For those like myself who grew up in front of 1970’s television, news of Emmy-award-winning actress/comedienne/producer/Juvenile Diabetes advocate Mary Tyler Moore‘s passing provided an especially poignant moment. My familiarity with and affection for the TV legend was more via the Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS/1970-77) than as Dick Van Dykes co-star in his early/mid 1960’s classic comedy. The former garnered a former-record 29 Emmys. The Writers Guild of America feted The Mary Tyler Moore Show No. 6 among the “101 Best Written TV Series of All Time”. In 1997 TV Guide rated the sitcom’s “Chuckles Bites the Dust” (1975) number one of the “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time”; by 2009, it still ranked third.
Saturday evenings during the disco-era decade? My entire family dropped in on Mary Tyler Moore. Her show was must-see – “appointment” — TV.
Moore’s death shouldn’t have been particularly surprising, mind you: she’d been out of the spotlight for a while — usually not an especially good sign in Hollywood — and was hardly a spring chicken. Still, the regrettable announcement rattled not a few of us (the day of her demise, radio giant Mark Levin offered a notably touching tribute to the lady in segment one/hour one of his nightly program.)
The timing of her departure was curious, as well. “Ironic”, I suppose, would be an apt description, coming as her death did just days after the chaotic, head-scratching katzenjammer widely labelled the “Women’s March on Washington”. Feminists, after all, would glibly claim that gathering as “their” dramatic protest in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Yet, Ms. Moore’s proliferating obituaries have widely hailed her status as a “feminist icon” (Daily Beast, Globe and Mail, The Hill, among others). She was “a torchbearer for the changing perception of women in television”, offering “a look at a new, modern American womanhood.” That said, one would be hard pressed to confound her “Laura Petrie” or “Mary Richards” characters with the caterwauling harridans showcased last weekend in our nation’s capital.
Sure, she presented audiences with a highly visible female persona who could stand up to block-headed or bullying men — but she never radiated a male-despising vibe. “Mary Richards … was smart, ambitious, and good at her job,” reminisces the Federalist. “At the same time, she was caring toward her friends and never harsh with anyone,” (i.e., no images out there of her news-producer character howling with multi-piercings, green hair and hoisting an obscene neon placard scrawled with the word “p*ssy”.)
Mary was pretty and poised and — scandalous for our era — apparently didn’t feel badly about it; didn’t apologize for it. She maintained her femininity even while refusing to serve as mere backdrop or window dressing for the entertainment industry’s male players. Through the ’70s, 80’s and ’90s her MTM Enterprises had a hand in dozens of popular television efforts including: The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, Lou Grant, The White Shadow, WKRP in Cincinnati, Hill Street Blues, Remington Steele, St. Elsewhere, Newhart, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman — on and on the catalog could go.
An unmissable power presence in the television game, the actress, nevertheless, vocally celebrated motherhood. In her final, in-depth, on-camera interview, Ms. Moore explicitly repudiated and distanced herself from the Betty Freidan/Gloria Steinem school of anti-motherhood. In her real-life and TV world, men and women were equal, but that didn’t erase their glorious differences.
Furthermore, while never balking at demonstrating strength, neither did she shy from revealing endearing vulnerabilities: the sometimes flustered, nervous-nelly, stammering Mary was a regular and hilarious part of her comedic shtick (In The Dick Van Dyke Show melting down tearfully: “Oh, Ro-o-o-bbb!”; or twitchily quailing beneath the glowering of Ed Asner’s “Mr. Grant” in her own eponymous sitcom.) Not for Mary Tyler Moore was any galumphing, brutish “I-Am-Woman-Hear-Me-Roar” affectations.
Contrast that with the bellowing horror show on display last weekend around Capitol Hill and the White House: mobs of intentionally unattractive women, raging, ranting and raving, not a few of them theatrically profane. I normally object to making individuals’ physical appearance, their weight, their homeliness a point of discussion. It’s usually unnecessary and mean-spirited; and can be counterproductive. Occasionally, however, outward ugliness is a byproduct of calculated choices people have made which uncover something important about their twisted character within. Exhibit A? I give you: battalions of distaff dolts lumbering around in scowling, sputtering indignation the day after Donald Trump’s swearing-in.
Mary Tyler Moore, through her personal example and groundbreaking television work, urged young women to aspire, reach, stand, accomplish; to excel. Too many twenty-first-century woman warriors urge their sisters to hiss, shriek and degrade themselves; and to loathe men (or at least those dudes who fail to sufficiently grovel before their Women-Rock/Men-S*ck/Abortion-Is-Sacred altar.)
I’m not sure that second option is promising grist for generating unforgettable, industry-shaping, delightful television fare. It’s certainly no way to build a self-respecting and constructive life that’s good for oneself and the rest of society.
In many, gracious ways, Mary Tyler Moore modeled something much preferable.
Images: Modified from public domain; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scene_1_from_the_Mary_Tyler_Moore_Show_1977.jpg; and CSPAN; Screen Grab: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffb_5X59_DA