Me, Mary Richards, and Feminism
I was just a kid when The Mary Tyler Moore Show was on television. I’m sure I watched the first episode, but I don’t have a clear memory of that. What I do remember perfectly is the 1972–1973 Saturday Night line up on CBS:
- All in the Family
- Bridget Loves Bernie (aka bath time)
- Mary Tyler Moore
- The Bob Newhart Show
- Mission Impossible (rarely allowed to stay up for that)/Carol Burnett Show (always allowed to stay up for that)
And that was pretty revolutionary for network television.
In 2002, in an interview with Larry King, Mary Tyler Moore said she thought that Mary Richards was a feminist:
She wasn’t aggressive about it, but she surely was. The writers never forgot that. They had her in situations where she had to deal with it.”
She asked for equal pay for equal work. She told her boss it was illegal to ask certain questions during her job interview. She was the only woman in her television newsroom to have an executive position (she became the newscast producer). Her experiences in ways echoed those of that first wave of women to make it into television news.
I benefited from her real-life counterparts.
By the time I entered into television in the late 1980s, a generation removed from Mary Richards, women in the newsroom were relatively common. We had reached the point in the industry where news directors weren’t just hiring that token female. I worked as a reporter, an anchor, and then eventually a producer. I had multiple news directors who were women. In one job, all of our executive producers and producers were women too.
But every time I moved to a new job in a new city, that theme song would play in my head. Maybe it’s because it was on a mix tape that a friend gave me as I headed off to my first job.
How will you make it on your own? This world is awfully big, and, girl, this time you’re on your own. But it’s time you started living. Time you let someone else do some giving.
I like to think that Mary gave me the strength to stand up to the sexist news director who told me in an interview:
Your look is all wrong for television. Your look, I see it on a deep shag pile carpet illuminated by firelight.
I thanked him (so Mary Richards), took my reel, and left the office. I didn’t start crying until I got to my car.
But she also gave me the tools to work with the men in my workplace. Like the engineers and photographers out on shoots, who I learned to read. To understand when subtle femininity might help me to convince them to do when I wanted, and when I needed to more forcefully stand up for my position.
In my first job, I lived in an apartment in a converted Victorian mansion, just like Mary Richards. I tell myself in my head that the house was painted a faded pinkish-beige and white, just like Mary’s (I’m not sure it was). I swear moving in was a coincidence. I don’t remember the sportscaster at her station telling Mary about an apartment available across the hall from him. But I also joked with friends that I would get a “Mary Richards” apartment in my first job.
Here’s the thing I loved about Mary Richards, and how she influenced my understanding about feminism: Mary didn’t lose her femininity in order to be a feminist. I remember less her not getting that equal pay that she asked for (she caved because the man had three children) but that she had the courage to ask itself. That her asking itself made a statement — that this sort of behavior was maybe not right.
She often used what have been described as female speaking traits or dodges while still advocating for her own career and interests. She supported her female friends, and called them out when they hurt her (Phyllis, I’m looking at you). She didn’t judge (Georgette and Ted, I’m looking at you). And she managed to have one of the first frenemies relationship I can remember on television, and often came out the winner in that (Sue Ann……).
But most of all, she was a success on her own terms. Right up to the end.
I don’t know how much of Mary Richards was in Mary Tyler Moore. I like to think that she held many of the same feminist values. I know she became more libertarian politically as she aged, and that she struggled with diabetes for much of her life. She served as an ambassador for diabetes awareness, and battled alcoholism. Like most of us, her life had its ups and downs.
Even if she wasn’t “Mare,” I do know that I’m glad she brought Mary Richards to life.
Seven influential MTM episodes by Variety here.
How MTM captured a key moment in history by Time here.
First published on Medium.