It may be difficult to understand how a television show, or several television shows could have such a big effect. After all, it’s just TV, right? Aren’t there hundreds of shows to choose from to watch? Yes, in today’s world. But in the 70s, TV was different. There still were the idyllic shows set in small towns where all the problems of the world were neatly wrapped up in 30-minutes (including commercials). But as the 60s melted into the 70s, television moved more and more toward reflecting “real life”, taking a look at society and bringing it into our living rooms nightly.
I suppose Norman Lear probably was the leader of this movement with All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, Good Times, Maude, and what seems like dozens of other shows. But to this then-teenager sitting on the brown and tan plaid sofa in the den, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was it. Who didn’t want to go out and become a successful working woman with a beautiful apartment, gorgeous clothes, and supportive co-workers? Could I really have that? The “reality TV” of the 70s made it seem so.
Feminism? Perhaps, but only in today’s lexicon. It wasn’t strident, it wasn’t overbearing and bossy (like Maude) – Mary was working at what she loved, having fallen into the job via true serendipity. She applied for a secretary’s job and voila, Mary instead becomes an associate producer (at $10 less a week than the secretarial job paid)! “If you can get by on $15 less a week, I’ll make you a producer,” Lou Grant tells her. “No, no, I think all I can afford is associate producer.”
Over the years, as Mary Richards grows more confident in her work and (in my opinion) earns the title “journalist”, we of that certain generation learned that most jobs didn’t have to be divided into “male” or “female”. Look! Barbara Walters and Leslie Stahl reporting network news! On local TV, Judy Licht, Rose Ann Scamardella and Pat Harper. Jane Tillman Irving, Mary Gay Taylor, and Irene Cornell on the radio (yes, I grew up in the NYC suburbs). The fictional Mary Richards was daily reality. It never crossed my mind that I couldn’t be a broadcast journalist, only that I wanted to be.
With the news of the death of Mary Tyler Moore, I wonder how often she may have thought about how her character was a trailblazer. Heck, she herself was one (along with then-husband Grant Tinker) founding MTM Enterprises. I’ve read all of Mary’s books and many articles about her and I don’t think she ever considered herself a feminist. In a 2013 PBS show, Moore said she turned down an invitation to join the feminist movement. “I believed, and still do, that women have a very major role to play as mothers. It’s very necessary for them to be with their children." Moore continued, "That’s not what Gloria Steinem was saying. She was saying you can do everything and you owe it to yourself to have a career. I really didn’t believe that.” The Mary Tyler Moore Show may have coincided with a rise in feminism, but I am glad that the role model for Mary Richards was not Gloria Steinem.
Are any of today’s TV programs influencing the future of young viewers? I’m hard-pressed to think of one. Maybe the 70s were a more magical time, a time when TV shows were more encouraging, enlightening, and uplifting than today’s reality or fictional escapism. With only four or five channels back then, you had to get up off that plaid sofa to switch to another show. But that sofa certainly complimented the gold shag carpeting that Mary Richards had in her apartment.