Rest in Peace, Mary Tyler Moore, Reluctant Feminist Icon

Mary Tyler Moore on The Dick Van Dyke ShowEXPAND
Mary Tyler Moore on The Dick Van Dyke Show
Calvada Productions

Mary Tyler Moore, who died this morning at 80, was a reluctant feminist. She wouldn’t even call herself one at all.

In 1970, when Moore embodied the character of flighty, 30-year-old single TV news producer Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, there was no other such woman portrayed on television — at least not one who was leading her own show or not dismissed as slutty. The only forerunner was Marlo Thomas in That Girl, but she was a 20-something woman who was on her way to marriage, while Mary was running away from the institution.

On the show, Mary fought for equal pay when she realized she was being paid less than her male coworkers. Her storylines tackled premarital sex, infidelity, homosexuality, divorce, infertility — everything on a woman’s mind in the dawning era of equal rights, with the glaring exception of abortion. She butted heads with her boss, like a klutz feeling her way to feminism in the dark, sometimes tripping over it and into a women’s movement she wasn’t all that sure about.

In real life, Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazine was publishing by that time, but Moore wanted nothing to do with the feminist rights icon, who also embraced solidarity with people of color. Today, Moore would probably be called a “white feminist,” concerned primarily with equality for white middle-class women, which, in that time, was no doubt still revolutionary. But nothing was more groundbreaking than Moore’s insistence that the writer’s room be filled with women.

Moore with Timothy Hutton in 1980's Ordinary PeopleEXPAND
Moore with Timothy Hutton in 1980's Ordinary People
Paramount Pictures

This was a precedent that carried over into all shows developed by her production company, MTM. I’m currently in the middle of a Newhart binge and can attest to the many women who occupy the writing and directing slots for every single episode. In all, MTM produced almost 50 television series, including Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda and WKRP in Cincinnati, and it gave countless women their start in television. Gail Parent, who worked on multiple MTM shows, went on to write for both The Golden Girls and Tracey Ullman’s Tracey Takes on …

Meanwhile, Moore’s show may have rounded up a steady and then-unprecedented 29 Emmys, but Moore herself was suffering. She was an open alcoholic, and one episode of TMTMS featured a storyline of Mary getting addicted to sleeping pills, which was largely inspired by her own life. She funneled that pain into her work, fundraising for charities that combated diabetes (she had had Type 1 diabetes since her 30s) and animal abuse. Toward the end of her life, cancer had infected her brain, and according to many friends, the happy liberal Moore was glued to Fox News and suddenly calling herself a libertarian.

It’s not exactly clear why she took a right turn in her politics, but what was most important to Moore, a former dancer, was grace. Grace in asking for what you want and in accepting defeat, and I can easily see her shivering with disapproval at Black Lives Matter activists or millions of women marching for their rights. To her, this would be uncivilized, and Mary Tyler Moore lived in a world far from this one, a world where a woman could walk into a news station to apply for a secretarial position only to walk out with an assistant producer title.

She was a woman of great paradoxes, successes and setbacks. When her son was 24 he accidentally shot and killed himself. Holding this in mind while assessing her award-winning performance in Robert Redford’s 1980 directorial debut, Ordinary People — in which Moore plays a mother grieving her son’s death by slapping on a chipper demeanor — brings her life and career into better focus. It’s a telling detail that might explain why Moore never joined up with Steinem and drifted further and further from the liberal movements. The woman who could turn the world on with her smile gave a self-fulfilling prophecy that for the world to accept her, she had to smile. But not everything can be smiled over.


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