Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Why Everyone Should Watch At Least One Episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Mary Richards
Well, what's the cut-off point Mr. Grant? I mean, is...is there some number? You know, I'd really like to know. How many men is a woman allowed to have before she becomes THAT sort of woman?

Lou Grant

Whatever that number is now is anyone’s guess, but the comic element still rings true today. Despite the strides women have made with regard to sexuality or even equal pay, the Mary Tyler Moore Show is still relevant. In October 2015, PBS launched a thought-provoking retrospective documentary, Mary Tyler Moore: A Celebration, honoring the 45th anniversary of the Mary Tyler Moore Show and the actress, as well. As I watch and laughed out loud at the priceless clips (Mary screaming “Out Loud” or “Shut up, Ted” during a newscast or Phyllis yelling into Rhoda’s hairdryer tube to get her attention) and listened to show’s cast opine about the show’s social significance to women around the world, I began to feel a longing to share my love and appreciation for not only Mary Tyler Moore, but all those women who came into their own during that era. Yes, I know it’s only TV, but the documentary also notes that Mary Tyler Moore, the actress’ generosity both on and off screen contributed to a magical working experience for all. The more I watched, I became convinced that this show might just hold the key to gaining a long desired foothold on women’s rights. Therefore, everyone (both male and female) should watch at least one episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. At most, they might find a new perspective on society as a whole, at the very least they would have a laugh or two, which would certainly make the world a better place.
Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine there was a day when it was rare for a woman to work “outside the home” but also, even rarer for her to be single past thirty. The Mary Tyler Moore Show offers an glimpse into that world. Mary Richards broke new ground as she was both single and employed as did the actress, Mary Tyler Moore, when she was offered her own series. The show’s co-stars and some heavy hitting media personalities weigh in, during the documentary, on the Mary Tyler Moore Show’s social impact and offer some perspective about the world that preceded the show’s pilot which aired on September 19, 1970 on CBS.

In 1940, when Helen Gurley was still in high school, she worked at radio station KHJ in Hollywood, California. Every day her co-workers played a game called “Scuttle.” The “game,” went something like this: the editors and sound engineers would choose a woman and chase her down. When they caught her, they would steal her underwear. That was it. Nobody objected. The women adapted, Helen Gurley Brown (longtime editor-in-chief of Cosmopollitan) explained in a 1991 Wall Street Journal op-ed article, “by wearing their best underwear to work.”

Enter The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970. Millions of women watched as Mary Richards, 30-years-old, made her way through life in the big city. Immediately evident in the show, was what was missing—a husband, boyfriend or anyone to tell Mary what to do. Imagine the thread of excitement running through the female audience, as they watched social roles and expectations being blown to bits by a mere television show.

So what was a woman to do in 1970? Could she, as the famous MTM Show theme says, "make it after all?" Was Helen Gurley Brown's experience typical of her day? And how could a woman like Mary retain her essence, her female integrity, and still wear the current fashion—a man’s suit tailored to fit a woman? This social change, a uniform of male clothing, looked on the surface to be something powerful. Women appeared equal to men in their pantsuits and with their business lunches. However, they often encountered a surprising opposition—other women. They knew men would be upset…but women?

A working woman in the 1970’s could expect to run up against dual opposition. From men it was, “If you devote the same amount of time and effort as a man, we’ll pay you less and make you work harder.” From women it was, “Isn’t it sad that she doesn’t (or can’t) have a husband, child and family?” Cloris Leachman, the actress who plays Mary’s friend and neighbor, Phyllis, on the show was often the voice of the judgmental married homemaker and in the PBS documentary says she’s the woman, “no one wanted to be.”
Valerie Harper puts it perfectly, “The show was brilliant because Mary is who you want to be, who you wish you were, Rhoda is who you probably are and Phyllis is who you are afraid you’ll become.”

Mary’s brand of quavering optimism—combined with a never-say-die focus— made her an ideal candidate to lead women through the trenches of 1970’s workplace warfare. Yet, within the confines of the writing, the strict social code of behavior, Mary Richards finds valuable friendships at work, confidence as she finds a place for herself  in her career and masters the art of saying, “No.”

Why look back? Because it certainly would be nice for Boomer women and their predecessors ro have some reassurance that they actually did do some good way back then...that the rights those feminists fought so hard for, made a difference. It would be even more fabulous for Millenial men and women just getting into the working or are early in their careers to gain perspective on where women are at this point in history.

Mary Richards seeped into 70s culture subtly. During her own MTM Show reunion, Oprah said, “I was 16-years-old when I first saw this groundbreaking show. It’s hard to put into words how much I wanted t move to Minneapolis, to work at WJM, walk through those [office] doors and sit at Mary’s desk. And today, I get to do it. It’s a dream come true.” She wasn’t alone. Women of all ages wanted to experience how she would handle her controversial and enviable lifestyle. Life wasn’t easy back then for anyone, let alone a single woman on her own. The floundering economy, rising gas prices and job layoffs were reflected regularly in the show’s story lines.

Besides the fact that in many respects, it’s déjà vu all over again, what has changed in the last 45 years? Women today are now free to be sexual beings and move as high as the glass ceiling allows. But is this what all the feminists intended when they fought so hard for Equal Rights? Or have we coasted to a stop in the ongoing journey toward this new equality?

One indicator is the shifting opinion, in the United States, about electing a female president. A recent Pew Research Center survey shows that, 73% of adult Americans said they think the U.S. will elect a female president in their lifetimes. That sentiment transcends gender and party lines: 75% of men and 72% of women said they expect to see a female president before they die, as did 85% of Democrats, 64% of Republicans and 75% of independents.

The women who fought so hard for their rights—as well as the rights of their children, grandchildren and so on—deserve the respect of recognition. By opening the door and acknowledging our journey, we enhance our lives, our future and ourselves. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is the key to open up and keep the conversation going. Women have come so far in so many ways, it’s time to celebrate our victories and count our blessings as well as chart a new course for generations to come.

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