Raise your hand if you have never watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and if you took today's news of Mary Tyler Moore's death with a kind of confused sadness — "that's awful, but also, I'm not totally sure who she is?" You don't need to feel bad about that; I'm in the same boat as you, and I'm 35, so I had plenty of time to watch the reruns of the show that were a permanent background noise in my childhood. But I didn't; I was probably off playing with those cars that turned into robots, or something dumb like that. Whoops.
So when I heard that Mary Tyler Moore had passed, my brain ran through a reel of images — parodies of the show's opening credits; a childhood pet we'd had named Rhoda — without really making any sense of them. I knew a Boomer icon was gone. But I wasn't sure what it had to do with me.
I was wrong, of course (I'm often wrong; it's kind of my "thing"). After doing a little digging, I found out that if you're reading this, the Mary Tyler Moore Show has likely impacted your life — even if you've never heard of it before today.
In case you've never seen a re-run (or were too busy to Wikipedia it this afternoon), the Mary Tyler Moore Show follows the day-to-day life of Mary Richards, a single woman in her 30s in Minneapolis who works as a producer at a TV news show. Mary works alongside three male coworkers, including her off-putting-yet-lovable boss, Lou, and lives in an apartment building also inhabited by her best friend, Rhoda.
Nothing too wild there, right? But to understand why it's considered one of the most ground-breaking TV shows of all time, you need some historical context. In 1969, when the Mary Tyler Moore Show was first being pitched to TV networks, show creators Allan Burns and James L. Brooks took a meeting with a TV network. According to Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's history of the show's development, the network had a strong reaction to the idea that the show's heroine, Mary Richards, be 30 and divorced — Burns and Brooks were told, “Our research says American audiences won’t tolerate divorce in a lead of a series any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with mustaches, and people who live in New York.”
Classy, right? This is what MTM was up against — a pop culture that still made married couples on TV be shown to sleep in separate beds (in fact, Moore's character had had a bed separate from her husband on her previous series, The Dick Van Dyke Show). In this kind of atmosphere, Moore's Mary Richards made waves. Though she just missed out on being the first single woman to be at the center of her own series (that honor goes to That Girl), the character of Mary Richards was the first single woman with a serious career ever depicted on TV. Mary had sex — in fact, she was open about using birth control, and the pill made it into one infamous gag on the show.
Mary asked for a raise when she found out her male coworkers were making more for the same job, and spent the night in jail for refusing to reveal a source. Mary's boss, Lou, saw his marriage break up after he and his wife realized they had grown apart; they ended things on such good terms with his wife that he showed up to her wedding to her second husband. Mary ended the show single and happy about it. It was one of the first shows to incorporate a gay male character (and not make him the butt of the joke). And, just in case you're keeping track at home, the show also featured characters who were divorced, Jewish, from New York, and/ or had mustaches.
The show also broke ground off-screen: the show had dozens of female writers over the course of seven seasons, with one-third of the show's writing spots in 1973 occupied by women — which would be an impressive feat for a network sitcom today, but was utterly astounding for the '70s.
And the impact that the show had on the women who watched — and the pop culture that followed — is almost impossible to measure. It wasn't just "socially important" television — it was wildly popular, must-see TV. Tina Fey has credited the show with helping to inspire 30 Rock's workplace dynamics. Critics and historians believe the show broke ground for future female-centric comedies from Sex and the City and Living Single to Girls and the Mindy Project. And Mary and Rhoda may have had the first truly iconic female friendship on TV.
But lest my glowing praise give the impression that the Mary Tyler Moore Show was a beacon of perfect feminist freedom fighting — it wasn't. Mary never called herself a feminist (Moore never did in real life, either), she addressed her boss as "Mr. Grant" even when all of her coworkers called him "Lou," and she never actually got paid the same as her male coworkers, even after she spoke up. The female characters get down on themselves for not being able to hit conventional beauty standards. And the cast was far from diverse (though, of course, keep in mind that this was an era where it was controversial to be a Jew on television).
But many of those flaws are part of what gave the Mary Tyler Moore Show its lasting influence. It wasn't about how women should be; it was about how some women actually were. And in that way, it was able to both reflect real life back at viewers and introduce them to new, more open-minded ideas — or show them that they weren't alone in their own new, open-minded ideas. It was able to capture the messy, imperfect ways we change values as a culture, or as solitary human beings. The Mary Tyler Moore Show matters to us all not just because we might not be able to marathon Parks & Rec without it — it matters because it's shaped how women can express the sloppy, thrilling reality of their lives.
I, like countless other Americans in their teens, twenties, and thirties, will be heading home to watch my first-ever episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show tonight. I'll be watching it in a very different world than the one in which it was first released, a world with both freedoms and dangers than Mary Richards could have never anticipated — but a world that she helped make.