Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Millennial Looks Back on the Enduring Relevance of 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show'

To say that Mary Tyler Moore, who died last week at age 80, was a pioneer for women in television is more than just a small understatement. She did more for how women are depicted on television at a time when women were still depicted as passive, delightful housewives than arguably anyone else, and this is a fact that is still oh so evident today.

After Moore passed last week, I started watching a few reruns here and there, which have been broadcast on the Canadian cable network Comedy Gold for many years. Admittedly, before last week, I'd probably only seen a total of two or three episodes in their entirety. I might have seen it while I was cruising the channels and put it on, but I had never fully appreciated it for what it was. Last Saturday, Comedy Gold had a Mary Tyler Moore marathon and my DVR and I definitely took advantage.

Mary and boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner)
The Mary Tyler Moore Show is/was just so groundbreaking, and that's even clear to me, a person who was nowhere close to even being born when it originally aired from 1970 to 1977. Moore starred as Mary Richards, an independent working woman who, after a breakup, moves to Minneapolis and gets a job as a producer at a local news program. Valerie Harper famously co-starred as her comical friend and neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern as well as Cloris Leachman as their landlady Phyllis Lindstrom, Ed Asner as Mary's boss Lou Grant, and later, Georgia Engel as Georgette Franklin and Betty White as the one and only Sue Ann Nivens. The series also sparked three spin-offs; Rhoda starring Harper, Phyllis starring Leachman, and Lou Grant starring Asner.

Mary and Rhoda (Valerie Harper)
Mary Tyler Moore's premise of having a working woman as the lead character was obviously new and eye-opening at the time, but it continues to be relevant now. Sonny Curtis sings the opening theme song "Love is All Around" that repeats the phrase, "You're gonna make it after all," obviously referring to Mary, as she famously tosses her hat up at the end of the opening sequence. This, to me, is still a believable premise for a sitcom even in the 21st century. Sure, we can watch it and say that it's obviously dated in many aspects (the 70s still were a considerable amount of time ago), but one thing about The Mary Tyler Moore Show will always transcend the time since it originally aired: feminism.

While there are so many memorable episodes to discuss, a few that popped up in last weekend's marathon really caught my attention. In a third season episode, Mary and Rhoda notice that Georgette, the girlfriend of Mary's co-worker Ted (Ted Knight), is being taken for granted by her significant other; she's doing his laundry (even though they don't live together), and she passively accepts him when he blows her off when they've made plans. Mary and Rhoda come in to say that she needs to have more self-respect, and ask her to name something she feels is positive about herself. Soon after, Georgette asks for more from Ted in their relationship, and does so with confidence. This was 1973, and it could have easily been the 90s, the 2000s, or even present day. Men still treat women like they are beneath them, even if they don't think or believe that's what they're doing, and this was obviously more rampant in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Mary Tyler Moore just had the guts to point it out. Another third season episode sees Phyllis attempting to set her brother Ben up with Mary but, in a turn of events, he ends up with Rhoda. Phyllis is horrified to think of her brother possibly marrying Rhoda one day, which eventually leads to Rhoda telling Phyllis that they're not involved because Ben is gay. From what I've read, this was one of the first time the words "he's gay" were said on network television, and you best believe it was on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Betty White as the jovial yet ever-flawed
Sue Ann Nivens
The series remained just as strong in social leaps as the years rolled by, and I think their feminist agenda becomes more obvious with the introduction of Betty White as Sue Ann Nivens, a homemaker who hosts a show called "The Happy Homemaker" on Mary's local network. On the surface, Sue Ann is everything society at that time wanted a woman to be; delightful, slim, elegantly dressed, and skilled with housekeeping skills and cooking/baking tips. But, as viewers later get to see, there was more to Sue Ann than the image they portrayed on "The Happy Homemaker"; often times, she was anything but happy. Off-screen, she was man-obsessed, snide, often rude, overly competitive and cruel to anyone she saw as a threat, and was said to have a tumultuous home life. This was an image viewers at the time had never been exposed to; women who were housewives and homemakers were supposed to be always pleasant and happy to help the men in their lives, yet on Mary Tyler Moore, we see a distinct downside to being this type of woman. And that, in my opinion, was the whole reason Sue Ann Nivens was even introduced. For several seasons, viewers had gotten to see that a woman like Mary Richards could have a career, a job, live alone, be without a man and still be perfectly happy with her life. Then we meet Sue Ann Nivens, who has the life that society and media told women was the more acceptable route, yet viewers get to see the very real and true downsides to being the type of woman Sue Ann was.

Mary, Sue Ann and Murphy Slaughter
(Gavin MacLeod)
In a fifth season episode, Mary and Sue Ann go to a convention in Chicago for the network. Sue Ann wants to go out with some men, whereas Mary wants to have a quiet night in her hotel room. After Sue Ann convinces her to go out with them, the men end up becoming much more interested in Mary than Sue Ann. Back at their hotel, Sue Ann lets Mary in on what it's truly like to feel rejection, and one line in particular stuck with me; "Spending hours making dinner only to have the guests cancel, that's rejection." And Sue Ann says it's happened to her many times. Maybe being a housewife does have its perks, but television viewers never got to see that it might not be what it's cracked up to be before Sue Ann Nivens. It makes the life Mary Richards has all the more acceptable for young women to choose. But, even then, Sue Ann herself never let go of her now-conservative views on roles for women; in another fifth season episode, when Mary is left to produce a newscast all by herself for the first time and an argument had ensued with her boss Lou Grant, Sue Ann walks into the office, having seen an upset Mr. Grant before off-screen, and says to Mary that she's sure she's "heard the murmurs that she's [Mary] scarified her femininity for her ambition", to which Mary says to her that she's pretty sure no one is saying that, and Sue Ann is delighted to hear that she's the first to say it. The introduction of a conservative non-working woman as a foil to a liberal, career woman was not so much for comic relief, but to truly emphasize and elevate the liberating aspects of Mary Richards' character.

Mary Richards famously tosses her hat
up in the air, as seen in the series'
opening sequence
Television was never really the same after The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and in the best way possible. The series broke down the walls for the depiction of women on television; as they say, there's a first for everything, and without Mary Richards serving as American network television's first leading lady who was an independent career woman, one could argue that there would be no Designing Women, no Golden Girls, no Murphy Brown, no Roseanne, and certainly no Sex and the City. I hate that I waited until the legendary Ms. Moore passed away before I go to truly appreciate what she and her program did for women in television, but hey, entertainment has no age. TV shows, movies and music don't expire, and that is certainly the case with the one and only Mary Tyler Moore, whose relevance continues to be clear today. Even now, as I watch a rerun from over 40 years ago, the voice singing, "You're gonna make it after all," speaks to me and gives me hope, just as it presumably did to maybe people then and hopefully will continue to do in the future.

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