How Mary Tyler Moore Changed the Female TV Hero

From Wonder Woman to Liz Lemon, one sitcom paved the way for working women on the small screen

Credit: Photofest

The top three rated American shows of the 1969-1970 television season were, in order, Laugh-In, a ribald comedy show in which women were basically bikini-wearing furniture, and Gunsmoke and Bonanza, two cowboy shows in which tumbleweeds outnumbered female characters. Into this less-than-encouraging landscape, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was dropped into the CBS Saturday night line-up in September 1970 as if from a great height. Here was an utterly new character, defined in the pilot episode by her spunkiness. She was neither wife nor mother, sister nor daughter – she was the thing that had been missing from television for decades: she was the heroine, the female protagonist. At the end of a decade in which two of the most memorable women were Samantha on Bewitched, and Jeannie on I Dream Of Jeannie – magical wives, characters that clearly appealed to men – the sight of a carefree single woman was jarring. Here she was, throwing her hat in the air in the middle of a Minneapolis public square after having rejected wifehood in favor of a job. This was the closest thing to revolution against the patriarchy that had ever been televised – on a sitcom, at least.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, created as a showpiece for Moore's talents by herself and her then-husband Gary Tinker, debuted as the nation was in the midst of a great sea change in regards to women's roles in the public sphere. In fact, the couple's initial pitch had the main character, Mary Richards, moving to Minneapolis after a divorce, but television taboos (and CBS execs) required them to tweak the premise to a more puritanical one: instead, as the show debuted, Richards had just broken off an engagement. If CBS was trying to skirt the question of it's lead character's virginity however, it failed to do so. In the very first episode the jilted ex-fiance shows up in town hunkering for Mary because, "well, we've been apart a month and…." She sends him away packing, but the implication is clear, and extremely progressive for the time: Mary Richards, like many, many audience women out there in 1970 TV Land, had been sexually active before marriage.

The show remained in CBS's stable for seven years, and, over the larger part of a decade of immense progress for women, Mary reflected back at her viewers the same kind of befuddlement they often felt as they navigated the waters they themselves were changing. "She represented that transition we all had to go through of being raised in the 50's and coming of age in the time of the women's movement," says Lynn Povich, whose memoir of the time, The Good Girls Revolt, was recently developed into a popular feminist workplace drama by Amazon. (It was canceled by male executives after only one season.) "We certainly identified with her as someone who was the low person on the totem pole who had to push herself forward, but always with humor. She was always in a situation, saying 'What should I be doing now?' Nothing was clear cut anymore."

The show paved the way for a new kind of woman on TV and in film, continuing on in the 1970's with the working women of Laverne and Shirley, and perhaps the apotheosis of working-woman-heroine, Linda Carter's Wonder Woman, through The Bionic Woman of the 1980's. A kerfuffle over career gals on the tube may have even helped Bill Clinton get elected in 1992, when Dan Quayle, George Bush Sr's often-bumbling VP, issued fighting words against early 90's icon Murphy Brown: "It doesn't help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone." It did not gain George Bush many points with female voters.

Yet Murphy Brown couldn't have made it to single motherhood without the incremental steps Mary Richards took before her. Over the course of the show's seven seasons, Mary evolved with the times, tackling infidelity, birth control, sex, job promotions and the general human condition with the same mix of pluckiness, aplomb and oh-shit-do-I-really-have-to-do-this that made her an accessible role model for the new woman – and a sympathetic character for those that were scared of this new breed. She wasn't "burning bras" or tackling issues in the brute, overt way a show like M*A*S*H might, but rather, she was subtly insinuating herself as a possible female archetype in the imagination of the viewing public: an associate producer at a TV station who was single, living on her own, over 30 and childless. Any one of those things could have made her an impossible female character just years earlier. But here she was, thriving.

"She was always in a situation, saying 'What should I be doing now?'" says Lynn Povich. "Nothing was clear cut anymore."

The direct influence of The Mary Tyler Moore Show can be seen in the writing of one of today's comedy greats, Tina Fey. Though Fey had been the head writer on SNL for many years, when it came to learning how to write 30 Rock, her own first sitcom, she devoured DVDs of her forerunner. “We talked about that show a lot,” Ms. Fey told the New York Times in 2007. "As a template, obviously, of a great show, but also a show that is all about the relationships in the workplace, but not the making of television so much." Without Mary Richards there is no Liz Lemon.

As the show developed, its theme song did too. "Love Is All Around," the show's signature tune, and also the name of it's pilot, originally asked, "How will you make it on your own? The world is awfully big, girl. This time you're all alone." But by the second season all hedging is out. Instead, it asks, "Who can turn the world on with her smile? Who can take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?" It's this amended version that so inspired punk pioneer Joan Jett, she released a cover of it in 1996, and played it live on Letterman. Almost 30 years later, the song remained the same.

The archetype of a career woman, especially one employed in the media, has become so ubiquitous today that it can seem there are almost more job openings in the fictional rom-com media than there are in the real one. From Carrie Bradshaw to Bridget Jones, the trope today is that a woman's job and friends sustain her, while all else swirls about. But that wouldn't have been the case without The Mary Tyler Moore Show – or, more importantly, without Mary Tyler Moore. She took the modern woman and put it in a bright, smiling, strong-willed package that women everywhere could emulate. Instead of marriage and family, Moore championed friendship and perseverance. "Take chances, make mistakes," she once said. "Pain nourishes your courage. You have to fail in order to practice being brave."