It’s striking how far feminist writers, in the wake of Mary Tyler Moore’s saddening death at age eighty, have to reach to impose some kind of political reading on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Although the 1970-77 sitcom was excitingly new for women viewers—never before had a single career gal been the focus of a show—it almost entirely dodged 1970s politics. Mary was a feminine icon, not a feminist icon.
The abortion-rights group NARAL tried to claim Mary for its cause, tweeting out that she “broke major ground for women in the workforce and calling Moore, as many others did, a “feminist icon.”
But feminism implies the existence of a never-ending dispute with men, a state of high alert with respect to sexism and the patriarchy. Mary Richards may have had spunk, but she wasn’t really a fighter. Though she successfully argued to Mr. Grant that she should receive the same pay as a man, most of the time she was too timid for conflict. When a male reporter interviewed her, his tape recorder ran out of power so he asked her to take notes in shorthand because she was a woman. It’s absurd, but she went along with it good-naturedly. For the obtuse, the title of an episode from Season Two is a helpful illustration of the show’s ideological stance: “Thoroughly Unmilitant Mary.” (In that episode, amid a strike at her employers’, non-political Mary crossed a picket line.)
Although Mary had a sex life, hints at this were few and far between; gentlemen callers were welcomed into her famous sunken living room but then were seen out the door. There was a fleeting reference to Mary possibly being on birth control, and an episode in which she went out for a date and was seen the next morning, in the same dress, but that was as naughty as the show got. Mary wasn’t a symbol of sexual liberation. Seeking elements of Amy Schumer or Lena Dunham’s characters in her won’t yield much. “I’ve been around,” she once said, unconvincingly. After a pause she added, “All right, I might not have been around, but I’ve been . . . nearby.” In one episode, she stood before the mirror before her date and daringly unbuttoned one more button of her white shirt. Then she buttoned it back up primly. “Coward,” she said to herself, and we all laugh. Mary was demure.
In essence, Mary was simply America’s best friend, our kindly little sister. Instead of being angry or frustrated at sexism, she took Ted Baxter’s belittling quips with grace and good humor. When her boss asked her to call him “Lou,” she couldn’t do it: “Mr. Grant” felt more respectful. Far from adopting frumpiness as a political stance in an era in which feminists denounced “ludicrous beauty standards,” Mary was the epitome of style, turning up at work in one gorgeous outfit after another.
Declining to make the show about women being considered lesser beings in male-dominated office environments (the subject of last year’s Amazon series “Good Girls Revolt”), the show’s writers depicted Mary as simply content to work beside men. She originally appeared at the office looking for a secretarial job. Her boss Lou Grant told her the position has been filled, then hired her for a better job—associate producer. Without a second thought, she was seated next to the show’s news writer, Murray. Later she was promoted to news producer, again without any speechifying about glass ceilings.
What was endearingly feminine, and touching, about Mary Richards was how willingly she acceded to organizing her life around serving others. Always available for advice, or for babysitting, or for a hug, she was poised, graceful, content. She wasn’t interested in shattering barriers but in being nice.
If anything was revolutionary about The Mary Tyler Moore Show it wasn’t its politics, which were all but nonexistent, but its sophistication. At the time, TV was dominated by dumb Westerns, dumb variety shows and corn-pone rural sitcoms that drew laughs from broad comedy bordering on slapstick. Jim Nabors, Glen Campbell and Andy Griffith were among the biggest stars on television in 1970.
With Mary, creators Allan Burns and James L. Brooks created a new genre of sleek, smart urban comedy built around quick-witted repartee reminiscent of 1930s Hollywood, with canny, recognizably human characters who only occasionally (as in the case of Ted Baxter and his dim better half Georgette) veered into buffoon territory. Picking up on where The Dick Van Dyke Show, Moore’s previous sitcom hit, left off, Brooks and Burns ushered in a new era of workplace comedies where people of wildly different backgrounds and interests could somehow muddle through together. America looked up to Mary not because she was a trailblazer but because she was so accommodating of people’s foibles that she could get along with anyone. She could turn the world on with her smile.