I have been reading obituaries and tributes and reflections since Mary Tyler Moore died on January 25, 2017. The love and admiration for the actress and her work is deep and heartfelt. She was recognized and celebrated for many of her roles, but none more than Mary Richards, the single woman who was an assistant TV news producer on the show “Mary Tyler Moore.”
Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for the Washington Post and former New York Times public editor said that as a source of inspiration for a generation of journalists, Mary Richards belongs right up there with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. I think her significance goes well beyond the world of journalism. She was a single woman who, in some significant ways, was granted more dignity than today’s real and fictionalized single women.
First, I want to share some key quotes from the articles that have been written about Mary Richards since Mary Tyler Moore’s death. They give a sense of what was so important about her. See if you can anticipate where I’m going with my argument that the trajectory for single women after Mary Richards has not been uniformly onward and upward.
Lauren Wiseman at the Washington Post:
“The show was lauded for its realistic portrayal of the modern woman – one whose life focused on work, not family, and one in which men were colleagues, not husbands or love interests.
“When the series ended in 1977, [Mary Richards] did not get married and had no prospects for a husband.”
Wiseman also noted that in 1973, TV Guide described Mary Richards as “thirty-three, unmarried, and unworried.”
Margaret Sullivan at the Washington Post, on her reaction to the show when she first watched it when she was still in grade school:
“So, you could be this? Do this? Be single and self-sufficient, with a newsroom job and a cool apartment where you lived alone but with friends around?”
Willa Paskin, at Slate:
“The series ends with Mary still single, embraced by her work family, figuring out life on her own terms.”
Mary Jo Murphy, at the New York Times:
“Mary was unmarried, for all seven seasons.”
Virginia Heffernan at the New York Times:
Mary Richards was “a great character” … “single, female, over 30, professional, independent, and not particularly obsessed with getting married.”
The opening lines of the theme song were rewritten from ‘How will you make it on your own? This world is awfully big, and girl, this time you’re all alone’ to ‘Who can turn the world on with her smile?/Who can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?’
At the Daily Beast, Tim Teeman reminded readers of this quote from Tina Fey:
“Mary Tyler Moore was a working woman whose story lines were not always about dating and men. They were about work friendships and relationships, which is what I feel my adult life has mostly been about.”
Teeman also noted that “Moore’s character was the first to have a sitcom built around her – not around her love life or home life but about her working life.”
Rob Sheffield at Rolling Stone:
“She turned 30, she loved having her own apartment, she dated but didn’t agonize over that sort of thing (it was rare for a boyfriend to last a second episode).”
John Patterson, at the Guardian:
“As Mary Richards, Moore showed that a professional woman in her early 30s could live alone and happily; date lots of men without being on a perpetual husband hunt; and could keep the coolest head in her male-dominated professional environment.”
“Mary and Rhoda’s relationship may still be the best portrait of friendship between women that American television has ever produced, full of laughter, wit, and kindness.”
“…a role model for generations of girls and young women deciding, in an era of ingrained chauvinism and sexism, and in its long aftermath, to live free and independent lives determined by their own choices, not those of the men in their lives, if they deigned to have any.”
Do you see the differences between the fictional Mary Richards of 1970—1977 and the real and fictional single women of the 21st century? I’m not saying that things have only gone downhill for single women, but here are a few of the ways that they have:
- Notice the overall sensibility of the appraisals of Mary Richards. She was loved and admired, seen as an inspiration for the real single women who watched her on TV, in real time and in decades of reruns. Do you see what’s missing? Mary Richards was not pitied. She was seen as more emotionally mature than the people around her (“the coolest head”), rather than less so. In contrast, systematic scientific research in the U.S. and elsewhere consistently finds that real single people are viewed more negatively than married people, even when the single and married people have identical biographies except for their marital status.
- Her work life was respected. No one said Mary Richards’s work was compensation for not having a husband. When she discovered that she was being paid less than the man who had her job before she did, she protested to her boss, and prevailed. Contrast that to a story that aired on NPR just one day before Mary Tyler Moore died: “Morning Edition” thought their viewers should know that single women in Harvard’s MBA program minimize their ambitions in order to increase their odds of getting a date.
- Today, when women’s issues in the workplace command our attention, those issues are overwhelmingly the ones that concern married women or women who are parents. Single women (and men) with no children too often are expected to pick up the slack for everyone else. And they are not supposed to complain about it.
- Mary Richards had a rich social life and her friends and chosen family members were at the center of it. Her friends were “full of laughter, wit, and kindness.” She had romantic relationships, too, but those storylines never became the core of Mary’s story.
- Mary Richards got to stay single the whole time. Think of how rare that is on television today. She had her own place, great friendships, a wonderful family of choice, and an engaging career. She wasn’t punished for staying single. She was loved. And that’s the greatest dignity of all.