How The Mary Tyler Moore Show Got Women's Stories Just Right

Interviews
by Holly Rosen Fink
February 14, 2014 1:10 PM
4 Comments
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If you grew up in the 1970s, chances are you remember watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show on Saturday nights, most likely with other female members of your family. You probably also remember the characters, the storylines and how the show made people talk about its blunt feminism. MTM's producers, James Brooks and Allan Burns, managed to get the scripts right during a time of upheaval for women in American history by hiring female producers and really tackling the issues that hadn't yet made the small screen (like abortion and the pill). The show caused a mini-revolution and was the predecessor to complicated female characters we see today on shows like Girls and The Mindy Project. Curious about the MTM phenomenon, we spent some time recently chatting with Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, the author of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic.

You once claimed that The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the "first truly female-dominated sitcom" -- is this still your belief?

Sure! When you write a book like this, you have to think out these labels pretty carefully because if you say anything is the first or the last or the greatest, someone somewhere is going to find a fact that contradicts it. 

Was it the first show about a single woman? No, That Girl beat it, but That Girl had just one single girl as its main character, and she was constantly surrounded by and dependent on the men in her life -- her boyfriend and her dad. She also didn't really have a job; she was an aspiring actress. So even though The Mary Tyler Moore Show doesn't get the distinction of being the first single-girl show, there has to be a way to explain why it's seen as such a watershed for feminism on TV. And it's because she had a career, was truly single (i.e., she was dating lots of guys and never settled on one), and had as many female co-stars as male. Same goes for behind-the-scenes, where several women worked as writers. 

How did MTM's producers get the scripts so right during a time of upheaval for women in American history?

They hired women, for starters. It's a real testament to gender diversity, because they ended up being able to get the input of the female writers they hired, even as they hired plenty of experienced men who could write a killer script. It made a huge ripple-effect difference in the industry in ways we probably can't even begin to measure.

Was Mary Richards a feminist? How about Mary Tyler Moore herself?

Neither Mary was a declared feminist! And if Mary Richards were really and truly a card-carrying feminist, we probably would've seen her go to a meeting or two, which most women's libbers did in the 1970s. That said, she stood up for her right to equal pay, took birth-control pills, and refused to let her search for a man define her. She also rose through the ranks of her job throughout the show until she had quite a clear leadership position by the end. She represented feminist ideals, no doubt about it. 

Which recent TV shows salute MTM and what are some of the themes they've picked up?

Gosh, there are so many! I think any show with a lead who's single, professional, and sexually active has echoes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The Mindy Project, New Girl, Girls, and 2 Broke Girls all nod to the difficulties of balancing career and personal success -- themes that first came to light for women in Mary.

James Brooks and Allan Burns were determined to write about real women's experiences while the women's movement was just a blip in the background. How did they anticipate the explosion that would occur during the show's run?

I think they had a good sense of what makes a solid story, and they also wanted to do something fresh, different, and of their times. When they thought about what was going on with real people they knew but hadn't been reflected on TV, they thought of divorce and single women with careers. The network didn't go for the divorce idea, but the single career-woman thing worked for them. Then the show and the character were able to roll with the times as they happened. You can see a huge change in Mary from beginning to end, from a timid, girlish figure to a real career woman.

Mary's signature crying was not exactly a feminist message. She called Lou "Mr. Grant" -- why did they want to make her so likeable using traditional methods?

Likability was still a huge issue in network TV then. Hell, it still is to a large extent. But in 1969, when they were pitching this show, likability was paramount. They were already pushing boundaries by making her a single career woman, so it was important for her to have some weaknesses. Of course, weaknesses and contradictions are also fun in any character! So I think ultimately it worked out well, making Mary palatable to all and truly relatable to many women. She's so perfect in so many ways that I'm not sure I'd like her if she were also the most perfect uber-feminist.

Can you please talk about what it was like to meet some of the women attached to the show -- the real-life Mary Richardses?

Valerie Harper - The fact that Valerie Harper knows who I am is still a little bit of a trip for me. She was unbelievably helpful with my research, I think because she connected to the feminist themes. 

Cloris Leachman - I always say that meeting Cloris Leachman is not an interview -- it's an experience. You're basically getting a front-row seat at "The Cloris Leachman Show" for however long you have an audience with her. I did, in fact, ask specific questions, but she just told stories as they came to her, and after a while I gave in and just let her go. It was amazing. She remembers a lot, and likes to tell everything in story form, with a little extra Cloris performance to go with it. 

Treva Silverman - Treva is a goddess! She was a huge inspiration for this project. I kind of see her as the real Mary Richards and Rhoda Morganstern. She has this classic story, being a beautiful, brilliant piano prodigy growing up but wanting to become a comedy writer at a time when women just didn't do that. 

Mimi Kirk - What a unique inspiration. She wore the headscarves and hippie style that Val eventually adopted for Rhoda. Mimi was working as Mary's stand-in, but then became Val's assistant and de facto fashion consultant. She later became a raw food expert and continues to put out books now. If you look her up and see what she looks like at 75, you'll want to eat raw, too.

Gail Parent - I love what a long and amazing career she's had, from a bestselling novelist to writing for The Golden Girls to writing Lindsay Lohan movies. You can see why talking to all of these women was so inspiring. Every time I'd finish another interview, I'd think, Okay, it can't get better than that. And then there'd be another, and another, and another. You could write an exciting biography about any one of these women alone. 

Read an excerpt of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted at Women and Hollywood here.

Buy it here

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4 Comments

  • Betsy Cadel | February 17, 2014 6:06 PMReply

    Great article!! I grew up on steady diet of MTM as a kid and I know that she was definitely a role model for me. What a truly remarkable cast and so groundbreaking for its time.

  • Deborah | February 15, 2014 12:43 PMReply

    Great interview, Holly! I am so very grateful to have grown up with these female characters written by female writers.

  • Mindi | February 14, 2014 8:25 PMReply

    Watching MTM and its spin-offs (Phyllis, Rhoda & Lou Grant) was part of my childhood. In retrospect, the show inspired many females including me to know that I could make it after all. It should be interesting to read about the making of this funny yet inspiring show.

  • Renee | February 14, 2014 4:46 PMReply

    I always loved watching MTM (in reruns) as I grew up . Not only did it pave the way for strong female characters in TV, but it really daring for the times. To see how far we've come since then is quite incredible. And MTM was at the helm. Terrific article!

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