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.”
She had (gasp!) sex.
No, it wasn’t “Sex and the City,” but Mary Richards definitely had sex. This was a rather feminist upgrade from “Dick Van Dyke,” which found Laura and Rob sleeping in separate beds.
In one Season 3 episode, Mary stays out all night and comes home in the same clothes she was wearing the night before. “Whatever I did, it’s my business,” Moore tells her friend Rhoda (Valerie Harper), who replies without missing a beat: “That good, huh?”
In her book “Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted,” Jennifer Keishin Armstrong notes that the episode was such a big deal that it was referenced on another popular sitcom, “Maude.” “Look what happened on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ recently,” Maude’s neighbor Arthur says. “She went out on a date and she stayed out all night.” “All night?” Maude replies. “Our little Mary?”
But Mary’s dalliances were always on her terms. In an earlier episode, Mary declines to let a date spend the night, and he isn’t happy about it. “Am I undersexed?” she asks Rhoda while debating whether she made the right decision. The man eventually returns to apologize and jokingly asks if she might have changed her mind. “No!” Mary says, showing him the door.
Mary Richards was also one of the first television characters to openly (if casually) discuss birth control. In one episode, Mary’s mother says, “Don’t forget to take your pill.” Mary and her father both reply, “I won’t.”
The show employed female writers.
Women weren’t just in front of the camera on “Mary Tyler Moore.” Twenty-five out of the show’s 75 writers in 1973 were women, which was unprecedented for a sitcom, according to the Atlantic.
One early hire was Treva Silverman, who became the first solo female writer to win an Emmy for comedy writing. In an interview with the Archives of American Television, Silverman recalled writing the Season 3 episode, “Rhoda the Beautiful,” as a particularly emotional experience:
The episode “Rhoda the Beautiful” was very personal to me. Valerie came back from hiatus and had lost twenty pounds. Jim and Allan, knowing that I’d spent my life on and off diets, said, “We want you to write a show explaining what this twenty pounds means.”
I put a lot of my feelings into it. I knew the whole thing of losing weight and gaining weight, what it did to her pride and to her fears. She couldn’t be the old knockabout Rhoda anymore. So much of that was extremely moving to me. I remember crying as I wrote the ending, which is hard to do — type and cry, type and cry. . .
Supporting characters were allowed to share the spotlight.
In the Season 3 episode “My Brother’s Keeper,” Mary’s friend Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) unsuccessfully tries to get her brother to date Mary.
“She [Leachman] wanted her brother Ben to go with Mary. Ben liked me. We started running around together,” Harper explained on an episode of “The Doctors,” a daytime talk show. “And she’s a little drunk at a party, and says, you know, I’ve come to terms with it that you’re gonna marry Ben. And I said I’m not gonna marry Ben, what? She said why not?”
“And I said ‘he’s gay’ and the audience went crazy,” Harper continued. “This was in the ’70s. They started laughing and wouldn’t stop.” Harper cited the scene as one of the highlights of her career and praised Leachman’s acting chops. “This girl took that glass and worked this room like I couldn’t believe.”
Harper said the audience laughed so long they had to cut some of the laughter out of the episode so at-home viewers could hear the whole exchange. (It was also notably one of the first times the word “gay” was used on network television.)
“Had Mary not been so gracious, the show never would have been what it was,” Silverman has said. “She absolutely cheered when another actor shone. She didn’t care if it was her or if it was Ed, Val, whoever. All she cared about was that the show was good.”