You are on page 1of 9

Sheppard 1

Ben Sheppard
TV: History and Form
Professor Shawn Vancour
22 March 2016
Kill Them With Kindness:
A Lasting Impact of The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Tell your dealer you want a dishwasher with that Hotpoint
Sparkle! An 18-year-old Mary Tyler Moore exclaims after gracefully
pirouetting into view and dancing a spritely ballet routine in a skintight
pixie costume. She gestures to a nice looking couple in the market for
a suburban ranch home from a salesman in a nice suit, who explains
the groundbreaking science behind the dishwasher to the woman,
which her and her husbands future home will include! Its a blissful
picture of 1950s domesticity. Everyone is happy. Theres no indication
that behind that picture and under the tight costume and neutering
bra, that imp is pregnant slightly removed from wedlock (Moore 65).
And so defines the career of the young Mary Tyler Moore; living a
peacefully progressive and curious life while hustling to succeed in an
industry that, even in its adolescence, reflected an archaic and
whitewashed way of life in order to not offend its core demographic.
This made her perfect to be the face of a TV show with an undeniably
feminist premise. Jim Brooks, Allan Burns, and Treva Silverman created
The Mary Tyler Moore Show with someone like her in mind: someone
who can make audiences and network executives fall in love, laugh,
and respect her so much that it wont matter that she will be
portraying a life that would otherwise seem impossible to a wide
audience. While many critics, including Gloria Steinem, believed the
shows feminist efforts to be a very pop culture compromise, others
like Don Shirley, theatre writer for the Los Angeles Times calls the
shows cumulative effort hard to ignore. (Armstrong 182-183). Its
possible to see their 7-season run alone could prove the progress

Sheppard 2
towards gender equality that they started, but a potential test of
feminist longevity is tracking the discourse about women in and
around the medium on the scale of the mass media.
Marys is an interesting career to follow because she moved
through many different levels of exposure and venue in the business.
After giving birth, she came back to find roles available for a young
woman were all within the definition of an ingnue1. I could be
vixen, the girl next door. Or all business, saying, with tones of hidden
value, The doctor will see you now. (Moore 77) This witty quote
seems innocuous, but hits at the heart of the issue surrounding the
lack of diversity and substantive roles for women on television during
the time. Her most recognized of these roles was her turn as the
secretary of Richard Diamond, private eye. the sultry answeringservice voice, Mary describes, She turned on every male viewer, and
it wasnt with her smile. In fact, you never saw more than her legs, or
the close reflection of her mouth in a compact mirror as she applied a
deep red lipstick (Moore 78). Reduced to literal body parts and a
voice, she and a girlfriend that was killed off after 5 episodes in order
to maintain the P.Is macho mystique, were the only consistent women
on the show. And they were still only there to serve the mans sexual
desires. As the show got more popular, her salary was not raised like
her male cast members, and she was terminated on the spot after she
tried to rectify the problem.2
Neither of those roles got her very much press, but once she
landed the role of Laura Petrie in the Dick Van Dyke Show, audiences
and critics couldnt get enough of her, especially after they gave her
the chance to do more than set up Dick (Armstrong 14). In the 1965
article How to Succeed Though Married, Time Magazine first mourns
1 The Ingenue is often described as a naive girl or unsophisticated young woman in
theatre.
2 She describes her salary as to scale in her book After All, which means it should
have been comparable to the rest of the casts.

Sheppard 3
the loss of the traditional nuclear family on television3, shames the
character Samantha from Bewitched, another notable wife character
on TV at the time, for cheating through her wifely duties with magic,
and then gives Mary Tyler Moore this glowing review:
Since Bewitched's Samantha cheats, by cleaning the house, keeping
her husband and generally managing the drudgery of life through her powers
of witchcraft, that leaves the title of TV's favorite average housewife to Laura
Petrie by default, and it's a shame. As played by Actress Mary Tyler Moore,
she could beat the pants off any dozen TV actresses.
Pert and brunette, Mary sends a grin across her face in waves, and her
120 Ibs. are settled into a luscious 36-24-36 configuration that has male
viewers sitting upright in their reclining chairs. Yet hardly a real-life wife
objects. Instead, they take notes. And when she began delighting TV Hubby
Dick Van Dyke by wearing Capri slacks, it helped make Capri slacks the
biggest trend in U.S. casual attire.
Never Above the Thigh. Of course, 27-year-old Mary is more than just a
looker. She is toothily, totally wholesome, with an unexpected comedy accent
on the ho, can convincingly range from point-winning wit to pratfalling
clown. (Time 1965 p70)

In the quote above, one can find; the domestic roles of a woman, the
shaming of a woman for not completing those roles without assistance,
the actresss hair color, her estimated weight and dimensions, a notso-subtle double entendre for how male viewers react to seeing her, a
male writer telling women to take notes on how the character
completes her wifely duties, the actresss bodys influence in starting a
fashion trend, and a reminder that the she plays character isnt
sexually promiscuous before you will find any discussion of her striking
comedic talent and range. Compared Life Magazines, a peer of Time,
1966 article that described the shows noble decision to take itself off
the air, when Dick Van Dyke is described, the reporter leads with his
producer Carl Reiner saying I dont think there is a more creative
comedian around and follows with descriptions of his work ethic and
3 Of the top 15, there is only 1 show with a female lead (The Lucy Show, starring
Lucille Ball), 2 other married couples on the list the article doesnt mention (Green
Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, Batman on two different timeslots, 4 war-time shows
that barely feature women if they include them at all, and any other none married
person is a widower, meaning there was no wife role to begin with. (Nielsen Ratings)

Sheppard 4
his other popular credits (Ferrer 15.) That same Time magazine article
would later describe Marys past credits; a short skirted gam bit.
Finally, the reporter calls Marys goal to be like Doris day, as itsypooiest, but it's an understandable yearn for America's favorite TV
housewife. (Time 1965 p70).
Placing the two rave reviews side by side shows a distinct shift in
language and tone between the Dick and Mary. Compared to Dicks
review, TV and the mainstream media as a whole is much more
focused on Marys body as a sexual object, her ability to model a style
of pants, and her potential as a homemaker; making her talent as an
actor an afterthought. This is evident by the absence of sexual, bodily,
and personal language surrounding Dicks review. Also, Marys artistic
accolades and goals are slid between the discussion of her body and
dubbing her Americas Favorite Housewife, effectively dismissing them,
while Dicks review leads with them. Even after she wins a Golden
Globe, an Emmy, and stars in a Broadway Show, The Saturday Evening
Post starts the profile by setting the scene, describing everything she
is wearing, her pert nose, generous mouth, and those big brown
eyes, and going on to tell the future like how she was destined to be
Dick Van Dykes TV wife (Bowers 97-99) A tone of surprise washes
over the article, making it evident to the reader that if Mary Tyler
Moore didnt have such a professional and matter-of- fact way working
and describing her life, the article would have read similarly to the
feature in Time a year earlier. TV is a reflection of the household it sits
in. Thus, even by the late 60s, Marys career options and the national
medias response point to signs of sexism deeply rooted in American
values and discourse. But that reflection was about to change because
of a few very smart people.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show makes audiences laugh and think in
an unpredictably relatable way even today. While many argue whether
it was the writing or the acting that gives this show is quirky charm, I

Sheppard 5
would say the real genius reconciles both: the characters. The
characters on the page are witty and interesting, and then when the
actors come in with their perspective, they ultimately the actors and
writers worked together through mutual understanding as the show
progressed. These characters fall into recognizable sitcom and
theatrical tropes that people find in their daily lives. While this in itself
isnt ground breaking, Brooks, Burns, and Silverman used a feminist
lens to turn these tropes on their heads. This gave the audiences
something to hold onto while they grappled with the subtle discussion
of gender roles. One way they did this was flipping the traditional
genders of these tropes. The most evident and important example is
Mary Richards playing the hero of the story: on a quest to find purpose.
This is traditionally filled by a man, but Mary Richards conquers her
and societies expectations by being smart, talented at her job, and
showing audiences she doesnt need to be looking for a man to make
her happy. Newsman Ted Baxter fills the dumb blond slot to a tee;
never knowing what to say with out a cue card, constantly fumbling up
the cue, and vanity driving most of his actions. Another way the tropes
were flipped was just by shifting the expected traits actions of a
character just slightly. For example, Rhoda was supposed to be the
frumpy comedic sidekick, witty and starved for male attention but can
never get any. Valerie Harper had comedic timing in spades, but was
originally thought to be too beautiful for the role (Laski). After
rethinking the role, the writers realized, so what if she was attractive,
the important thing was that, like so many women, Rhoda didnt think
she was. As such, that great self-deprecating aspect of her humor was
preserved no matter what she looked like (Moore 193). Lou Grant is
the father figure of the office: wise almost to the point of jaded and
pushes everyone, especially Mary, to their potential This character,
especially as an older white man, is expected to be stuck often stuck in
his ways in discussions of gender roles, or not tolerate them at all. Mr.

Sheppard 6
Grant, however, is wise enough to be swayed by Marys use of logic,
reason, like when discussing the pay differentiation between men and
women in Episode 1, Season 3, and Good Time News Room. In
flipping the expectation of these roles, the writers and actors were able
to question the absurdity of institutional sexism without threatening
the audience because the audience was too busy laughing at it and
themselves.
In flipping these traditionally gendered tropes, a very important
and the noticeably progressive aspect of the show arise: corrective
representation. Before The Mary Tyler Moore Show, only That Girl was
lead by a woman looking to be independent and focus on her career.
But, considering her career was acting where she was looking for
constant validation from men and her ultimate dependence on her
boyfriend and parents, her independence was basically moot or just as
a phase (Murrow 53). Mary Richards, on the other hand, is different.
She is set up in the pilot by picking up and leaving her boyfriend of 2
years, whom she supported through med school, and starting fresh in a
new city. This initial independence is key towards giving her ethos for
an audience that might be skeptical. Also Mary Tyler Moores sensitive
and funny portrayal of Mary Richards gives her pathos. So, when
audiences see her leading the discussion of equality, they are inclined
to believe her. This principle is outlined in Christine Achams Respect
Yourself! In the chapter, she discusses black femininity and family life
on TV and how important it was to actresses like Diahann Carroll from
Julia and Esther Rolle from Good Times to restore the image of black
women in the media and portrayed by the Moynihan report.
The public nature of television, a venue in which the majority of white
Americans would see these representations, created a crucial situation,
because repeated fictionalized representations could reinforce preconceived
beliefs about the black family. These women therefore concluded that it was
their responsibility to place a corrective lens over the representation of the

Sheppard 7
black family, not only for the black audience, but also for the large white
television audience. (Acham 112)

In the same way preconceived notions of black families are


squashed by corrective and interesting representation, MTM shows the
potential of women outside of the home and their rights to do with
their bodies what they wish through their point of view. MTM focuses
on the sex pay gap where a woman (Good Time Newsroom, sex
positivity (The Birds and um Bess, What is Mary Richards
Really Like.), or even Mary the chance to be in charge and not
irrationally blame her when things go wrong just because she is a
woman (The Snow Must Go ON). Earlier in the episode The Good
Time- News Room, she and Rhoda talk about how it feels to be the
only woman in a position of power in her office:
MARY: UGH today is the big annual meeting with the station manager,
and Mr. Grant and I have a lot to get ready. Boy, I hate those meetings,
RHODA: You never used to.
MARY: Yeah well, it used to be it felt like I could be myself. Now, I feel
like I represent women everywhere.
RHODA: Oh Mary, thats all in your head!
MARY: Oh yeah? What would you say if the station manager kept
trotting in groups of people saying *this* is our woman executive!*
RHODA: What do you say?
MARY: Oh, usually
drops her voice an octave
*hi*

This scene exemplifies how ridiculous it is that there needs to be


a distinction genders in the workplace, as well as her need to act more
like a man in order to fit in and be taken seriously.
After the show ended its seven-season run, the critics mourned
the loss of this wonderful show. In the Saturday Evening Post Time
magazine, where 8 years earlier felt the need to lead Marys review
with a description of her face, changed their tune, starting with Men
dont have to be attracted to Mary: they just simply recognize her.
One can interpret recognize to mean see her as a human being,
rather than a sexual object. The reporter Frederick A Birmingham later

Sheppard 8
quotes a Hollywood reporter article, Miss More, who continues to
prove in her role as the harried Girl Friday in an all-male environment
that she is the master of sophisticated humor. As an intelligent and
sensitive actress, she represents a departure of sorts from female
comediennes past and pretend on the tube. While the article does talk
about her beauty, Birmingham regards her as a symbol of romance
rather than sex (Birmingham 74). In a wild turn of events, Time
Magazine, the same magazine that published How to Succeed Though
Married, published Lance Murrows Goodbye to Our Mary, Lance
Murrow that doesnt describe Mary Tyler Moores body once. While her
performance was also not mentioned as it was only a short article,
which aimed to talk about the easily digestible progressive nature, as
well as it being always more interesting and complicated than any
subliminal politics of sex, but smartly written as well (Murrow 53).
This is a monumental shift of language from less than a decade prior.
While there were many events that also forwarded the progress of
equality of the sexes, the discussion of gender roles on television and
valuing one actresss immense talent without having to need to discuss
her role as a wife, mother, or sex object.
Even though there are still remnants of sexism in and around
television, Third wave feminist shows like Parks and Recreation, 30
Rock, Inside Amy Schumer, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, stand on the
shoulders of this television giant. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the
first show to make the mass media wake up and smell the sour coffee:
Women are valuable in television and the work place and should be
treated as such.

Sheppard 9

Works Cited
Armstrong, Jennifer Keishin. Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds
Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Birmingham, Frederick A. "$30 Dollars a Week and Lots of Credit Cards." Saturday Evening
Post Oct. 1974: 7. Ebesco. Web. Mar. 2016.
Bowers, John. "From TV to Tiffany's in One Wild Leap." Saturday Evening Post 19 Nov. 1966:
97-101. Ebesco. Web. Mar. 2016.
Ferrer, Jos M., III. "A Good Show Quits While It's Ahead." Life Magazine 3 June 1966:
15. Google Books. Web. Mar. 2016.
"How to Succeed Though Married." Time Magazine 9 Apr. 1965: 70. Ebesco. Web. Mar. 2016.
Laski, Mary. "Gertrude Berg and Mary Tyler Moore: Logic Without Losing." Mary Laski
American Studies Capstone. Brown University, n.d. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.
"Mary Tyler Moore: Hotpoint Dishwasher (1956) - Classic TV Commercial." YouTube.
YouTube, 7 Aug. 2012. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.
Moore, Mary Tyler. After All. New York: Putnam, 1995. Print.
Murrow, Lance. "Goodbye to 'OUR MARY'" Time 14 Mar. 1977: 53. Ebesco. Web. Mar. 2014.
"Nielsen Ratings/Historic/Network Television by Season/1960s." - The TV IV. N.p., n.d. Web.
21 Mar. 2016.