The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Feminist Struggle

Her iconic main character inspired millions, but some argued the show needed to go even farther.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong | Longreads | January 2017 | 8 minutes (1,800 words)

 

Mary Tyler Moore died this week at the age of 80, leaving what might be the most important feminist legacy in television history: Her Mary Richards, the main character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, inspired generations of women just by being among the first single, professional, over-30 women depicted on TV when the show premiered in 1970. Her iconic beret toss and theme song—”you’re gonna make it after all!”—encapsulated the Women’s Lib moment perfectly. So perfectly, in fact, that Mary’s character was the subject of fierce debate among feminist leaders at the time. Like any “first” of an underrepresented group to break through in mainstream culture, Mary was attacked from all sides. While many male fans wrote letters voicing their disappointment when Mary stayed out all night on a date, feminist leaders voiced disappointment that Mary called her boss “Mr. Grant” while everyone else called him “Lou.” This conflict came to a head when one of the show’s co-creators, James L. Brooks, participated in a panel discussion at a women’s conference in 1975, as described in this excerpt from my book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, a history of the show.

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Of course, the producers couldn’t have kept one issue out of Mary Tyler Moore if they’d tried: women’s lib. And though she’d ultimately be viewed in retrospect as a feminist heroine, Mary Richards had a fraught relationship with the women’s libbers of her time. Moore was often asked about her own stance on women’s issues, and she offered ambivalent answers at best: “I think women are okay. I mean, I like women, but I know a lot of people don’t like them. That’s partly women’s fault: They allow themselves to be put down, put back in the kitchen when the men are talking. In my mind I can see a lot of the new thinking about the female role, but emotionally I’m not there: I tend to defer to my husband, to accept his dominant role. And there are certain things that I’d rather talk over only with another woman. Unisex looks like it’s here, but I hope we never lose our sexuality. I wouldn’t like that at all.”

The feminist movement simply was not impressed with Ms. Richards, and Moore’s lack of enthusiastic cheerleading on the cause’s behalf likely didn’t help. Brooks learned all of this in November 1975 when he was invited to speak on a panel at the Conference on Women in Public Life, held at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. It would be a high-profile extravaganza at the height of the women’s rights movement, a U.S. version of the United Nations’ recent International Women’s Year meeting in Mexico City. He would be part of a panel addressing women’s progress in television and film. He could stay for the weekend at Lady Bird Johnson’s nearby ranch, the organizers offered. Yes, of course he could bring his now-serious girlfriend, Holly Holmberg. The couple would just have to say they were already husband and wife so Lady Bird would let them stay in a room together. The former First Lady was a women’s rights advocate, but she was very traditional. Surely he understood.

Brooks started to feel like he was in an episode of his own sitcom.

The morning before his appearance, women crammed the LBJ Library corridors to register for the event, making it the largest conference the facility had ever hosted and the largest in the United States for International Women’s Year. Ambassador Anne Armstrong urged the women to “go public. Women are now in centerstage. You owe it to the movement not to shun that spotlight, that mic, that printed page, but to use it as a benchmark. Maybe to run for office, maybe to manage a campaign, maybe to press for an appointive position, maybe to get on a TV show or an op-ed page. In whatever way, go public.”

At the Sunday night panel, before the packed thousand-seat auditorium—with another thousand participants overflowing into nearby hallways and rooms—Brooks filed onto the stage of the LBJ Library auditorium with the panel’s moderator, Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem; Virginia Carter, who worked as Norman Lear’s assistant; and Ann Hassett, the director of special projects at the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles. The crowd included young and old women, some in housedresses, some in business suits. Steinem—in wire-rimmed glasses, a floral print blouse, and long blond waves—leaned into the microphone to wild applause from the crowd.

Her opening remarks addressed the importance of TV and film in forming and reforming public attitudes toward women. “I’d like to ask each of us to consider how much television and films have shaped our dreams,” she said. “Just consider what visitors from outer space might think if they were confronted with the last twelve years of television and films as the only evidence of what American women were like. First of all they would be convinced that there were twice as many American men as there were American women. It would be quite clear that we slept in false eyelashes and full makeup. Some of us would be taken to be a servant class of some sort. If we lived alone, we would almost have to be widows, at least until recently. That’s begun to change, and we’ll hear a little bit more about the change later.”

To the continuous clicks of cameras documenting the event, Steinem continued, considering the effect the women’s movement had on pop culture—progress had been made, she said, but not enough. “We have begun to see women who are autonomous, who disagree, who argue, who have some identity of their own, who seek jobs and are sometimes even paid for those jobs,” she said. “Mary Tyler Moore agitated for equal pay, and got half of what she asked for. It was a very pop cultural compromise.”

When Steinem introduced Carter, she mentioned Lear’s Maude. “Think of Maude!” she said. “Gives us hope.” Brooks, she said, was “a person who has tried to be very sensitive to the changes that women are demanding.”

During the question-and-answer period (which, unlike the introduction, was not recorded in Steinem’s archives), Brooks recalls Steinem pointedly criticizing The Mary Tyler Moore Show for allowing Mary to call her boss “Mr. Grant” when all of the other characters called him “Lou.” She got still more applause for this; the Mr. Grant Issue had become a major talking point for feminist activists. A terrified public speaker, Brooks was sure he even heard some boos from the audience when he was up to speak.

Mary Richards had officially become a polarizing figure, a fact that would have shocked the character herself.

On the one hand, she was continuing to bring issues specific to young, working women to the TV screen, and becoming even bolder about it. For instance, Mary’s adventures in the local TV news ranks often mirrored those of the women in Hollywood—she complained of pressure to “represent women everywhere” and of the station manager “trotting in groups of people and saying, ‘This is our woman executive!’” By 1974, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter were filled with announcements about groundbreaking promotions for women at movie studios and networks, including Ethel Winant, who was now officially vice president of casting at CBS. The moves were meant to publicly prove the Hollywood establishment was not sexist.

In the episode Steinem referenced, Mary fretted over the discovery that her salary was lower than that of the man who held her job before her; in the end, she did win a raise, though it was true it didn’t bring her totally on par with her predecessor. Others had praised the show for addressing the issue of equal pay realistically: “This is hardly earthshaking,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’ Don Shirley. “But the cumulative effect of such statements, with more or less subtlety, in almost every episode of the series, is hard to ignore.”

On the other hand, Mary’s famously quavery voice made the demand for equal pay both funny and poignant, but it wasn’t presented seriously enough for some critics. Mary also seemed to at least consider Mr. Grant’s argument that the guy deserved the extra fifty dollars a week because he had a family to support. Moore personally admired this mark of what she saw as Mary Richards’s reasonableness.

Many critics beyond Steinem complained that was exactly the problem with The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Now that feminist ideals were becoming mainstream, it didn’t seem like enough simply to have a heroine who was over thirty and refusing to define herself by her search for a man. Mary Richards, some women’s lib activists said, was not nearly liberated enough. Her celebrated theme song identified her as a “girl.” She wasn’t a feminist heroine; in fact, she was a pushover. Critics said Mary Richards offered a “compromised and contradictory feminism,” with her empowerment tempered too much by “girl-next-door sweetness.” The New York Times pointed out that “she hardly ever gets to write the news or report it on camera—even though she appears to be several times brighter than the men who do.” Even the mainstream TV Guide complained in an editorial that characters like Mary Richards weren’t “challenging the family system, demanding a new kind of sexual relationship or a new division of labor in the home.”

The producers defended themselves, however: As for the Mr. Grant Issue, Mary was the kind of person who would address her boss properly. And while she was a bit of a people pleaser, she stood up for herself when necessary. They wanted to favor character over social statement, even as more women were entering the workplace, demanding equal pay just like Mary, and even reaching the upper echelons of the producers’ very own industry. The producers wouldn’t identify themselves or the heroine they’d created as feminist, per se, even if they were proud of the empowering figure she was becoming. Because she represented “good girls” and had a sense of vulnerability, they observed, no one could resent her as an icon.

That was, in fact, the secret to her unique power.

They even played her conflicted “Mr. Grant”-ing for laughs: In the 1973 episode when Lou confides in Mary about his divorce, he demands she call him by his first name if they’re going to have such a personal conversation. “Would that be just for the purpose of this conversation, or for, you know, all time?” she asks. Then she tries it out, stammering an awkward “Mr. . . . Lou.”

That changes his mind. “Call me Mr. Grant,” he concludes.

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From MARY AND LOU AND RHODA AND TED by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. Copyright © 2013 by Jennifer Armstrong. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.