Yesterday we lost a woman who broke social barriers for what a female, and particularly one in the entertainment industry, can achieve. She shattered expectations of what constitutes a full, well-rounded life, in a time when those boundaries weren’t easy to shatter. Today I can’t help but reflect on her impact on women everywhere and on me personally.
In the Pilot episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, we meet the series lead, Mary Richards; an independent (albeit soft spoken and sweet), level headed woman who is clearly un-willing to compromise on living her best life. Mary has moved to the big city to get away from the temptation to settle for less than she deserves. She lands a TV station job she didn’t expect to get and puts her foot down on an overbearing neighbor which gains her such respect, they become best friends. Then my favorite of all, she turns down the former flame who’s let her down when he visits and tries to win her back. When he says goodbye and asks her to take care of herself, she replies, “I think I just did.” Good start folks, we like this one.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show launched at a time when women were expected to stay in the home and care for their families while dressing a certain way, acting a certain way and most importantly fitting into a specific mold created by societal norms. People within the entertainment industry didn’t think women could be funny enough to write for or lead a sitcom. In 1970, when the show premiered, a single woman in her thirties was considered an old maid. A woman too focused on her career had a lack of adequate priorities. The entertainment industry was comprised mostly of men in leadership roles, with subject matter ‘too taboo’ and decision making ‘too challenging’ for a woman.
Enter The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The female characters were strong and diverse. They kept things well rounded with a very intentional balance of softness and innocence from Mary’s character, even though you still knew she wouldn’t be walked on. But the most influential part of this show were the real women involved, many of which are mentioned in 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.
By season three of the show, 25 of 75 writers on the show were women; an unprecedented number in network television. So unprecedented, in fact, that they still didn’t have women’s restrooms in the network offices. One of those writers was Treva Silverman, who began as a freelance writer on the show and went on to be the first ever female Executive on a network sitcom.
There were actually times when the show and its female contributors underwent scrutiny by feminists groups for not making Mary strong enough in her demand for equality within the storyline. They complained that she was too soft in the episode where she requested equal pay from Lou Grant. You know what I say to that? I say that this woman’s softness and ability to bring an endearing quality to any conversation is the reason the network was even willing to air a discussion about equal pay at that time. It was no accident that this woman was chosen to play this role and to cover these issues. The writers knew it, the network executives knew it and she knew it. Later, as head of MTM Productions, a male subordinate was quoted as saying that however gracious and kind as she was, when you walked into a room on business, you knew when Mary Tyler Moore was in charge, and this was still the 1970s. This is why she is so important. This is why strong females in the entertainment industry are still so important.
I am so fortunate for a career where I’m able to not only innovate and create with brilliant people on a daily basis, but where I’m able to identify strong women who deserve to be on the front lines making things run and help to make that a reality. It is because of women like Mary Tyler Moore and countless others involved in this iconic show, that when I walk into a room where I need to be in charge, no one is ever surprised by the fact that I am a woman.
Let’s all throw our hats up with one more twirl for Mary and remember how much she helped pave the way. If you need me, I’ll be binging TMTMS on Hulu after I finish being a lady boss, just the way she taught me.
Mary Tyler Moore (1936-2017) The woman who could turn the world on with her smile.