A Feminist Icon? To Millions Of Us, She Was Just Our Mary

In the wake of Mary Tyler Moore's death on Wednesday, much is being made of her position in feminist history.

But not enough is being said about the talent that made her one of the most luminous female stars ever to appear on television. With all due respect to the armchair sociologists who insist on inducting her into some kind of Women's Movement Hall of Fame for playing a single career woman on TV in the 1970s, it is doubtful that tens of millions would have tuned in to watch “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (originally titled simply “Mary Tyler Moore”) week after week if that was all there was to it.

As it happened, there was a lot more to it -- starting with Moore herself and a supporting cast (both on-screen and behind the scenes) that was, then and now, second to none.



The show was funny. How could it not be, with Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White), Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper) and Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman) floating in and out of every scene?

Lou Grant (Ed Asner) became one of the best-acted characters in the whole history of television -- a newsroom archetype for the ages. Well-meaning Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod) -- the workaday, “brown-bagging” TV news writer (MacLeod's description in an interview I conducted with him a few years ago) -- was the kind, considerate co-worker we all wish we had.

As for Mary Richards, the character and the actress who played her may have been this show's top-billed attraction, but Moore was shrewd. In scene after scene, she is seen giving way to her co-stars, the camera only rarely centered on her.

The result was the creation of a workplace family (commingled at times with Mary's friends and apartment house neighbors) that stood in perhaps for the real family this unmarried career woman did not necessarily aspire to create. 

The star more than held her own, of course, which was probably no mean feat when one is doing a scene with Ted Knight or Ed Asner. As Mary, Moore was both hilarious and heartbreaking -- fragile but also assertive, confident but also given to second-guessing herself.

Sound familiar? She was just like the rest of us, and that's why we loved her. Mary Tyler Moore was easy to love too, a hand-wringing comedienne whose tone of voice would rise with the increase in her fret level.

She was lucky enough to find herself in the company of some of the best talents in the business -- Dick Van Dyke and Carl Reiner, for example, and the aforementioned co-stars of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” plus the people who produced, directed and wrote it.

These included James L. Brooks and Allan Burns (co-creators), David Lloyd, Ed. Weinberger, Jay Sandrich (and the list goes on and on and on). But it was more than just luck. She was their equal. 

For many of us, the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” era still represents the very pinnacle of television. It was a very different era -- one in which hit shows routinely attracted one-third or more of the entire country every week.

Lest we forget, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” did this on a Saturday night, which today is a TV backwater. At that time, however, it was the centerpiece of the TV week, thanks in no small measure to the “Moore” show and the others that followed and preceded it on CBS in those days. 

This lineup of shows reached its zenith in fall 1973 -- “All in the Family” at 8, “M*A*S*H” at 8:30, “Mary Tyler Moore” at 9, “The Bob Newhart Show” at 9:30 and “The Carol Burnett Show” at 10. Those were the days, indeed.

When reading the obligatory tribute columns that turned up everywhere on Wednesday, it was clear that many of the writers were too young to have experienced “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in its original context. Some even said so.

Maybe that was why so many of them gravitated toward the “feminist icon” cliché in writing about the impact of the show and its incandescent star. They don't have what you might call a “personal” relationship with this show or with her.

To those of us of a certain age, however, feminism has nothing to do with the way we regard Mary Tyler Moore. She was a part of our very lives – that lost world of velvet couches, shag carpeting, avocado-colored kitchen appliances and television sets with aerials.

When we heard the news that she had died, our reactions were incredulous. In disbelief, we asked ourselves: Mary Tyler Moore was 80? And then: When did that happen?

8 comments about "A Feminist Icon? To Millions Of Us, She Was Just Our Mary ".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, January 26, 2017 at 2:01 p.m.

    A very tragic loss for all of us. I fell in love with Mary in the early and mid-1960s when she co-starred in Carl Reiner's "Dick Van Dyke Show" as Dick's beautiful suburban "wife". Things got even better in the 1970s with Mary's own show and that great cast of characters. RIP, Mary.

  2. David Vawter from Doe-Anderson, January 26, 2017 at 2:02 p.m.

    It's the current political climate that has the punditocracy reaching for backhanded ways to throw shade at the new administration by any means necessary.  Our Mary is just another tool in their arsenal.  But, "those of us of a certain age" with divorced moms who were trying to make it on their own, juggling an accidental career with childrearing could certainly relate.  The struggle was real, or certainly seemed to be.  Her relatability made and makes her timeless even as the flared pantsuits speak to our nostalgic longings.  And yes, the show was hilarious.  Airhead pomposity will never be better assayed than it was by Ted Knight as Ted Baxter.  "It all started in a 5,000-watt radio station in Fresno, California ..."

  3. Gary Holmes from Gary Holmes Communications LLC, January 26, 2017 at 2:12 p.m.

    Completely agree Adam.  It's become exhausting to view every aspect of culture through a political lens.  The show was funny because it was depicted the universal expeirence of a character who happened to be a single woman. For all the talk about Mary as a feminist leader, let's remember than in the mid-70s, Gloria Steinem and others criticized the show because Mary Richards still called her boss "Mr. Grant." 

  4. James Nail from Forrester Research, January 26, 2017 at 2:23 p.m.

    Adam: You are dead on. I read the tributes and kind of scratched my head...of course those issues were in the zeitgeist and made their way into the show. But I tuned in every Saturday night because of the wonderful characters, the warm relationships and the laughs. I too fell in love with Laura Petrie, Ed. And aside from this being one of those milestones that mark my own aging, I feel it marks the end of an era of gentleness, smart (as opposed to cutting) humor, and shows that try to lift us with an idealized/aspirational view of the kind of place the world could be (instead of "reality" TV). Clearly, I am well into my curmudgeonhood. RIP, MTM. I will miss you.

  5. Christina Ricucci from Millenia 3 Communications, January 26, 2017 at 2:32 p.m.

    I was one of those unabashedly devoted Mary Tyler Moore fans who rarely missed an episode. I was in my 20s, getting my start in radio, in the 70s when Mary Richards was learning her way around the news room of WJM. In so many ways I wanted to be like her, especially as her confidence grew in the way she handled people and situations. She was only 10 years older than me and I wanted to be her co-worker, her girlfriend or a cousin. Mostly I wanted to feel the way it made me feel to watch her, to see how she lived and enjoy her adventures, even to learn a few things about myself from lessons she taught, some perhaps due to good writers but most because she was truly “just our Mary.” A class act, on and off camera (who, by the way, wasn't shy about rejecting the "feminism" of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan). Btw, my favorite episode of the whole show is “Toulouse Lautrec is one of My Favorite Artists” (Season 1, Ep. 7). It’s a laugh-your-head-off gem.

  6. Steve Beverly from Union Broadcasting System, January 26, 2017 at 4:27 p.m.

    As usual, Alan and Gary have knocked it out of the park.  If Mary Richards had not been a real and entertaining character and that ensemble had no chemistry, the show would have been done in one season.

    Most people watched because it was well-acted, well-written and funny television.  MTM is one of the few in television history to be a part of not one, but two monumental hits.

    Casting chemistry and creative team excellence don't occur, much less mesh, often.  Lest we forget...Mary couldn't re-create it after 1977.  Between "Mary," "The Mary Tyler Moore Hour," "Mary," "Annie McGuire" and "New York News," the elements were lacking five times.

    If anything, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" cultural influence was primarily influencing a significant number of young women (and men, too) to enter the field of broadcast journalism in the '70s.  Dr. Joe Dominick at the University of Georgia introduced research that showed TMTMS and Watergate were the two most influential factors in the influx of young broadcast journalists in that era.

  7. Chuck Lantz from, network, January 26, 2017 at 5:23 p.m.

    Over the years, I've worked with a few Lou Grants, and way too many Ted Baxters and Sue Anne Nivens types.  I've even been lucky enough to have worked with and for a few Mary Richards clones.  Between that show and WKRP In Cincinnati, the TV and radio news craziness of those times was pretty well covered, and was uncomfortably close to reality. 

    As others have mentioned, Mary Tyler Moore was the glue that held her show together; ... not usually visible, but rock-solid.  

    And loud applause for Mr. Buckman for not fogetting the other geniuses of that show; the writers, who understood that even a simple line like "Oh, Mr. Grant!" delivered by Mary would speak volumes. 

  8. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 26, 2017 at 6:58 p.m.

    Gem. Avah-la-shalom.

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