I’m a nerd for both The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–77). In fact, I was watching one of my favorite MTM episodes when I learned Mary Tyler Moore died today at the age of 80. She faced her share of sorrows, and in recent years had suffered from challenging health problems. More importantly, however, she helped define the modern working woman.
She started by re-defining the modern wife and mother in The Dick Van Dyke Show. Yes, Laura was first and foremost dedicated to her family, but she was her own person, with skills (or not), opinions and a fair amount of sass. The “Oh, Rob” persona that seems to popularly describe that character wasn’t the biggest part of who Laura was.
But it was as Mary Richards, a single woman in her 30s with a decent, yet not particularly high-paying, job that she really made her mark. Mary’s friends would tell her she was “perfect” — of course, she was head cheerleader in high school! Of course, she gets a date from the only man at a meeting of 200 women! But part of the show’s humor was poking fun at that seeming perfection, revealing Mary’s flaws.
Forty-five years ago, The Mary Tyler Moore Show aired the first episode on network television with an openly gay character. Mary fought for equal pay when she discovered her predecessor was paid fifty dollars a week more than she was, simply because he was a man, and he didn’t even do a good job. Mary (gasp!) was sexually active, although that was discreetly discussed.
Perhaps most significantly for the time, Mary wasn’t married, and she wasn’t looking for a man. Sure, she dated, she even fell in love, but when confronted with the opportunity to marry a man just about as perfect as she was, she turned him down. She wasn’t ready, she said.
Cutting edge remains controversial until the edge is cut and the border for the shocking is moved back. Watching the shows now, both The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, we may not understand why some episodes of the former were banned in some cities and why both series were known for being forward thinking and daring. But goodness, Rob and Laura had Jewish neighbors (the Steins), even though you never saw them, and Rob’s co-worker Buddy (Morey Amsterdam) was also Jewish. Mary’s best friend Rhoda’s Judaism, and the episode that confronted anti-Semitism, was still controversial in 1973.
Thank you to all those who are willing to push the envelope and advance human rights in whatever manner you find is given to you. Mary Tyler Moore had a tremendous opportunity to change the role of women in the 60s and 70s, and while you can nit-pick the way it was handled and find fault here and there, what she did made a difference.
Rest in peace, Mary Tyler Moore.
Here’s a video that, yes, has a scene with a few things we wouldn’t see in a progressive show today (Gordy’s compliment to Mary, for example, would be considered sexist by many), but it shows Mary for who she was — capable, funny and flawed: