Forty-six years ago tonight, The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted in the US. It was the first sitcom to feature a never-married woman who lived on her own and had a job she loved as the central character. Think about that for a moment. This television show taught women that their happiness need not be dependent on anything or anyone outside of themselves, and it aired for the first time on September 19th 1970. Yes, I’m aware that the show That Girl, which ran between 1966-1971 also featured an unmarried female main character but having seen a few episodes of it, there isn’t much “career” in it, and I wouldn’t exactly call Marlo Thomas’ character single since she has a steady boyfriend throughout the show’s run. In contrast, Mary Tyler Moore’s character, Mary Richards, dates sporadically throughout the run of the show, with two semi-serious relationships that I can recall, but remains single until the end, and the focus of the show is fairly evenly split between Mary’s social life (including her friendships with the other female characters on the show) and her work.
I’m more than a little enamoured with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran on CBS from 1970-1977. It’s still on air on a retro television channel here and also available via streaming services, and I remember it being re-run when I was younger and more impressionable too. I’ve recently learned that The Mary Tyler Moore Show wasn’t just revolutionary in its premise – it was revolutionary in its practices too. In 1972, 1/3 of the writers on staff for the show were female – by far the highest percentage of the era. Originally, Mary Richards was written as a divorcée but the network vetoed it – in part because it was too controversial in 1970 to have lead character who was (happily) divorced; and in part because test audiences couldn’t separate Mary Tyler Moore from her character on the Dick Van Dyke show, Laura Petrie, and the thought of Laura Petrie having left Rob didn’t test well at all. So the show’s producers, the legendary duo of James L Brooks and Allan Burns re-wrote her character as newly single after ending a long term relationship with a man she’d supported while he was in medical school. Mary moves to Minneapolis and begins anew at WJM -TV. She initially plans to interview for a secretary position, but when she learns it has already been filled decides to interview for the Associate Producer role with the station’s Six O’clock News, leading to perhaps my favourite line in the series:
Lou Grant (Mary’s new Boss): You got a lotta spunk. Mary Richards: Why thank you, Mr. Grant Lou Grant: I HATE spunk.
No matter how many times I hear that line, I still laugh, mostly because it’s so true. Mary did have spunk – though she had to grow into her spunk as the show continued, in the first couple of seasons, she was far more reserved and as time went on, she became assertive and confident and could hold her own. I don’t see this as a failing, in fact I think it’s one of the great strengths of the show that all of the characters grow and develop throughout its run. All of the characters on the show acted like a big extended family, a fact that was referenced in the final episode of the show.
I’ve heard criticism of the show from a feminist perspective. It is argued that it isn’t very feminist, in that Mary never calls herself a feminist, her job is clearly subordinate to both Lou Grant (the producer), and to Murray Slaughter (the head news writer) at the beginning of the show, and even though she does eventually rise to the role of producer, she is still subordinate to Lou Grant, calling him “Mr. Grant” while all the men in the newsroom call him Lou. The other major criticism is that the conversations between Mary and the other female characters (namely Rhoda, Phyllis, Georgette, and Sue Ann) sometimes revolved about weight, appearance, housework, fashion, or men. This is all true, but I think it’s also reflective of the era which it portrays – these are conversations that female friends and colleagues would have had with each other. The female characters were *real* women, three-dimensional women, with hopes and dreams and lives outside of their homes and jobs and their conversations reflected that. Mary Richards also did many things characteristic of the feminist movement in the 1970s – she took the birth control pill, she dated but wasn’t defined or consumed by the search for a husband, and she fought for equal pay for equal work . When Lou Grant’s wife, Edie, leaves him in season 4, one of the reasons she gave is that she wanted to find out who she was other than “Lou’s wife”. In season three, Mary returns home the morning after a date wearing the same clothes she wore the night before – nothing shocking to today’s audience but in 1972, the implication of an unmarried woman having sex was pretty revolutionary. Even the theme song had a definite feminist sway to it. “You can have a town, why don’t you take it” and “You’re gonna make it after all” have a great ring to them.
One of the reasons I never questioned that I could be happy as an independent, 30-something, career-minded woman was because I was raised by people who watched this show and because I was exposed to shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show growing up. The show was off the air before I was born, but its legacy clearly lives on. (Incidentally, the final episode, titled “The Last Show” is one of the best series finales ever, winning the Emmy for “Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series” – if you haven’t seen it, you need to.) It has been argued that without The Mary Tyler Moore Show, we wouldn’t have had another of my all time favourite television shows – Murphy Brown. which is, incidentally, about another secure, single woman in a newsroom, this time in front of the cameras. Other television shows that owe some of their success and appeal to The Mary Tyler Moore Show include Sex and the City,The Mindy Project, The New Girl, Girls, and 30 Rock. I’m sure I’m missing some here too, but those are the ones that immediately came to mind. I should also mention that I love the fact that from 1973 onward, in the opening credits scene where Mary is washing her car, she is wearing the jersey of the legendary Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton – who was traded back to the Vikings in 1972. This little detail makes the football fan in me happy – naturally Mary wouldn’t wear a Tarkenton jersey when he was playing for the Giants, but I suspect a lot of number 10 jerseys, hers included, came out of retirement when he came back to the Vikings.
So thank you Mary Tyler Moore for bringing Mary Richards to life, and thank you James L Brooks and Allan Burns and the executives at CBS who helped single, career women in a male dominated world learn that we’re ‘gonna make it after all’. Now, if you’ll all excuse me, I’ve got a date with my TV and a few favourite episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Are you as big a fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show as I am? What’s your favourite episode?
Jenn Annis is a writer, editor, historian, special needs advocate, and tireless defender of the Oxford comma. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.