Why The Mary Tyler Moore Show Matters

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This piece originally appeared on Bed Crumbs.

Ask a little girl who the most spectacular woman in the world is, and she will probably respond her mother, grandmother, or beloved aunt — probably someone she knows personally. She is a woman who, in her eyes, is the smartest and prettiest and most all-knowing. She is someone that little girl wants to grow up to be like.

I was not like most little girls. If you were to ask 6-year-old me who the most spectacular woman in the world was, I would have told you Mary Tyler Moore.

Much of my childhood was spent in the care of my nanny, an older woman whose love for decades past I absorbed maybe through osmosis. But she rarely allowed television, so my parents knew that the easiest way to reward me for good behavior was to let me plop down in front of the TV before bed. But it was the ‘90s; there wasn’t a lot of suitable primetime content on cable for kids. But, there was Nick at Nite.

I was fascinated by Eva Gabor’s glamor in Green Acres and tried to wiggle my nose to cast spells like Elizabeth Montgomery in Bewitched. Not to mention that Dick Van Dyke was my first celebrity crush — I had a framed 8 by 10 photo of him in my room as a five year old. I was entertained, of course, but when Nick at Nite ran episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, my life changed.

While a lot of the storylines and jokes went over my head as a child, I was able to grasp a few important things and I hung on tight. Mary Richards was everything I wanted to be. She was cute and stylish — God, how I wanted to be able to dress like that — but humble and relatable. She was a loyal friend. She was single and it wasn’t the end of the world. How refreshing it was to not be surrounded by Disney princesses searching for their prince. The theme song offered constant reassurance — you’re gonna make it after all.

Most importantly, she worked hard. It was never lost on me that she was the only woman in that newsroom, that the men around her were sometimes buffoons, that she wasn’t afraid of being smart and good at what she did. I write about lady heroes all the time, and Mary Tyler Moore was my very first one. Long before I learned more about her life, I knew the character she was responsible for and the image she was presenting to women everywhere. That is what I want when I grow up, I thought.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show went off the air in 1977, and in the decades since, we’ve had plenty of strong, complex female comedic leads. We’ve had plenty of workplace comedies with women in charge. We’ve had plenty of female-driven shows. 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Sex and the City, The Mindy Project, Veep, Ally McBeal… all wonderful and unique, but owing something to Mary Tyler Moore.

There would be no Liz Lemon without a Mary Richards. Mary was one of the first single, working women in television, and do you have any idea how much pushback from the network that received? The way she worked her way up the career ladder inspired countless women to pursue a life outside the home. The frank talks about sex on Sex and the City should tip their hat to Mary Tyler Moore. The show opened up countless feminist conversations with storylines surrounding issues like birth control, dating and premarital sex, and equal pay.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was just as groundbreaking behind the scenes as it was on screen. The show employed a slew of women on its writing staff: in 1973, a third of the writing staff were women, including the first female executive on a network sitcom. We’re quick to call out today’s women showrunners like Tina Fey and Amy Schumer (whom also have Ms. Moore, co-founder of MTM Productions, to thank), but today, women make up barely 26% of employed network and cable TV writers. In the past 42 years, we’ve gone backwards.

There are plenty of new shows for women, but shouldn’t we acknowledge the past a little more? I mean beyond bland PBS specials that air once in a blue moon. Young women today can barely even watch the show. Forget Nick at Nite — they’ve ditched classics for reruns of Full House and How I Met Your Mother. The show isn’t on Netflix or available past the third season on Hulu.

Mary Tyler Moore taught an entire generation of women how to thrive; I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that their daughters may never understand.

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