How Mary Tyler Moore Changed America With Feminism, TV, and Comedy
The Mary Tyler Moore Show was much more than a TV show. On screen and off, it changed how American women saw themselves, and how men saw them.
When Mary Richards threw that hat up in the air at the end of the credits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it was both a vision of an independent person’s joy and a declaration of specifically female independence and autonomy.
That image of the hat-throwing was frozen many times on social media Wednesday afternoon, after the news of Mary Tyler Moore’s death at age 80, in Greenwich, Connecticut, was announced by her agent.
The cause of death was cardiopulmonary arrest after she contracted pneumonia, her family said. She died, a representative said, “in the company of friends and her loving husband of over 33 years, Dr. S. Robert Levine.”
Mary Richards’s proud striding through the streets of Minneapolis, and throwing of that hat in the opening credits, was an inspirational gauntlet.
From that moment in 1970 we can trace a lineage that endures today to successful female comics and show-runners like Tina Fey (whose 30 Rock character of Liz Lemon, Fey said, was derived from Mary Richards), Chelsea Handler, and Amy Schumer, and TV shows with a female focus (including Sex and the City, Ally McBeal, and Girls). At the root of them all lie the seeds laid by Mary Tyler Moore.
As The Mary Tyler Moore Show made its debut in 1970, just when modern feminism had found a massed voice and collective cultural and political focus, it was significant that Moore’s character Mary Richards was a single working woman.
As Fey once told The Sunday Times, “Mary Tyler Moore was a working woman whose story lines were not always about dating and men. They were about work friendships and relationships, which is what I feel my adult life has mostly been about.”
Moore’s character was the first to have a sitcom built around her—not around her love life or home life but about her working life. There she shone professionally above her variously bad-tempered or morally lacking or schlubby male cohorts, including her editor, Ed Asner’s gruff but kind Lou Grant, who would go on to have his own TV show.
Indeed, a mark of The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s success are the spin-offs it spawned: As well as Lou Grant, there was Phyllis and the just-as-iconic Rhoda, which Moore would occasionally feature in.
Later, Moore reunited with that Valerie Harper and Betty White, who played Sue Ann on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in Hot in Cleveland.
Mary Richards’s feminism may have been distinctly soft focus, but her strength was never in dispute. She was no political rabble-rouser or burner of bras. Her simple goodness and straightforward nature was her power. In the series, Richards remained deferential to “Mr. Grant.” In real life, whatever impact her most famous character had had, Moore herself appeared resistant to define herself as a feminist.
Still, in the current times journalists operate in, it is instructive (or at least encouraging), to watch Mary hold fast to her principles in the first episode of the fifth season, in which she won’t reveal her source of a story, leading to a night in the slammer. Watching that episode and others, what is striking is that Mary Richards's politics are embedded in her character, rather than grafted on to her. She is a feminist, even if she--and her portrayer--did not describe themselves as such. Moore herself said, "I'm not an actress who can create a character. I play me."
The irony that this trailblazing show was the creation of men—James L. Brooks and Allen Burns; with its liberation theme sung, “Love Is All Around,” sung by Sonny Curtis—was offset by the power of women behind the scenes.
As Hope Reese wrote in The Atlantic in 2013, reflecting on Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic, “In 1973, 25 out of 75 writers on the show were women, which was revolutionary at the time.”
Armstrong told The New York Times: “Mary Tyler Moore became a feminist icon as Mary Richards.”
Just as revolutionary were some of the show’s themes—equal pay (which Mary fought unsuccessfully to secure), going on the Pill, and homosexuality among them. It won a phenomenal 29 Emmys.
The show was produced by Moore and her second husband, Grant Tinker, who died on Nov. 28, and with whom she set up the successful production company MTM, famous for its logo of a meowing cat, satirizing the roar of the MGM lion.
With her first husband, Richard Meeker, Moore had a son, Richie, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1980, at 24.
“Time is a great healer,” she told the National Ledger in 2008. “It came from out of nowhere. Unfortunately, there were terrible rumors that Richie killed himself, but it was an accident. He was a gun collector, was cleaning guns, and one of them went off and shot him in the head.”
Her son’s death came after Moore had finished filming Ordinary People, the 1980 movie she earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for.
In it, she played, in a horrible irony, a mother grieving the loss of her son after a boating accident. The part made the public see Moore very differently: Her character was sharp, brittle, and complicated where Mary Richards’s sweetness and goodness had been Moore’s most familiar, audience-winning qualities.
There was other tragedy in Moore’s life. She also lost her sister Elizabeth (to a drug overdose) and brother John (a recovering alcoholic, to kidney cancer).
Growing up—she was born in Brooklyn in 1936—Moore had a problematic relationship with her parents. Her father, she said, was undemonstrative, and her mother an alcoholic.
“Thank God, I was not abused in any way, but I was seeking approval of some sort, in many different ways,” Moore once said. “For me, it turned out to be a pat on the back for entertaining people.”
The Mary Tyler Moore Show may be iconic, but Moore’s fame was first sealed—after years of appearing in commercials, variety shows, and small roles in TV series—by landing the role of Laura Petrie, Dick Van Dyke’s character’s wife in The Dick Van Dyke Show, from 1961 to 1966. (She won two Emmys for that show, four for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and a later one in 1993 for her role in Stolen Babies.)
In 2008, Moore told the National Ledger that her alcoholism—for which she eventually sought treatment via the Betty Ford Center and Alcoholics Anonymous—first took hold while filming The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Her alcohol dependency, she told the National Ledger, contributed to the end of her marriage to Tinker—they divorced in 1981. It also imperiled the first year of her marriage to Levine, whom she wed in 1983.
“We would have inane arguments over dinner about things I couldn’t remember the next day,” she said. “Alcoholism brings to the fore hostilities and resentment—you can’t have a marriage like that.” That directness mirrored Mary Richards at her best.
In 2012, a testament to that character’s presence and influence, and Moore’s subsequent body of impressive work, she was awarded the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award.
“You have no idea what you meant to me,” Oprah Winfrey told Moore when the actress surprised her in a 1997 TV appearance. Winfrey, like many today, hymned the iconic imprint left by Mary Richards as so influential for her personally. “You were one of those women who was a light,” Winfrey told Moore.
At the end of recalling their meeting, Winfrey sang the familiar and uplifting last line of The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme, which we will hear a lot in the next day or so. And quite right, too, as it remains a perennial, sweetly uplifting rallying call: “You’re gonna make it after all.”