Call it the click: that instantaneous feeling of camaraderie when women discover a shared experience that cements their similarity of spirit, generational differences notwithstanding. For some, it’s an offhand reference to Delta Sigma Theta that’ll do it, or maybe the realization that they were both Girl Scouts. For others, motherhood is the circumstance that draws two strangers into an instant easy rapport. For me, it’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Over the years, I have connected with women twice my age and several years my junior, women halfway around the world and halfway around my block, all at the mere mention of Mary Richards or Rhoda Morgenstern. It’s a sorority of sorts, with notable members like Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Lena Waithe. Whether or not my friends consider themselves card-carrying members of this club, they know how much it means to me. When Moore passed away in 2017, they reached out to check on me; when Valerie Harper died two years later, they did the same.
For the uninitiated, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which aired over seven seasons between 1970 and 1977, chronicles the goings-on of Mary Richards, a 30-year-old single woman who moves to Minneapolis to start over after the dissolution of a long-term relationship. Along the way, she finds a job at local TV station WJM, makes friends with neighbors and co-workers alike, begins dating again, and carves out a life for herself on her own terms.
It’s not as if I’ve ever needed a reason to revel in the magnitude of The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s impact, but on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of its pilot episode this fall—a nearly perfect piece of television history—the series’ continued relevance has been on my mind more than usual. It’s remarkable that even as shows like Sex and the City have begun to show their age upon recent rewatches, The Mary Tyler Moore Show still holds up. “It's weirdly unproblematic,” says writer Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic. “There's like one or two times when things are just one percent off, and you would think it'd be worse because it's from the '70s.”
Armstrong’s love for the show began in her early childhood in the late ’70s, just after it had gone into reruns for the first time. She and her mother bonded over their appreciation for Mary, and years later, while working at Entertainment Weekly, Armstrong learned that a number of women in television count the show among the major inspirations behind their careers. “When I did a little more research, I found that it was basically the first show where multiple women wrote for it,” she explains. Armstrong's book is a history of the show that blends these trailblazing screenwriters’ personal stories with the story of Moore herself, illustrating how their talent and ambition combined to create an iconic show.
I inherited my love of the series from my own mother, who married in 1977 and moved directly from her parents’ home into a house with my father. She never quite had the full single-girl experience, but she did work. My earliest viewings of The Mary Tyler Moore Show came replete with my mother’s reminiscences of the era, her days traveling from Brooklyn to her job as a teller at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, turning heads with her daily ensembles. “You know the phrase ‘not a hair out of place?’” she’d say. “That phrase was created to describe me in those days.”
I didn’t realize it until years later, but as my mother painted the picture of herself as a young career girl, she was essentially casting herself in a version of the show’s opening sequence. You know the one: Mary, in a bustling office setting, adjusting her bangs and waving to an offscreen coworker; Mary, jogging across the street in some fantastic outfit or other; Mary, sharing a laugh with her friend Rhoda; window shopping; perusing the fresh meat section at the supermarket; and then, the most memorable scene of all—the hat toss.
“You can't escape the importance of that title sequence,” Armstrong says of the moment Moore twirls happily on a city sidewalk, tossing her blue knit cap high into the sky as the song predicts our girl’s fate: “You’re gonna make it after all.” It’s the freeze-frame that likely launched a million dreams. Like a giddy college graduate throwing a mortarboard in the air to mark their transition into a new future, Mary’s hat toss symbolized a personal kind of commencement, one hinging on self-reliance and ambition rather than marriage and children. “It became shorthand for ‘single professional woman,’” Armstrong explains. “Young women would move to cities and toss their hats in the air to signify that they'd made it after all.”
“Every woman wanted to be Mary,” says Geri Covington, a friend's mom who watched the show when it first aired. “It didn’t matter if you were Black, white, whatever. You wanted that apartment and those clothes and her life.” My own mother, with her good-girl tendencies and insistence on playing by the rules, deeply identified with Mary in spite of the fact that as a recent Haitian immigrant, they had little in common on paper. I inherited some of that Mary-ness myself, but always felt a kinship with Rhoda, Mary’s New York native best friend with the killer fashion sense, wicked sense of humor, faltering self-esteem, and, well, an overbearing mother. (Sorry, Mom.)
Between Mary and Rhoda, the show created two nuanced archetypes of womanhood that are aspirational but not exclusionary. Get to know these characters, and you’ll know immediately which one you are—which may be different from who you want to be. In the 1997 film Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, the two titular characters vie over who can stake a claim to being “the Mary” of the duo. When I was in high school in the early 2000s, my friend Megan and I would argue for the title of “the Rhoda.”
It’s tough to overstate just how far-reaching the The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s influence is. There’s a direct line from Mary Richards to Murphy Brown to Elaine Benes to Leslie Knope to Issa Dee. Oprah Winfrey has said it was Moore’s own production company, MTM Enterprises, that led her to create Harpo Productions. The narratives that emerged when women were given the space to tell their own stories onscreen have had a ripple effect on generations of viewers. One day, I hope to pass my appreciation for the show down to a daughter of my own, but in the meantime, I’ve become an evangelist for it, encouraging just about everybody I know to watch if they haven’t. As I tell my friends, all they really need to do is watch the pilot to understand why I’m such a fan. It'll click.
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