She changed... EVERYTHING.
I have a young daughter and she’s very lucky. She has the benefit of living in a world that generations of remarkable women helped forge through their lives and hard work.
Women who changed the world. Women who made society recognize and appreciate other women in a way they’d never been before.
One of those women was TV icon Mary Tyler Moore.
“…Beloved icon, Mary Tyler Moore, passed away at the age of 80 in the company of friends and her loving husband of over 33 years, Dr. S. Robert Levine. A groundbreaking actress, producer, and passionate advocate for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Mary will be remembered as a fearless visionary who turned the world on with her smile.”
“Turned the world on with her smile.”
That’s one of the lyrics from the theme song of her iconic TV series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but it’s always been an accurate depiction of the women herself.
This was a woman who always radiated intelligence, confidence, and personality.
(She was really, really funny too.)
One of the reasons she matters so much is because she changed the cultural perception of women for an entire generation. If you were raised in the TV Generation — the children weaned on classic sitcoms — Mary Tyler Moore hugely factored into your personal definition of what a woman could be.
She was a feminist before any of us even knew what that word meant.
For many, she first emerged onto our cultural consciousness as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. She was the classic 50s/60s housewife, but with a twist. Laura was more vivacious, sharper, keener than the other sitcom moms. Her storylines were domestic, sure, but she was clearly her husband’s equal (and was surprisingly sexy to boot).
She wasn’t a shrew or a buzzkill. She was a stay-at-mom, a former dancer, who felt less like a perfect homemaker and more like a real mom and wife than June Cleaver or Carol Brady ever could. (Also, did I mention how funny she was? Because, MAN, she got some big laughs on that show.)
But Mary rocketed from nuanced comedian to legitimate cultural icon with her next role — the lead character in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It ran for almost the length of the 1970s — from 1970 to 1977 — and it presented a kind of female protagonist that just had never been seen on television before.
Because Mary Richards felt REAL. She was a single woman who, following a breakup, moves to a new city and starts a new career. She finds herself thrown into the job of a producer for a local news program and we watch as Mary develops the kind of deeply nuanced, independent life that we just never saw a woman have on TV before.
She didn’t need a man. She wasn’t always crying for Ricky to let her into the show. The show didn’t define itself by setting up marriages or pregnancies for Mary.
Mary just lived her life how she wanted to live it. She had a career. She had friends (Oh Rhoda). She dated. She made mistakes. She failed. She succeeded. She was every woman, but in a way that TV hadn’t ever acknowledged.
If that wasn’t enough, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, while being painfully funny, also wasn’t afraid to tackle social issues. It was a show led by a single career woman that had episodes that dealt with addiction, sexism, women’s issues, divorce, infidelity, journalistic ethics, homosexuality, and even death.
How did this show exist? How were we lucky enough to have that show during the 1970s, setting the stage for so many other powerful portrayals of women on TV for years to come?
She taught a generation of women that they had options. They didn’t HAVE to become dutiful wives or perfect mothers. They didn’t have to define themselves by the husbands, children, or homes.
Mary Tyler Moore told struggling women that “You just might make it after all.”
And they heard her.
Oprah Winfrey was quoted as saying, “I think Mary Tyler Moore has probably had more influence on my career than any other single person or force.”
Thankfully, I don’t think Oprah was the only one who felt that way.
The amazing thing is that, so far, I’ve only discussed her TV work, but Mary Tyler Moore made her impact felt far beyond the television screen.
She was an activist and a feminist, she was a producer, she wrote memoirs about her struggle with disease and alcoholism. She acted in movies — her work in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (an Oscar-nominated role) was phenomenal — and won a Tony Award for her work on Broadway.
She faced personal tragedies, losing her son at a young age, and kept moving forward, kept acting, kept creating, kept showing women what they could accomplish in the world.
I can’t wait until I can introduce my daughter to Mary Tyler Moore.
I’m not sure where I’ll start. There are some episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show that still kill me, but it might be hard to top the “Chuckles Bites The Dust” episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in terms of pure, unadulterated hilarity. (TV Guide once ranked it as #1 on their “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time” list.)
More than anything, I’m just grateful that my daughter gets to live in the world that Mary helped build. A world where women have options, where women support other women, and where women get to decide what fulfills them on a very personal level.
I am so heartbroken that she’s gone, but so grateful that my little girl gets to inherit the wisdom of Mary’s legacy.