With the turn of a TV dial, Mary turned the world and my childhood on with her smile.
A constant presence on my TV screen, Mary Tyler Moore and her winning smile shepherded me through my Kennedy era childhood, my tumultuous teens, and straight into my early adulthood.
Who didn’t love Mary as Laura Petrie, the New Rochelle housewife who defiantly traded in the per-requisite starched dress and pearls of other TV housewives for a more fetching pair of capris. After several seasons of stuffy and often stilted TV sitcom moms like June Cleaver and Margaret Anderson, Laura was a breath of fresh suburban air.
Mothers it seemed, could attend PTA meetings and be sexy to boot.
Then in 1970 smack dab in the middle of my teens, in the midst of the burgeoning feminist movements and my own burgeoning consciousness as a female, CBS introduced Mary Richards to TV. Suddenly Saturday nights became must-see-TV, truly proving she could take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile.
Sure, by the mid 1960’s there had been some independent career girls on TV like Marlo Thomas’s struggling actress on That Girl and Dianne Carrol as Julia the first African-American woman who was a widowed nurse making it on her own.
But generally career gals on TV- and the media in general- were portrayed primarily as husband hunters.
No Mad Men era girl wanted to end up a spinster so smart single gals knew a job could be a space age launching pad for snaring a husband.
What made The Mary Tyler Moore Show so original was that it was the first sitcom where a female character’s primary relationship was with neither her family nor her male love interest but her friends and co workers. “Love was all around.”
A female perspective was crucial to the shows success so it was no coincidence that the show was also one of the first sitcoms to employ a stable of female writers.
Mary was a kind of stand in for a new American female.
To a young girl just starting out on her own path wondering “How will you make it on your own? This world is awfully big, girl this time you’re on your own,” Mary Richards offered a blueprint.
It’s time You Started Living
When Mary Richards, single and gasp…30, moved to Minneapolis and started working as associate producer at the WJM-TV, she did something that no female character on television had done before.
She had left her fiancé, put her job before romance and made it clear that she would rather spend evenings alone than in a series of bad dates.
Of course some things were pretty familiar. She was often tasked with typical office grunt work like fetching coffee and typing 60 words a minute on her IBM electric typewriter, and initially she was never quite confident enough to speak up to her oafish boss and often un-evolved male co workers. The girls often fretted over their weight and appearance.
But for the first time ever, these women were real. They had hopes, dreams, and ambitions.
“You just might make it after all!”
It was this winning combination of girl next door and spunk that made it easy to embrace and introduce TV viewers to feminist consciousness and many were happy to see Mary embrace her own power more fully as the show progressed. Whereas TV’s Maude, another 70’s feminist icon, was abrasive, gritty and in your face, Mary was both easy on the eyes and easy to digest. Feminism light, but no less important or powerful.
Mary Richards proved to a whole generation of girls, myself included, that “…you can have the town why don’t you take it. You’re gonna make it after all!”