Hollywood legend and reluctant feminist icon Mary Tyler Moore died at age 80 this past Wednesday (January 25). As it goes with any Hollywood legend, Moore leaves behind a solid legacy. What differentiates hers from so many others, though, is its sheer breadth.
Debuting as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), Moore pushed the limits of what was socially acceptable in an American housewife: she danced; she cracked jokes; she wore capris (a costuming choice legendarily limited by the studio to once per episode). She insinuated to audiences across the country that she and Rob had, and enjoyed, sex—separate beds notwithstanding. Her ultimate dream may have been to be saved by marriage to Rob from a life of a career dancer, but just the fact that the question of a woman’s career came up in 1961 was progressive.
Moore followed her role as Laura Petrie with a short stint in film (including a role as Dorothy in Thoroughly Modern Millie), then with her second—and most well-known and beloved—television role as funny, single career-girl Mary Richards on the groundbreaking Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977), produced by Moore’s own production company and staffed by 33% female writers.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show cast long shadows. The A/V Club noted back when 30 Rock was coming to a close the volume of similarities between its final season and that of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. VOX rolled out an explainer last week of five landmark sitcoms—Cheers and Friends among them—that owed the success of their very premises to the existence of Mary Richards. Lena Dunham wrote for The New Yorker about just how pivotal Mary Richards was in the development of her own effort to “create a television show about the messy business of femininity” (and also in understanding the importance of the sitcom heroine’s “bang-blow”). Just about every outlet on the web last week pulled out this 1997 clip of Mary Tyler Moore surprising Oprah on an episode of her show that looked back on the iconic Mary Tyler Moore Show title sequence that Oprah redid for herself in Chicago:
The most striking thing about the legacy of Mary Tyler Moore—both the woman and the eponymous show—is how multi-faceted it is. The show was not just the first model of a single woman leading a sitcom, nor the first of a respected professional woman successfully navigating a workplace, nor the first to toy with the will they/won’t they relationship between the protagonist and her boss, nor the first to show kooky female friendships untethered by male partners, nor the first acknowledging the utility of birth control, nor the first staffed to any reasonable extent by women, nor the first to employ real anecdotes from said women as joke engines for scripts, nor the first to go out on top and write itself into a satisfying conclusion, nor the first to feature the gorgeous interiors of old Victorian homes in the snowy, wonderful Twin Cities (hi, old college digs).
It was all those things, and each one (save, perhaps, for the continued showcasing of Victorian homes in Minneapolis) has snowballed its way through television history to give us the wide array of single-lady-centered, female-helmed comedies that so often dominate the cultural conversation today. Cheers, Murphy Brown, Caroline in the City, Friends, 30 Rock, Playing House, Broad City, Two Broke Girls, New Girl, Girls (so many girls)—all of them found a road to success because of the paving stones laid by Mary Richards and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Moore herself cast just as long and complex a shadow following the success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, finding an Oscar nomination for her completely unexpected dramatic (and wrenching) work on the film Ordinary People (1980), a prominent role in social justice and philanthropy through her work supporting diabetes research and animal welfare, and a late-in-life public showing of ambivalence for the title feminist, along with her deep regret towards her decision to pursue her career over staying at home to be a full-time mother to her only son, as well as the admission that she would have campaigned for John McCain, had he asked her—all points which, for many fans, might seem to stand in stark contrast to the model of ambitious feminism that Mary Richards embodied.
There’s another legacy to add to the list: the challenge faced by women helming their own series of separating their onscreen persona from their real-life ones, of which Mindy Kaling is only one recent heir.
But this complicated sort of legacy is perhaps the best one to leave behind. We all, as the poet says, contain multitudes; may we all be so hardworking and lucky as Mary Tyler Moore to leave so many rich complications for our cultural descendants.