Let’s dial back a few weeks, when the country (and world) was wringing its hands in angst, shock and horror over the inauguration of the most unqualified, unsuited individual in history as president of the United States, and the occasion of this travesty was marked by worldwide protest marches, hallmarked by the now iconic pink pussy hat.
In the roar and swirl of that peculiar, petrifying moment in time, one of our celebrity legends, Mary Tyler Moore, slipped quietly beyond the veil, practically unnoticed. In her honor, the MeTV channel started airing reruns of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and in a flood of nostalgia, I watched. As a tail-end Baby Boomer, I’m among the first generation that grew up glued to the tube, and one of the shows I was glued to was “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Just hearing the theme song prompted a wave of bittersweet nostalgia. Back in the day, before we had VCRs for convenient fast-forwarding, we watched the opening montages and listened to the theme songs, because there was no other choice. Consequently, those songs were seared into memory. Two months ago, I’d have been challenged to sing the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” theme song off the top of my head, but the moment I heard it, I knew all the words. It was weirdly comforting.
Watching that first “Mary Tyler Moore Show episode after 47 years (47 years! Holy crap!) — Mary washing her car, throwing some meat into her shopping cart in disgust, tossing her hat into the air — transported me back to the days before computers or cell phones or smart cars. I know these innovations are amazing accomplishments and allegedly make our lives easier, but part of me longs for a slower lifestyle that relied on actual face-to-face human interaction rather than staring at computer monitors and cell phones.
Besides triggering the memory of simpler times, the premier “Mary Tyler Moore Show” episode also reminded me of the early “Women’s Lib” movement. Mary was interviewing with Mr. Grant for a job at the television station, and he launched into topics that, back then, women were routinely asked about when interviewing for a job, such as marital status and plans for having children. Mary stood her ground and was ultimately offered the job, but for less money than a man, because a man has a family to support.
Yes, girls, it really was like that.
And yes, we’ve come a long way, baby. Sort of. Although it’s allegedly illegal to ask such questions in a job interview anymore, I suspect interviewers wonder about them anyway and take their projections into consideration when choosing between a man and a woman. Sexism still exists — it’s just unacceptable to voice those biases out loud now, and in a way, that makes sexism all the more pernicious.
Besides confronting workplace sexism, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was the first to feature a single professional woman, fending off pressure to marry. Mary was doing the unthinkable: putting her career first. Back then, getting married was what “normal” women did, and those who didn’t were viewed with disdain and pity. Single women made other people uncomfortable, and obsessed with helping them find a husband — so they could relax. Unmarried women were called “spinsters” at 30. Consider that there was — is — no equivalent slur for men.
Mary’s challenge to societal norms didn’t begin with her own show, however. As Laura on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” she insisted on dressing as real women do at home, not in heels and pearls while vacuuming the carpet as prior television shows portrayed housewives (which were basically the only roles for women in television and, also, life). Mary blew everyone’s minds by insisting on wearing pants on the show, and tight, form-fitting capris at that.
I remember those times well. When I was in elementary school, girls could only wear dresses. I was in the fifth grade when that restriction was dropped, and it felt liberating and amazing. The simple freedom of wearing pants seemed monumental. This notion is utterly lost on today’s young women, many of whom view “Women’s Lib” as some archaic movement that no longer has any relevance, while, ironically, they’re enjoying the simple freedoms that were hard-fought by yesterday’s young women.
In that spirit, I asked my 29-year-old daughter to watch that first “Mary Tyler Moore Show” episode with me, hoping she’d be impressed by the strides women have made since then, but she was mostly just amused by the horrid clothing. Young women today take for granted the freedoms that were relatively only recently gained — within my own lifetime — not merely wearing pants, but renting an apartment or buying a car or getting a credit card without a husband to co-sign.
Which brings us to sex.
I realized while rewatching these old episodes that Sue Ann Niven, played by Betty White, was the original cougar: unapologetically single, raging with midlife hormones, playing the field and chewing through men like a tigress. Women having sex for sheer pleasure and recreation was taboo in 1970s TV-land. Meanwhile, in reality, “the pill” was allowing women to do just that, and putting them on the same sexual playing field as men. There it was, sexual equality, right in our faces on television, forcing us to talk about it.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” did for women’s rights what “All in the Family” did for challenging bigotry and racism. We don’t have an equivalent show these days. “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and “The Biggest Loser” don’t challenge our complacent values, they just mirror our shallowness and intellectual laziness.
And it’s not like we’re lacking pressing social values to consider, from transgender rights to Black Lives Matter, and yes, sadly, lingering sexism. We need a Mary Tyler Moore Show for our times, but in the opening montage, she’ll toss a pink pussy hat.
— Email Debra DeAngelo at firstname.lastname@example.org; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.ipinionsyndicate.com