From Murphy Brown and 30 Rock to Sex and the City, New Girl and The Mindy Project, television shows have depicted women starting over, figuring out their lives and juggling their work-life balance. And for this genre, these ladies can thank Mary Tyler Moore.
In her new book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic, former Entertainment Weekly writer Jennifer Armstrong delves into the backstory of Moore's sitcom — one that was bold enough to cast a female lead as a young broadcast news producer who, as the hopelessly optimistic theme song suggests, is “gonna make it after all” in her new career and new city after her relationship falls apart.
While MTM was still created by two men (this was still TV in the early 70s), James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, it was often written by women and centered around an independent single woman at a time when network executives told them American audiences would never tolerate such blasphemy, just like they wouldn't watch shows with “Jews, people with mustaches and people who live in New York.” (Fun fact: because the execs also said we the people couldn't handle a lead character who was divorced, the creators had to make their title character recently separated from a long-term relationship, letting us only assume she had been living in sin).
But it wasn't as if things went smoothly after the show was on the air either. Armstrong writes of Moore hiding her recent diabetes diagnosis, as well as her alcohol problem and obsessive dieting. A former dancer, she hired a ballet instructor to teach classes during lunch breaks.
Plus, all of female stars and writers also had to deal with the currently much-hyped debate of “having it all,” as Moore had one child before she was famous, her co-star Valerie Harper didn't have kids until much later and other co-star Cloris Leachman had five kids, but little support from her husband.
“Even the women who were writers either were never married or were married seven times,” says author Armstrong, who, fittingly enough, rediscovered the series when she'd broken off an engagement and was living the single-girl life in a small New York apartment.
Armstrong also covers the show's cultural and socio-political impact. MTM was one of the first series to inspire fashion trends, but its lead's seemingly weak workplace demeanor also angered feminists so much that Gloria Steniem once eviscerated Brooks on a panel at the University of Texas.
The book's release happens to coincide with another major equality-in-the-workplace debate: the percentage of women working off camera in Hollywood.
“We've obviously made strides because we've had more women behind the scenes, but there are still whole shows where there's a way overabundance of men,” says Armstrong.
Will we make it after all? Armstrong will cover this topic and more when she hosts a panel with female TV writers Treva Silverman (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), Jessica O'Toole and Amy Rardin (Carrie Diaries, Greek) and Eileen Myers (Hung, Big Love, Last Resort) at 7 p.m. tomorrow, July 9, at Book Soup. For more information, see Book Soup's website.