Mary Tyler Moore, who died Wednesday at 80, broke ground in the 1970s on her sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Her character, Mary Richards, was a single, television news producer at a time when women were mainly depicted as housewives. She was also endearing and funny.
The show wasn’t explicitly feminist and even drew the ire of Gloria Steinem, who confronted co-creator James L. Brooks about the fact that Mary always referred to her boss as “Mr. Grant.” But there’s no denying that “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” helped change the way women were portrayed on television. Here are a few examples of what made Moore’s character so pioneering.
She was single.
The creators pitched Moore as a recent divorcee, but CBS wouldn’t allow it. Network executives were concerned that fans too closely identified the actress with her “The Dick Van Dyke Show” character, Laura Petrie, and didn’t want viewers to think she had divorced Van Dyke’s Rob Petrie. But divorce was also a taboo subject in the 1970s. The story instead became that Mary was coming out of a longtime relationship with a man she had been living with, though the show never explicitly mentioned their co-habitation.
The show pushed the envelope in other ways, as noted in the book “TV: Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time,” by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz. “Lou Grant is a hard drinker who gets divorced; Rhoda Morgenstern is an abrasive New Yorker and exuberantly Jewish,” the prominent TV critics wrote. “As the show wore on, other taboos fell, often so casually that nobody seemed to notice, much less get worked up about them.”
She went to work.
Mary Richards didn’t just have a job. You actually saw her in the office, interacting with her colleagues and advocating for her own career advancement. As Vulture describes, Mary discovers in the Season 3 premiere that the man who previously held her job earned a higher salary. She does stand up for herself, and eventually receives a raise. The Richards character and her career choices had wide-ranging influence, inspiring future journalists, actresses and even former first lady Michelle Obama.
In an interview with Variety, Obama fondly remembered Moore’s groundbreaking character.
“She wasn’t married. She wasn’t looking to get married. At no point did the series end in a happy ending with her finding a husband — which seemed to be the course you had to take as a woman,” Obama said. “But she sort of bucked that. She worked in a newsroom, she had a tough boss, and she stood up to him. She had close friends, never bemoaning the fact that she was […] single. She was very proud and comfortable in that role.”
In real life, Moore was just as inspiring. “When you see somebody accomplishing something that your heart also desires and you see them doing it so well, the message of that is — that is possible,” Oprah Winfrey said in the 2013 PBS restrospective “Mary Tyler Moore: A Celebration.”
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