Thank you, Mary Tyler Moore. Rest in peace.
With the oversaturation of TV culture and the “new golden age” of television that most critics consider us to be in today, it’s easy to forget a couple of key things. The first is that TV as we have come to know it is a relatively new phenomenon. The second is that, although the semi-diverse representation we see on TV screens today is nowhere near perfect or equal, representation in television has come a long, long way in a relatively short period of time (for reference, ABC was founded in 1944, NBC in 1945).
Much like everything else in the early-to-mid-20th century, television was a boys’ club. Don’t get me wrong, it still is, but not to the same degree it was in, say… 1970, when the powerhouse that was Mary Tyler Moore got the greenlight on a female-driven, primetime sitcom. All hyperbole aside, Moore’s groundbreaking work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show changed the course of TV history and paved the way for the shifting media landscape that followed, especially regarding a woman’s role in Hollywood.
When The Mary Tyler Moore Show hit the airwaves in 1970, it was a breath of fresh air. It’s hard to imagine nowadays that “single working woman moves to new city” could be a revolutionary premise for a television show, but at the time, a character like Mary Richards could not be found anywhere else in Hollywood.
The Working Woman
Moore’s natural charm and comic chops along with her superb acting brought a dimensionality to a female character the likes of which had never been seen on a major network during primetime. Mary Richards was 30, single, working alongside men, and sexually active, but not actively seeking a husband. Just one of those attributes was hard to find in a “desirable woman” (read: not a mom, grandma, or comic relief character) at the time, let alone a combination of them. The fact that the show even got made was a win for feminists in and of itself.
But Mary Tyler Moore’s appearance on the show did much more than change television, it changed minds. As much as we try to deny it, media representation absolutely advances very real causes in our country. The interplay between representation in popular media and cultural values is certainly more complex than can be broken down here, but suffice it to say that each reflects and changes the other more than most viewers realize.
If nothing else, Moore’s performance as Mary Richards was a testament to that fact. Mary Richards quickly began to embody the ideal of America’s working woman, or, rather, showed skeptical Americans that women in the workforce might not be so bad.