One of the highlights of the week for me growing up was watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show with my mom. That show first aired in 1970 — the year my only brother, Allan, had died. Laughter was in very short supply in our home. Everything about the show was terrific, including the upbeat show’s music and lyrics (“Who can turn the world on with her smile?/Who can take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?”) When Moore famously hurled her beret skyward, it was if she were saying, “Let’s give this a whirl! I’m game to see what happens!”
My mom and I would watch and laugh, and I learned that laughter was not just an escape, but also a lifesaver. Even at 10 years old, when the show began, I had set my sights on a writing life. Women’s roles were changing fast, and they had to work hard, usually harder than men, to earn their places in professions where previously only men had been hired. Watching the character of Mary Richards as a young news producer thrilled and inspired me. I wanted to be like Mary: warmhearted and smart; determined yet graceful; finding my way as a modern woman and deciding where and how to break the mold set by my mother’s and grandmothers’ generations.
I felt a pang of sadness when I heard that Moore had passed away. It’s striking that so many performers who were so gifted at comedy lived through so much sadness. Moore’s parents (just like those of comedienne Carol Burnett’s) were alcoholics, and Moore was raised by another relative. She lost her only son in a tragic gun accident, and she outlived both her siblings. She battled alcoholism and was divorced twice. Not an easy life.
The headline in the online version of the obituary in the New York Times stated that Mary Tyler Moore “incarnated the modern woman.” That’s a big claim, but in looking back, it seems largely true: Television was breaking all kinds of ground in the 1970s, and the MTM show was the first to showcase a single career woman not obsessed with getting married, who had an unapologetically active love life (at least sometimes — as her character said to her TV boss Lou Grant, “I’ve been around the block. Well, maybe not around the block, but nearby”). She wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself even in the face of belligerent and buffoonish men who often, in modern parlance, liked to indulge in “mansplaining.”
It’s impossible not to think about Mary Tyler Moore’s funny, understated strength, her humor and grace under pressure and feel the loss of this kind of role model for younger women today. Younger comediennes and actresses demonstrate their idea of women’s strength not with grace and cleverness but with foul language, the language of anger. Being angry and “nasty” has become something to boast of. How bizarre. Women are outpacing men educationally and have continued to prosper in nearly every field of endeavor. Why so much anger? They demean themselves and the very idea that women are “whole people” by their obsession with their reproductive organs. Many performers make what was meant to be privately powerful into the stuff of their comedy routines. At the recent women’s march in Washington DC to protest the election of the country’s new president, many found “inspiration” from this area of anatomy and fashioned the most disturbing and bizarre fashion accessory ever dreamed up in a gender studies department. Did nobody tell these women that this was a fashion faux pas of the highest order?
I hope that younger women — all women! — will now go back and enjoy old episodes of the Mary Tyler Moore show. Laugh at the witty repartee between Mary and her friends and coworkers, and marvel that it wasn’t that long ago when a woman could prove her worth in our society without losing her grace, the force of her optimism and wisdom — in short, her very feminine strength.
RIP, Mary Tyler Moore.
Judy Gruen’s memoir, The Skeptic and the Rabbi, will be published in September by She Writes Press.