By Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy for the Tribune Media Wire Service
Mary Tyler Moore, who died on Wednesday at the age of 80, was more than just her character on the 1970s Mary Tyler Moore show: an Emmy- and Tony-award winning and Oscar-nominated actress, television producer and philanthropist, Moore embodied a model of career-driven celebrity that belied many of the stereotypes about actresses of her generation.
But for many women, both those who came of age during Moore’s eponymous show and those who, like me, discovered in on cable during many years of reruns, it can be difficult to remember that she wasn’t simply a real life version of Mary Richards—not just because of her ability to disappear into a role, but because of how much that role meant to so many women.
Mary Richards showed generations of women that something more was possible for all of us than her televised predecessors and successors might suggest. Richards not only showed plenty of women that it it was fulfilling for women to work and have rich lives that revolved around their careers and friends and not just their husbands and families, she also showed— with apologies to the author Roxane Gay—that there’s liberation in being a “bad feminist”, too.
And seeing that a woman, even a fictional woman, can have her flaws and her foibles and yet still be happy (let alone happy and single) still feels like a certain kind of revolution, even if the revolutionary times through which Richards was living are (hopefully) firmly in the past.
For instance, Richards was the first television character to openly be using hormonal birth control—which meant that she had sex, even though she was single. That little piece of television history was made during an episode in which Richards’ mother was visiting: she was seen leaving Richard’s apartment, and over her shoulder said to either her daughter or her husband, “Don’t forget to take your pill!” Mary and her father answered simultaneously, “I won’t!”
The joke worked because it was unclear to whom Mary’s mother was speaking, and very clear that Mary didn’t think twice about answering—but that saw her father’s palpable discomfort at her own reflexive answer. The moment is more than just a one-off joke: Mary was talking about the Pill in the very year that the Supreme Court decided in Eisenstadt v. Baird that it had to be made available to all unmarried women. And it was a very public pop culture reference to birth control, to unmarried sex, to an adult woman acknowledging that she had both to her parents. Plus, there is a bitingly hilarious ambiguity: you’re forced to wonder whether Mary’s mother really was begging her 30-something “working girl” daughter to not get knocked up with the same tired banality with which she would remind her spouse to take his medication.
But perhaps even more significant is the fact that it was the first time the Pill was ever mentioned on a sitcom and it was not in the context of a dreary Very Special Episode. Long before women started shouting their abortions, Mary Richards shouted her contraception, literally, without even thinking twice about it and without it being any sort of testament to or against her moral character.
That’s the other surprisingly novel thing about what the character of Richards represented: she was, without question, a “good” girl. She had perfect (and perfectly retro) manners, calling her boss “Mr. Grant” even while her male peers in the office all called him Lou, and was frequently positioned as a straight-man foil to the loud, boisterous, hippie best friend she found in Rhoda. Mary Richards would never have worn a caftan and headscarf or gone to a love-in like Rhoda did. But that didn’t mean she didn’t, like Rhoda, want to have sex if she wanted —and to not get pregnant.
And having sex didn’t mean that Richards didn’t want to have a career, just as being polite in the office didn’t mean she was unaware of the injustices she faced from her colleagues. She understood that the station manager just saw her as the token female executive in the office, not someone whose talent he admired. And Mary’s frustration only grew when she learned that she made less than her male peers. When she went marching into Mr. Grant’s office to talk about it, she floundered between uptalk and near-tears before dismissing herself as emotional and having one of those “woman things” before she finally managed to get out that it didn’t seem right that she made less for doing the same work as a man because she was a woman.
It was her failure to channel her inner Gloria Steinem in that moment and countless others that somehow served as an inspiring roadmap for all the “bad feminists” of yesterday, today, and always. Forget militant feminism, Mary Richards’ wasn’t even close to “perfect” feminism—there was no hardened, unwavering speech when she demanded equal pay; no organizing of protests; no quitting to start her own all-woman media outlet—which is why she was so relatable in a way that pop culture at the time suggested that other feminists weren’t. Mary could cry at work and still really want and deserve equal pay—and so could you. That’s why she was so exciting to watch: her life was a promise that you could be happy simply being all of yourself.
Imperfection made Richards enchanting, an intoxicating mix of professional and personal fulfillment and a totally flawed model of what the feminism in its purist form was supposed to be. She was a beacon of hope to so many generations of women for what it meant to be single and to work and to be a woman, because we’re all flawed, and because it is difficult at times to be a woman in the modern world, but it doesn’t mean we’re incapable of happiness.
Mary unquestionably loved her life, despite its flaws: Her love for her work was palpable and it infused the buoyancy she brought to the parts of her day outside of the office. Working made Mary happy. Having a best friend like Rhoda (who was nothing like her but there for her no matter what) made her happy. Putting up with doltish Ted Baxters and floundering Murrays—well, I don’t know if that made her happy, but working with men who hardly had it together as much as she did certainly didn’t embitter her.
Mary Richards offered an alternate path for what life as a single woman could look like, one in which, like Mary (and Sex And The City’s Carrie Bradshaw many, many years after her), you could worry about being “undersexed” and still not have your happiness be contingent on the idea of a romantic relationship. Mary’s “domestic life,” so to speak, was her work life—and if that meant cleaning up after the messes of her male colleagues instead of the messes of a husband and children while wearing an apron inside a picket fence-surrounded suburban home, well, that was ok too. Though she coddled the men in her office so that she could do her job well (and birthed the future comedic struggle of Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon, among others), she was never pathetic.
Mary wasn’t a spinster, a radical, or a weirdo: She was a pretty, peppy girl who really liked her job and was really good at it, who had ridiculous friends and neighbors whose company she really enjoyed, and whose outfits were always perfect and whose hair was almost always shiny. Mary even won an award for her work — and while wrestling with a bad hair day and bad borrowed dress from Rhoda began her acceptance speech with the words that should be emblazoned on the official bad feminist seal: “I usually look so much better than this.”
What could be more revolutionary than for legions of women to see that you don’t get glossy, bouncy hair like Mary’s sitting around feeling sorry for yourself for being single, worrying about not fitting into any of the stereotypical the roles that women are supposed to play. You get hair like that by liking yourself and your life so much that you don’t even have time to worry about what other people think after you’re done blowing it out.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s theme song’s lyrics—“You’re going to make it after all”—weren’t just there as a promise to Mary that she didn’t need to quit everything just because the jerk boyfriend whom she had supported through medical school had dumped her at the age of 30, leaving her single and off in a new city all on her own. They were explicit instructions to present and future female viewers that it was they who needn’t worry. After all, Mary, flaws and all, worried plenty — but never questioned her happiness.