I Love You, Mary Tyler Moore
Yesterday my best friend texted me:
This text could have been about any of the travesties currently facing our great nation and the world. But I knew without asking for clarification that my friend was talking about the death of my long time hero, Mary Tyler Moore.
If you’re wondering, by the way, that is not a pic of my friend in the above exchange. Unbeknownst to her, I’ve chosen as her avatar a photo of Priscilla Pointer as Rebecca Wentwoth, Cliff Barnes and Pam Ewing's mother from Dallas.
Which brings me to by obsession with vintage TV. I could go on about how much I love vintage TV and, indeed, I have on many occasions. My friend’s message above was not the only one I received upon the death of MTM.
Like everyone else who watches old TV, I love to indulge in fantasies of simpler, more beautiful times. Perry Mason is one of my all time favorite shows and I often think, when watching it, I can pull off a wee polyester throat-bow at work. (No, I can’t)
I also loved The Donna Reed Show and thought to myself in high school “Could I get away with wearing crinolines these days?” (yes, I could, it was the 90s and you could wear anything back then).
The thing about watching vintage TV is you take the bad with the good. Along with the amazing outfits, cars, furniture and soma-like predictability of the plots, you also get a lot of vintage sexism. For instance, Perry Mason’s secretary, Della Street, makes coffee, constantly has to parry (hey-ohh!) Paul Drake’s boring sexual innuendos and often has to harbor female or child fugitives at her home because what women do is take care of people. Also, the next time you watch Perry Mason, please notice how, whenever Perry and Della walk together, he leads her around by the elbow. This is an uncomfortable way of walking -- I know because my husband and I have mocked it on several occasions -- but they walk this way anyway as a reinforcement of their gendered hierarchy; the man directs, the woman accepts direction.
As for Donna Reed, her character has been repeatedly mocked for doing housework in a dress and heels:
In fact, one of Mary Tyler Moore’s most famous feminists acts was a reaction to this way of portraying women as Stepford Wives. MTM had her big break on the Dick Van Dyke Show. She played Laura Petrie, a housewife who was married to a television comedy writer, Dick Van Dyke's character, Robert Petrie. MTM wanted Laura Petrie to be a more realistic portrayal of women. MTM and all of her friends wore pants to do housework and so MTM wanted Laura Petrie to also.
I loved Laura Petrie. MTM is an incredibly gifted comedian and Laura was beautiful, talented, loved and respected. Laura even once had a career as a dancer, which she gave up to get married and have a child. If Laura is an expression of MTM's feminism then the character brings into relief what feminists were up against at the time. Yes, Laura wears pants but, beyond that, her autonomy is severely circumscribed. For instance, in an Episode called “To Tell or Not to Tell” Rob's producer asks Laura to dance on the variety show that Rob writes for. Elated, she accepts. She ends up having to work long hours and comes home exhausted which drives Rob *absolutely bonkers* because she necessarily neglects the housework. There’s no question of him shifting his responsibilities in any way to accommodate her vocation. The happy ending of the episode is that Laura gives up dancing forever.
Also, let’s not forget the Episode called Bank Book 6565696 in which Rob discovers that Laura has her own bank account. He goes *absolutely bonkers* because she's keeping a secret from him. Okay, I get that. But the happy ending here is that Rob discovers Laura is secretly skimming money from the household budget so that she can save up to buy Rob a sports car he's crazy about. Her gesture is portrayed as tenaciously naïve. She's can't bring in extra income and so, as Rob points out, she'll have to save for 20 years to buy that car.
Naïveté is central to Laura's character. Her catchphrase, “oh Rob”, is usually delivered as a plaintive call to action for Rob to comfort her or solve some problem for her.
MTM's role as Mary Richards in the Mary Tyler Moore Show was a marked improvement over Laura Petrie, feminist-ly speaking. The premise of the Mary Tyler Moore Show is that Mary has just broken up with a man she'd been dating for two years. Her friend Phyllis implies that she had made emotional and financial sacrifices to help her boyfriend get a degree and start a career. Now established, he hedges at the idea of marrying her and acts as if she's a little bit nutso for even bringing it up. She’s not getting what she wants from the relationship so she leaves him, her entire life, and strikes out on her own. Go Mary!
Mary gets a job she's completely unqualified for and rocks it. The show makes a great feminist contribution by portraying a career woman sympathetically in a time when a lot of people found it difficult to sympathize with career women. MTM's obituary published by The New York Times addresses this quite well.
Something that I don't read about as much in articles about feminism in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but that I think is terribly important, is its mature portrayal of her personal relationships. For instance, Mary's Best Work Friend is a man named Murray. Their relationship is always platonic - no gray area, no boring sexual innuendo (I'm looking at you, Paul Drake). Moreover, Mary's relationships with her best friends Rhoda and Phyllis are robustly drawn, as far as sitcoms go. Their interactions are hilarious, touching, and frequently pass the Bechdel Test even before Bechdel popularized it.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show ran for seven seasons. The last episode ends when the TV station that Mary Richards works for is sold and she, along with most of her male coworkers, are fired. It does not end with a spate of dull marriages like that dumb and, for my tastes, way too contemporary show, Friends. In fact, near the end of the last episode, Mary gives a little speech about how she’s realized that her coworkers are her family. She does not need to be married to find closure or hope in the future of her imaginary life. I am so grateful for Mary's unapologetic love of work.
The most powerful moment in the final episode, however, is when Mary reunites with her besties, Rhoda and Phyllis. The actresses who played her BFFs left the show in the previous season to pursue solo projects. In this episode, Mary's boss, Lou Grant, pays for them to fly into town so that they can be there for Mary as she faces unemployment. Lou leaves the scene and the three women talk. Mary tries to stay upbeat and play good hostess for her friends but Rhoda scolds her. She tells her to be sad if she needs to. Mary hugs her friend and lovingly says “oh Rhoda”. It's a clear callback to MTM's "oh Rob" days and a powerful nod to the maturation of MTM's characters. Laura was a woman who lived in her husband's world; Mary built her own world on a foundation of female friendships and a will to succeed. Seeing another woman do that, even a made-up one on TV, has helped me to not be led around by the elbow, doing laundry in my heels.
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