Sunday, September 21, 2008

Turn the world on with your smile

Friday was the 38th anniversary of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which first aired on CBS on September 19, 1970. The show and its cast and crew won twenty-nine Emmys over the course of its seven year run, and as I sit here and watch the hosts of the 60th Emmy Awards make fools of themselves (and objectify Heidi Klum) I thought I'd post a small tribute to my one of my favorite television shows.

I've loved Mary Tyler Moore for as long as I can remember. I was too young (read: not yet born) when it first aired, but I watched it in re-runs on Nick-at-Nite when I was wee (8 or 9) and still watch it to this day--and now that I own the first four seasons on DVD, I can enjoy Mary's quirky humor, her eternal optimism, her victories (and her failed parties), and her friendships whenever I like.

Even then, I think I could appreciate the (historical) importance of Mary's role as the working, single girl. While she wasn't always explicitly feminist, she epitomized a woman who wasn't all about what she was to men, who had relationships outside of her home and her immediate family, and who was good at her job and enjoyed it. She wasn't perfect. She had her foibles and her quirks. She was constantly on Lou Grant's bad side and never sure how to deal with her overbearing neighbor Phyllis. She was sometimes shy and self-deprecating. But she was sure of what she was doing with her life and she was smart. And she had a wonderful best friend. (Rhoda was actually my favorite character...shhhh...don't tell Mary...)

I just found this short tribute to MTM in The New York Times archive and thought I'd share a bit here:
Mary was a gentle role model, someone for the shaky career woman to identify with in the transitional 1970's. The show ran from 1970 to 1977 when, even though the women's movement was on its way, women were still expected to work between school and marriage and then put their jobs on hold after the wedding. If their lives didn't pan out that way, well, there was probably something a bit weird about them.

Mary wasn't weird. Not in the least. What was so endearing about her was that in a medium so well known for exaggerating, she was conventional and believable even as she knocked down stereotypes and barriers. She was Barbie Doll-pretty and slim, the way the ideal woman is supposed to be. But she had her frustrations and failures anyway and wasn't afraid to admit her impatience with the dating game. So did her friend Rhoda (Valerie Harper), who had an acknowledged weight problem. Before Oprah.

Subtly and sensitively, Mary's writers managed to address subjects as diverse as anti-Semitism and sexism without preaching, and without copping out. As tempting as it may have been to have Mary settle down into marriage, she didn't. She wasn't even divorced or widowed. Mary was television's first single working woman of significance who didn't have a standard explanation for her status.

She worked -- because she worked. In fact, at a time when many young women were striving to establish themselves professionally, often at a price to their personal lives, Mary Richard's job was at the center of her life too -- so much so that in the final episode, she said she no longer worried about treating her colleagues as family because, in a way, they were.
Sometimes I watch Mary Tyler Moore now and I think that it might still be one of the smartest sitcoms on television--especially one with a clever, capable female protagonist--and it aired over thirty years ago. Certainly shows like 30 Rock have followed in its footsteps and deservedly so (and congrats to my all-time favorite leading lady, Tina Fey, for her multiple Emmy wins and to the show for its seventeen nominations), but I can't help worry that we haven't come much farther in terms of television's representations of women than we were in the 1970s. Or perhaps we were getting somewhere and now we've reverted.

I mean, on the Emmys just now Heidi Klum had her suit pulled off by two men, revealing a skimpy formal shorts one-piece and stilettos. Seriously. That's sure quality entertainment.

Am I just being cynical? Maybe. And I don't think Mary would approve.

Update: Emmy and I must have been on the same page tonight, since the Emmys did a little tribute to The Mary Tyler Moore Show just before 30 Rock received its Best Comedy Series Emmy!

1 comment:

sally said...

I can't tell you how much I love MTM!!! (And Nick at Nite!) It was so funny, and my childhood aspirations to be a journalist probably started when I watched that show. Mary Tyler Moore is a fabulous actress, and Ted is still one of my favorite bone-headed characters ever.

The beauty of MTM was that things were subtly and smartly funny. They didn't hit you over the head with the jokes, yet it was still hilarious. LOVE IT!