As an angry, Nick at Nite–bingeing, preteen feminist in the ’90s, I didn’t get why the world loved Mary Richards, the heroine of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I experienced something like love at first sight with Mary’s friends: sardonic, self-deprecating Rhoda (Valerie Harper), and glamorous, blithely self-involved Phyllis (Cloris Leachman). I stopped breathing when introduced to Betty White’s jolly horndog Sue Ann — I’d never encountered a female character that ferocious in her middle-aged sexuality. And the Clinton years — while undoubtedly regressive compared to today — were full of enraged, intelligent girls and women who wanted to see the world burn (Alanis, Tori, goth witches), needed to save it from itself (Xena, Buffy, Scully), or wished they could have nothing to do with it (Daria, Roseanne, Wednesday Addams). Next to them, a mousy, chipmunk-voiced associate producer at a Minneapolis news station who spent her workday being yelled at by her boss (Ed Asner) had nothing to offer me.
Or so I thought. Mary Tyler Moore, who died yesterday at age 80, surely knew that she was giving TV audiences something important when her eponymous show debuted in 1970, in the midst of the second-wave feminist movement. Moore became an icon of modern femininity by transforming America’s ideas about who the everywoman could be. In the ’60s, Moore was the housewife version of sweetness incarnate as the tamely goofy homemaker Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Television burst into color between Moore’s two biggest TV roles, and culture began to catch up with technology’s march. Though they didn’t satisfy the character’s more radical critics, Mary Richards’s feminist bona fides are still largely the political yardsticks by which progressive female characters are measured today.
The fictional Mary — an improbable creation for her time — was famously a thirtysomething working woman who started her life over in the big city, never got married, and arguably considered her most significant relationships to be her female friendships. At least half the show took place at the office, where Mary was often the only woman in the room. Offscreen, the show was just as groundbreaking. A third of its writers were women (a slightly higher proportion than today’s writers’ rooms), and Moore co-founded the production company that made her show. “You never forgot for a second that she was in charge,” one director recalled. The authenticity of its female voice still resonates. “Rhoda the Beautiful,” for example, could launch a minor flotilla of think pieces today with its compassionate story line: Mary’s friend finds herself still grappling with self-image issues after reaching her lifelong goal of losing 20 pounds. The resolution would flunk 2017’s body-acceptance standards, but the illusion that weight loss is a shortcut to self-acceptance still carries relevance. No wonder, then, that The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s legacy includes three spin-offs, as well as countless urban female comedies, among them Murphy Brown, Sex and the City, and 30 Rock.
But Moore’s most enduring legacy is the show’s thesis that femininity and strength aren’t mutually exclusive. Even if the actress never described herself as a “feminist,” her most defining role proved over and over that there’s more than one way to fight for and defend women. When I was younger, I only focused on Mary being pushed around — and not enough on when she pushed back, albeit usually with a waver in her voice. I love fire-breathing feminists like Julia Sugarbaker and Samantha Bee, but I’d underestimated how cathartic it might be for a girl or a woman — like my current, older self — to watch someone like Mary, who didn’t have the directness or the power to talk back, at least not at first, but would certainly hold her ground when push came to shove.
And because I’ve never been a particularly sensitive creature, it was only much later that I realized how many problems Mary resolved around the office using what we now call emotional intelligence — i.e., at the risk of essentializing, by being a woman. Unless you’re the heroine of a YA dystopian novel, raging against the machine only gets you so far. Working within the system, on the other hand, offers its own rewards. In “Neighbors," there’s a small but significant example of this when Mary fights with blowhard anchorman Ted (Ted Knight) for the cue-card boy to be replaced by a cue-card girl. As women continue to figure out how to achieve equality in a labor landscape dominated by men, Mary’s struggles, and especially her tactics, can still be instructive.
Mary and her friends never go on about clothes or shopping at any length, but the show’s Technicolor fashion remains one of its most distinctive features. Mary’s flying hat generally gets all the attention, but her scarves, chunky belts, sleek turtlenecks, and — because it’s the ’70s — jumpsuits suggest the character’s ability to encompass both femininity and professionalism at a time when the idea of women entering the workplace en masse made the country’s stomach twist in knots. More significantly, Mary’s quiet assertion blurred the line between ordinary women and feminist pioneers, between the girl next door and the woman in the adjacent cubicle. Cynics could say that Moore and her show made the career gal more palatable, but it’s just as true that Mary made it possible for girls and women to imagine themselves as everyday trailblazers — women who knew that they didn’t want to sacrifice their shyness or cheerfulness in order to fit in. No less a luminary than Oprah Winfrey took that message and created an empire out of empathy. Mary Tyler Moore promised girls and women that they could be themselves and still “make it.” Only a fool would think they couldn’t be powerful and vulnerable at the same time.