How Mary Tyler Moore Made My Life Better: Women in TV
Mary Tyler Moore made even "nothing days" seem worthwhile and she inspired us.
Posted Jan 25, 2017
Mary Tyler Moore changed my life: I grew up watching her and learned about a woman's life from the characters she played on television. From watching Moore transform herself from beautiful but wobbly wife-and-mom Laura Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show to the dynamic, single, successful professional in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I saw versions of womanhood my own isolated and lonely mother couldn't show me.
Can you turn the world on with your smile? Can you take day a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?
Have you already started singing the theme song to The Mary Tyler Moore Show in your head? Out loud?
If you're a woman around my age—defined as too old for work-study but too young for cremation—I'll bet you have. You've been unable to resist belting out "Love is all around, no need to waste it; you can have the town, why don't you take it?"
Even as you're reading, you've got one hand scrambling around in an old box of dry goods searching for a random tam-o'-shanter to toss into the air as you twirl decoratively and announce to the world that "You're gonna make it after all!"
Let's simply declare that the theme song for women our age is "We're gonna make it after all."
Actually, it might be the theme song for women and girls of all ages.
Perhaps, like me, you didn't know that the lyrics had changed between 1970 and 1971, which were the show's two first seasons: The opening season awarded Mary only a tentative vote of confidence by saying "You might just make it after all" and then switched to the more life-affirming, politically charged declaration of "gonna make it after all."
And that's just throwing down the feminist gauntlet, isn't it? Mary Richards was always a trouble-maker. (Remember how she acted at the funeral for Chuckles the Clown?)
Even younger people are aware of the adventures faced by Mary Richards who, when the Peabody award-winning series began in 1970, was a 30-year-old single woman living in Minneapolis. The Mary Tyler Moore Show appeared in reruns on "Nick at Nite" in the '90s, as did Mary's supernaturally attenuated counterparts in Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. But those of us who came of age seeing Mary Richards morph out of the character of Laura Petrie from The Dick Van Dyke Show knew that we were watching something magical, if not actually paranormal.
Frustrated former modern dancer turned ornamental stay-at-home wife-and-mom Laura Petrie was, from 1961 to 1966, given lines like, "You men don't seem to realize that when a woman reaches a certain age, and is unmarried, every birthday becomes a milestone, and every milestone is a millstone."
She had to fight for the right to have a bank account in her own name, arguing with her husband that, "Yes, Rob. I want some money that's mine to spend on anything I want. It's important to me. I don't want everything coming from you."
Lest we imagine that she was suddenly channeling Virginia Woolf's argument that, for her own sanity and well-being, every woman needs a room of her own and an income of her own, Laura's husband is quick to point out that, "Either you get money from me or you get money from that which came from me."
Even in 1962, this was not designed to promote a woman's sense of equity and enfranchisement. Plus the reason Laura Petrie wanted her own bank account was to save up so she could buy her husband a swell birthday gift.
Money and age are just two examples of the "after alls" to which the MTM theme song refers.
It's not only, "You're gonna make it in the big city even though you are single at 30, having been jilted by your fiancé," which was the show's starting premise.
It's also, "You'll have your own apartment, your own job, your own successes and failures, your own friends, and community entirely separate from an identity tied to the men in your life even though you will have men in your life."
"After all" can mean anything from, "You don't have to follow the social script that insists on marriage and kids (but you can still have love) and after all, you can find a place in the world that matters to you and enjoy life fully."
There's a lot of work left to do, since women are still earning 71 percent of men's wages even after figuring in age, race, hours, and education (not that we're bitter) but, after all, we're gonna make it.
Hats off to that.
I'm not exaggerating or joking when I say that much of what I learned about the uses and shapes of humor in American life, especially for women, came from watching Mary Tyler Moore.
I mourn Moore's death and I wish her a bon voyage.
A version of this essay first appeared in 2014 in The Hartford Courant