As I mourned the loss of Mary Tyler Moore last week, I couldn’t help but think of the many ways the once mousy Peggy Olson (as portrayed so eloquently by Elisabeth Moss) transformed into a confident and often defiant woman on my favorite TV series “Mad Men.”
And then I realized that Peggy Olson may never have graced our screens had it not been for Moore’s portrayal of Mary Richards on the trend-setting “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” that aired its famous last episode nearly forty years ago; Katherine J. Lehman also makes this point in her book on depictions of single women in popular culture, discussed below. Of course, the lights in Mary’s office were never really turned off because, in this age of video and audio streaming, we can watch that iconic group huddle any time we choose.
Interestingly enough, the first thing I watched after learning of Moore’s death was not an episode from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” but my favorite episode from “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Ghost Of A Chantz,” which appeals to my love of haunted house movies. It is a mini-masterpiece of sitcom writing. Taken together, both of Moore’s most successful sitcoms–and there are those who say her stint as Mary Richards was TV’s most important accomplishment–were more influential and path-breaking than any of us perhaps understood at the time; I feel fortunate in having experienced these shows as they unfolded during the 1960s and 1970s. For the many who are watching these marvelous episodes from the perspective of the 21st century, it is very difficult to fully appreciate the series’ formative impact on the lives we take for granted today.
As Jen Chaney, writing in the January 26 issue of Vulture, reminds us, “Every series that came later and focused on women navigating a workplace, from ‘Murphy Brown’ to ‘Ally McBeal’ to ‘30 Rock’ to ‘Parks and Recreation’, has owed a debt to ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show.’ Seriously, go watch an episode of TV Land’s ‘Younger’ and try to tell me that Sutton Foster, consciously or subconsciously, isn’t conjuring a little bit of Mary Richards every time she ties to manage a crisis at Empirical Press.” Chaney goes on to remind us that “what’s more important is the way that Mary Richard’s existence signaled to young women that the challenges of work are just as vital to one’s womanhood as becoming a wife and mother. For some, those challenges are even more vital.” In so many ways, following the trajectory from “The Dick Van Dyke Show” to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” is a mini-history of the American woman’s transition (never complete, of course) from household ornament (as a complement to appliances like washing machines and dishwashers) to proud and confident arbiter of her own destiny. As more than one commentator noted last week, without Mary Richards there would be no Lena Dunham.
There were precursors, of course, to Laura Petrie and Mary Richards, most notably “That Girl”–a show from the early 1960s that depicted a single female with her own apartment and career. “Our Miss Brooks” and “Private Secretary,” two sitcoms from the 1950s, were also about working women, albeit those who were focused on finding the right man. It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that the role of single women on television took a radical turn and generated quite a bit of controversy. If you are interested in this topic, you should read Katherine J. Lehman’s essential study, THOSE GIRLS: SINGLE WOMEN IN SIXTIES AND SEVENTIES POPULAR CULTURE (2011), a book that covers a wide spectrum of depictions in movies and television, from “Charlie’s Angels” and “Wonder Woman” to “Looking For Mr. Goodbar” and “The Stepford Wives.” Needless to say, Lehman devotes quite a bit of space to the roles played by Mary Tyler Moore. And the book examines the historical context and the changes in American culture that form the backdrop to these provocative pop culture artifacts.
One of the most important facets of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” as Lehman so deftly analyzes, is the way the workplace and Mary’s co-workers develop into a surrogate family. Mary’s relationship with Lou Grant (played by Edward Asher) is particularly important. “During its seven-year run,” Lehman writes, “Mary Tyler Moore offered multiple interpretations of Lou and Mary’s relationship. While their age and generational differences would suggest a father-daughter relationship, the series also hints at latent romantic attraction.” This problematic relationship was not limited to Mary and Lou, however, because, in one episode, “three of Mary’s male coworkers fantasize about being married to her.” Later series’ like “Friends” and “Cheers” also reflect this image of the workplace-as-family. Single women who don’t define their identity by being married often became political targets, as witnessed by Vice President Dan Quayle’s infamous 1992 attack on “Murphy Brown.”
As a counterpoint to Mary Richards, we should, according to David Thomson’s important new book TELEVISION: A BIOGRAPHY, consider Jean Stapleton’s portrayal of Edith Bunker, Archie’s long suffering yet magnanimous wife. Running concurrently with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “All In The Family” gave us a portrait of an American woman who also reflected the changing role of American women during the late 1960s and early 1970s. For Thomson, Edith Bunker “may be the most endearing woman television has ever had.” We might indeed say that “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “All In The Family” forever changed our image of women, not only on TV, but in the larger society (if this larger society even exists in the age of television) as well. I hope you will spend this week contemplating this thought.
As a way of honoring the role played by Mary Tyler Moore in changing our perceptions, I suggest you read Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s can’t-put-it-down account of the important place “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” occupies in our collective history: MARY AND LOU AND RHODA AND TED; AND ALL THE BRILLIANT MINDS WHO MADE THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW A CLASSIC (2013). And don’t forget to throw your hat into the air at some point.
See you next week.