Mary Tyler Moore died on Tuesday at age 80. She was a remarkable person in many ways and truly groundbreaking as a cultural icon for an entire generation. It’s almost hard to understand just how important her work was, however, because she did it with such cool professionalism and care.
When James Garner died in 2014, I reflect on how he defined what it meant to be a man for me as a child. It is only fitting that I do the same for Mary Tyler Moore, who introduced me at the same age to what it meant to be a woman in today’s world. It was at least as important, if not much moreso, in shaping who I am as a person.
The show “Mary Tyler Moore” is a unique classic in that it is both very universal in the quality of its craft and yet dated in its depiction of the struggles of the times. We have moved on in many ways as a society and talk much more openly about gender roles and the trials women face on a daily basis. A big part of the reason for this is Moore’s work which was more than groundbreaking for her generation.
She was the first, and her steps were anything but timid. They were bold, but careful. And they describe exactly what was necessary to begin the long journey that we are still very much on.
Every Friday night I watched the show with my Mom. It was great quality time in so many ways because it allowed Mom to open up about things that she didn’t quite know how to raise on her own. It didn’t seem like a series of lessons, but it was.
Her show was not the first with a feminine lead, but it was the first to depict a truly independent life as a woman. The opening song said it all. “You’re gonna make it after all!” was the memorable tag line, but the title is “Love is all around.” The scenes from Minneapolis were used primarily to introduce a realism that only underscored the introduction. This was a show about what it really means to be a young woman trying to make it in a hostile world. The affirmation was underscored by the insistence that yes, love is all around no matter what it seems like at the moment.
The show itself was a hard sell, especially coming from her start-up production company MTM. CBS balked completely at the idea that her character, Mary Richards, would be divorced. The compromise was a mysterious feeling that she left some guy at the alter or something, it was never clear.
That battle alone illustrates both her struggle and how Moore got past it. Everything about the show was based on a quiet competency, meeting the struggle just to get by in life by necessarily being better than all of the men in her world. That wasn’t just her character, it was how it was all set up – and why the show is indeed a classic.
Following the “3 and 7” sitcom rule perfected by Sherwood Schwartz in “Gilligan’s Island”, Mary was the center of three comedic triangles. The first was the tension, often highly sexual, between the old school of elders – her gruff boss Lou Grant and the steely yet flirty Sue-Anne Nivens, who usually got her way, any way she could. That was met by the workaday trio of Mary with good-guy Murray and blustery Ted, the incompetent who only made it as far as he could project a false air of authority as a pale male. After an exhausting day of navigating all this, she went home to constant tension between old-school feminist Phyllis and more radical Rhoda.
This is important because the classic set-up was used by Mary to not only illustrate the daily grind of a working woman but to bring up topics never dealt with so openly before. “The pill” was mentioned and her inability to find a date who wasn’t at least vaguely creepy was a constant running joke. It was funny, yes, but it was real. But for comedy that should have hurt it was always sent out with an irrepressible smile and deliberate unflappability.
Everything about Mary Richards was professional. Everything about Mary Tyler Moore was professional.
She became a cultural icon for a generation for one very important reason – she absolutely earned it. The world of women on their own may have moved on in many ways but the stories still have a resonance beyond the immediate trappings. Everyone knows a Mary, a workhorse who defines her pride by her craft and ability to keep moving on. It was always much more than a walk around Lake of the Isles in the opening, it was a perfect description of her sense of self through her craft.
It was a lesson that my generation did well to learn – both men and women. We are better people because of it, and all of the changes which we have absorbed since the 1970s can in some way be traced to the absolutely critical work of Mary Tyler Moore.
She changed a culture from the inside out, which is the most radical thing anyone could do. But to look at her and her work it hardly seems radical at all. Much of that is because she did her work almost perfectly and changed the world in the process. She made it after all.
She made it because love is all around. Her love will be missed.