Sunday, April 2, 2017

Turning the World on With a Smile

(I'm going back to several of my unfinished pieces to belatedly post.)

I did not mean to let so much time go by without paying homage to Mary Tyler Moore, who died recently at the age of 80. I am not much on obituary writing and because I am not a TV critic, I can't write a much of a glowing appreciation, but I can offer up a tribute to one of the women who influenced me and so many others.

When Gwen Ifill suddenly passed a week after the election, it was an absolute shock to my system. Every time I see an accomplished woman of color at the anchor desk, I think of Gwen as if I knew her. But before there was the real-life Gwen to inspire women in journalism, there was the fictional Mary Richards who inspired women in general.

So this is the part where I am supposed to offer up how much the Mary Tyler Moore show influenced me, but I was really young and barely recall any specific episodes. Everything I remember comes from watching reruns many years later. And I probably have a better memory of her turn as Laura Petrie on the Dick Van Dyke Show because those reruns were on more recently.

However, I know that MTM was a major influence on the lives of so many woman, not just for her pioneering turn as the star of her own long-running sitcom, or as the name on the masthead of a juggernaut TV production company, and not because she was one of the nicest TV personalities next to Florence Henderson that we've lost in recent months. I know how important her show was based on the tributes offered by the likes of Jane Pauley and Leslie Stahl. I might not remember Mary Richards that well, but I remember all of the women who have anchored the local news here in DC or who have had prominent roles on the network news.

I remember that my Mom liked Mary's very hip 70s wardrobe. I remember her bff Rhoda wore head scarves before it became controversial. I remember that her show spawned a spin-off for her boss, Lou Grant (which was not a comedy). I remember that several of her co-stars, including Rhoda (Valerie Harper) went on to have shows of their own. I remember the cat at the end during the credits. I remember the theme song and the iconic hat toss.

From what I remember and all that I have seen by way of tribute to her, Mary Tyler Moore succeeded in creating a beloved character that had far more influence than the actress herself. Often actors hate to be associated with their alter egos once their shows end, but the blessing for MTM might be that she created someone who heralded a new era for working women. And I need to emphasize an important point--she was an unmarried working woman. Opinions on the significance of that might vary, but consider the fact that she was not cast as a librarian, teacher or other surrogate miserable mother figure. She was a career woman, looking to have it all (what woman isn't) and she made it look fabulous.

In the end, Mary Tyler Moore has something far more enduring--a legacy.

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