The world lost one of television’s finest, Mary Tyler Moore on Jan. 25. For those not as fluent in retro television as I pride myself in being, Mary Tyler Moore was an icon in situational comedy. She began her career alongside Dick Van Dyke on the Dick Van Dyke Show as his stay-at-home wife with hair perfect enough to be on a Barbie Doll. It wasn’t until she was given her own show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in 1970 that Moore came into her own.
Although Moore was a talented comedian, what set her apart was the boundaries she and her show pushed. Moore starred as Mary Richards, a single, thirty-something television news producer in an otherwise exclusively male office. A character with these attributes was completely unheard of at this time. Up until the Mary Tyler Moore Show, the only sitcom characters available to women of Moore’s age was the quintessential homemaker, wife, and mother.
Critics and network executives fought the writer’s room, which employed more women than nearly any television show prior, every step of the way, but this did not stop the show from toeing the line.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show opened discussions on social issues, such as birth control, homosexuality, and divorce, which were not talked about in polite society in the 1970s, let alone on network television.
Moore, however revolutionary as she was, fell short in the eyes of many women’s rights advocates. Many argue that she did not speak out enough as an actress of her standing and as the cofounder of MTM Productions, which produced the show, and she refused to identify as a feminist.
Moreover, the character she played on The Mary Tyler Moore Show retained many subservient characteristics and was given little respect or prestige in her job. She was the goody-two-shoes, the incorruptible Mary Richards that took the sexism she was exposed to with a smile.
Yet, in doing so, Moore gave life to the show. Not only did Moore play the version of the character of Mary Richards that allowed network executives to green-light the show, she brought representation to all the women who, upon entering the workforce in the 1970s, were met with similar injustices and had no outlet to complain. She played a woman of the time, flaws and all.
Though not a public figure for women’s rights, when I reflect on the articles I’ve read about Mary Tyler Moore, I see a woman who walked the lines she needed to walk. I see a woman who knew how to play the game from inside the system. She may not have been a cry of rebellion, but instead chose to be a quiet voice of change.
From the very first time watching the show when I was ten years old, I couldn’t help but look up to her character of Mary Richards. She had spunk, and, unlike her boss on the show, Lou Grant, I love spunk. She was driven, caring, quirky, and most importantly, competent in her field.
As a young woman working for several media organizations on campus, I can say with absolute certainty that my life has been positively affected by Mary Tyler Moore. As Katie Couric, a popular news anchor on ABC said in an interview with Access Hollywood after Moore’s passing, “[Moore] opened our eyes to the endless possibilities we have as women.”
Playing one of the first career-oriented, female journalists on television Moore showed me and thousands of women that we can lead meaningful lives as working professionals. On and off the screen, she was a role model for generations of women, and, though not a feminist in title, her work and spirit will live on as a force for women’s equality.
In this turbulent social climate, women everywhere could benefit from channeling a little of that Mary Tyler Moore spirit, and if we do, well, we might just make it after all.