Women Together, Not Alone: An Alternative Feminist Legacy for The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Bonnie J. Dow / Vanderbilt University

Mary Tyler Moor as Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

I admit I was surprised by the volume and intensity of the commemorations around the death of Mary Tyler Moore in late January. What precipitated so much attention to the loss of a former television star who had been so little in the news for years? Was it our hunger for all things retro? A longing for a simpler time, when our television heroines were more iconic because we had so much less television than we do now?

As my inbox populated with media requests for commentary on how Mary Richards, Moore’s character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (MTM) from 1970-1977, “revolutionized women on television” (as one query put it), one explanation I settled on for this phenomenon was the context created by the recent Women’s Marches across the nation. The outpouring of political resistance by women, and the ample media coverage of it, was certainly reminiscent of the 1970s. Perhaps the desire for discourse around MTM was about a collective need to celebrate feminist achievements from the past at a time when women’s rights are under assault.

January’s Women’s March was strikingly analogous, in fact, to 1970’s Women’s Strike for Equality, the largest public action of early U.S. second-wave feminism. On August 26, 1970, less than a month before the September 1970 premiere of MTM on CBS, the Strike involved an estimated 50,000 women who marched up Fifth Avenue in New York City, and, as in January, there were satellite marches in cities around the country. The marches merited coverage on all three nightly newscasts as well as front page, above the fold, coverage in the New York Times, providing useful feminist context for MTM, a show that producers wanted to be understood as a “new” kind of female representation. [ (( Bathrick, Serafina. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show: Women at Home and at Work.” MTM: “Quality Television.” Eds. Jane Feuer, Paul Kerr, & Tise Vahimagi. London: British Film Institute, 1984. 103-104. ))]

In another useful coincidence, one of the three demands of the Women’s Strike for Equality, along with abortion rights and child care, was equal opportunity in employment, an issue raised in the first episode of MTM (“Love is All Around”). When Mary Richards interviewed for a job in the WJM-TV newsroom, her soon-to-be boss, Lou Grant, told her he assumed it would be filled by a man. Later in the episode, her new colleague, newswriter Murray Slaughter, referred to her as their “token woman.”

Lou Grant, Mary Richards, and Murray Slaughter in WJM Newsroom

Lou Grant, Mary Richards, and Murray Slaughter in WJM Newsroom.

Although the episodes of MTM that dealt explicitly with feminist issues—like Mary’s demand for better pay or her attempt to hire a woman sportscaster—were not that numerous, the show’s departure from previous sitcoms populated by submissive wives and mothers or frustrated husband-hunting single women made it the new standard for liberated TV womanhood in the eyes of mass media. The title of TV Guide’s story on MTM the week it premiered was “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,” which gestured at the infamous Virginia Slims ads that equated smoking with women’s liberation while pointing out Moore’s transition from suburban wife and mother in The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966) to single, urban career woman in MTM. [ (( Whitney, Dwight. “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” TV Guide. 19 September 1970. 34-38. ))]

TV Guide cover, September 19-25, 1970

TV Guide cover, September 19-25, 1970.

When Murphy Brown (1988-1998), another sitcom centered on a woman in a television newsroom, premiered in 1988, the comparisons to MTM were remarkably consistent. On the one hand, such comparisons pointed out that Murphy Brown was a much more explicitly feminist character, a “Mary Tyler Moore Updated for the Eighties,” as a USA Today headline put it. [ (( Quoted in Alley, Robert S. & Brown, Irby B. Love Is All Around: The Making of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. New York: Delta, 1990. 204. ))] On the other hand, these comparisons also made clear that MTM had positioned the “single, white [urban] working woman sitcom as the paradigmatic form for feminist representation”. [ (( Dow, Bonnie J. Prime-Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women’s Movement Since 1970. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1996. 137. ))] And that is why we have had so much media commentary over the years on the feminist implications, or lack thereof, of not just Murphy Brown, but also Sex & the City (1998-2004), 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon (2006-2013), and, most recently, Girls (2012-present).

Shortly after Moore’s death, Lena Dunham, creator and star of Girls, penned a New Yorker column titled “Everything I Learned from Mary Tyler Moore,” in which she said this: “There was a lilting poetry to her expressions of exasperation, a performative melancholy to her solo moments that is familiar to any woman who has ever lived alone, and a strident glory when she finally stood up for herself. Imagine her at last weekend’s Women’s March—pumping a fist despite herself, but too prudish for a pussyhat”. [ (( Dunham, Lena. “Everything I Learned from Mary Tyler Moore.” The New Yorker. 27 January 2017. ))]

In addition to the reference to the Women’s March, two implications of Dunham’s remarks stand out to me. The first is the emphasis on relatability. Mary Richards was a user-friendly feminist representation for those not entirely comfortable with women’s liberation, because, although she had moments of feminist frustration, she was incapable of being truly rude. This made her tremulous and more than a little bit funny when she tried to resist sexism, as in Season 3’s “The Good Time News,” in which she tried to confront Lou Grant after discovering that she was paid less than the man who had previously held her job.

Especially at the time, watching a good girl trying not to be one was comedy genius, and a key reason MTM was so beloved. But that’s not what gave the show its feminist resonance for mass media or the public. More than anything, Mary Richard’s feminist significance came from the fact that she was alone, the second crucial implication of Dunham’s comments. Alone, in television parlance, meant “without a man,” demonstrating how profoundly the medium’s representations of feminism were conditioned by heteronormativity. I called this “lifestyle feminism” twenty years ago, but the crux of that lifestyle, as it manifested in MTM and other shows to which it was compared, was lack of a heterosexual relationship—the career and the always urban setting were just window dressing. [ (( Dow, Prime-Time Feminism, 24. ))] This is what made MTM different from other shows that explicitly addressed feminist issues—like Maude (1972-1978) or Roseanne (1988-1997)—but that have gone largely unmentioned during the many reflections on Moore’s feminist legacy.

As much as this limited understanding of feminism is a problem for television, it is also a problem for feminism itself. A central reason mass media made Gloria Steinem the feminist icon for the 1970s and beyond was because of her long-unmarried status, and her famous quips about it, e.g., “a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” Indeed, Steinem’s public career as America’s foremost feminist gained steam at about the same time as MTM did. Despite Steinem’s own support for lesbians and women of color from the beginning of her feminist work, the white, heterosexual (but uncoupled), career woman became the somewhat universal signifier of feminist womanhood.

Gloria Steinem on the cover of Newsweek, August 16, 1971

Gloria Steinem on the cover of Newsweek, August 16, 1971

The lamentations about feminism’s failures to be diverse, inclusive, and intersectional have been going on for decades, and I need not rehearse them here, except to say that the entire fault is too often laid at the feet of (white) feminists themselves when it was mass media that provided the American public with profoundly narrowed versions of feminism from the start. [ (( Dow, Bonnie J. Watching Women’s Liberation: Feminism’s Pivotal Year on the Network News. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014. ))]

The white, urban, single career woman is a problematic feminist figurehead, and not simply because it limits our understanding of the multiplicity of women who figure in feminism. This formulation also overlooks a crucial component of feminist politics: its collective nature. Feminism is about women together, not alone, and that is one of the legacies of MTM that should be celebrated more. Mary Richards had a female—although not always feminist—community, a key reason she was actually not alone. For the show’s first three seasons, her best friend Rhoda Morgenstern, a Jewish New Yorker transplanted to Minneapolis, brought some noteworthy diversity to the sitcom and provided a comic foil for Mary’s Midwestern propriety. Mary’s landlady, Phyllis Lindstrom, a frustrated housewife, was also part of Mary’s community at home, where much of the show’s comedy occurred.

Mary, Rhoda, and Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Mary, Rhoda, and Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Of course, Rhoda and Phyllis provided solidarity at home, not at work, where Mary remained a token. Indeed, female solidarity would have been much more threatening in the workplace, as it always is in the public sphere. But to claim that Mary Richards was a pioneer because she was a woman alone makes invisible the importance of women’s relationships to each other: in life, in television, and in feminism. Their strong female communities are the most compelling reason, for me, that Sex & the City and Girls are heirs to MTM. Because if Mary had been here to throw her pink pussyhat in the air last month, she would not have done it alone on a downtown street—she would have been in a crowd of women doing the same.

Image Credits:
1. Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show
2. Lou Grant, Mary Richards, and Murray Slaughter in the WJM Newsroom
3. TV Guide cover, September 19-25, 1970
4. Gloria Steinem on the cover of Newsweek, August 16, 1971
5. Mary, Rhoda, and Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Please feel free to comment.




The Mary Tyler Moore Show, American Television, and the Slow Pace of Social Change
Elana Levine / University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee

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Ed Asner and Mary Tyler Moore on The MTM Show

There are few better sites through which to understand the incremental nature of social change than American television. Because the medium has been structured to earn profits for corporations and to resonate with a diverse public, it necessarily wavers between minimizing risk and engaging with the emergent, and potentially disruptive, interests of everyday people. In the present, it is difficult to see the ways these tensions can result in the small and often partial steps that might eventually build to progressive social change. Such developments are more visible from the perspective of history.

Both The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) and its eponymous co-owner/star were linchpins of social change in terms of television’s representation of women, and of real-world changes in beliefs about and experiences of gender. By representing women’s role in both public and private spheres differently from most instances of television’s past, The MTM Show and Moore herself set the tone for what might be possible in TV depictions of women in the years to come. These possibilities allowed for progressive change in some respects, but linked those changes to conventions of femininity that would moderate their impact; there are no revolutions when it comes to American television.

The social intervention of The MTM Show was a result of the many forces that combine to create TV and that shape its resonance. As a range of scholars have documented, the show was in part an outcome of the move by the TV industry and its advertisers to target young, upscale viewers in urban centers rather than the broad mass assumed to be the inevitable audiences of the network era. As part of the “turn to relevance,” The MTM Show had permission to speak to contemporary social changes, in this case new ideas about women’s roles. It also was able to benefit from the freedoms of independent program production. The Financial Interest and Syndication Rules gave a company like MTM Enterprises, unaffiliated with a major studio or network, the opportunity to become financially solvent while licensing its shows to the networks. [ (( Jane Feuer, Paul Kerr, and Tise Vahimagi, MTM: “Quality Television” (London: BFI Pub, 1984). Todd Gitlin, Inside Prime Time (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983). Aniko Bodroghkozy, Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2001). ))] (The company even commented on its independence by substituting a meowing cat in its logo for the roaring lion in the MGM logo it referenced.) The production was hardly free from the many constraints of the American TV business, but it deserves some credit for its ability to introduce new dimensions of women’s experience to prime time, in part due to the presence of “feminist conscience” Treva Silverman on the show’s writing staff, one of the few women in such positions at the time. [ (( On Silverman’s role, see also Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic (Simon and Schuster, 2013). ))]

These conditions were paired with the advertising industry’s growing realization that changes in women’s roles encouraged by the Women’s Liberation Movement meant a re-evaluation of the traditional ways products were pitched to women. Paired with an array of protests over and investigations into media treatments of women, the different approach The MTM Show offered was an ideal fit for its cultural moment, a moment when a mainstream publication like TV Guide sought to explain, “Why the Feminists Condemn Television.” [ (( Edith Efron, “Is Television Making a Mockery of the American Woman?” TV Guide Aug. 8, 1970, 8.  For more discussion of this cultural context, see Elana Levine, Wallowing in Sex : The New Sexual Culture of 1970s American Television (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 128-130. ))] Although US network prime time had seen women leads of sitcoms in the past, those women were typically contained by their domestic roles (I Love Lucy, Bewitched) or, like TV Guide’s cover girl, Marlo Thomas’ Anne Marie of That Girl, were occasionally allowed to be single and pursuing a career as long as they were more actively pursuing marriage.

Figure 1

Marlo Thomas’ Anne Marie of That Girl

The MTM Show’s protagonist, Mary Richards, was in her early thirties, single, and fresh off a break-up, a choice different from the original conception of the character as a divorcée, to which CBS had balked. Moving to the “big city” of Minneapolis and pursuing a career in TV news, Mary is hired by her curmudgeonly, sexist boss, Lou Grant, as an associate producer, a more impressive title for a lower salary than the job for which she had applied. Between her “family” of female neighbors in her new apartment and the workplace family to which she quickly acclimates, Mary becomes the caring, moral center of her communities, the “Mom” to those around her. Multiple critics have analyzed this representation, largely agreeing that the character’s independence and status both in her career and as a (somewhat ambiguously depicted) sexually active single woman amounted to a “compromised and contradictory feminism.” [ (( Bonnie J. Dow, Prime-Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women’s Movement since 1970 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 51. ))] Mary could be the “New Woman” advertisers believed the changing society was calling for, but the potential disruptiveness of this identity could be tempered by her “‘girl-next-door’ sweetness.” [ (( Ella Taylor, Prime-Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 124. ))]

Figure 2

Mary Richards interviewing with Lou Grant on The MTM Show

Crucial to this precarious position was the star image of Mary Tyler Moore herself. She was seen as an appealing figure to both men and women. As one critic wrote of her, and of Mary Richards, with whom she was conflated, “Men, whose taste in women runs from Tammy Wynette to Gloria Steinem, think she would make the perfect girlfriend. Women like the fact that she’s the star without being a sex queen or a loser.” [ (( T. Johnston, “Why 30 Million Are Mad About Mary,” New York Times Magazine April 7, 1974, 96. ))] The reference to Steinem here is crucial, for Steinem shared the Marys’ conventional physical attractiveness while nonetheless reading as threatening to the status quo in her feminist activism. Both Marys could seem amenable to a (moderate) Women’s Liberation platform but without the threat that an overt activist such as Steinem posed. Indeed. CBS executive Perry Lafferty noted of Moore, “I think it’s her vulnerability that makes her particularly appealing . . . she’s beautiful and all that without being threatening.” [ (( Ibid., 30. ))]

Figure 3Figure 4

Mary Richards; Gloria Steinem

The popularity of The MTM Show led to spin-off series, a number of ultimately failed imitators, and more durable successors, including Maude, One Day at a Time, and Alice, and all of which featured unconventional women leads — an older, married woman who espoused explicitly liberal and feminist views; a divorceé; and a widow raising a son. That Bea Arthur portrayed Maude made her different from most female sitcom leads but also permitted her politically activist stances. Her deeper voice, grayer hair, and larger bodily frame than a “sweetheart” star like Moore kept conventionally attractive heterosexual femininity from being too closely associated with feminism proper.

Figure 5Figure 6Figure 7

Bea Arthur as Maude Findlay; Bonnie Franklin as Ann Romano; Linda Lavin as Alice Hyatt

Indeed, American prime time television of the 1970s would shift toward action-adventure series with “sex symbol” female leads as its primary means of pairing conventionally valued forms of femininity with gestures toward feminism. In programs such as Charlie’s Angels and Wonder Woman, sexy young women took on duties like crime fighting, typically associated with men, sometimes in the name of women’s rights. But the assurances these programs offered of their heroines’ status as objects of desire helped these versions of the New Woman follow in the path of The MTM Show in the limited nature of their gestures toward change. The types of women such series depicted, and the generic constraints within which they operated, differed from The MTM Show. But their ultimate contribution to the medium’s participation in processes of social change was much the same.

Figure 8Figure 9

Time cover of Charlie’s Angels; TV Week cover of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman

The incremental and compromised progress in representations of women’s changing status in 1970s television was initiated and modeled by The MTM Show. The program, its star, and its viewership deserve kudos for this intervention; the economic, cultural, and political structures within which they emerged deserve our ongoing critique.

Image Credits:

1. Ed Asner and Mary Tyler Moore on The MTM Show
2. Marlo Thomas’ Anne Marie of That Girl
3. Mary Richards interviewing with Lou Grant on The MTM Show
4. Mary Richards
5. Gloria Steinem
6. Bea Arthur as Maude Findlay
7. Bonnie Franklin as Ann Romano
8. Linda Lavin as Alice Hyatt
9. Time cover of Charlie’s Angels
10. TV Week cover of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman

Please feel free to comment.




My Life with Mary: Remembering The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Jane Feuer / University of Pittsburgh

mtm6

When the death of Mary Tyler Moore was announced, a college roommate of mine posted on Facebook: “Remember how we all used to watch the Saturday night shows (All in the Family, MTM, Newhart, etc.) before we went out on Saturdays? Those were the days.”

It is hard to imagine the impact these shows had on us in the very early 1970s. We were baby boomers and hippies and we didn’t watch TV anymore. We went out at 10 on Saturdays and listened to Jefferson Airplane and took drugs. I don’t know whether the drugs or the going out at 10 is more shocking to me now at the age of 65. But we watched Mary. Somehow she fit the radical agenda.

But not because Mary herself was a feminist. Nor was Mary Richards. As I recall, the character we identified with most was Rhoda. But even Rhoda was not that radical, certainly not as extremely feminist as we were. It was the writing of the show that caught our imagination, and the way the show was radical FOR TELEVISION. Yes, they did “issues,” but not like All in the Family. Rather the show captured the “structure of feeling” of the times, a term Raymond Williams used to describe a softer, more visceral notion of ideology. We liked the way the characters on the show went to work and bonded with their work buddies. We were tribal, too. Even All in the Family featured a traditional family, and we wanted to turn the nuclear family into Woodstock. After the show, we went out en masse, took LSD, and went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey together.

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The Betty White Show, a short-lived sitcom that ran for 14 episodes between 1977 and 1978

In the early eighties, I collaborated on a book about the company that produced Mary’s show. I did not initiate this project. I never thought of Mary and Rhoda as a subject you wrote about. But when the British Film Institute asked me to do some of the legwork for the book in the U.S., I, of course, agreed. I spent Christmas in one of those early 1980s years at the Wisconsin Archive in Madison, watching endless episodes of Mary and Rhoda and Phyllis and The Betty White Show (still an unheralded comic masterpiece) and some really sophisticated unproduced pilots that prefigured the development of quality drama. (I stayed at a boarding house with a dermatologist who showed me slides of skin diseases. I don’t know why I remember that.)

Mary was part of the embroidery of my life. I would describe the eponymous show as anti-patriarchal rather than feminist. I don’t buy all the hype about how proto-feminist it was. But I would say that none of the dominant males on the show were very masculine. Ted was, of course, a complete buffoon. Murray we thought of as gay and self-deprecating even though he was married. And Lou Grant was all bluster. Mary always got the best of him, and Sue Ann Nivens sexually humiliated him. We loved the Mary/Rhoda relationship and thought it so much better than a nuclear family, especially when we met Mary’s father and Rhoda’s hilarious, but irritating mother, played to the hilt by Nancy Walker, and even Phyllis wasn’t as aggressive as a husband would have been. We knew that because we’d watched Mary as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and even though she wore pants, she was still intellectually inferior to Rob and to career woman Sally Rogers, who wasn’t pretty or thin, but who was kind of a Dorothy Parker type for her times. Mary may have been on her own, as the song said, but she was never alone. In some ways, this was more of a feminist utopia than the stereotype of the independent woman.

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A screenshot from “Not a Christmas Story,” the ninth episode of Season 5

So as they always ask me, what is my favorite episode? It’s not “Chuckles Bites the Dust” because that is everyone’s favorite, and I’m supposed to have more depth. Rather it is a little known episode from the fifth season entitled “Not a Christmas Story.” Many quality dramas (e.g. thirtysomething) attempted unconventional Christmas episodes, but this one took place during a blizzard in Minneapolis in November as the Happy Homemaker is recording her special “Christmas in many lands.” Oddly enough, this episode takes place entirely at WJM and does not feature Rhoda or Phyllis. My own feeling is that Sue Ann and Georgette more than compensated for the spinning off of these characters. In this case, Sue Ann forces the group to dine in her studio on one of her lavish meals (or to face the consequences of stale crackers from the vending machine). The first half of the show involves a battle over the control of decision making between Mary and Murray. A silly struggle occurs over whether Ted should say his tag line the way Murray wrote it or the reverse that Ted prefers–“news from around the corner and around the world.” Murray accuses Mary of lacking authority and quits but because they are snowed in, he is stuck there acting like a belligerent child. As they gather at Sue Ann’s fake Christmas dinner, everyone is angry at everyone else except, of course, Georgette, who says to Ted, “Can’t we just once pay full price and have Christmas dinner on Dec. 25?” Sue Ann forces them to wear ridiculous international hats and to sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” They comply angrily. But my favorite moment is at the end where there is a kind of breaking of the fourth wall as the dialogue continues over the end credits. Mary seems to be going for a typical ending when she says something like “I can’t even remember why we were angry.” But then Murray says “I can,” and Mary closes with “Well, yeah, me too.” It is the perfect family show without an ounce of sentimentality. I decided to write about it here from memory and without fact checking because no matter how many times I view it, it remains in the past for me. I’m not one of those people who say they can’t believe Mary Tyler Moore is gone because even though I never missed an appearance of hers, she remains for me a figure that epitomized the shift from the sixties to the seventies with everything that implies. The Mary Tyler Moore Show in my estimation is still the best sitcom ever.

Image Credits
1. The New York Times
2. Wikimedia Commons
3. Basement Rejects


Please feel free to comment.




Laura Petrie and Performance as Wifely Duty
Annie Berke / Hollins University

petrie

We might as well start where so many episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show (CBS, 1961-1966) do: with our goofy hero, Rob Petrie (Van Dyke), tripping over the ottoman in his living room. In this incarnation of the show’s opening credits, the supporting cast—wife Laura and son Richie (played by Mary Tyler Moore and Larry Mathews) and co-workers Buddy and Sally (Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie)—rushes to help a laughing Rob to his feet. This sequence encapsulates the premise of the show, namely the intertwining of work and home for a television writer not unlike the show’s creator, Carl Reiner. As David Marc notes in his book Comic Visions, the divide between home and work in The Dick Van Dyke Show is negotiable, not unlike its sitcom precursor, I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-1957), in which Ricky might break into song in their New York apartment or where Lucy reveals her pregnancy during a show at the Tropicana. [ ((David Marc, Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997).))]

laura1

A tidy domestic space littered with prat-falls.

Still, we spend more time at Rob’s place of work than at Ricky’s, where the Rob-Buddy-Sally bond establishes the “alternative” or “workplace” family sitcom further developed in later sitcoms including The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970-1977), Cheers (NBC, 1982-1993), even The Office (NBC, 2005-2013) or 30 Rock (NBC, 2006-2013). But unlike many of these other shows and the workspaces they present, the Alan Brady writers’ room of Dick Van Dyke looks like a cozy upper-middle class home, with non-descript wall art, a communal coat hanger, and, in place of a round table, a coffee table around which Rob, Sally, and Buddy exchange zingers and unsolicited advice. While there is a typewriter, and Sally does use it, her desk is tucked away stage right, and the typewriter’s unprivileged place on a solo desk does not lend itself to collaborative work – unless we count performing for one another and for the viewers at home as labor.

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Writers Rob, Sally, and Buddy in their office/abode.

Rob connects the Petrie writers’ room and the Petrie home, and his primacy as a silly patriarch in both “homes” is never in doubt, but this essay is not about Rob, or, at least, not entirely. Instead, let us turn our attention to Laura, the queen of her Westchester castle and a character whose own transgressions of the work/home divide create comedy and conflict, establishing her as a sneakily subversive hybrid of the housewife and the performer, and troubling the distinction between those two roles.

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For the Petries, the domestic space can easily change into a rehearsal or a performance space.

Carl Reiner recently said of Moore: “She was grace personified. She could never take a wrong step…. The fact that she started out as a dancer was indicative of everything she did after that. Her grace was unmistakable. I saw it the first time she walked into my office.” [ ((Cynthia Littleton, “Carl Reiner Remembers Mary Tyler Moore: ‘She Was Grace Personified,’” Variety 25 January 2017 .))] That Moore’s character, Laura, is a retired dancer factors into a series of storylines, including Season 1’s “To Tell Or Not To Tell.” In this episode, the Petries host a party at which, after comedy performances from Buddy, Sally, and Rob, the crowd clamors for Laura to dance. At first, she pretends to demur, saying “oh no…,” but before the people around her can respond, strikes a pose and launches into a boldly mod and seemingly improvised routine: apparently, Laura is no shrinking violet. She proceeds to fill in for a missing dancer at The Alan Brady Show, throwing her household into comparative—read: sitcom—chaos. Rob worries that, now that his wife has returned to her old stomping grounds (so to speak), she won’t want to return to being a wife and mother. The television gods swoop in and nullify this potential problem: while Laura is invited to stay on the show permanently, she is flattered but disinterested in returning to the stage full-time. Thus, the show has its cake and eats it too. Laura could be a dancer, but doesn’t want to, while the begrudgingly egalitarian Rob is rewarded with a contented stay-at-home wife. The Season 3 episode “My Part-Time Wife” has a similar plot, in which Laura serves as a typist in Rob’s writers’ room. Rob, threatened by her talents and seeming ability to balance her home and work responsibilities, is shocked to discover by episode’s end that Laura is exhausted and eager to return to the role of happy homemaker.

What do these plots reveal beside Laura’s competence in all things? The situation comedy is, in many ways, a conservative genre, and Laura’s return to the home is partially mitigated by the fact that it is always presented as her choice and that she understands her work in the home as a difficult and legitimate form of labor. Such plotlines as I have described above position the figure of Laura Petrie as an inverse of Friedan’s “feminine mystique”: rather than struggling with unarticulated disappointment, however, Laura speaks frequently and articulately on these issues without wanting any change in her situation. While we are not yet in “working woman” or Mary Richards territory, this public reckoning with the housewife’s dilemma is a decisive move in that direction.

But that’s not all. To return to the start of this essay, the fuzzy boundaries between home and work not only converts the writers’ room into a familial zone but also makes the home legible as a stage or performance space. Rob and Laura are not just husband and wife but scene partners to boot, finding romantic and creative fulfillment in one another and how they play together and off one another. In the Season 1 episode “Oh How We Met on the Night That We Danced,” we learn that Rob and Laura met while he was a Sergeant in the Army and she danced in the USO. It is love at first sight for Rob, aversion for Laura, so he bribes her dance partner to let him dance with her on-stage. The two perform a romantic duet, the humor stemming as much from Laura’s barely concealed snarl as from Rob’s gangly soft-shoe. Their anti-chemistry chemistry signals Rob and Laura’s compatibility: after all, they somehow know how to sing and dance together, in spite of her initial hostility and their never having rehearsed together. While Rob does step on her foot and break her toe at the end of the dance, this conclusion only serves as the (off-screen) pretext for him to show his caring nature and win her heart. Laura’s injury proves less important than our witnessing their meet-ness as a duo, their marital bliss signaled and performed through a musical number.

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For the Petries, the domestic space can easily change into a rehearsal or a performance space.

Another example of the marriage-as-duet motif comes through in the Season 2 episode, “The Two Faces of Rob,” in which Rob, in researching the plausibility of a sketch for the show, disguises his voice on the phone with Laura to see if she recognizes him. A flirtatious energy passes between the two, leaving Rob worried and jealous of his own alter ego. The same Laura from “To Tell Or Not To Tell”—an unabashed and joyous performer—comes out to play in this episode, purring, cooing, and leaning into the archetype of the restless suburban wife. Could Laura have been duped by Rob’s charade and, in fact, be on the prowl for an extramarital affair?

No, of course not. Yet, again, we see how Laura the housewife incorporates performance and whimsy into her daily life, this example being fairly innocent foreplay; as Robert David Sullivan writes for The A.V. Club, this interaction “implie[s] that Laura likes a little role-playing to spice up the Petries’ sex life.” [ ((Robert David Sullivan, “Examining The Dick Van Dyke Show’s comedy in just 10 episodes,” A.V. Club 12 September 2012 .))] Stephen Bowie of Vulture points out the episode’s “big” reveal: Laura gets off the phone after a seductive conversation with the fairly forward “Dr. Bonnelli” and turns to visiting neighbor Millie. “Who was that?” Millie asks. “Rob,” Laura chirps, returning to the Girl-Next-Door we never really feared she wasn’t… did we? “It is one of Moore’s most delicious line readings,” Bowie justly declares. The episode ends with her accidentally propositioning a real wrong number, believing it to once again be Rob. When Laura discovers her mistake, she is suitably mortified, while Rob is amused and attracted, the scene ending on a long and suggestive smooch. Laura may not perform for pay anymore, but what her character and storylines reveal is the home as a site of play, fun, and style, and who better than Mary Tyler Moore to teach this lesson?

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Laura is unafraid of a little make-believe between spouses.

Image Credits
1. Vulture
2. The Franklin Chronicles
3. Cleveland.com
4. ShareTV
5. Blogspot
6. https://i.ytimg.com/vi/PMCjQV4pXbY/hqdefault.jpg

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Support Your Local Daughter: Celebrating Mary Tyler Moore’s Glimpse at Maternal Anxiety
Emily Hoffman / Arkansas Tech University


Mary Richards and her mother, Dottie Richards

Mary Richards and her mother, Dottie Richards.

For a show with a single, childless, thirty-something woman as its protagonist, The Mary Tyler Moore Show grapples with the often fraught dynamic between mothers and daughters. Initially, Mary Tyler Moore teems with maternal anxieties in a way that overtly challenges the fallacy tacitly perpetuated by so many family sitcoms—that mothering comes naturally to women. Conflicts regularly arise from female characters’ struggles to parent their daughters and forge fulfilling relationships. Initially, the subject is introduced through Phyllis and Bess Lindstrom in “Bess, You Is My Daughter Now” (Season 1, Episode 3). Phyllis relies on “creative child rearing” books to encourage Bess’s independence, but when Bess chooses to live with Mary instead, she worries about being supplanted, about being just “the old drudge who cooks her meals and mends her tattered little clothes.” Moreover, she worries that Bess will “hate me for being weak.” Her fear that Mary thinks she is “a lousy mother” is clearly an opinion she has of herself.

Like many adoring fans of Mary Tyler Moore born too late to experience the show in its original cultural context, I began watching the endless loop of reruns airing on Nick at Nite in the 1990s. I laughed at Ted’s incompetent yet confident bluster, all the clever put-downs Murray and Lou made at his expense, and Mary’s disastrous dinner parties. Plus, Mary just seemed nice, and her wardrobe—all bold colors and bell bottoms—looked casually glamorous even from the considerable vantage point of two decades later. Now, however, as a single, childless, nearly forty-year-old woman, I still laugh at Ted and envy Mary’s style, but I am struck by its poignant, at times painful, insight into how mothers (and sometimes fathers) struggle to maintain a comfortable relationship with adult daughters living on their own.

Traditionally, sitcoms have focused on the mothering of pre-adolescent and adolescent children like Bess Lindstrom. They need weekly discipline and lessons reiterating the difference between right and wrong. But what happens to those relationships when the children grow up? Sitcoms have tended not to deal with this except through distorted, atypical circumstances like the domineering-mother-next-door that was the plot engine for seemingly every episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. Instead, sitcoms contrive new (inevitably shark-jumping) plotlines that will re-set the cycle of precocious children growing up under the gentle guidance of loving parents. This means that sitcom parents on the verge of becoming empty-nesters must brace themselves for a return to child rearing thanks to middle-aged pregnancy (Family Ties and Growing Pains). If not that, they become guardians to orphans (The Donna Reed Show) or grandchildren/ step-grandchildren (The Cosby Show). Narratively speaking, these relationships are so appealing because of the stark imbalance between the parents’ maturity and the child’s immaturity. From this dynamic it is easy to wring sitcoms’ favored brand of light didacticism.

Rhoda Morgenstern (Mary's liberal friend) and her mother, Ida Morgenstern

Rhoda and her mother in matching outfits.”

Mary Tyler Moore, however, operates from a more complex premise in which the children—Mary and Rhoda—are well-adjusted, self-sufficient adults. In effect, when it comes to maturity, they are their parents’ equals. Despite this, these relationships are messy in ways that offer no simple solutions and call into question Mary and Rhoda’s autonomy. “Just Around the Corner” (Season 3, Episode 7), the episode famous for revealing that “good girl” Mary has an active sex life despite her singleness, forces Mary to confront the fact that she still occupies a liminal—to borrow a pet word in academic discourse—space. She is financially stable. She is a valued employee and beloved by her coworkers. She has a host of supportive friends. As her knowing comments in “You’ve Got a Friend” (Season 3, Episode 11) about Ed, the sportscaster who clearly expects sexual favors in exchange for baseball tickets, prove, she knows how to read men. In other words, her parents have no logical reason to be concerned, yet when they move to Minneapolis, they treat her as an adolescent. Mary’s father may be the one who keeps checking on her with his early morning phone calls, but it is Mary’s mother who struggles to find a way to relate to her unconventional daughter. At first, she repeatedly emphasizes her own relative youth, seemingly in hopes of establishing a kind of sisterly bond with Mary. “A Girl’s Best Mother Is Not Her Friend” (Season 2, Episode 5) later rejects mothers and daughters as sisters/friends in part by having Ida Morganstern appear ridiculous for wearing clothes identical to Rhoda’s because “it’s nice.” One could argue that Dottie Richards is envious of Mary and believes she could pass as a single career woman herself. Standing in Mary’s apartment, she says she wants “a place just like this.” That strategy, though, is short-lived, and she reverts to being an embarrassingly hands-on mother prone to awkward hugs. She insists on renting an apartment in Mary’s neighborhood, fusses with Mary’s hair before she goes out, and reminds her not to stay out too late on a work night. She uses a meatloaf she’s made for Mary as an excuse to get into her daughter’s apartment when she isn’t home. She admits to Mary she does these things because “I like you,” but she lacks the ability to translate that liking into a satisfying relationship for both mother and daughter. Her smothering actions are a product of her anxieties: she wants to maintain a close connection to Mary, but their relationship seems to lack a comfortable context.

What goes unspoken is that Mary’s mother treats her like a child because she cannot treat her as a wife and mother, the ways she “should” be traditionally treated as a woman over thirty. In fact, this is apparently a longstanding, latent issue between Mary and her parents because when Rhoda asks her if they ever bring up the fact she is not married, Mary says, “not directly.” (For Rhoda, things are not so obscured. Her mother, she says, “holds a grudge” against her because she is not a housewife.) The episode implies that Mary’s life choices do not meet with the greatest resistance in the public sphere of work where the more groundbreaking attributes of the series reside, but in the private sphere of family. When it comes to Mary’s parents, and Rhoda’s, too, being a wife and mother are the silent prerequisites for accepting their daughter as fully adult. Rhoda experiences the same over-protectiveness. Every time she moved in the Bronx, her parents moved too, and her mother makes regular visits to Minneapolis to monitor her husband-hunting progress.

The inherent vulnerability that comes from being a woman in a world full of predatory Eds is at the heart of the matter. When Mary laments feeling as if she has to call her parents if she is going to be late, I recognize my own frustrations. I make these same calls myself out of a combination of respect and consideration. It pains me to imagine my own parents worrying because I know that for them, like Mary’s parents, lateness equals danger, the hostilities of the world unleashed on an unprotected woman. However, I resent them as Mary does because they challenge my otherwise deep, inarticulable affection for my parents. Despite my mother relaying her displeasure at an acquaintance asking how I cope with not being married as if I have a disease, I often think while dialing, I wouldn’t have to make this call if I was. If Mary and Rhoda had husbands, their mothers would not be so oppressively attentive. A husband would stand in the gap between them and the world and shield them from harm. He would be constant, reliable, chivalrous. Put simply, a husband would relieve them of their parental duties. Moreover, without husbands, they are without children, denying Dottie and Ida the ability to communicate with their daughters as fellow parents. Surprisingly, this fact is revealed through Lou Grant in “You’ve Got a Friend.” He has no trouble sustaining lengthy conversations with his daughters because they share one inexhaustible subject: his grandchildren.

Mary Richards and her parents, Dottie and Walter Richards

Dottie Richards, “We’ll never get used to that.”

Nearly fifty years after its premiere, Mary Tyler Moore still illuminates truths about womanhood. The easy response would be to express anger at such apparent stasis. What I find remarkable is that it not only acknowledges the messiness of motherhood and daughterhood but doesn’t bow to sitcom conventions in doing so. “Just Around the Corner” ends with Mary standing her ground, unapologetically refusing to share details of her personal life with her parents. Her chastened mother appears to have learned the lesson that Mary does not owe them an explanation, a fact she and Mary’s father will have to get used to. Just as a tidy sense of resolution sets in, she adds, “We’ll never get used to that.” Family harmony is not restored according to sitcom convention. The tension lingers, masked by Nanette Fabray’s comically resigned reading of the last line. While offering little in the way of hope and reassurance, it offers something better, something beautifully yet frustratingly real.

Image Credits:
1. Mary Richards and her mother, Dottie Richards (author’s screen grab)
2. Rhoda and her mother in matching outfits (author’s screen grab)
3. Dottie Richards, “We’ll never get used to that.” (author’s screen grab)

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Can you imagine Mary Richards as a radical queer?
Gerald Walton / Lakehead University

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Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show

I have a bone to pick with Mary Richards. [ ((With thanks to Aaron Wilson and Özlem Sensoy for helpful feedback. ))]

It is not that I did not love The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Forty years after its finale, I still do, often binging on the DVDs. The show was, and continues to be, acclaimed as a milestone in feminist-representations on American network comedy television and a showcase for women’s equality and agency beyond the home.

Not only was The Mary Tyler Moore Show a beacon of modern White feminism, it was also hailed for its inclusion of contemporary, liberal ideals. For instance, Mary Richards was also a small screen gay icon. A 1973 episode featured a gay character, one of the first television shows to do so that did not pander to homophobic stereotypes and swishy mockery for cheap laughs. The politics of depicting a gay man in a respectful and multi-dimensional way on network television was beyond my grasp, given that I was 9 years old at the time of broadcast and not knowing what a “gay icon” was in the first place or even that I was gay myself. As significant as that moment was in the history of queerness in American pop culture, her being a gay icon involved more.

For me, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a refuge from the loneliness and torment of my exile from other boys my age. I was not rough-and-tumble, aggressive, or, as it turned out, sexually interested in girls. Ultimately, I came to see Mary Richards as a role model for women, yes, but also as hope for “failed” boys like myself. She would have championed and protected failed boys rather than tormented and further alienated us.

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Phyllis introduces her brother Ben in the 1973 episode of TMTMS, “My Brother’s Keeper”

She was resilient but timid, self-effacing, socially-conscious. If Mary could be emboldened to make it on her own, perhaps we could, too. Like Mary, I wanted my own apartment, enjoying both friends in my building and friends at work. I wanted to be Mary Richards. Though it may be a gay cliché, yearning to be Mary was about more than her fabulous apartment and impeccable fashion sense, although of course that was part of it; after all, young queerling boys tend to respond positively to aesthetics. Beyond surface appearances, what resonated so deeply was her insistence that she not be secondary to men in any context. It was her ability, even with trademark hesitation, to go head-to-head with men for the sake of her dignity as a woman pursuing a career.

There were, of course, other female sitcom leads in network television. Lucy, for instance, was a Chaplinesque clown with impeccable comedic timing, Maude was a caustic, liberated woman who was a verbal bulldozer when she needed to be, and Roseanne was crude and uneducated, but took the risk of standing up for social justice as a working-class mom. Lucille Ball, Beatrice Arthur, and Roseanne Barr, respectively, were unique by virtue of the fact that most sitcoms were headlined by men. They were determined and ambitious but, especially in the case of the latter two, they were also scorned by men and women alike for being, unlike Mary, too brash, too loud, too political, too in-your-face. In them, however, some women, and even some men, found role models that gave them inspiration and hope for agency, a life on their terms.

Mary Richards represented such agency, but in a more conservative way than Maude and Roseanne did, and in a less zany way than Lucy did. In Mary Richards, failed boys witnessed possibilities for finding a place where we belonged, where we could stand up for ourselves, where we could call some of the shots and determine who we were and what we wanted to be even if other men stood in our way. Mary could goof things up and still be loved by her friends. She made mistakes. Such vulnerability was comically depicted in an episode that could have been entitled “Bad Hair Day.” Despite her foibles, she was not the target of ongoing bullying that attacked her deeply and personally on the basis of her gender. The fictional world of Mary Richards is where failed boys could find solace. Some of us saw in Mary what we yearned to be in real life.

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In the late 1960s, “gay is good” was an adage that sought to build equality with straight people

In the days after Moore’s death on January 25, 2017, columnist and radio host Colin McEnroe described Mary Richards as “just one of us,” meaning everyday folks. But fitting in as “just one of us” has dangerous implications. Fundamentally, Mary represented respectability, which is certainly one of the reasons The Mary Tyler Moore Show was such a hit. Across queer communities, Mary’s approach to finding her place in the world mirrors conservative gays and lesbians who do their best to appeal to the majority by saying in behavior and demeanor, if not actual speech, “We’re like you, straight people, so there is nothing to fear from us.” Liberal gay politics emerged from the gay civil rights uprising of the late 1960s and 1970s. In those early years, “gay is good” was the adage that sought to build equality with straight people. [ (( Capehart, J. (2011, October 12). Frank Kameny: American Hero. Washington Post . ))] Although the phrase is an artefact of that particular social and political time, [ (( The adage also followed the “Black is Beautiful” motto of the 1960s Black cultural movement, a significant component of the Civil Rights movements. ))] the ideology of sameness = equality pervaded later queer rights campaigns, most notably marriage equality. The position that “We’re not different from you, so we deserve the same rights under the law” had, and continues to have, political currency, largely because many queer people want to be included as “just one of us” and many straight people do not feel threatened by the logic of sameness. The result is that queers have become mainstream. We are out and proud, have supportive families and co-workers, and deserve equal rights under the law with straights.

I now see Mary Richards through older, more politically mature eyes. As much as she was a beacon of feminism, hers was a White liberal version. Mary sought to fit in and slowly work towards change, from the inside. She was not out to rock the boat, even when she landed herself in jail for not revealing a journalistic source. Being socially conservative and caring about what others thought of her, and being able to understand a reasonable argument, Mary Richards would have supported marriage equality if The Mary Tyler Moore Show were in production today instead of the 1970s. She might not have comprehended flamboyant drag queens of colour, radical faeries, bull dykes, gender-fuckers, or other marginalized groups within the broad spectrum of queer communities. Such marginalized queers were the ones who truly rocked the boat, most famously sparking the Stonewall riots of 1969, one year before the debut of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The riots were about revolution and refusal to be pushed around by the cops who made raiding bars and hauling queers to jail a routine. The queers who fought back were unconcerned with respectability. They were angry and visceral. [ (( The 2015 film, Stonewall, was widely criticized for its focus on white, attractive, male, middle-class gay young men rather than on marginalized queers who were the actual epicenter of the uprising. ))] Their uprising against the cops, and society broadly, was a foreshadowing of the now-hackneyed jingle, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” that Queer Nation made famous two decades later. [ (( Retrieved from http://queernationny.org/history. ))] Fighting back was a refusal to gain a place at the table by capitulating to the politics of sameness.

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Mary Richards represented a feminism that was never out to rock the boat

Respectability is where I, as a 50-something gay man, depart company with Mary Richards. Pandering to respectability through campaigns of marriage equality is fine. It is our right to say “no” to marriage rather than having the state do it for us. But I do not trust the politics of sameness on which equality with straights is built. In the 1970s, I did not feel the same as other boys. I was different from them. I was treated like shit because of it, as those on the fringes usually are. The message from other boys was that I was not “just one of us,” but if I wanted to be, I had to straighten myself out under the weight of sameness. After several failed attempts to fit in, I eventually had my personal Stonewall moment and replied, “fuck you.”

I found a hero in Mary Richards when I was young, and I continue to celebrate The Mary Tyler Moore Show today. Yet, I can now see the political limitations of Mary Richards. Respectability might result in fitting in, but it also goes hand-in-hand with the regime of sameness that marginalizes unconventional queers.

Image Credits:
1. Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show
2. Phyllis introduces her brother Ben to Mary in the 1973 episode, “My Brother’s Keeper”
3. In the late 1960s, “gay is good” was the adage that sought to build equality with straight people
4. Mary Richards represented a feminism that was never out to rock the boat

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The Mary Tyler Moore Show: We Need Vulnerability and Spunk
Jennifer Fogel / SUNY-Oswego

Mary's insecurities

Mary Richards: The Embodiment of Vulnerability and Spunk

As a Gen-Xer, my first introduction to Mary Tyler Moore was through a screening of the pilot episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in a History of Broadcasting course. The pilot was humorous, perhaps even more so with my cynicism already fully circumspect in how trivial the plight of Mary Richards getting her first “real” job was, and the fishy nature of how Lou Grant called her earnest battle for a “civil” [and now legally appropriate] interview was a sign of “spunk.” Inequity between the sexes wasn’t really on my radar having grown up with the action heroines of the 1990s. These warrior women were already light years ahead of Mary Richards’ crises of confidence in the workplace. They were too busy saving the world on a weekly basis to stop and reminisce about the Second Wave’s role in battling towards the still tenuous gender equality.

I hate spunk 2

Mary’s “civil” interview with Lou Grant

But having grown into a television scholar and professor, with a – dare I call it – specialty in the representation of gender, I see The Mary Tyler Moore Show as something more than a spectacle of women’s liberation on the small screen. Showing the pilot episode to my millennial underclassmen today garners the same huffy laughs as I remember from my days in undergrad. And while my students laugh uproariously at a drunken Lou Grant traipsing around Mary’s apartment, I certainly feel that, they too, are missing the point. Mary Richard’s feminism comes not from her then-brazen choice to forego marriage after waiting patiently for her doctor boyfriend to “man up,” or her inescapable optimism in dealing with blatant sexism at work. No, Mary Richards’ truest feminist quality was never shying away from her vulnerability.

Similar to many of the television scholars that frequent Flow, I assign Bonnie Dow’s “Hegemony, Feminist Criticism and The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” in which Dow points to a number of areas of the series that are in direct conflict with the feminist praise that have been levied at the show, which aired during the height of female liberation. [ (( Dow, B. (1990). Hegemony, feminist criticism and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 7, 261-274. ))] While I don’t disagree with Dow’s observations – the hegemonic patriarchal devices utilized in the series do disguise and interfere with its true feminist agenda – in comparison to many of the televisual feminists that currently grace the small screen, Mary Richards embraces something that we don’t often see today: the awareness that female empowerment and strength doesn’t mean you have to see “choice” as right or wrong. Mary Richards waffled… a lot. At times submissive and nurturing, and still others a neutral voice between Phyllis the traditionalist and Rhoda the staunch liberal, Mary didn’t see the harm in acknowledging a way through instead of a way around.

The Three Ladies 2

Mary mediating between Phyllis and Rhoda

As many feminists argue against the traditionalist’s view of what Elspeth Probyn terms “choiceoisie,” whereby women are forced to choose either marriage and family or the workforce and likely regret either decision, Mary was never one filled with regret or guilt. [ (( Probyn, E. (1997). New Traditionalism and Post-Feminism: TV does the home. In C. Brunsdon, J. D’Acci, & L. Spigel (Eds.) (pp. 126-137). Oxford: Clarendon Press. ))] For my upperclassmen who first engage with Mary Tyler Moore via a PBS documentary titled America in Primetime: The Independent Woman, [ (( Kramer, L. (Director). (30 Sept. 2011). The Independent Woman. In T. Yellen and L. Kramer (Executive Producers), America in Primetime. NY: The Documentary Group. ))] they see Moore describe the importance of the series – in addition to her earlier turn as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show – to women’s liberation. Moore, along with a host of other recent female television celebrities, recalls how her “choices” made women understand that they, themselves, could be something more than a housewife. Of course, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was constantly under pressure from the network to be progressive without being too liberal, but the humor and word play allowed it to put forth a valiant effort in creating a critique of gender roles in society. Even Moore herself noted in Independent Woman that the series was not about “Women’s lib,” but representing a woman trying to pursue a more fully realized and independent life on television.

Mary Tyler Moore on Katie

After watching the documentary, I typically ask my millennial students to pick their favorite independent woman on television today. The usual responses range from the women of Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, or in the Shonda Rhimes oeuvre, each of whom possesses an intrinsic strength, take-no-prisoners attitude, and are fearless unlike the men that surrounded them. But very few of my students name heroines from today’s sitcoms. Every once in a while, Leslie Knope from Parks & Recreation, Kimmy Schmidt from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Selina Meyer of Veep will be named. What surprises me about their explanations for these sitcom women as “the most independent woman on television” is that the responses highlight how each of these women radiate confidence in everything they do, even in the most vulnerable of positions. Unlike their dramatic sisters in arms, these funny ladies – as Mary Richards did before them – don’t pretend that they are invulnerable or detached. Instead they revel and thrive by pushing through their insecurities instead of hiding them. In these sitcoms, we don’t get a random episode of emotional strife or skepticism in pushing through the work-life balance – like we do with Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU or Meredith Grey on Grey’s Anatomy. The humor and appreciation, here, is perpetuated by the continued effort Leslie, Kimmy, and their comedic colleagues make in navigating a revolving door of issues with complete self-assurance that they will reach the other side.

As society continues to debate women’s “preference” in the work-life balance or superimpose traditional gender role sentiments on acts of liberation from the Mommy Wars, now is the time to remember Mary Tyler Moore and her refreshing periods of self-doubt both personally and immortalized in the women she played. In the strange days ahead under the current administration, where women’s hard-fought and well-earned liberties remain in question, I prefer to hold fast to the women on television who don’t need to kick-ass and take names (or carry Katana blades). Give me the wobblers, the indecisive, the manic optimists, and poorly prepared but ever hopeful women who refuse to mask their uncertainty to make themselves feel stronger. I still firmly believe that the excellence of The Mary Tyler Moore Show rests not in Mary Richards’ exasperated sighs and inexhaustible word play with the sexist men that orbited her workplace, but in the way she “made it after all” with a sheer determination that didn’t require her to become something and someone she was not. If there is a lesson to be learned from the iconic character, I hope that my millennial students understand that strength comes from facing our insecurities – in whatever form they may be – and always finding the humor in preserving all the qualities within us that give us “spunk.”

Image Credits:

1. Mary Richards: The Embodiment of Vulnerability and Spunk
2. Mary’s “civil” interview with Lou Grant
3. Mary mediating between Phyllis and Rhoda
4. Mary Tyler Moore on Katie

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Mary Tyler Moore: The Exemplary Disruption of the Single City Girl Archetype
Charisse L’Pree / Syracuse University

L'Pree Image 1

Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project, expressing herself as a Single City Girl

Television has drastically changed our perceptions of the world and ourselves by mediating the shifts in culture for a national audience. In today’s media environment, archetypes created decades earlier still retain value and significance, and young people who identify with a broad range of demographic categories use media to help them navigate independence, intimacy, and adulthood. Mary Tyler Moore embodied the evolution of women’s options and simultaneously established and disrupted the Single City Girl archetype.

The media archetype of the Single City Girl developed during the twentieth century in response to first and second wave feminism. Television negotiated pre and post feminist ideologies and introduced the new American woman. Defined as a newly independent character who is exploring life options including career and love, the Single City Girl emerges repeatedly in literature (e.g., Sister Carrie, 1900), film (e.g., Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1960), and television (e.g., That Girl, 1966-1971); in recent years, this archetype has manifested in cable (e.g., Sex and the City, 1998-2004), streaming services (e.g., Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, 2015-), and user-generated content (e.g., The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, 2013-2015).

The Single City Girl is framed as an emerging adult learning to be independent and intimate. She simultaneously enjoys being single, but is also looking for her other half. She valorizes romance, but is aware of how it can derail her personal aspirations. She deliberates these issues with friends, but also finds joy in spending time alone; the city is her partner and her support system. [ (( Traister, R. (2016). All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. New York: Simon & Schuster. ))] She faces the future with humor and self-deprecating awareness. Although she is defined by her gender, age, race, and class, she demands to be recognized for her intelligence, career, and creativity.

The Single City Girl is perpetually torn, aware of social injustices, but also excited to embrace the hegemonic feminine ideals that define womanhood, especially being attractive. She is in control of her own life, and at the same time a victim of capitalism and consumerism. The Single City Girl is aware of and defined by the cognitive dissonance between femininity and feminism; she is simultaneously independent and infantilized interpersonally and systematically, hence the term “girl,” not “woman.”

In the 1960s, different paths for womanhood emerged publicly with Sex and the Single Girl (Brown, 1962) and The Feminine Mystique (1963), as well as a wave of female television characters. Programs like The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966) and Peyton Place (1964-1969) juxtaposed the housewife and the Single City Girl, often with a bias towards the former. Other shows like Hazel (1961-1966), Bewitched (1964-1972), and I Dream of Jeanie (1965-1970) embodied the subversive housewife who smashed the “cult of domesticity,” thereby humorously containing and subjugating female power while mocking the patriarchy. [ (( Spigel, L. (1991). From Domestic Space to Outer Space: The 1960s Fantastic Family Sit-Com. In Penley, C. (Ed.). Close Encounters: Film, Feminism and Science Fiction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. pp.205-235. ))]

That Girl debuted in 1966 and featured Ann Marie, a young ingénue who left her parents home for a life in the big city. In theory, Ann Marie’s priorities resided in her career and marriage was secondary, but the program catered to pre-feminist ideologies in order to maintain a likeable character and avoid offending the audience: her paychecks were sporadic, but she had a large and fashionable wardrobe; she had a regular boyfriend, but he never spent the night; she was independent, but depended on her father to maintain her lifestyle. In all of her contradictions, Ann Marie was the woman that women wanted to be, and the show received thousands of letters every week asking for advice. [ (( Spangler, L.C. (2003). Television Women from Lucy to “Friends”. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. ))]

Opening credits to The Mary Tyler Moore Show

In 1970, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) took this narrative further, resolving the inherent conflicts present in That Girl by featuring a character that was focused on her career and, although romance and relationships were of interest, prioritized independent advancement. It was the first sitcom to assert that work was not just a prelude to or a substitute for marriage; rather, a career could be the center of a satisfying life. Mary Richards challenged the existing stereotypes of women on television: single by choice, over thirty without being a widow or a nurse, self-sufficient, and career focused. Her decisions were personal, not political, and she met every misogynistic comment with a smile and a witty remark.

Although Mary Tyler Moore offers an alternative to traditional womanhood, it does so without an explicit critique of the problems of traditional womanhood. Feminism becomes a matter of lifestyle choice, not systemic oppression or social transformation. [ (( Ibid., 111. ))]

For eight years, Mary Richards helped resolve a decade rife with cultural and political turmoil. By softening the firm ideals of the Women’s Movement, she popularized the cause. During the show’s run, the nation grappled with the Civil Rights, Equal Rights, reproductive rights, and the burgeoning gay rights movement. Feminism was a household term and Mary Richards embodied it.

In 1970, Nielsen replaced radio homes with a younger, more urban audience, thereby initiating a series of youthful protagonists dealing with modern problems in urban settings. The consciousness of the television industry was raised because of the high ratings of “primetime feminism.” [ (( Ibid. ))] However, in this process, producers stumbled upon an identity schema that resonated with audiences.

In the four decades since The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended, a proliferation of Single City Girls have embraced a wide variety of identities: One Day at a Time (1975-1984) featured a divorced mother raising two teenage daughters; Laverne and Shirley (1976-1983) were working-class Single City Girls in 1960s’ Milwaukee; Golden Girls (1985-1992) followed four senior women as they navigated single womanhood later in life; All American Girl (1994) and Living Single (1993-1998) introduced the nuanced experience of single womanhood for women of color; Desperate Housewives (2004-2012) demonstrated that the plights of the Single City Girl was not restricted to single women living in the city.

Opening credits to The Golden Girls

Opening credits to Living Single

Opening credits to Desperate Housewives

Towards the end of the twentieth century, cable provided even more platforms for intersectional Single City Girls. MTV’s The Real World (1992) brought non-scripted co-habitation to the screen, and The L-Word (2004-2009) addressed the lives of lesbians living in Los Angeles. The Single City Girl archetype has also been marketed towards men with shows like Entourage (2004-2011) and Men of a Certain Age (2009-2011).

In each of these examples, the characters tackle the complexity of adulthood while negotiating hegemonic norms pertaining to gender, sexuality, class, and race. They are eager to fulfill the gendered adult role that they have been taught, but are navigating their own experiences and desires. Despite these progressive narratives that seek to disrupt discourse around these norms, the implicit goal in these programs is “have it all”: to find happiness via financial and romantic success, and to look good doing it. In series like Sex and the City and 30 Rock (2006-2013), the journeys of Carrie Bradshaw and Liz Lemon end with a wedding.

L'Pree Image 2

Carrie Bradshaw laments how difficult it is to “have it all”

Despite the evolution of the Single City Girl, Mary Richards still stands as a truly independent character. Smart, witty and career driven, Mary Richards resolved representational contradictions to create the perfect embodiment of new feminist values. At 30-years-old, she ends a two-year relationship with her boyfriend because of his commitment issues, and, when he attempts to reconcile at the end of the first episode, Mary refuses him, choosing the single city life and defining the direction of the program for the next seven years.

Mary Richards may have only had seven seasons of stories, but she continues to inspire those seeking to go against the grain. She was framed as a desirable and normal archetype, and one with whom the audience could empathize. In recent years, it is clear that the Single City Girl does not need to be single, living in a city, or a girl, and the internal contradictions of this character appears even more relevant as new producers and audiences emerge via social media. Twitter gives users the opportunity to create and broadcast their own Single City Girl personas, further engendering the expectation of personal and professional success as normal and expected for young American adults.

Image Credits:
1. Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project, expressing herself as a Single City Girl
2. Carrie Bradshaw laments how difficult it is to “have it all”

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