“Girl, you’re gonna make it after all.” Can’t you just picture Mary Tyler Moore, beaming and tossing her beret in the air as the whole world sang along to her theme song every Saturday night? Thirty-five years ago, when The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended its seven-year run, Moore was a “girl” of forty. And yet she was every girl. Every 15 or 25 or 40 year old girl who has ever panicked and thought: who am I without him? Who am I by myself? Can I really make it after all?
Yes, you can, Mary told us. I did, and you can too.
When The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted, she was 33. I was 13. The wacky, cozy world of her first big TV hit, The Dick Van Dyke Show, was so over, for both of us. My parents had just divorced. Moore’s character, Mary Richards, was divorced. Women like my mom and Mary were suddenly popping up everywhere, trying to make it on their own. Meanwhile, girls like me were letting go of our babyish fantasies involving princes, castles, Barbie and Ken. But we were uneasy about where to take our daydreams next. I wasn’t old enough, yet, to embrace what Gloria Steinem had to say.
But Mary Tyler Moore? She was so—real. So still wistful and a little shaky about the dream she’d given up, the one involving a NEVER-discussed ex-husband. So clearly competent yet still lacking the self-confidence to go with it. So easily rattled by the men who held power in her life: her boss, played by Ed Asner. The news anchor, Ted Baxter. The clueless guys she dated.
Let’s see: Wistful, shaky, smart but not confident, rattled by men in authority? That pretty much covered my emotional profile as a teenager.
As Mary slowly got the hang of being a single career woman, so did my mom. Newly divorced at 39, she wasn’t much older than Mary, though her life was pretty different, what with five of her six children still at home. It’s funny, looking back, to realize I didn’t think of my Mom as a Mary type at all, even though she had shiny brown hair and a big smile and a similar brand of no-nonsense spunkiness. But Mom was a mom, which made her not a girl, in my girlish mind. Mary was a grown-up girl. She was what I wanted to be. What all my friends wanted to be: a grown-up girl living in her own apartment, working at a real grown-up job.
At its recent gala, the Screen Actors Guild honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award, recognizing not only her iconic TV roles but the virtuosity she brought to other roles, like the icy, repressed Beth in the 1980 film Ordinary People. Once again, Moore captured a transitional moment in our social history, portraying a character who, unlike Mary Richards or Mary Tyler Moore, could not and would not change.
When I was in my twenties, I actually had various versions of Mary Richards’ job. For five years, I worked at a Seattle TV station as a newswriter and producer.
Mary was in reruns and I still watched her sometimes, loving the show for the way it poked fun at the world of local TV news. But mostly, I loved it for Mary: the girl who showed us how to make it after all.