that seismic shift, with Moore playing a single woman who relocated to Minneapolis after ending an engagement. The idea of an unmarried woman living alone had been tested on TV before: That Girl went to air in 1966 starring Marlo Thomas as an aspiring actress in her twenties living alone in New York City, though she was always protected by her boyfriend and hovering father.
Mary Richards was different. She was in her thirties. She had no boyfriend/protector. She upended the “spinster” stereotype. The now-famous opening credits of the show showed her throwing her beret into the air, a gesture of optimism and defiance—while the show’s theme song promised, “You’re going to make it after all.”
Men came and went. What anchored her were female friendships—with her sarcastic neighbour Rhoda, and her landlord Phyllis. They were part of her non-family family, a concept that became a TV staple in shows like Cheers and Friends. Her other anchor was her work and work family at channel WJM-TV, where she was an associate producer: Ted Baxter, the dim-witted anchorman played by Ted Knight, and the fabulous Betty White as the sexually voracious TV cooking-show host Sue Ann Nivens.
Season after season Mary sat at the same desk and referred to her crusty boss, played by Edward Asner, as Mr. Grant, (“Oh, Mr. Grant!” she liked to say), but she was good at her job and advanced. In the fifth season, she went to jail for refusing to name a source (the clip is making the rounds today on Twitter). Gender issues, including pay inequity, formed plot points. In one episode, Mary confronts Mr. Grant when she learns the man who held the job before her was paid $50 a week more. He reassured her it was because she was a woman—as the breadwinner, a man is entitled to a higher “family wage.” “It has nothing to do with your work, Mary,” he said.
Moore, then married to the show’s executive producer Grant Tinker, advocated for women off-air as well. In the early ’70s, Gloria Steinem invited her to Washington to support the Equal Rights Amendment; male politicians had expressed interested in discussing the issue if the TV star was present. Moore went, but the ERA never passed. With Tinker, Moore would go on to produce other popular TV shows, including Hill Street Blues and The Bob Newhart Show. None came close to touching so many as deeply as The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Moore’s death today provided a poignant reminder of how the optimism and defiance her character championed shaped a generation—qualities that are needed now more than ever.